Supercell has a solid stable of competitively focused mobile games under their belts now, with Clash of Clans and Clash Royale entertaining mobile competitors for years now. But mid-last year they introduced something new.
Brawl Stars wasn't a Clash game and it was immediately obvious. The almost passive strategy Supercell had nailed with Clash Royale was gone, instead replaced with an active top-down competitive beat-em-up system. Brawl Stars saw you actively participating at all times — not waiting for mana, or cycling through cards, but using two on-screen thumbsticks to manage positioning and time attacks.
If Clash Royale got millions of people accustomed to the idea of competition on their mobile phones — and I think you can argue that it did — then Brawl Stars clearly hopes to evolve the way they play and to bring it more in-line with modern competitive games.
Fortnite probably helped immensely, the way it has changed so much of games in the last two years. Thanks to Epic's Battle Royale, the idea of on-screen joysticks isn't as daunting to older people as it once was — like a cold pool on a hot summer's day, on-screen joysticks can be wonderful… provided you leap straight in.
Brawl Stars offers a cursory nod to the prevailing tastes of gamers worldwide too — one of its four primary game modes is "Showdown", a 10 person Battle Royale mode where games will wrap up inside of two minutes.
But there's a lot more to Brawl Stars than just a Battle Royale mode.
Mr Gem Grabber
Gem Grab seems like the primary mode in Brawl Stars. You'll need to play it for a while before you can even unlock Showdown, and it gives you a decent grasp on the game — and one of its more versatile Brawlers in Shelly.
A 3 v 3 battle, each team attempts to acquire 10 gems before the other can. Players hold gems on them, so there's a decent amount of strategy in managing where and when you should push the other team. The gems spawn in the centre of the map every seven seconds or so, which means the middle of the map is a hot zone. But a well-timed push into an enemy player who is carrying gems can reap huge rewards too.
It's not the sort of mode where you can carry a bad team, though.
A Good Ol' Fashioned Showdown
Showdown, the BR mode, sees you playing either solos or duos, which means you don't need to worry as much about sloppy teammates. With on 10 players, it's not a huge BR, but it does bear the other hallmarks of the mode — power creep through a contested looting phase, a collapsing circle and cowardly players who hide in bushes.
It's one of the easier ways to learn how other Brawlers in the game work — which I'll get into later — because except for games where all you see are a nine Bulls chasing you down, there's a lot of variety in who people will bring. And because you'll spend a lot of time in 1v1s, you can get a good feel for other Brawlers' capabilities. Bull does seem dramatically overpowered, however.
There's definitely an art to winning Showdown — you can see your enemy's health bars, so you want to be able to pounce at exactly the right time to secure a kill if possible.
I Wish I Was A Brawler
Brawl Ball is like a violent version of European Handball. It's reminiscent of Blitz, from the game Deathrow, but I'll explain it further because I'm pretty sure I was the only person who played that game.
The ball starts in the centre, and you need to put it into your opponent's goal. A 3v3 mode again, it can actually be easier to solo carry in Brawl Ball because — at least against other matchmade teams — the teamwork isn't there, so you can scoot through and score goals on your lonesome provided you can win a 1 v 1.
With just a little bit of teamwork on both sides, this mode is super exciting as goals go back and forth. The ball has a bunch of momentum, so skill shots to bounce it around obstacles and into a favourable position for your team feel awesome to pull off.
Brawlers have supers as well, some of which can destroy walls — combining a perfectly timed shot with a super to take out a wall changes how you need to think about the battlefield (and can be a great scoring opportunity).
Heist to Meet You
Heist is, in my mind, a pretty uninteresting mode. Imagine a moba without the towers or lanes or creeps and Heist is pretty much what you'd get. A safe sits in both team's bases, and you need to blow up your opponent's before they destroy yours.
It winds up being a tedious battle of either thrower Brawlers (those who lob their attacks at a distance, meaning they can ignore obstacles) or rushers (who are able to close distances quickly thanks to movement skills that generally ignore obstacles).
