Can the fast-paced MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) genre make the transition to touchscreen devices? Zynga's Solstice Arena aims to find out. The game was recently released onto iOS devices, and is a free-to-play take on the popular genre.
MOBAs are immensely popular in the PC space, with games like League of Legends and Dota 2 dominating much of the competitive gaming landscape. The general premise involves two teams battling across a map for territory. Solstice Arena does away with much of the genre's conceits: there are no regularly recurring waves of NPCs to shepherd about the map, or experience points to accrue over the course of a match. Instead, you'll be destroying the enemy teams' towers to weaken their Oracle, and then destroying said Oracle to win the match. There's currently only one map, which is actually par for the course with MOBAs.
The game is decidedly simpler than the standard MOBA fare, but that's a necessary sacrifice on mobile devices. There are benefits to that simplification: combat is packed into short, frenetic matches that rarely last longer than about 10 minutes, making it a perfect pick-up-and-play experience.
Despite the brevity, there's still a healthy bit of strategy involved. There are just over ten characters, divided into various classes. Tanks are capable of taking quite a bit of damage, while assassins are fragile, but deadly. Support classes specialize in hampering the enemies abilities and healing your squad, while casters excel at ranged combat. Each character has three distinct abilities, and those abilities are assigned are particular astrological sign: Earth, Sun, Stars, and so on. The map is littered with powerups that will bolster a particular sign--grab the earth powerup when you see it on the map, and your earth-sign abilities will become a tiny bit stronger. The end result is a delightfully frantic experience that'll see you darting about the map, snatching up powerups to bolster your abilities while simultaneously denying the enemy access.
And there's more: traditional MOBA fare involves accruing currency to purchase equipment for your character, which will bolster your abilities over the course of a match. In Solstice Arena you'll earn gold every second, and earn a chunk of change for every enemy you kill. A chest will occasionally spawn in the center of the map: it can be captured by tapping on it, which will root your character into place. After a bit of time, the chest will rotate towards your team's side of the map and you'll be rewarded with some gold--provided, of course, the enemy doesn't interrupt you. I generally loathe sifting through equipment screens, but Solstice Arena sticks to the promise of simplicity buy allowing you to have recommended items automatically purchased for you whenever you're leaving your team's home turf, provided you have enough gold to spend.
This is a Zynga game, which generally means paying through the nose for in-app purchases. Solstice Arena is refreshingly progressive on this front, adopting the League of Legends model wholesale and making a limited number of characters are available on a "free trial" basis. You can purchases them with gems, a currency that you purchases with real-world dollars. Or you can purchases them with swords, a currency earned by playing matches against other players or computer controlled bots. It's a beautiful system: the free characters are rotated at regular intervals, leaving you with plenty of time to sample every one, and find the roles and abilities that you like best.
If you'd rather not pay any money, you can simply play many, many matches and get to keep the character you like best. If you're not averse to paying money, there are also customizable skins to collect, which offer no advantages but allow you to get a stylish look and feel for your favorite character. I've always considered this the perfect free-to-play compromise, as evinced by my collection of skins on League of Legends: if you like the game, you can play and earn the characters you want to keep. If you really like the game, spend a few bucks to get that perfect look .Pay-to-win does rear its ugly head, in the form of select potions that can only be purchased with gems that will bolster your team's defenses, or give you a minor boost to attack damage. It's a bit too soon to tell what impact these will have on general play, but it does give me pause.
All told, Solstice Arena distills the MOBA experience onto mobile devices, simplifying the experience without sapping that singular competitive spirit. It's fast, it's fun, and it's free: if you own an iPad or iPhone, head on over to the App Store and give it a whirl.