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MMObility: Zynga's Solstice Arena is a solid MOBA without a farm in sight


Let's say you're mucking around with your iPad and get the nagging feeling that you'd rather be owning other players in a game of strategical combat. What do you do? Well, one of the solutions is to pick up Zynga's new MOBA Solstice Arena and start hammering away. From what I can tell, the game really isn't showing us anything new and inventive, but it has taken the usual MOBA gameplay, toned it down, tightened it up, and made it a more satisfying mobile, fast-paced experience.

I am no huge MOBA fan; I'll leave that up to the experts. But that's only because it's one of many genres that I haven't as much time for as I'd like. Solstice Arena has shown me that these jump-in games can be pretty cool, though your arm might get tired from holding up your iPad!

Solstice Arena screenshot
Solstice Arena skips a lot of what normal MOBA players might be expecting. There are no minions, and the map is smaller, but that's a good thing. Matchups are always 3v3, but you can jump into a match with bots if you want to play a game without bothering to wait. The matchmaking appeared to work fine, and I was able to enjoy games without much interruption. Each of those three team members will fill the role of healer, melee, and ranged. Each has three abilities that are complemented by different power-ups on the battlefield, but grabbing those power-ups takes time. If you time things right and keep the pace of the game flowing, it can be pretty intense.

"There's also a nice treasure chest in the middle of the map that's always tempting to grab. Of course, that activity takes time, and time is everything in a game like Solstice Arena."

There's also a nice treasure chest in the middle of the map that's always tempting to grab. Of course, that activity takes time, and time is everything in a game like Solstice Arena. If you grab the chest and pick up some extra coins along the way, you can use them in the platform store to buy new in-game items, but the coins don't persist between matches. Valor points, earned as you win matches, as well as cash will allow you to buy new characters. You can also spend real money on skins to make your hero look extra cool, but the game overall is balanced and not keyed toward buying power. Players who play a lot can easily afford the same things that someone with deep pockets can. There's even a handful of trial characters that cycle in and out, so players can try on a new character without spending a dime. People might say, "This is Zynga?" after getting used to the pay scheme, but it's really the brainchild of A Bit Lucky, the developer that actually crafted the game. I think the game shows that what Zynga needed all along was the infusion of fresh talent and eyes, eyes that are familiar with less intrusive payment plans.

Although I would have preferred to play the game on the glossy retina display of a later-model iPad, the game worked just fine on my iPad 2. The graphics weren't as smooth as I'd like them to be, but there are some nice water effects and combat animations, and sound is effective and bright. Each character has a unique look and feel, and every time I thought I found one that I preferred, I wond up trying and liking another. The developers have done a good job making each character feel fresh and unique without being completely overpowered or too easy to control.

Some of the characters seem to be tweaked for different playstyles as well. I like characters who have a pretty simple set of abilities to rely on. Although each one has an ability that is a bit more complicated, like an ability that heals others while simultaneously pushing enemies back, there are some characters that are "easier" to play. Those are the ones I like. I also liked the fact that using the cash shop during play in order to purchase upgrades or weapons is kept so simple that it can be accomplished in the press of a few buttons. Communicating with team members is equally simple, and commands can be issued just as easily.

Solstice Arena screenshot
I also appreciate the fact that the gameplay is centered around quick matches and immediate satisfaction. The creators of the game obviously know what it's like to play many mobile games, even multiplayer ones. Spacetime Studios' games have a similar feel. It's not that mobile games need to be lacking in depth or focusing on "easy mode" but that they need to provide the option to play for long periods of time right alongside the option to play for 10 minutes here and there. Mobile gaming is as much about the ability to play from literally anywhere as it about playing a game that is as challenging or complex as almost any other "standard" game.

Solstice Arena works the casual angle by allowing players to play a match or two per day while waiting for the bus or while killing time in the line for a midnight showing of the latest geek movie. But if those same players find themselves aching for some more action, the weekend can be filled with matches and virtual glory.

My wrist ached plenty while playing Solstice Arena, so I can't wait for the game to be brought to other devices like my lighter Nexus 7. When I set the game down on the counter to play longer, it felt a bit glued down and it was not as comfortable to operate. This issue of aching wrists is solved by playing on my iPhone 5, but then I'm stuck with a much tinier screen.

I'm not a skilled MOBA player by any means, but Solstice Arena allowed me to jump in, kill a few players, try on some new skins, and even help win a few matches without my needing to spend a dime. If I wanted to, I could easily throw 20 bucks or so into the shop and be set for a while. I would like to see the game come out on Android and for the browser, but until then, Apple fans will have plenty to do. It's a simplified game that lacks the longer matches that you'll find in more traditional MOBAs, but that's OK -- it wasn't meant to.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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