You will probably be able to tell if Blizzard's new mobile game Warcraft: Arclight Rumble, a "tower offense" game, as they call it, is for you within ten seconds of looking at it.
Warcraft: Arclight Rumble doesn't seem to be trying to hide the fact that it's Blizzard's foray into the kingdom of mobile strategy games that generally have an icon of some sort of wacky pack warrior yelling at you from the app store. It's stylized and whimsical even beyond the likes of Hearthstone, with familiar faces like Tyrande Whisperwind and the trusty orc grunt rendered in simple, garishly colorful, Saturday morning cartoon caricatures.
But credit where credit is due: some interesting things are going on here. The basic premise is that you have a gold bar at the bottom of your screen that fills up over time, similar to mana in Hearthstone. You then spend the bars to summon units from a pool of six "minis" that you collect and select to assemble a team ahead of time.
From tanky gnoll warriors to madcap gnomish inventors, these can all level up by gaining experience in PvE matches. Unique leader characters like Thrall or Tirion Fordring anchor your squad and change up your playstyle.
FLIP THE TABLE
Each board is different, but you'll typically be trying to capture towers and summoning stones which let you spawn minis closer to your enemy's side while doing battle with their own minions and eventually taking out their leader.
Depending on the complexity and difficulty of the board, this could take as little as a minute, or as many as five or six. There's also a wrinkle in that gold veins will spawn which can be mined to fill up your coffers faster, but you'll have to invest in mostly defenseless kobold miners to take advantage of them. It's a choice between focusing on a stronger early game army or overwhelming the enemy with a larger force at a later moment.
On top of all this, there is a rough rock-paper-scissors element going on where melee troops beat ranged, ranged beat flying, and flying beat melee. I was fairly satisfied by the amount of strategy involved, though it can still be tricky to keep track of everything that's going on with some boards even given the very readable graphics.
Sometimes you have to click on arrows on the map to switch what lane your auto-attacking minis will go to, and it could be a little bit like herding cats to figure out when to hit it to get an oncoming group to split up the way I wanted it to.
THE LANDS BETWEEN
The main mode is a PvE tour of the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor that puts you up against some recognizable quest mobs from World of Warcraft like Princess and Hogger. You can unlock new minis and new, more difficult zones as you go.
Game Director Tom Chilton said Blizzard is committed to not having any kind of stamina system, so the limiting factor eventually ends up being the power of your minis. I hit a point where my team just wasn't leveled enough to take on the next challenges, and skill can only go so far to make up for this when you venture into the more dangerous regions and three-map-long Dungeon challenges inspired by some WoW favorites.
The most efficient free way to level your minis is by doing quests, which you only get a certain number of each day. While currently, you can't purchase more quests, nothing stopping you from grinding out boards you've already beaten. But it's not a particularly efficient use of your time.
This is the main way Arclight Rumble prevents you from "no-lifing" it through the entire campaign in a handful of days. Senior 3D Artist Justine Hamer estimated it would take months for an average player to finish the entire world map, but things are still being adjusted.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
That brings us to the most obvious question for a free-to-play mobile game: what are the plans for monetization? Chilton was careful not to give any specifics other than that the team wants to sit back and observe, listening to player feedback throughout testing to find what works best.
Currently, in the alpha, you can buy 500 coins for $3.99 (which is enough to buy one new mini from a limited, rotating selection and still have a bit leftover) or 800 coins for $9.99 (which is enough to buy two minis). Purchases in the alpha use real money but will be credited to your in-game account when and if any resets happen leading up to launch.
You also get gold by winning battles and completing quests, however. So far, there is nothing that can only be purchased with real money and no secondary premium currency. Experience tomes can also be purchased with gold, so if you really wanted to go full Whale Mode, it would be possible to level up your minis very quickly using real money with no restrictions that I'm aware of.
This won't give you an advantage in the 1v1 PvP mode, though, as all minis will have their stats normalized, ignoring their PvE level.
Two-player cooperative raids that are meant to provide an even tougher challenge are also on the horizon. Blizzard hasn't currently announced any plans for modes involving more than two players, either in PvP or co-op. I also asked Chilton if there are any plans for a PC version after the originally mobile-focused Diablo Immortal was recently announced to be getting one.
"There are reasons to do it and there are reasons not to," he said. "But ultimately it will be driven by what players want."
Hamer hopes this will be a game for Warcraft fans of any stripe, even the black-clad edgelords who only play Death Knight, leaning against the back wall in the grungy taverns of Orgrimmar. But I think the experience of playing it speaks a bit louder to what it is. And it's certainly not "casual" in the sense of lacking in challenge.
In fact, I was impressed with the depth of strategy it can offer. But it is still basically a Warcraft spin on a type of mobile strategy game that's much more geared toward finding something to do while you wait for your lunch order to be called than the sort of life-devouring adventures Blizzard is most known for. And you know, that may not get me vibrating with excitement, but it's perfectly fine as long as they can avoid some of the worst tendencies of mobile game monetization that would make even Trade Prince Gallywix wince. The fun is there, even in this early build.
There's no release date yet, but if you'd like to sign up to be a tester yourself, you can do so over at the official site.
Leana Hafer is a Freelance Writer for IGN.