Version tested: iPhone
My hands hurt. They hurt in a way they haven't for years, not since my long days in Azeroth circa 2006-2008. Oh Lord, it's happened again. I have Warcraft Claw. This time, though, it's my phone's fault. I never knew my index finger could kill so many skeletons.
Is it really possible to play an MMO on an iPhone? Pocket Legends says yes - as long as you're happy to redefine what you mean by "MMO". It's a cheery little online-only dungeon-crawler, best played in groups, with levelling and looting and trading and endless tap-tap-tapping (hence the Claw).
It's not a large open world filled with thousands of players going about their business, however. Instead, its hub is a server browser, a list of instanced missions which you can jump into in pursuit of wealth and power. It's much more a multiplayer Diablo than a pocket World of Warcraft - but that's an impressive enough achievement in itself.
You've a choice of three character classes. There's the fighter (a bear), the archer (a bird), and the enchantress (an elf - is Pocket Legends suggesting elves are no better than animals? Racist!). Simplicity, both on a practical and technical level, is obviously key to getting this ambition working on an iPhone, but seeing the same three faces appear again and again does add a certain sterility to the cartoon charm the game shoots for.
Unfortunately, repetition is in Pocket Legends' bones. You'll have a very clear picture of the scope and scale of the game within ten minutes of picking it up. Go to dungeon, incessantly hit a couple of buttons until everything in dungeon is dead, go to town, buy better stuff, go to dungeon... Again! Again! Push that rock, Sisyphus!
With everything compartmentalised and instanced, there's no sense of flow. You disappear somewhere to blindly kill things, then return to an unchanged situation. There are no quests, each set of dungeons instead being chopped into neat but generic little pieces which you can play in any order you want. Or, more like, play random segments of over and over and over again until you're high enough level to survive the next set of dungeons.
And to access the next set of dungeons, you'll need to spend extra money. Pocket Legends has taken the brave decision to be ostensibly free to play, allowing you to duff up as many skeletons, zombies and guard thingies as you like, but setting a level cap of 10 and limiting you to the first 13 five-minute dungeon chunks.
There is a good couple of hours of mindless happy-slashing in that, so it's totally worth the free download. Whether you're happy to spend £2 on the second chapter (and the same again on the third, fourth and likely ongoing dungeon sets), 60p on a respec, £1.20 on the small set of emotes or another 60p on additional character slots is a different matter.
Obviously Pocket Legends has to make money, but it feels too divvied-up, too many necessary elements carrying their own little pricetags. Again, it's a matter of flow - by portioning itself so much, the game feels stilted and overtly mechanical. It thinks offering a new dungeon for sale every few weeks is equivalent to a subscription fee, but when spending the money is an active rather than passive action, the game becomes more a mail-order catalogue than a fantasy adventure.
By also offering powerful loot and in-game cash in exchange for real monies, it even rips out its own key purpose: the tale of your escalating statistics. Why plough through dungeon after dungeon in pursuit of gold and better equipment if you could just buy it? Why, then, are you playing it at all? Games can fall apart when they show their working like this. By putting a price on almost every facet of character advancement, Pocket Legends brazenly reveals that there's no more to it than watching a number get bigger. I almost pity it. It's so desperate to make money that it's forgotten to be a game.
The same mathematical thinking afflicts the dungeons themselves. In each, a small number appears at the bottom of the screen, revealing how many monsters are in it. You have to kill each and every one of them to complete the dungeon. Every single one. There is no end, no escape, no climactic boss (though there are bosses): there is carrying on until that number says 0. The same experience repeated ad infinitum, albeit in different-coloured environments.
Again, the form and function of the iPhone means squeezing a full-blown MMO into it is impractical in terms of hardware and the short-haul play intervals people want from it. But couldn't all those micro-payment dungeons at least try to be something other than more of the same? For a game that's so technically ambitious, it's depressingly without aspiration in every other way.
Let's go back to what it does get right, though. In seconds, you can be twatting monsters in the company of four or five other players from anywhere in the world, in a full 3D environment and with a selection of different combat abilities. That each dungeon is so short means you can sensibly play the game on the move, in short bursts here and there, rather than have to plug yourself in for hours for fear of missing something. Combat is relatively well-designed for a small touch-screen, your character orientating himself to a nearby element when you hit a combat button, and health or mana potions activated with a nearby tap. It's easy to play, and bar the occasional unheeded tap, the controls work pretty well.
Conversation doesn't fare as well: almost no-one chats, despite the game including some canned phrase macros. Partly this is because it's too fiddly to tap out a message while everyone's running up-screen to beat up 30 more identical skeletons, but partly it's because the game's so inherently anonymous in its limited character classes and the decoration thereof. It's hard to think of anyone as a person when everyone looks the same.
There's also no guild system at present, so you'll invariably be playing with random, silent pick-ups. You could, in theory, organise a specific game with hand-picked people by hanging around in the oddly static Towne area, but really this is just an oversized shop. Really, you'll just jump into a random dungeon from the server browser, ignore everyone else there and keep hitting things until you level up again.
That so much fits inside an iPhone, and that so much can be streamed over 3G and Edge, is unquestionably impressive. Pocket Legends is a multiplayer hackandslash RPG on a phone: that is pretty bloody cool. Unfortunately, it's revealed as just the dry-boned skeleton of an interesting game once you're past the initial wonder of how much is happening on your tiny screen. It's currently thinking about micro-payments first, meaningful content second. It needs to get the latter right to deserve the former.
6 / 10