Vainglory made a big splash during Apple's summer event announcing iOS 8 and the new Metal API. It certainly served as a great demonstration of the graphics capability of the new framework for games developers, and now that we've had some time to play around with it, we can tell if it's ultimately good news for the players too.
Vainglory is, at its core, a MOBA. That stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, for the uninitiated. Basically, two teams of three players attack down a lane in an effort to take out the opposing side's headquarters. You'll need to chew through waves of small enemies, tough defensive towers, and aggressive enemy players to do so. Along the way you'll earn experience points, level up, improve abilities, and acquire gear.
That fundamental formula is mixed up by Vainglory in a few ways. Instead of the usual 3 lanes, there's only one. In addition to tougher neutral enemies in the jungle area outside of the lane, there are also two mines, one on either side. Capturing these mines will improve the quality of your minions spawning. There is also a gold mine dab smack in the middle which offers the controlling team boatloads of gold if they can hold onto it for long enough. The gold mine also spawns a gigantic kraken which, if defeated, will join your side and plow through your enemies.
Once a match is over, you can review the kills, deaths, assists, and gear selection of each hero, plus you're rewarded with in-game currency and karma points. You gain karma points over time to show you're a good player to team up with, and lose karma points for abandoning games. This is a much better metric for matchmaking than skill. The controls are super simple: just tap where you want to go, and tap an enemy to start auto-attacking. You have three abilities along the bottom which you can tap to activate, and items in the bottom left. A mini-map in the top-right gives a clear bird's eye view of what's happening.
The revenue model is par for course for what you'd expect from a MOBA. A selection of heroes are available to play for free, though those heroes change up on a regular rotation. You earn coins every match which can be used to permanently unlock one of those characters, or you can get premium currency through in-app purchases to do it.
It almost goes without saying that a game made by a company called Super Evil Megacorp is going to have a great sense of humor. Every character's voice acting has some truly snappy one-liners, though the novelty on some of the audio gags can wear out over time. The fact that they've managed to work in "You've released the kraken!" in there somewhere is pure gold.
The graphics are really well done, and, as mentioned earlier, showcase just what iOS gaming can look like. Reflections, dust particles, glow, bloom, and lighting effects are all finely implemented. In terms of the graphics, the only real niggle is that walking around feels a little slow for how quickly a character's legs are moving. Faster base movement speed all around would be welcome and not necessarily tip the game balance, though the speed as it stands leaves a lot of room for scaling up with gear, characters, and abilities.
There are a few interface issues that bug me, such as the splashy font that pops up every couple of minutes when something dramatic happens. It's a rustic and cool type for menu items, but in-game the white color and discontinuous outline makes it hard to read and mostly distracting. The announcer's audio comments are probably enough to get by. That font will also overlap with some UI elements. Speaking of which, when you're flipping through the store while dead, the window will close once you respawn, potentially interrupting a purchase.
Original artwork showcases every character and their unique flavor. There are ten characters so far, which might not be a large enough of a buffet for MOBA diehards, but that's plenty to start, especially since characters aren't mutually exclusive in any given match. Character design is fantastic, and on par with what you'll see from other MOBAs. The setting is a refreshing steampunk twist in a game type that is usually overwhelmed with standard fantasy fare. Guns are blazing at every turn, but there's still plenty of sword and sorcery involved.
I'm not a huge fan of how account management works in Vainglory. There's no tie-in with Game Center, for one. You need to create an account to play, and you can't do it by simply connecting to Facebook. The last thing I need is another username and password. There's a friend system at least, so you can party up with buddies regularly.
The bottom line
MOBA space for mobile is still very young, but the massively popular precedent set on PC gaming bodes well for the future on iPads. Vainglory is a high quality production not without its faults, nor competition. Given the choice, I feel like I would still drift towards Fates Forever, if only for a slightly higher level of interface polish. Fates also has voice chat, which is vital when playing with a regular crew, and long-term progression for each individual character with swappable perks. Still, Vainglory has a unique flavor, great sense of humor, and amazing graphics; all good reasons to give it a go.