The popularity of MOBA games is undeniable.  What started as a custom map in Warcraft III has blossomed into a multi-million dollar industry complete with full-time professional teams, competitive seasons, and giant pools of prize money.  I tried to get it on the ground floor playing games like DotA and League of Legends in their infancy but, frankly, I wasn’t that good.  About a week ago, I decided to dip a toe back into the pool with Vainglory, the “MOBA perfected for touch” that released about two and a half years ago.  I’m not so sure about it being “perfected”, but there are enough improvements and unique spins on the formula to make Vainglory fun, challenging, and enjoyable on the go.

Seeing these three words is what it’s all about.

  • TL;DR: A streamlined MOBA experience for your phone or tablet with 30+ heroes and multiple game modes
  • Platform: Android (reviewed), iOS
  • Developer: Super Evil Megacorp
  • Time Played: 10:30
  • What I Played: Six standard games, eight blitz games, ~30 battle royale games

Vainglory has all of the systems and mechanics you’ve come to expect in a MOBA.  You control a single hero on a team against another team.  There is a path connecting both teams’ bases to each other with defensive turrets along the way.  Minions spawn in each base and attack in waves towards the enemy base.  There are items to buy, a jungle area to patrol, and bushes to hide in.  The first team to destroy the enemy’s core wins.  You get the drill.

What sets Vainglory apart are the numerous tweaks necessary to bring such a game from PC to mobile.  First and foremost, games are 3v3 instead of the traditional 5v5.  There is a single lane instead of three which means each base has a single entry point.  You can choose from a couple of pre-selected item builds at the start of a match if you don’t want to worry about figuring out your own.  Heroes have two normal abilities, an ultimate ability, and an inherent passive ability.  Two mechanics work together to keep the pace of play up: heroes slowly heal over time while in the lane, limiting trips back to base, and your team’s minions become powered up if you fully wipe the enemy team.

You’d think that the chaos of a team fight would be impossible to manage on a phone but Vainglory’s HUD is very well designed.  There is a minimap in the top right corner, your hero’s abilities in the bottom center, any items you’ve purchased along the left, and quick stats in the top left corner.  While there is no voice or text chat, a handful of pings and emotes help you communicate with your team.  Separate pings for things like “group up here”, “be careful”, and “RUN!” are easy to separate by their different colors and symbols.  I’ve been playing on my Galaxy S7 Edge and it’s been incredibly easy to keep track of things even with my thumbs in the way.

Vainglory packs a lot into the palm of your hand.

Heroes in Vainglory are categorized with one of three roles: captain, carry, and jungler.  Captains are meant to be shot callers and/or tanks, carries are your star heroes that get all the kills at the expense of being squishy, and junglers are a hybrid of the two best at harassing the enemy team.  As of writing there are 32 heroes to pick from.  You unlock one hero from each role after the tutorial and have access to a weekly rotating set of free heroes.  My favorites so far are Skye with her ranged pressure, the healing/zone controlling Lyra, and the chase down master Blackfeather.

The first of Vainglory’s three game types is your standard MOBA mode.  Each hero starts at level one and the first team to destroy the enemy core wins.  Traditional jungle bosses are slightly modified here.  One boss still gives your team a large sum of gold but the second boss, the kraken, can be devastating.  The team to last hit the kraken gains control of it as it barrels down the lane destroying towers until it is killed.  Frankly, I find the other two modes, Blitz and Battle Royale, to be far more enjoyable and better fits for mobile.  Blitz games start with your selected hero at level nine and are a five minute timed race to 15 points.  Hero kills are worth one point while objective kills like turrets are worth three.  If you’ve got a few extra minutes to burn, Blitz is perfect.  My favorite of the three modes is Battle Royale.  You are given a random hero, start at level four, and only the lane portion of the map is available.  The ~10 minute game length is a happy medium between Blitz and Standard and playing with random heroes is perfect for new players trying to learn or experienced players looking for a shake up.  My only gripe with Battle Royale is that the 30 second pregame timer is a bit too short.  It’s tough to read a hero’s passive, three skills, and tips in that amount of time.  A bump to 45 seconds would be perfect.

And now, the all important question…

How does Vainglory make money?  Two types of currency, glory and ice, are used to unlock new skins and heroes.  Glory is earned after each match while ice is primarily earned through microtransactions.  Ice can then be used to buy packs of random cards used to craft skins, chests of increasing rarity with different chances for heroes/skins, and more.  Vainglory has clever ways of making you peek at the shop with timed free chests, daily quests that reward you with chests, and chests on account level up.  Skins never move the needle for me regardless of what game I’m playing and thanks to my love of Battle Royale, I don’t feel the need to unlock tons of heroes.  I’ve unlocked a few through the glory I’ve earned just by playing.  I’m sure I’ll end up opening my wallet at some point but so far, Vainglory has been a great experience at zero cost.

As a whole, Vainglory just plain works.  I haven’t leveled up enough to play ranked standard games, but I haven’t noticed any one hero being particularly overpowered.  The lack of text and voice chat leads to a heavy reliance on pings but players tend to listen to them.  I haven’t had any problems with lag on either 4G or wifi.  The one enhancement I’d love to see is a way to block all outside notifications while in a game.  Tapping on a notification drop down effectively puts you out of a game for 20-30 seconds as the app reloads and reconnects.  Update: using Do Not Disturb mode on my phone did the trick.  Your device may have something similar.  Complaint retracted.

The chaos and intricacies of a MOBA wherever you happen to be.

I’ve really enjoyed my time with Vainglory.  It’s an easy game to pick up and play whether you’ve got five, 10, or 30 minutes to spare.  Streamlining changes like a smaller team size, less skills to manage, and a single lane lower the bar for entry most MOBAs have.  Super Evil Megacorp has promised updates in the future including talents and a 5v5 mode.  The top Vainglory8 league with well known teams like TSM, Cloud9, and Fnatic just wrapped it’s spring 2017 split.  Vainglory is for real and after a few weeks of playing, I like what I’ve seen.

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