This review was written over a couple of weeks of playing Vainglory on an iPad 2.
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Super Evil Megacorp’s Vainglory is a fast-and-furious free-to-play mobile game that brings the action of hardcore PC games to the tablet. It is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), the genre that Riot Games’ League of Legends has made so popular. Now you can have some of the same excitement with a somewhat simplified game that works better on iOS tablets or phones.
Apple has been advertising Vainglory as a technological showcase game for its new iPhone 6 device, and that’s smart. Thanks to a proprietary graphics engine, Vainglory stands by itself in its ability to show rich graphics, play in a speedy way, and preserve a good multiplayer connection over Wi-Fi.
If you like MOBAs and don’t mind making trade-offs for the mobility of tablet play, you’ll like Vainglory. It has fewer players, a smaller battle arena, and slower play, and its touchscreen interface isn’t always as precise as you would like it to be. But I’ve enjoyed playing Vainglory over the past couple of weeks because it feels like a real game. I’ll gladly dedicate 20 minutes or 30 minutes for a match because it holds my attention — and because my two other teammates are really counting on me to carry my weight in the 3-on-3 fights. Vainglory is a pitched battle between two teams of heavily armed characters, each protecting their base, or Vain. If you destroy the other team’s base, you win.
I haven’t spent much time with MOBAs, partly because they’re just too fast for me to grasp. But Vainglory has held my attention, and it’s an accessible game that makes it easy for anyone to learn. That’s an important accomplishment, since it could have hundreds of millions of potential players. I’ve played similar entries before, such as Fates Forever and Solstice Arena. But Vainglory is a deeper and more enticing game.
I’ve gone through five levels in rank. My “Karma” level is 5, and I’m paired with similar players when joining a match. If you leave a game early, you lose Karma — and you get more if you finish. That’s a good way for the developers to weed out players who are poor sports and quit games because they’re losing.
What you’ll like
The graphics are as good as you’ll see on an iPad or iPhone. The color schemes are also attractive. It isn’t imagery isn’t too cute, nor does it scream hardcore gamer. Super Evil Megacorp spent two-and-a-half years building this game, and it created its own proprietary E.V.I.L. game engine to raise the quality. The result is a gorgeous game.
A clean user interface and simple play
Vainglory is easy to learn.
You can train, practice, and play on your own in a public match, or you can form a party to play with friends. At its simplest level, Vainglory is a fight between your team of three against another team of three, and your “minions” against their minions. The minions are released periodically down the main “lane” of the game. The lane has turret guns that you or the minions must take out in order to make progress toward the base. If you help the minions, you stand a better chance of taking out the turrets. But the enemy complicates this task.
That’s because you can go below the lane into the Jungle. There, you’ll find gold mines that you can attack. If you take over a gold mine, you’ll win gold that you can use to upgrade your character. You can also gain an accelerated spawning of minions. You can spend a lot of time attacking or defending mines in the Jungle. You can also hide in the tall grass and ambush enemies coming by. And you can unleash a giant creature, known as the Kraken, that will move down the lane and pound away at the enemy’s turrets. Getting the Kraken on your side can be decisive.
But like I said, the gameplay is simple. To attack an enemy, you tap it. To switch your attack, you can tap another enemy. If you kill an enemy, you collect gold that you can use for upgrades.
You can choose among 10 playable characters. Each character has a specialty and is good at attacking a few rivals. But the character also has weaknesses, and it’s vulnerable to attack from others. Take Taka, a ninja character that can disappear. You can counter this by purchasing a consumable “scout trap” that reveals Taka’s presence during a fight. Vainglory has a rock-paper-scissors balance to the heroes, and so it pays to play with different types. I’ve tried characters such as Koshka, Ringo, and Joule. Each has a deadly power that surprises enemies.
Battles aren’t preordained
I’ve been in a lot of Vainglory’s battles, and it’s never clear who is going to win. If one team appears to be on the defensive in the lane, it may be because they’re trying to unleash the Kraken in the Jungle. In one battle, one of my teammates wanted to surrender early on. But we managed to steal the Kraken just as the enemy was about to unleash it. And that turned the match to our favor. We won. But I’ve also been in a lot of battles where the team that got the Kraken wound up losing.