This isn't a huge problem, but it's pretty one-note. It becomes a battle where both teams jab from the outskirts trying to build up their super, and if I wanted that I'd be playing more Overwatch.
All Aboard The Bounty
The other competitive mode is Bounty which, to me, plays out like a less interesting Gem Grab. Instead of collecting Gems, you score points for killing enemies. The more kills a player has, the bigger the Bounty on them, so there's a bit of a deceptive sense of security involved.
If you've been going HAM on the enemy team you might have a decent lead, but just a single kill on you will be worth up to seven times each kill you've been getting.
There's a decent amount of strategy in it, but it's far more tempered than Gem Grab — in GG, a single bold play can reset your enemy and give you ample opportunity to win. In Bounty, you might secure the high earning kill, but if you're playing from behind already it's rarely enough to tip the scales in your favour — and you might just wind up feeding a portion of your score back again.
By the Brawls
Another part of Brawl Stars' depth comes from the Brawlers themselves, who all have different playstyles. Certain Brawlers are better on different maps, which means there's no real 'maining' a single one (unless you've lucked your way into Leon or Spike, two legendary Brawlers who are inarguably overpowered).
As I described above, some Brawlers are better for certain things. Bull excels in closing the distance which makes him a decent choice in something like Heist. His gun fires extremely quickly too, so he's able to spam his shots in quick succession if he gets jumped on.
Shelly is similar to Bull, but she has more range and her Super allows her to deal huge damage in a heartbeat — she's nowhere near as mobile, though. The range and super means she's good in Brawl Ball, because she can build super and then blast away obstacles with ease.
Nita's super summons a bear, which can be a great distraction when you need survivability — a great option in Gem Grab, because the bear will beeline towards the nearest enemy. And Colt has the most range out of the first four Brawlers, which means he's great for chipping out enemies at a distance in something like Bounty. You'll learn the other heroes as you play, but there's definitely a lot of depth in the system.
Then you add the fact that there are different maps, and the depth grows even more. On a map with a lot of obstacles, Colt might find it really difficult to build up his super, and he might get jumped on by shorter range Brawlers more — making it very difficult. On a map with long sightlines, the reverse might be true for Bull — he shoots very short bursts, so while his Super lets him close the gap that's pointless if he never builds any Super.
There are a few I'm not a huge fan of. There's definitely power creep, so Legendary Brawlers like Leon or Spike wind up being extremely tough to face off against. There's an air of Pay to Win in it, because Brawlers like Leon and Spike are found in Brawl Boxes — Brawl Stars themed loot boxes — and the odds of getting one of them are extremely low.
If you pay money for a lot of loot boxes your odds go up, because you never receive duplicate Brawlers, and there is a 'pity timer' on boxes. Then there's the fact that you can straight up buy these Brawlers if they go on sale — if you can buy a brawler like Leon, who is top tier in every mode, then you are paying for an advantage.
It's something we explored before when we looked at why Rainbow Six Siege so regularly featured OP new heroes — Ubisoft Montreal's reasoning was that they wanted to increase the pick rate of these heroes so they could better balance them over time. But that doesn't appear to be the case here, because there are quality tiers involved. Instead, it seems like Legendary heroes are just better — which isn't great when you can pay money for them, and the odds of others having them are unlikely.
From a competitive point of view, the best players will generally have them unlocked anyway. You can grind out boxes without too much trouble, which means just playing the game enough will eventually score you all the Brawlers (although you'll lose ground as you get more).
But the real problem with having blatantly overpowered Brawlers is that the competitive diversity will be negatively impacted. There will be on-meta team compositions that will be difficult to beat, and it's not unreasonable to expect to see at least one legendary on every competitive minded team. That said, the matchmaking seems to be pretty good, so at least in regular games, you don't seem to wind up taking your Shelly against nine Legendaries.
Brawl Stars is a good successor to the Clash crown. For real competitive viability, I think they need to rebalance some Brawlers if it's going to be an interesting viewing experience, but if it's someone's first foray into competitive mobile games I think it does a good job.