A couple of weeks ago, I read a story filled with anonymous sources about some alleged turmoil between Riot Games and their Chinese parent, Tencent. While not speaking to the truth of anything printed, it did remind me that Arena of Valor was playable in Australia.
So I've been giving it a whirl for a little while, and as a result, I can fully understand if - or why - Riot might have been a bit ticked off.
The story from The Information, which is well worth the read, outlines supposed tensions between the two companies. It's 1000% worth the full read, but I just want to point out this par:
But Riot’s leadership wasn’t interested in making a smartphone version. They believed League’s experience couldn’t be replicated on smartphones. Top executives believed Riot should only make games for hardcore gamers who played on PCs and consoles. They also believed Riot couldn’t afford to divert resources to making a mobile game while the PC version still was growing rapidly, according to people close to Riot.
Tencent decided to craft its own mobile version of the game, Honor of Kings. Released in November 2015, it sparked an uproar back in Los Angeles when Riot employees discovered early screenshots of it. “We were stunned. They were blatantly ripping off our intellectual property,” a former Riot employee recalled.
Given that Arena of Valor (the Western name for Honor of Kings) had launched in Australia on iOS and Android over the last 12 months, I wondered: how close could the games be?
I can't answer that precisely, and I'm not a lawyer. But after a fortnight with the game, I've got absolutely no compulsion to try League of Legends again.
After the lengthy process of unpacking, patching and verifying to install the game, two things immediately jumped out upon a first glance of Valor's UI.
Firstly, Tencent loves to reward you with stuff. You get free stuff for logging in every day. Usually it'll be a trace amount of gold, but sometimes it's a trial skin for a hero you don't have, new arcana to equip (basically League of Legends' runes), talents (basically League's masteries) and almost 70 heroes to choose from.
A basic match is quoted at between 12 and 15 minutes, although if you get a good start and you've got a team who isn't absent the whole game, you can knock out a whole match in less than 10 minutes. If things are a little more heated, or you've got people who constantly wander off and do their own thing instead of actually pushing towers and the enemy base, 30 minute games are entirely possible. But that's on the absolute extreme, when all the towers are down and one pick could change the course of the match.
For the most part, this is exactly the kind of flavour you'd get from League, but in half the time.
Valor rolled out a bunch of DC-themed skins recently, including the Joker, Batman, and this neat looking Wonder Woman, who functions as a pretty good tank.
There's a ton of neat features that you wouldn't expect from a mobile game either. There's a separate settings menu to take advantage of iOS's screen recording features, although Android users have some recording options in-game as well. You can even hit one button and it'll run a quick test to see if your phone is capable of streaming Valor to YouTube, Twitch or Facebook Live.
You can also customise the menu to swap the attack and shop icons to the left or right sides of the screen. If you need some help starting out, you can set it so Valor automatically buys items for you and levels abilities up after a certain period of time.
I've been playing on an iPhone X and LG G7, and both hover around the 60 FPS mark for the majority of the time. Even while recording, the LG G7 maintained a pretty reasonable frame rate (although you can see the counter in the top left hovering around the 50-55 FPS mark at times).
The iPhone X, perhaps not surprisingly, holds a better frame rate while recording than the LG G7, although it gets a fraction hotter. Footage above is from the G7. Excuse the random Facebook message.
It plays well! There's some obvious concessions to the mobile format: if you just tap a button, it'll target the nearest hero in range. The ping also isn't too bad for an Asian server, which is presumably in Singapore given that it's hovering around the 120-130ms mark. When I was in town for Gamescom, I gave the game a whirl on local servers, and got about 30-40ms through shitty hotel Wi-Fi, which is more than playable for something on your phone.
The gameplay itself is mostly what you'd expect. People are split into two teams of five, progressing down one of three lanes until you can push the enemy base. There's jungle creeps throughout, multiple builds for different characters depending on what playstyle you're going for (with three general suggestions for each hero if you're starting out). All the principles you would have picked up through Dota, League or Heroes of the Storm all apply here: don't jump into team fights alone, initiate at the right time, make sure your supports get the help they need, dance back and forth to dodge enemy fire, and line up your skill shots and AOE abilities for maximum effect.
It's actually killed any interest I might have had in going back to Dota or League, funnily enough. I already had a love-hate relationship with those games - I've spent a few hundred hours in MOBAs, mostly in Dota 2 and the original Dota. It's not that I don't enjoy the games anymore, but dedicating 40, 50, 60 minutes of undivided attention and unbroken concentration is harder when you're older.
Something you can digest in 10, 15 or 20 minutes is a lot easier to stomach. And while local servers aren't an option - a good reason to check out Vain Glory - it's playable enough, and the tactical flavour is all there.
There's also plenty of non-competitive modes to keep people occupied, like a Pudge-esque Hook Wars, 2v2 deathmatch arenas, separate queues for casual 1v1 battles, and a football-themed mode that's only available from Friday to Sunday.
Coupled with all of the free gifts Tencent throws at you the second you load the game, there's plenty to keep you occupied. What's neat is that over the course of about 25 hours, I've never felt like I was lacking in power or ability because I didn't purchase a talent or my character was inadequate in any way. Losses were generally down to me just not knowing everyone's abilities, which is par for the course for any MOBA, or poor teamplay.
If anything, the teamplay is the biggest risk - not because people suck, but because the mobile nature means people are liable to be playing without headphones and consequently wandering off, not paying attention to what's happening on the map.
But you can alleviate that a little with ranked play, and just queuing with friends who have a clue. There's even voice chat if you want to really get into it, although that's a bit much for an experience I'm enjoying casually. And it's an enjoyable enough morsel that I can absolutely understand why Riot may have been pissed about Arena of Valor. It offers everything that's good about a MOBA, with the right concessions to make it work on a small screen without simplifying the game to the point of silliness.
Sure, hardcore MOBA fans might lament the lack of creep stacking, denying, and some of the more complicated characters that have NPCs to manage or several combinations of spells (thinking Invoker here). Those elements would be tough to translate to a phone.
But you know what would have? League of Legends. That's what I'm getting from this, and it makes me wonder why Riot didn't do it first.