Juggle or jungle?
My hand-eye coordination goes about as far as the distance from my laptop screen to my fingers and I still had trouble grasping the mechanics of a multiplayer online battle arena when I tried. On one hand, the genre plays to the kind of action-strategy sensibilities that certainly engage gamers on all levels, though I am unendingly intimidated by the genre. This came particularly quickly as I entertain an initial battle in Valve’s Dota 2 and was only met by one online player so dismayed by my novice status that he stood at home base and waited for the game to end while proclaiming that any losses would be my fault.
And all for trying! Something as simple as trying shouldn’t get shot down so readily, but it happens. Thankfully, the genre itself expands exponentially with each new developer willing to give it a shot and that couldn’t be more true than in Vainglory’s case. Vainglory has been designed from the ground up with mobile in mind, though I’m going to report the most honest portrayal of the scene inside Super Evil Megacorp’s offices a few weeks back in the hopes that they’ll accept my apologies for taking so long with this hands-on preview.
I entered the offices a few blocks from the Caltrain station and wandered in to all friendly faces. There, I met several developers and producers working on the title and a pair of gaming enthusiasts who wore their influences and passions on their sleeves. One’s name was actually a man I had only recently torn down and I only know this because he gave me his business card on my way out even if I had forgotten my own to give in return. Steve was clearly an armchair general with the weight of years of experience on his side. His son, Greg, new multiplayer online battle arena games inside and out though he seemed less than enthused with Vainglory itself.
Greg had the guise of a disinterested teenager, but his skills on the battlefield couldn’t really be matched given his lengthy hands-on experience with the aforementioned Dota 2 and League of Legends, which both Steve and Greg seemed to be longtime fans. I’ve had limited experience with League of Legends, aside from getting stomped during a game session at PAX Prime a year or two ago. More importantly, the learning curve in both of these MOBA heavyweights left me a little stunned and Vainglory actually managed to present the action and mechanics in a way that made sense on a touch-device like the Apple iPads we were using.
While Vainglory is set to arrive on multiple platforms, I’ve been reluctant to continue with touch gaming given the frustration I feel with digital controls. Vainglory actually undoes much of this by automating certain aspects of gameplay and forcing players to think more carefully about their tactical decisions. I started relying on just one index finger to control the action and found myself at a disadvantage because I wasn’t activating passive or evasive maneuvers in another part of the iPad screen.
Greg managed to pick the right characters and deal heavy damage to my team but not before I could learn a few tricks with the likes of Petal, a plant-focused creature who can self-heal and raise minions from the ground, and Ringo, a drunken gunslinger. Other characters like Krul have the whole undead vibe thing going on while buxom Catherine dishes out heavy damage and cat-assassin Koshka leaps into and out of combat with deft abandon.
More importantly, Joule, a mech-suited badass with a huge laser beam, managed to even spark a few oohs and aahs from my far more accomplished opponents. In addition to face-to-face combat and the destruction of towers leading to an enemy base, players can explore a lower-map area to farm for gold, earn a powerful bonus, or even turn a Kraken monster to their side. That monstrosity ends up clearing the opposition even after your side has suffered heavily losses, meaning that mobile MOBA fans can still find risk-reward opportunities in areas that require a lot of skill.
Vainglory is still in development and it doesn't have a release date at this time, but I rather liked the atmosphere of friendly competition and diverse influences that hung around me at Super Evil Megacorp’s offices. I can’t say that I would return to the multiplayer online battle arena field any time soon, though mobile gamers should know that they’ll lose track of whatever’s on TV should they be too busy slogging through twenty-minute matches. In that way, it’s still up to players to decide if a genre as hardcore and engaging as what I played in Vainglory will stack up to the experiences they may already been engaged with on powerful desktop PCs.