Mobile game ports are no stranger to Nintendo Switch. The hybrid console is practically swimming in titles that first drew breath on smartphones, but few of these touchscreen-focused pieces of software can hold a torch to the sheer significance of MOBA superhit, Arena of Valor. It is, arguably, one of - if not the - biggest game in the world thanks to its 200 million player base and its transformation into an eSports powerhouse. You’ve also probably never heard of it, either, despite the fact that it has around 80 million daily active users. Even so, this game is huge, and the Switch port is equally big news.
Nevertheless, Arena of Valor hasn’t quite taken off in the West as ferociously as it has in China, but publishing giant Tencent clearly has big plans for Nintendo Switch version as it has given this new console port a proper makeover. This isn’t a mere carbon copy of the version you can play on mobile; with beefier hardware to work with, Arena of Valor’s visuals have been given a noticeable tweak with everything from character models to dynamic lighting now far easier on the eye than the previous incarnation. There's even a separate development team working on this version, although on the downside, these changes do mean there’s no support for cross-play on mobile.
Boiled down to its core ingredients, Arena of Valor is your classic MOBA (Tencent also owns League of Legends developer Riot Games, so there’s some real pedigree to draw from). Whether playing one-on-one or in a five-versus-five setup, you’ll use a traditional top-down view to control a fantastical hero as they attempt to destroy the enemy team’s core on the other side of the map (while defending your own, of course). Each map is divided into three channels, with each one lined with defence towers on either side.
These towers will automatically target and pummel anything that gets close, so the key to each one is waiting for small AI-controlled soldiers (known as Minions - no, not those Minions) to distract it while you unleash your own attacks. Often it's all about these slow battles of attrition as teams stack up heroes on one side in order to push onto the next tower, only to have the enemy redirect their attacks on a channel on the other side. Keeping your own towers standing isn’t just a defensive concern - they also have their own health points that restore a part of your health, so it’s all about moving back and forth across the map between defensive and offensive drives.
There are 39 Heroes to choose from, which just shows you how long this game has been around on mobile and just how much support it’s had since launch. Split into your usual distinctions (Tank, Warrior, Mage, etc) you’ll need to learn the ins and outs of a handful of 'mains' so you can swap in and out of them in the pre-match lobby to ensure your team isn’t lopsided when you head into battle. Because make no mistake, this is a team-based experience all the way. If you don’t learn to understand (and use) on-screen messages - such as the ability to leave markers on the map to rally your team or point out an enemy push - you’ll die quickly, and often.
What’s most striking is how smoothly Tencent has mapped Arena of Valor’s controls to the Joy-Con/Pro Controller setup of Switch and just how well it walks the line between accessible pick-up-and-play battles and deeper encounters that reward using the right attacks to counter other Heroes. Using the triggers, shoulder and face buttons to unleash each of your attacks feels natural right from the off, and you can even tap the map to fly around the battlefield while you’re waiting for your character to respawn.
You can upgrade these attacks by holding ‘X’ when prompted during each match, or even enable auto-upgrade and auto-purchase so you can crack on with the action if you’re not interested in the finer points of adjusting your build. While Heroes' stats have been tweaked in order to readdress the balance of using them on a console rather than a smart device, there’s still a wealth of depth to be had if you want to delve further into its meta. It’s not as terrifyingly deep as League of Legends, but it borrows enough of its DNA to put some meat on its long-term bones.
Despite the polish of its presentation, there are some blemishes here and there. For instance, there’s some noticeable slowdown in the menus when selecting characters, and the way Arena of Valor loads each player’s profile independently when preparing a match can make the time between them painfully long. The voice-overs for most of its characters are uniformly generic (or completely miscast), but the designs - bar a handful of boring fantasy tropes - are really impressive. There’s even going to be support for some DC Comics characters further down the line, because why not. It runs around 30fps, although this can sometimes drop when there are a lot of Heroes on-screen at once, but it’s never a big enough dip to affect your enjoyment.
It should be noted that this is a free-to-play game, so you can download the entire thing and get playing right from the off. You can also play as any of the Heroes currently available, but you can only level up your proficiency with those you actually own. You can gradually unlock these characters over time, but if there’s a certain character you really like you’ll either need to grind for gold in-game or fork out real-life cash for it. Tencent has confirmed you don’t need a Nintendo Switch Online subscription to play, so if you can technically enjoy almost all of the game without spending a penny (or cent). There’s even a special Hook Wars mode that uses the Joy-Cons for some motion-controlled fun - although it’s only available at weekends.
Tencent is hoping Arena of Valor’s new console port will bring its eSports success on mobile to Nintendo Switch, and with a solid netcode, an accessible and enjoyable take on the MOBA template and a free-to-play model, there’s no reason it can’t achieve that goal in the months (and years) to come. While it does have a few technical issues at launch, they don't detract from the fact Nintendo Switch now has a proper MOBA to add to its library of supported genres. One of the world's biggest games is now on Switch, and that's something to celebrate.