Vainglory Review: A Solid MOBA On Your iPhone

Last week, Vainglory came out for the iPhone and iPad. We’ve already had the chance to play the game in the best conditions (on the iPad Air at the developer’s office) and found that it’s a great MOBA for tablets.

For those unaware, Vainglory is the multiplayer online battle arena Apple showed off on-stage at the iPhone announcement in September to demonstrate the real-world power of the Metal graphics framework and the A8 system on a chip.

That was great for demo purposes: Vainglory is a very pretty game from a technical standpoint. But seeing the game on-screen and playing on a tablet doesn’t let you know how it actually felt to play on a device the size of a phone.

Now we’ve had a chance to actually try out Vainglory in real-world settings: on my apartment’s decent Wi-Fi setup and on an actual iPhone 6 Plus. As it turns out, the game is almost entirely successful at transferring to the the smaller form factor, with only a few minor gripes that can be addressed in future updates.

In terms of performance, the move down to the phone doesn’t seem to have caused any major issues. Super Evil Megacorp may have turned down the texture and shader quality a tad, but because everything is smaller on the screen it’s not glaring in the slightest.

Frame rates held up well in my testing except when I received notifications, which led to a second of stuttering as well as reduced the amount of screen space available unless you quickly swipe them away. I actually got incredibly annoyed with these and ended up turning off notifications for texts, email, and Facebook messages while recording game footage.

Vainglory will look familiar to those who have played MOBAs like League of Legends and Dota 2, but the overall match mechanics have been simplified to reduce the length of each match. For instance, instead of giving players three “lanes” by which to attack the enemy, there’s one main route and a “jungle” where you can attack non-player characters for gold (to buy items) and to gain bonuses like stronger NPC allies.

While these simplifications definitely reduce match length from the 45 minutes to an hour you see on PC MOBAs, I’ve found that actual online games can still last longer than 30 minutes. That’s about twice as long as we spent playing each round at Super Evil Megacorp, so perhaps the issue is that new players don’t yet know when or how to be aggressive enough to make game-making plays.

Another area where Vainglory is reminiscent of its bigger cousins is the onboarding experience. MOBAs are notoriously difficult to pick up for beginners, and each major title in the space has made strides to help newbies pick up the bare essentials. Vainglory’s tutorials keeps things to-the-point, quickly walking you through everything in the game’s arena before dropping you in a level that challenges you to acquire as much gold as you can in a short amount of time. There are a few features that go under-explained (I bet a lot of beginners just buy all of the recommended items rather than coming up with their own gear strategy), but for the most part gamers with some experience playing action-RPGs won’t have much trouble jumping in with only one run through the single-player tutorials and practice.

Unlike League of Legends or Dota 2, Vainglory does not sport dozens of characters to choose from when going into a battle. There are a dozen characters at launch, all of which feel fun if not wholly original. Characters aren’t perfectly balanced against one another, but that’s part of the fun: if you rush the enemy’s side of the arena without your allies backing you up, you’re making a gamble that you’ll be able to take on the enemies that are almost certainly waiting just beyond your character’s line of sight.

Unfortunately, you don’t get to choose from all of these characters at the beginning of each round. Instead, there’s a rotating selection of characters available for free, with the rest available for those willing to pony up some cash. This will be frustrating to some, but I think it’s fair to say that if you’re playing enough that you feel compelled to pay a few bucks to pick from your preferred characters, you’re probably getting your money’s worth.

One of the most noticeable things missing from Vainglory is the toxic culture you quickly discover playing League of Legends. There, players committing an hour of their time to a match feel it appropriate to harass teammates they feel aren’t pulling their weight, spilling all kinds of insults across their keys. That’s not an option on an iPhone, so Super Evil Megacorp reduced communication to issuing strategic messages via a shortcut at the top of the screen. Most frequently, this means telling your teammates to all attack the enemy at once in order to take advantage of a fleeting advantage. Thus far, I don’t miss messaging teammates one bit — there’s only a handful of targets worth attacking as a group, and the shortcuts are more than sufficient for making split-second group decisions.

As with most mobile games today, there’s little reason not to try Vainglory if it seems like it might be up your alley. You can try all of the core gameplay for free, right now, and the content you do pay for is the kind that only increases your enjoyment. There’s none of the “spend $5 to unlock levels that would normally take you 20 hours of repetitive gameplay to access” BS you see from some studios on the App Store, and enough depth to keep you interested while Super Evil Megacorp adds more characters (and therefore play styles) to the mix.