Some things are predictable. After four minutes, the Minion Mines appear. And after 15 minutes, the Kraken shows up. But the see-saw nature of the combat is a good thing. If you keep pressing your touchscreen like a maniac, you’ll get a payoff.
Nice variety of upgrades
Every now and then, you have to return to your base to heal (before an opposing hero picks you off) or purchase upgrades. You can do this quickly with a single teleport button-push, but an enemy strike interrupts your teleportation. At your shop, you can choose improvements in categories including: Utility, where you can find fast boots that improve your movement speed; Weapon, where you can choose among a bunch of weapon specialties, each with several upgrades; Defense, which gets you better shielding; Consumables such as healing potions, which come in very handy in the field; and Ability, which gets you treats such as faster regeneration for your abilities.
It also has another upgrade shop in the middle of the jungle. It pays to examine the weapon types ahead of time, since you don’t have time for that in a match. Fortunately, the upgrade store gives you a list of “recommended” improvements that you can buy once you have enough gold.
Vainglory comes with multiple tutorials, and YouTube has a lot of player-generated tips as well. For the initial batch, you can tap on the tutorial and see four options: I’m New (a tutorial for those who have never played MOBAs), I’m Awesome (a tutorial for those who know MOBAs), The Team, and The Jungle. Each section describes what you need to know to get into the game. That said, nothing is better than having a veteran player look over your shoulder while you’re playing to give you tips.
It rewards team play
You can’t really communicate with your teammates. Vainglory has no chat or voice communication, unless you’re in the same room with your teammates. But you can tap the map and drop an icon telling your comrades to either go to that spot or avoid it. This is important when you’re taking on enemies. When you’re fighting 2-on-1, you’re almost always going to win. And if you want to unleash the Kraken, you need some serious firepower from multiple allies. For some portion of each match, it pays to play separated, so one of your team members can surprise the enemy by stealing a gold mine while a big battle’s going on in the main lane. But when the others are ganging up on you, you have to amass superior firepower.
What you won’t like
Finding a match
It’s not always easy to find a match. You tap on the public match, and you’ll get going as soon as five others confirm. The problem is that players often don’t confirm, and you’ll sit there waiting. It requires you to pay attention, but more often than not, it takes longer than it should to begin a battle.
It’s not League of Legends
Mobile devices come with trade-offs. Compared to League of Legends on a PC, the action isn’t as fast. Vainglory has just one lane instead of the usual three. And each team has three players instead of five. If this is too much of a baby MOBA for you, play on the PC.
I’ve played Vainglory on my home Wi-Fi network, and it rarely crashes. It has once or twice, and it is possible to recover if you drop out. But the more annoying problem is that it will stutter every now and then. This isn’t a serious problem, but it means that weak Wi-Fi connections will hurt the experience.
Humans aren’t perfect
Once in a while, your teammates will be lame. One of my teammates pretty much sat out an entire game by standing in one spot. But since we were playing against three weak players, we still won. You can surrender a match when all three of your side agrees to do so, but you could very well get stuck with a bad team for a match that can last 30 minutes. That’s not fun.
It needs more
Super Evil Megacorp has a lot of work to do. It needs to release more characters, weapons, abilities, and maps. And it should do this on a regular cadence to ensure that people will keep coming back. And hopefully, the company will convince players to start spending money on the free-to-play game at some point. With competitors such as League of Legends out there, players have plenty of free content to choose from already.
I’m pleasantly surprised to see such a high-quality game on mobile devices. It is proof that progress is happening in mobile gaming, even though the top rankings of the biggest revenue generators have been pretty static. Super Evil Mega Corp. is benefiting from Apple’s advertising, and I have to believe it is winning over a lot of fans now. If it can keep that momentum going over time, it will have a very valuable game on its hands. I’m glad the company made such a big bet, and I hope it pays off. I’m just happy that the game has given me something more fun to do on my iPad than surfing the Web.
Vainglory is out now for iOS devices. It runs on iOS 6.1 or later on the iPad Air, iPad Mini with Retina Display, iPad with Retina Display, and iPad 2. It also runs on the iPhone 5s, iPhone 6, and iPhone 6 Plus, so long as you play it on iOS 8.0 or later.