Not So Massively: First impressions of Warcraft Rumble

Don't you guys have phones?

Being Canadian and living door to the global superpower down south sometimes feels like being the overlooked younger sibling of a celebrity, so it’s always a real thrill when we get something the US doesn’t. For whatever reason, we have been selected as one of the early access markets for Blizzard‘s new mobile game Warcraft Rumble, so I was able to check it out before any of my American colleagues.

I had a pretty clear set of expectations when I started up this game, but Rumble surprised me. It’s not at all the game I expected it to be.

I’ll admit that I went into Warcraft Rumble with a fair bit of a negative bias. While I don’t think mobile games are inherently inferior, it is true that there are a lot of low-effort mobile games out there, and considering Blizzard’s spotty recent track record, I suspected this was going to be one of them.

The aesthetic, too, is off-putting. Rumble is clearly borrowing a lot of inspiration from Hearthstone, including its status as an in-universe game that people in Azeroth supposedly play, along with Hearthstone‘s goofy, cartoonish aesthetic.

I never really liked the aesthetic in Hearthstone. It’s not to my taste in general, and I think it’s a poor fit for the Warcraft universe. Yes, Warcraft has always been a bit cartoony, but cartoony doesn’t need to mean childish in the way it does for Hearthstone and Rumble. But if anything, Rumble doubles down on the goofiness of its style, and frankly I find it downright grating. It’s not cute or charming. It’s just grating.

I should also mention I experienced a lot of technical problems while playing the game, including severe lag, stuttering, and frequent crashes. My tablet is several years old and was nowhere near top of the line when I got it, so this is almost certainly a problem on my end rather than Blizzard’s, but it added to my frustration.

However, despite these major knocks against it, I find myself slowly, grudgingly coming to the conclusion that Warcraft Rumble is actually a pretty solid game in a lot of ways.

I suspect there are other mobile games in this mould, but I don’t know them well enough to make a comparison, so for me Rumble felt most like a MOBA where you trade in controlling a hero for a lot more control over your minion waves.

In each match, you and your opponent each start with a single tower, or a boss in the case of your opponents in solo play; your goal is to destroy the enemy’s tower/boss before they destroy your own. To do this, you need to deploy troops that will then march down lanes to attack the enemy’s base. Most maps have two lanes, but some are a bit more complex.

In keeping with the narrative of this being an Azerothian arcade game, your troops take the form of minis like you’d see in a tapletop game, which then come to life when placed on the battlefield. To deploy minis, you need to spend gold, which automatically generates over time and can also be claimed from objectives on the lanes for an extra edge. Getting a balanced mix of high and low cost minis is one of the game’s key challenges.

Your army consists of up to six minis, plus a seventh “leader” mini. You will also occasionally get access to kobold minis that can help you mine gold. At any given time you will have access to up to four minis to deploy, with new ones randomly drawn in a system very reminiscent of Magic: Legend‘s random spell draws.

It was at this point the strategic depth of Warcraft Rumble began to dawn on me. There are naturally a lot of minis to collect, and the variety of mechanics they can bring to the table is almost overwhelming. There’s a simple rock-paper-scissors counter mechanic wherein melee beats ranged, ranged beats flying, and flying beats melee, but that’s just scratching the surface.

Some minis can be deployed globally instead of just in territory you control. Some minis have special abilities they use periodically, others have one-time abilities that trigger when they arrive on the battlefield. Some minis activate spells rather than deploying units. Some spawn squads instead of individual units.

The maps also introduce interesting wrinkles. Lanes are full of objectives you can capture to give yourself an edge, from gold veins to additional deployment zones. There are also switches you can toggle to change the routes your troops take, allowing them to avoid enemy defences or respond to a dangerous push.

I was expecting a very shallow game, but what I found was a very deep strategic experience — almost too deep, if I’m being honest.

That brings me to what was probably my only complaint about the game that wasn’t subjective or hardware-related: It could do a better job of teaching new players its various intricacies. The early campaign missions do a pretty good job of teaching you the basics of how to play, but they leave out a lot of the finer details.

My tech issues did contribute here, as well. The panel that gives you detailed info on your minis (I think) never properly loaded for me. Even if it had, though, I think I would have still been left with questions.

For example, each mini is associated with a faction (refreshingly not just Alliance and Horde — I also spotted undead, beast, and Blackrock Mountain factions), but I never figured out what that actually means. I had both Alliance and Horde minis in my army from the start, so clearly you’re not limited to picking a single faction.

Another opaque mechanic was the process of leveling up minis. At the end of each match, it would show me the XP earned by one mini, but only one mini. Does only one mini get XP per match? Do they just only show you the XP for one? What determines which mini is selected?

Mini rarity was also not explained, though that might come later. Given that all my minis were common, I had the impression this is one of those cases where rarity denotes how much they’ve been upgraded rather than how hard they are to acquire.

Rumble already feels like it has a lot of content, with more to come. The campaign features dozens of missions that send you all across the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor, though if “campaign” is making you think there’s a story, guess again. It’s just a loosely connected set of matches with nor over-arching plot.

If you don’t want to play solo, you can engage in PvP matches with rotating maps that shake up the gameplay in some ways, as well as dungeons, though my tech issues were such I didn’t manage to get high level enough to try those. Presumably they’re co-operative multiplayer matches. There’s also guilds of up to 15 players you can join, and there’s the promise of raids, though those aren’t implemented yet,

With mobile games, monetization is always a concern. This is something that I think you’d need to put a lot more time into the game to truly judge, but what I saw seemed reasonably tame. You mainly unlock minis with gold, which can be bought with cash or earned from gameplay. There’s also a small selection of minis for direct sale, but I didn’t get the impression they were exclusive to the cash shop.

Again, Hearthstone is the clear inspiration, and the monetization feels pretty similar. There are no random card packs, but the minis for sale at any given time in the shop’s obnoxiously named G.R.I.D. are randomized, so there’s still a bit of RNG to deal with. It’s still better than the total randomness of card packs, though.

The only minor concern was a greyed out section of the shop (probably unlocked at higher levels) labelled “arc energy,” which sounds like one of those dreaded energy mechanics that limits how much you can play, but mobile games gonna mobile game I suppose. If it’s tuned right, it doesn’t need to be too obnoxious.

So it’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not high art, but I went into Warcraft Rumble expecting to hate it, and I didn’t. Despite myself, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, and while it’s probably too outside my wheelhouse to be something I’d sink a lot of time into, I’d probably play at least a bit more if my tablet didn’t struggle with it so much. Surprisingly, it’s pretty fun.

The world of online gaming is changing. As the gray area between single-player and MMO becomes ever wider, Massively OP’s Tyler Edwards delves into this new and expanding frontier biweekly in Not So Massively, our column on battle royales, OARPGs, looter-shooters, and other multiplayer online titles that aren’t quite MMORPGs.
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