Heroes of the Storm, which released from open beta earlier this week, is Blizzard’s own spin on the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre (or as Blizzard has named it, Hero Brawler). If the mere mention of a MOBA incites fear in you, or causes you to swell up into an insurmountable rage, this may be the one for you.
The MOBA genre dominates modern online gaming, and for good reason. It provides not only a great individual or team experience that blends the strategy of an RTS and the quick reactions of an FPS, but also that of a fantastic spectator eSport. The genre’s popularity is as much due to those who are fanatical about the genre as those who don’t understand it. Blizzard attempts to bring those two types of people together, and create a MOBA that caters to the new players and tries something different to entice older ones. This attempt essentially creates a “baby’s first MOBA”. But even as a hardcore/longtime MOBA player, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with HotS.
HotS is a free-to-play team-based game, where you choose from a selection of heroes, all with varying abilities in order to gain control of the map, by killing neutral, non-player enemies called creeps, and enemy players, to eventually destroy the opposing team’s base for a win. That’s all pretty standard fare for MOBAs. The maps are all split into lanes, in which you kill waves of minions, or creeps (fodder enemies that reward experience and gold), in order to destroy towers (turrets placed around the map to stop players from pushing forward) with your own creeps, and destroy forts to spawn stronger creeps. Eventually you can push into the enemy base and destroy their core, but of course there’s much more to a single game than that. Like every MOBA, it sounds so simple, but it’s layered in complexity.
Standard Fair – this scene will probably look pretty familiar to most MOBA players, but there is so much more different here than you realize.
A typical HoTS match sounds as boring as can be, but the intricacies of a single game are thrilling. From the highs of massive team fights, all the way down to the push and pull of map control, every game sets itself apart from the next, and is unique in its own right. The combination of characters available to you, the way all their abilities and tactics can synergize and propel you to victory, or leave your team a shambling mess, is what makes this work. The constant cycle of farm, roam, fight, and re-group never becomes tiring, and links naturally with the flow of the map.
Every victory puts you on an incredible high, and every defeat pulls you right back down, but the one thing that’s common is the urge to keep playing. Even beyond the myriad of ways you can progress outside games, the simple draw of the gameplay really keeps you playing. The moments when your team’s Nazeebo and you land a perfect Zombie Wall, entrapping the enemy team just in time for your Nova to land a Precision Strike and obliterate the enemy team, are what keep you going. Simply put, there’s an ecstasy in precise coordination, which is relevant to all MOBAs, but, due to a large emphasis on team play, is especially prevalent in HotS.
Wurf – The one screen that every MOBA player knows makes it all worth it.
The one thing HotS has over any other MOBA is Blizzard’s development team, and just like Hearthstone, it put its own spin on the genre. All in all, HotS is a MOBA, and we should definitely call it one, but Blizzard really tried to separate it from the popular games like League of Legends and Dota 2. It really feels like they took a game like LoL, applied Hearthstone’s simplicity and hidden intricacy, and then slapped their iconic characters over it. And it totally worked.
This separation comes in the form of, for lack of a better word, simplifying the game. I love both LoL and Dota 2; I’ve played 2000 hours of LoL, and 200 of Dota 2. But my love for those games comes from the wealth of knowledge you that acquire by playing them. Like knowing which Champions/Heroes counter one another’s abilities, what items are good, and what the “meta” game is. But that’s what turns away so many prospective players from MOBAs, not to mention the disdain from the communities that deride them for not knowing everything about the game.
HotS comes in to tear down these MOBA traditions, and casts aside anything standing in the way of the average player sitting down and playing it. This is makes the game stand out among a million clones of the big MOBAs. Sure, having Blizzard’s iconic roster and game design know-how doesn’t hurt, but that’s not the selling point. From something as simple as shortening game length, to as monolithic as removing items, Blizzard carved a path for anyone to pick up and play the game. However that doesn’t mean you don’t have much to learn. Accessibility doesn’t equal sustainability, but those who stay will be rewarded for their time.
