‘Brawl Stars’ First Impressions – Move Over, ‘Clash Royale’

I think we’re getting to the point where it’s very fair to ask just what Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen gave the devil in return for the deal which (apparently) makes it totally impossible for them to release a bad game. Clash of Clans (Free) has been killing it for years now, Boom Beach (Free) is a great spinoff, Hay Day (Free) is the best farming game on the App Store, and the success of Clash Royale (Free) has caused practically every iOS developer to riff on it in one way or another with their own games. I know free to play haters love to bag on Supercell, but you’ve got to hand it to them, they consistently pump out incredibly well-made games which all seem to become automatic hits. Early this morning, Brawl Stars soft launched in Canada, and I wish I could say I was surprised that the game is awesome.

Much like how they’ve perfected base builders, farming games, and card games for mobile, this time the giant eye of Sauron atop the Supercell Helsinki offices has shifted its gaze to the MOBA genre. MOBAs are a hard genre to get right on mobile, as their roots in PC gaming often result in a level of complexity that, gameplay aside, just make controlling them a little too tricky without a mouse and keyboard. Vainglory (Free) is probably the “best" “true MOBA" (using exaggerated air quotes with both) on the App Store, but has always had a significant problem in my eyes: Vainglory still requires just as much time and attention as just playing a “real" MOBA on your PC.

Now, I’ll concede I might be the weirdo here, but if I’m going to sit down and play a game that requires 20ish minutes of constant attention, I’ll just go hop on my PC. Hell, if you watch how people who are serious about Vainglory play the game, it’s sitting at a desk or table hunched over your iPad the same way I’d be sitting at my PC playing League of Legends. I know there’s a valid argument to be made that not everyone has the ability to play a MOBA on the PC, and sure, that’s a niche that’s worth satisfying, but it hasn’t been a surprise to me why Vainglory never seemed to hit its stride as The Next Big Thing in mobile gaming. (It’s also worth mentioning that Super Evil Megacorp has done a good job at adding in shorter play session game modes to Vainglory that deviate from the main game.)

Spacetime Studios did a fantastic job of “solving" the “problem" (again, air quotes) that Vainglory had with Call of Champions (Free) by greatly compressing the mobile MOBA experience into something that felt like playing a “real" MOBA, but in sessions that last five minutes. However, as I told friends to try the game, it seemed like they split into two groups: Fans of “real" MOBAs who felt like it was a little too snack sized, and people who had never played a MOBA before but heard of the genre who just found it all to be too complicated.

The third bowl of proverbial porridge in this MOBA Goldilocks tale is Supercell’s Brawl Stars which I think they’ve got just right. Gameplay is different enough that I think it manages to avoid all the direct MOBA comparisons which never leads to asking the question of, “OK, why not just play League of Legends instead?" and like all Supercell games, is approachable enough that you could have your mom play the ultra-brief tutorial and she’d understand their game. Wrap all this in a supremely agreeable free to play model, and, well, I hope Supercell still has things in their office that they can replace with other things that are made out of solid gold, as this game is destined for greatness.

While there are minor variations between different game modes, the core of all of them is the same: Real-time battles with simple touch controls. The character you start with is Shelly, a purple-haired shotgun-wielding woman. Tapping anywhere on the screen makes Shelly move there, with the path she’s going to take to get there indicated by a dotted line. At any point during the move command you issued her you can tap again to have her walk further, stop, or go in a different direction. You shoot other players and environmental obstacles by dragging from your character in the center of the screen in the direction you want to shoot.

This dragging gesture brings up a cone-shaped targeting area which shows you how wide her shotgun shots will spread and how far they will travel. Releasing your finger causes you to fire, which uses one chunk from your “ammo" bar above your character. Ammo quickly regenerates over time as you play, and the ammo mechanic serves both as a clever way to explain ability cooldowns to people who have no idea what an “ability cooldown" is as well as a method of preventing players from spamming abilities. There’s an element of strategy in when and where you fire, as you don’t want to be caught in the middle of a battle with your pants down because you already blasted out all your shots and are waiting for them to regenerate.

Assuming your aim is true and you manage to hit an enemy player, you’ll gain a small amount of charge to your super ability. This is represented by the only button on screen, which is bordered by a yellow progress bar indicating when you can use it. The game seems to be balanced in a way that your super ability will be available quite often, but it’s still not always available so you’ll need to be strategic about when you use it. In the case of Shotgun Shelly, her super ability is a shotgun blast that’s significantly wider and knocks enemy players back if it hits them.

Currently there’s 15 characters available for unlocking in the game, and they cover the spread of what you’d expect in a MOBA. There’s characters that do a lot of damage but have very few hit points, tank characters that can take tons of hits, and specialist/support-y style characters that assist your team in other interesting ways. My personal favorite right now is Jessie. Her normal attack is a long-range shot without any spread to it, so instead of targeting with a cone like Shelly, you just target with a line, which is a bit more tricky. Her super ability is being able to throw down auto-firing turrets sort of like Heimerdinger in League of Legends (or Torbjorn in Overwatch along with many similar characters in other games).

Oh, and if you’re not into the tap to move like I mentioned before, you can go into the game’s options and use a virtual joystick instead. Some people swear by this alternate control method, but I’m too used to clicking to move in PC MOBAs so it feels really weird to me. Either way, it’s definitely worth trying both out to see what jives with you more.

