By Jason Parker (Ragachak)
Inb4 “LoL Killer”
I have had the fortune to play Heroes of the Storm since the Technical Alpha, all the way through launch. As someone who has been a purveyor of many different MOBAs, some of whom have unfortunately but recently fallen, I do not feel like that is going to be the case with HOTS, and not just because of the backing of Blizzard. The game does not feel stagnant at all. There’s been a nice steady series of changes, new characters filtering in, and since I have started, there have been a slew of new maps and challenges added as well! Blizzard has been finding ways to tie the other games together, in incentives to play them that awards players in Heroes of the Storm, which is interesting, not game changing, but interesting. Heroes of the Storm is a stand-out MOBA, and not be reinventing the wheel like SMITE, but instead by locking in the standard MOBA formula with enough freshness to not feel like another copy pasta game. In essence, Heroes of the Storm will stand the test of time because it doesn’t feel like its directly competing to steal the playerbase from other MOBAs. There’s enough of a lure for those inexperienced in the MOBA genre that HotS doesn’t need to rely on stealing from its competition’s playerbase to survive.
Which brings me to one of the biggest things I detest about the MOBA community, and the online gaming community in general. Every game has to be a “killer” of whatever is standing at the head of the pack. While this usually revolves around hate for World of Warcraft, now that Blizzard is stepping into the MOBA arena, they find themselves on the reverse side of the fence as League of Legends leads the pack by quite a length. Despite how many detractors it has, there’s no denying that it is a popular game. HotS is not a LoL-killer. It stands out on its own merits, without trying to crush the competition. Games that exist simply to dethrone another only go the way of the Dodo. The lack of equipment builds (and ability/trait builds instead), teams leveling in unison, and the host of different maps combined with familiar characters from the Blizzard Multiverse combine to make something entirely unique from what League fans are hooked to.
If the popularity of the beta is any sign, HotS has found a winning formula that brings in the hordes without stepping on League’s toes directly. While it is true that other MOBAs have had winning formulas and failed, it was typically a matter of not enough people at once discovering why they would be interested in the formula. However, Heroes of the Storm has the Blizzard Marketing Machine backing it. Even if the game isn’t genre changing, this marketing machine has ensured millions of players would know about it, and countless thousands would take the time to jump in to give HotS a whirl. With triple A levels of funding backing constant development, more often than not these players were hooked for the long haul, building up a healthy community for launch.
A Whole New Spectrum of Champions
Like a Rainbow! Blizzard has been pretty good at releasing a variety of different characters since the game was first announced and made playable. The roster stretches to the four corners of the Blizzard realms of lore, featuring majorly recognizable fighters like Azmodan the Lord of Sin, to the truly obscure with the stars of the SNES title “The Lost Vikings.” As of right now, the characters are all definitely different, even if a few of the heroic powers feel like carbon copies of each other. Crystal clear visuals go a long way towards giving each hero a personality, even if you aren’t familiar with the game they originally come from. For instance, there are several heroes who utilize a “Summon” power from Arthas’ Sindragosa, Kael’thas’ Ashes of A’lar, and Raynor’s Hyperion. Despite this, the nature of each summon is so impressive and serves specific utility functions, that most players won’t consider the skills to be related in the slightest.
Blizzard also mixes up the formula with the introduction of “Specialist” type characters in addition to the more familiar Warrior, Assassin, and Support archetypes. Warriors come in both spellpower and melee editions, but Specialists are just as their name implies. Specialists generally offer complex gameplay elements that require a tactical mind and great map awareness to best utilize. A prime example is The Vikings. They can be split apart and utilized in different lanes, but they really shine together, and one of their Heroic abilities lets them resurrect their fallen Vikings, making it much harder to get rid of them. Specialists range from siege technology to commanders and leaders, and each one is specialized in ways you’ve likely never seen anything close to in other MOBAs. While they are not mandatory in most team compositions for HotS, you can’t argue how the level of fun they bring to gameplay. And that’s what the game is all about. The downside? There is one, unfortunately, related to the RPG hero progression on your account.
One of Heroes of the Storm’s key distinguishing features is the ability to unlock new passives and even skills (called traits/heroic abilities) from repeated play of a single hero. This leads to some pretty impactful gains on gameplay, including secondary ultimate options, and overall keeps the game quite engaging for many months of gameplay when you never know what antics your foes might throw at you in each round. But the Specialists are hit particularly hard by this, as many don’t shine until you have full access to the various builds they can bring to the table. Leave it to Blizzard to put the grind into the MOBA genre I suppose. Though again there seems to be a silver lining as each character starts the match with all three of their heroic abilities on tap, leading to a far more exciting early game than most competitive MOBAs.
But it’s time to nitpick. DOTA2’s characters are always free, all the time. League of Legends has a selected amount of champions to select each week, along with sales and the like. Heroes of the Storm starts you with five heroes playable, but to get more you have to play! This is not necessarily bad, as there are leveling rewards for your profile/heroes, but I dislike having fewer options until later in the game’s life. You can purchase characters with real money (Average/new characters are $9.99 or 10k earnable in-game gold, but there are cheaper ones and sales), and they cost about as much as a new League of Legends champion. Maybe it’s the psychology of Blizzard being upfront with the US currency base on purchasing new heroes, but seeing $9.99 on every hero makes the game feel more expensive. Gathering up in-game gold is quite slow as well, meaning again you have a lengthy grind to unlock things for free here. At 10 gold a loss and 30 a win, those playing HotS for ridiculous numbers of hours a day won’t see much better in progression. The only reliable way to pile on the goal after burning through account level-up bonuses are quests, of which you receive three a day, that give between 200-800 gold. Quests typically revolve around playing a hero from a certain game, or playing a certain archetype, and don’t always require victory for completion. This paid to play game design is far less hair-pullingly frustrating than the win of the day bonuses MOBA players are used to.