It cast aside anything standing in the way of average Joe sitting down and playing
You level up your character in every game you enter, earning XP from both neutral Mercenary Camps and creeps in each of the map’s “lanes”. However, to hasten the process and put a real emphasis on teams, all the heroes share XP gains. This is a huge change that makes it much easier to coordinate teammates for when you’ll be at your strongest advantage. While other MOBAs have an item system in order to give you goals to aim for in each game, HotS replaces it completely. By sacrificing the large web of complexity that encompasses item building in most MOBAs, and cutting it down to a simple talent system, matches become much easier to play without having to rely on earning gold and last-hitting in order to progress. You can choose your own path, and the fact that almost every talent on each hero is viable, means you are much less likely to be set back by picking what might not have been an optimal choice.
The lack of items further focuses the game on team play. The items in Dota 2 or LoL bring individuality to players and give gold to members of your team designated to “carry” the game. But HotS scraps that and tries to focus much more on team coordination. But by no means does this sacrifice individual skill, while it’s rare or even impossible in games to have a single player carry you to victory, exceptionally skilled players are able to pick up the slack of their teammates. While some players are able to barrel down lanes and push towers fast to win, or stalk the map and “gank” enemies to earn kills and easy XP, without team coordination, you’re sure to lose. This is especially prevalent in HotS above any other MOBA, due to its most drastic change: the maps.
Styyyyyle – Every map oozes style, but Blackheart ended up my favorite NPC.
While LoL has other maps and Dota 2 other modes, the main game that’s played (and only played competitively at a pro level) is based on single map that never changes between games. At the moment, just after launch, there are seven maps in HotS, each one giving you a completely different experience and just as gimmicky as the next. My personal favorite map, Blackheart’s Bay, involves collecting doubloons, which spawn in chests or from the mercenary camps around the map, and delivering them to Blackheart, the skeletal pirate, in the center, so he can gleefully light up your enemy’s base with cannonballs. This not only takes a drastic turn from the norm of Dota 2 or LoL, but has its own complexities. Turning in doubloons means standing vulnerable for a while, and any damage you take will cancel the turn-in, giving your enemies a chance to delay you or set up an attack. Game modes like this provide tense, nail-biting experiences were your Nova character has just enough doubloons to turn cannons onto your enemies, but if she dies, she’ll drop all of them for your enemy to plunder. It’s these maps that highlight the strengths of HotS. But there’s even more behind-the-scenes complexity. Where maps like Blackheart’s have two lanes extremely close together, meaning there’s lots of early fighting and roaming, other maps like The Cursed Hollow have lanes much farther apart, making for a slower-paced game that focuses highly on objectives.
The one thing all the maps have in common however is the mercenaries system, which is by far one of my favorite changes as a seasoned MOBA player. Every map contains neutral monsters that teams are able to fight and, once defeated, will go into a lane and push it for you. This means that teams have to be vigilant to stop these pushes and can use them to create great distractions to then capitalize on objectives or kills. Some of the maps like The Cursed Hollow also contain large boss monsters that, once captured, are extremely difficult to take down, and create a mini-boss for your team to both capture and kill. This system replaces the well-known jungling system from other games, with the boss monsters replacing Baron Nashor or Roshan from LoL and Dota 2. Seeing these hulking monstrosities tear down your enemy’s forts provides a gleeful satisfaction that a simple buff or extra life from other games doesn’t.
Every victory puts you on an incredible high and every defeat pulls you right back down
I can’t talk about the maps without mentioning the fantastic aesthetic and design of them. Each map has its own theme and fits well into the cartoon universe Blizzard has been developing since the World of Warcraft graphical update, or just from Hearthstone. From the floating docks of Blackheart’s Bay, which are littered with captured sharks and skeletal pirates, to the swirling sands of Sky Temple, with its Anubis guards and Egyptian-themed creeps. Every map oozes its own style, and the fact that each map’s announcer call-outs are themed appropriately is fantastic. Having the Mother of The Garden of Terror scream out for you to harvest seeds at night, or hearing the booming Blackheart bombard the enemy team just completes the experience. The design of the maps isn’t their only positive.