Currently, there’s four different game modes but they rotate in real time, so I’ve only had a chance to play three of them. Smash & Grab is a three on three battle where you need to collect crystals which spawn in the center of the map. The game is won by a team collecting ten crystals and holding on to them for fifteen seconds. This is far more difficult than it sounds, as if you die, you drop all of the crystals you were holding and anyone can then pick them up. It’s super intense, and there can be massive swings at the end of the game as one character might be holding more than ten crystals themselves, and killing them could shift them all to the other team, provided they manage to pick them all up.

The second game mode I played is Heist which is another three on three affair. This time, you’re either attacking the enemy safe or defending your own safe. The key to this game mode while you’re on defense seems to be map awareness, as its entirely possible for you to lose track of an enemy team member only to find them all the way on the other side of the map going hog wild shooting your safe. On offense, you seem to want to move as a team and form the most effective push you can. How much fun (and success) you’ll have while playing this mode depends on how much the other two players on your team understand this and how much the three players on the opposing team don’t.

The last mode I got a chance to try is Showdown, which is a battle royale-like affair. Ten players get thrown into a very large arena, and the last character standing wins. Along the way you can destroy boxes which have elixir inside of them which boost the power of your character. In this mode, it seems like playing a tanky character that can take a beating is the best way to survive, but, I suppose if you’re good with a damage dealer you could do just as well assassinating your way to victory.

By now you’re probably thinking, “OK, this all sounds great, but this is a free to play game, when do they turn the freemium screws?" You can play as much as you want, leveling up individual characters and your overall player level by earning trophies through winning. Everything else, as a free player, is dependent on coins. You earn coins both by leveling up characters and by leveling up your “main" player level, but the best source of coins is soaking up the rewards that come from playing.

The game itself has four “slots" for different game modes available to play at the moment, and these game modes rotate out based on a real time clock. As you unlock more characters, you’ll gain access to a third slot at five unlocked and a fourth slot at eight unlocked. Currently, I have three slots available. In 10 hours my first slot, with Smash & Grab in it will rotate. In 22 hours my second slot with Showdown in it will rotate. Finally, my third slot with Heist in it right now will rotate in 4 hours. There doesn’t seem to be any way you can pay or manually make these game types rotate in any way other than just waiting.

You won’t always have access to different game modes either, as when I only had two slots unlocked after downloading the game they were both Smash & Grab, just on different maps. I still haven’t played the fourth mode, but maybe in four hours Heist will rotate to it? This mechanic feels a lot like how in Splatoon for the Wii U, the map rotation was set to a real-world clock, making everyone play the same maps for … whatever interval there was before they rotated again.

Each of these available game types have their own coin rewards you get from winning them. For instance, I’ve already extracted all the coins I can from both Smash & Grab and Heist, while I’ve only earned 6 of the 40 available coins in Showdown. Once I get all those, I’m limited to earning coins solely through leveling up, which is much slower than getting the available prize coins, and will inevitably cap out when I hit max level

Once you earn 100 coins, you can purchase a “Brawl Box" which either rewards you a new character to play, elixir to upgrade a character you already have, or a duplicate character which then turns into a token you can use to buy a specific characters. Characters start at three tokens, and go all the way up to 600 tokens. It doesn’t seem like there’s any difference in the overall power level of the more expensive characters, Supercell just appears to be baking in some sort of rarity system to the draws- I’ve seen a few duplicates of the “common" three token characters in my boxes.

Of course, being a free to play game, you can just buy the premium currency, gems, to open as many Brawl Boxes as you want instead. Much like other Supercell games, all this does is buy you progress. You might spend some money to buy a bunch of boxes, level up your favorite hero, all the sudden be winning a lot if you dump a ton of cash, and then the matchmaking system will adjust and you’ll be back to playing appropriately-matched players. The bonuses you get from leveling up are incredibly insignificant however, so it really seems smarter to just enjoy playing the game instead. For example, with the one elixir I was able to get from a box I increased the damage my turrets do when playing as Jesse from 60 a shot to 63 a shot.

Does that upgrade make a difference? Sure. Am I just obliterating tons of players because of it? Not at all. If you know how to counter Jesse, which amounts to not standing still so the turret shots hit you and focusing killing my turret, it doesn’t matter how much I’ve upgraded it. In addition to upgrades and unlocks, you can also buy skins for your characters, which has been a MOBA staple for ages. Right now skins cost 50 gems, and you can buy a 50 gem pack for $6.99 Canadian. The final thing you can buy are coin boosters, which honestly seem to be the best overall value, as they increase the amount of coins you earn while playing for a specific amount of time.

Based on the reveal of the game, Supercell seems to be doubling down on the esports aspect of the game, and I’m interested to see how that pans out. Most games you play last a maximum of around two minutes, which makes for a tricky esport as if you got up to get a glass of water, you might have missed an entire game being played. As a mobile MOBA to play on the go, however, two minutes is a great session length to get involved in. Like other MOBAs, the sky really is the limit when it comes to how much content they can add to the game through other maps, game modes, characters, and skins, so from that perspective, Brawl Stars could have some serious legs.

I’ve clocked about five hours in the game so far, which is a lot of two minute matches, and I love it. I’ve found my favorite way to play is on an iPad with an Apple Pencil, oddly enough, as it doesn’t obstruct the view of the screen at all. If any of this sounds interesting at all to you, check out our guide on how to download the soft launched game from the Canadian App Store, and if you’re looking for a band (the Brawl Star equivalent of clans) to join and other players to play with, join our Brawl Stars Discord server.

Like most Supercell games, I expect Brawl Stars will be unbelievably popular, so strap in for way more coverage around here on TouchArcade.