With such steep blockades preventing you from unlocking a hero, players are understandably hesitant to commit to a permanent purchase. Coolest thing about this system is you can TRY them before dumping your life savings of gold! Whether they are free that week or not, you can rent them out for a spin to ensure you like their kit before you commit. That’s a fantastic idea.
What Makes You Think You Are So Special?
But what makes Heroes of the Storm so special? Not a steady stream of new characters, most certainly. The previously mentioned mechanics are well implemented, but other than the unified team leveling system, most aren’t game changers. No the piece of the puzzle that can’t be ignored is the unique maps and interaction in their scenarios. At launch HotS offers seven polished and pleasant map scenarios to battle through, and I have heard from the horse’s mouth that there are still more to come. Sure, some of them have similar concepts, “collect x items” to gain a buff for your team, or to punish the other team for not getting there first, but each offers visually distinct locales, narrative voice acting, and, most importantly, fun opportunities for team fighting madness. The matchmaker system throws players into one of the many maps randomly, ensuring you don’t have to suffer long queue times to get to experience them all. The rumor mill has it that custom matches will have every map for you to pick from soon as well, which is terrific for fans wanting to go at it in a specific scenario they fancy.
I have to emphasize though that these maps are fun while mostly remaining balanced by sticking to a decent unified philosophy of base pushing through X advantages. Other MOBAs occasionally roll out a fun mode, for roughly two weeks then put it away again. Or offer side modes that are fun, but in no means balanced between the various characters on its roster. Heroes of the Storm maps are always fun, though some are certainly more fun than others [to me]. Admittedly what worries me, is the randomness of the queue system. Some people may not be skilled at all the maps, giving them a rather misleading elo. Some team compositions may have favorably traits that rock a certain scenario, and neither side can plan for this given the randomness of queue. Expanding this further is the question of how Ranked play will be handled. Perhaps Blizzard will consider a player’s ability to adapt to all scenarios as part of their skill, though that would be a step into the unknown as every other MOBA on the market that pushes for legitimate competitive play favors a specific map and ruleset, which the game is balanced round.
The maps are not so different that it would be impossible to implement them all into ranked play, but I already envision the community crying about how RNG of map choice overrides individual player skill at the game. Nothing like getting hammered with your least favorite map back to back when trying to rise up a ladder. While the overall focus of Heroes of the Storm seems to be fun over competition, the Heroes of the Dorm promotion gives me hope that Blizzard fully intends to see serious big money tournaments added to HotS’ portfolio.
So back to my question of what makes Heroes of the Storm special? All its design decisions seem to never lose focus of fun as the top priority. Many PvP focused online games lose sight of this key concept, becoming needlessly complex or stressful in the process. Sure, there are toxic people in this game; that’s all of Internet Gaming. But far and large, it’s enjoyable as a soloist moba, and truly wonderful to play with close friends. Blizzard unifying kills and assists as one stat combined with unified team leveling shows they recognize the key elements that reduce MOBA communities into toxic wastelands, and is tackling them head on from a pro-active development system rather than retroactive spot checking. The result is every member of your team feels like an important participant, and everyone leaves a match with the thought that they made a difference.
Final Verdict: Great
I love this game, and have since I heard about it some time ago. I have always enjoyed the Blizzard franchise of games, and became enamored with them back in Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. So being able to play a MOBA with favored characters is terrific! Are there characters I’m waiting on? Absolutely. Did I fear it might crumble such as Infinite Crisis did? Not really; it’s got Blizzard behind it, and they aren’t going to just let it fade away. I think they are spending too much time on their cash shop, with mounts to buy, skins, you can purchase, color variations I believe. . not too different from other games, but the prices just feel so incredibly high. Sure, other games cost probably just as much, but the way the numbers are shown has me constantly fretting about it while playing. All in all though, the game is a lot of fun, captivating both Blizzard fans and those new to the moba genre to stick around. This game tugs on your nostalgia strings to lure you in, and keeps you enamored with quality gameplay and RPG progression long enough that you won’t want to leave.
The game is beautiful, that can’t be disputed. If you are a fan of Blizzard’s art, you won’t be disappointed. There are detractors that feel like WoW is too cartoony, but the Warcraft world is fairly represented here, as are the others. The maps are wonderfully detailed, the characters look just like they stepped out of their own games, and far and large it’s just lovely to look at.
For the most part, the controls work just as well as any other MOBA; here’s the catch for me. The base controls for when you start adding abilities to your character can feel incredibly awkward. Awkward to the point that I seldom use the “additional” powers that aren’t passives, because I just don’t like where they are positioned on the keyboard by default. But other than that, controls are very solid.
Same features as many MOBAs, but not the same gameplay! Lots of different gameplay options depending on what map you are on, and that’s a great selling point. Each map fits into the Blizzard lore well, and none feel rushed or unpolished. I’m willing to bet that Blizzard is listening to the fans, and if there is an outcry for more people on a team/fewer for a game mode, I wouldn’t doubt new varieties of modes await post-launch.
The sounds are terrific certainly. Many of the stages and sound effects are reminiscent of the old Warcraft/Starcraft games and that filled me with joy. I had fond memories of Warcraft 2 and putting the CD-ROM in a CD Player just to hear the soundtrack while I did other things, and so HotS scored a major plus by bringing those similar tones back for another round.