There's no bigger genre in competitive gaming right now than MOBAs (or multiplayer online battle arena games), which pit small teams against each other to destroy the base at the other end of the map. Computer entries like League of Legends and Dota 2 command millions of daily players and have shot to the top of the eSports world. Also, the top games in the genre are free, putting traditional $60 or subscription-based games to shame with their player devotion.
Luckily, you don't need a gaming PC to enjoy a quality MOBA experience: a few key games are available on the App Store, designed specifically for the iPad and iPhone. And while they may be scaled down from the more elaborate desktop entries in certain ways, you can still find exciting, strategic combat wherever you are.
Wondering where to start? Here's a quick tour of the top MOBAs available today for iOS--they're all free-to-play, so you might as well dabble.
Released in November for both iPad and iPhone, Vainglory (free; iPhone and iPad) is our top pick of the bunch, as evidenced by its place on our lists of the best iOS games of 2014 and our favorite free games of last year. And it's certainly the most attractive of the bunch, with excellent texture work and effects making it a showcase game worthy of its own iPhone commercial. (Which it got, amazingly.)
But this mobile original is luckily much more than just a pretty face, as the three-on-three team battles offer plenty of excitement on the battlefield. Vainglory is a bit streamlined compared to some MOBAs, however: there's just one key battle lane on the single current map, where you'll team up to fight your way through automated turrets and ultimately destroy the crystal found in the rival base.
Below the lane are strategic opportunities to power-up your autonomous fighting minions or generate extra gold, but a lot of the actual combat takes place on the one path. Much as we'd like to see some additional variety pumped in, the characters are nicely designed and differentiated, and Vainglory really looks and plays like the real deal, albeit on a tablet or phone.
Fates Forever (free) is our next best choice for an iOS MOBA, but it's a very close second, and this iPad-only affair differs from Vainglory in some key ways. Notably, the game map takes a dual-lane approach to combat, with high and low paths lined with turrets and tributes (minions), with the strategic conquest elements found in the wooded area in between. And it also offers a voice chat feature via headset, if you want to team up with friends and really strategize your movements and actions.
But the most immediately noticeable difference is visual. While Vainglory has a more serious-looking, steampunk-tinged approach, Fates Forever is pure fantasy, with lush green environments filled with all manner of unique, colorful creatures. It's a great look that not only sets the game apart from the others on this list, but also the top MOBAs found elsewhere.
The addition of a second lane shakes things up, but otherwise, matches in Fates Forever have a familiar tenor: you defeat enemies and their turrets, level up your abilities along the way, and use accumulated coins to purchase gear and items. It just has a different flavor here, and if you're playing on iPad and want to chat in real-time with pals while playing, Fates Forever has an advantage.
Heroes of Order & Chaos
At just over two years old, Heroes of Order & Chaos (free) is the granddaddy of iOS MOBAs--and Gameloft's entry is still going strong with a devoted fan base today. Unlike all of the other games on this list, this formative touch MOBA offers the option of five-on-five team play (like PC MOBAs typically do) in addition to the usual three-on-three design.
Similarly, it's the only game on the list to offer more than one map--it actually has three, two of which are for the larger team battles. And what really stands out about them is just how absurdly massive they are... a bit too large, actually, since it means a lot more time wandering until you find conflict. That said, the added sense of scale can be nice, and a hard-fought five-player victory should be even sweeter. And you can even share it with the world, thanks to live gameplay streaming via Twitch.
Otherwise, Heroes of Order & Chaos is a solid genre entry that is showing its age compared to newer rivals. The Warcraft-esque fantasy setting is generic and jagged-looking, and the controls are a bit awkward, with the mix of tap and virtual joystick control schemes resulting in some wonky camera moments. But if you like the bigger battles in a MOBA, it's worth a shot.
Zynga's Solstice Arena (free) was one of the first mobile MOBA games, and compared to the other games on this list that present scaled-back takes on the familiar PC approach, the game feels like its own super-streamlined beast. Which has some appeal, certainly, especially if you're looking to play a complete game in just minutes. But that approach also sucks a lot of the strategy out of the experience.
Truly, rapid play is the key here--it's listed as the "world's first speed MOBA"--and games typically last between five and ten minutes, or less than half what you might find in other iOS MOBAs. The map design is incredibly straightforward, with two bases and a small chunk of land in between, and all of the turrets are located within each base. There are no automated allies beyond your three-man team, which means no "living shields" to soak up turret attacks when you storm the enemy stronghold.
The auto-purchase feature is helpful for managing your coins and snagging new equipment without digging through menus, but the characters otherwise don't level up during battle. Solstice Arena deserves credit for showing how the MOBA template could work on touch devices, but unless your primary interest in the genre is finding quick competition, it's been surpassed by much better options.