From the company that now owns League of Legends comes a mobile MOBA that looks a lot like it.
Tencent isn't a company that you may be too familiar with, but it's a name is increasingly cropping up in the West. China's largest internet company is a big deal and naturally has its fingers in many pies.
Though not currently (officially) available in North America, Arena of Valor is Tencent's newest mobile hit. Despite over a million downloads in the Play Store I'd never heard of it until picking up a Razer Phone, on which it is preloaded.
It's a mobile MOBA, it's free to play and looks suspiciously like the most popular game on the planet: League of Legends. But that's OK since Tencent owns that, too. It's also a lot of fun.
A familiar formula
From the makers of League of Legends comes a game that looks... a lot like LOL.
There is nothing groundbreaking about this game in the MOBA space. The formula is extremely familiar, following the tried and true pattern of a symmetrical map separated into lanes, teams of up to 5 players, towers, jungle, monsters and a large crystal type thing in each base that you need to destroy in order to emerge with the W.
Competitively, Arena of Valor is played entirely online, so sadly you won't be ranking up on a plane or anything as you need a solid connection. You are able to practice or play matches against bots, but as you'd expect this is an entirely online affair.
Arena of Valor has a bunch of different heroes to unlock and play as you progress, each with their own unique style and abilities, a selection of unlockable skins, as well as having a pretty stellar ranked game mode with seasons long enough for you to actually make a good rank without having to grind away at it for hours every day.
Easy to play, a challenge to master
Some good thought has gone into how you're actually going to play Arena of Valor on a phone or tablet. The controls aren't quite as touch-friendly as Vainglory, but they're still very good. There's no diving into menus or endless tiny icons on the screen, everything is perfectly placed for operation on a phone with a quick tap.
The left side of the screen is where you control your hero and spend gold to purchase upgrades throughout a battle. The right side is where you find your main ability, your talent, and your special abilities. The talent and specials all have a cooldown period, and the specials will get more powerful as you level up in the course of a battle. And at any point, if things get too much, you can recall to base and get a full heal.
Arena of Valor has a pretty comprehensive training scheme to teach you the mechanics of the game, and while leveling up and building out your Arcana to make you even better is a little confusing at first, it's fairly simple to get a handle on what you need to do.
Smart players will ultimately succeed more than brutes.
In battle, a MOBA is a MOBA is a MOBA, basically. The standard map for 5v5 (and the one you'll be playing most, especially if you're playing ranked) is split into three lanes with some hefty patches of jungle between them. You can use in-game chat to communicate with your teammates, either with your own messages or pre-produced ones, or if you're brave jump into some voice chat.
The trick to being successful is a good strategy — not chasing kills as you'll sadly find some players only seem interested in. It's perfectly possible to be 20 or more points behind and still get the win since one team fight late on can change everything. Smart players will ultimately succeed more than brutes. Naturally, if you can find four buddies to team up with, you'll be at an immediate advantage over playing with total strangers.
But, it's slick, it looks really nice and it's really simple to get the hang of. Arena of Valor has some settings to tweak graphics depending on how powerful your device is and an in-game frame rate counter to keep an eye on performance. The default mode is 30FPS but if your phone can play it at a steady 60FPS, enable high-frame rate mode and enjoy yourself. The difference is astonishing.
Not the IAP mess you may expect
It's easy to hear "free to play" and expect a mess of in-app purchases that will somehow tarnish the gameplay. Presumably. Tencent learned a lot from League of Legends, and while there are things you can spend real money on, it doesn't feel like you have to. If you want that sexy new skin for your hero, you probably will, but in the two weeks I've been playing I've unlocked 10 heroes without spending a single penny on them.
You can spend a lot of money here, but you probably won't feel like you have to. Which is good.
There are also great rewards for new players and for coming back and playing regularly, as well as hitting in-game achievements. Free gold, gems, heroes and such all await and they're not difficult to get. If you keep your credibility at 100 (so no leaving games before the end or trash talking) you get 100 gold every single day for free.
I wouldn't say it's perfect, but it's fairly well-balanced so that folks who really don't want to part with money can still have a good time. If you're a serious player and you're climbing through the global ranks, you're probably the sort of player that will also throw in a few bucks from time to time.
I mean, League of Legends is free to play and it makes a ton of money every year. So there's a model for it.
The bottom line
If you're a fan of MOBAs or even just mobile gaming, in general, I'd encourage you to check out Arena of Valor. I'm not really a fan of the genre but I've been enjoying the daylights out of this over the past couple of weeks.
It feels like a proper game designed for proper competitive play, not some freemium mess pushed out by a developer only interested in making a quick buck. Arena of Valor already has a growing esports program with backing from ESL in Europe, and its popularity will surely continue to grow.
Right now, you can't officially play it in North America and the launch there has been pushed back now until 2018. There are of course ways to play if you're there, but you'll not get the best experience yet. I've been having a lot of fun with it and I look forward to seeing where it goes.