The graphics in the game are no slouch either. Everything oozes that Blizzard style and polish. All the character models are easily recognizable and detailed, and the maps are brightly colored and meticulous in every detail. Sadly, the performance doesn’t match up to the game’s graphical fidelity. I was running the game on a high-end rig, running a GTX 980 graphics card, and I still struggled to hit a steady 60 frames-per-second. And in hectic fights, with large particles and a lot of things on-screen, I dipped as low as 30 fps. While the game is by no means unplayable, it’s very disappointing to see a Blizzard game so badly optimized.
Roast ’em – The newest entrant to the storm is the fiery Kael’thas.
When it comes down to it though, Blizzard’s iconic roster of characters is a large pull for this game. And I have to say, it don’t disappoint in both being fun to play, and true to the character’s individual lore and personality. While the characters (especially this set of characters) are fun, they don’t have as much depth or complexity as a lot of those in Dota 2 or LoL. Every character falls into a pre-designated role: Warrior, Assassin, Support and Specialist. The name of every role basically describes what they do. Your Warriors are your tanks with high defense and crowd control; Assassins aim to pick of the enemy team; Supports are your healers; and Specialists are anything that doesn’t fit into these roles. A good team composition will make use of all archetypes. For example: you can play as Diablo and gain extra health on minion deaths, or use your charge ability to stun opponents, but since he doesn’t deal much damage, he’s at his weakest when not flanked by Assassins to take advantage of his crowd control. One of the best things about HotS is playing as your favorite Blizzard characters and using their classic abilities against a host of other ones. Whether that’s using Keg Smash as Chen the Brewmaster from WoW, to calling in the Hyperion for an Orbital Bombardment as Starcraft’s Raynor. Every character feels at home in the MOBA genre.
Leveling Heroes up really made me feel like I’d progressed as a player
The synergy between these heroes is obviously where the teamwork of HoTS is at its strongest, but also its most frustrating. The worst thing about every MOBA is both the community as a whole and the individual team you’re placed on. Out of every MOBA, HotS is at its strongest with a full five-man team, and at its worst when playing solo. The heavy reliance on teamwork means that when you know that your team isn’t using their time or skills to the best of their ability, it’s not only frustrating, but can outright lose you games. While teamwork is just as evident elsewhere, when a team completely ignores an objective, despite your desperate pleas, and continues to throw away time chasing a low-HP Tyrael, it’s some of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in online gaming. My biggest complaint about HotS comes in tandem with this. The game has some incredible comeback mechanics. A game you almost certainly deserve to win, can easily be turn back into the enemy’s favor, and leave you saltier than Blackheart, the pirate. All the objectives provide such great game swings that you could be stomping the enemy, have total control of all objectives, and then make one mistake, which will cost you a late game objective. And suddenly, in less than five minutes, you’re left with a destroyed core and a broken keyboard. Obviously this swings both ways, and you can’t help but be swept up in the ecstasy of a huge comeback, but sometimes I was left at the victory screen thinking I didn’t deserve this win.
The victories in HotS also help contribute to a large amount of out-of-game progression, and help build your roster of heroes. Your account has its own level, and every game you earn XP to unlock more gold, buy heroes, unlock the extra game modes, like Hero League, the games ranked mode, or Team League, a ranked mode for full teams. The real progression comes with every individual hero. Each hero can level up to 20 and earns XP from each match you play. You can use that XP to unlock aesthetic changes and also gameplay ones. The first few levels unlock the remaining talents for your hero and its second choice of ultimate ability, while later ones allow access to alternate character colors. At level 10, the ability to buy a Master Skin with in-game gold lets you show just how good your character is compared to others. This is what really drove me to learn and play specific characters, especially those that I love from Blizzard games such as the brothers Malfurion and Illidan. Leveling them up really made me feel like I’d progressed as a player and was truly mastering them in order to choose who I wanted to be my main.
Respect – The progression system really mad me feel that my time was not only respected but rewarded.
Every match, as well as certain account and hero levels earn you gold. There’s also a daily quest system, where playing archetypes like Warriors or Starcraft characters, or just winning games, earns you extra gold. This gold can be spent in the store to buy new heroes or certain mounts (in-game ways to travel faster) and Master Skins, however the game also has a healthy dose of microtransactions. I don’t think the gold prices are unreasonable due to the fact that leveling any hero past level 10 earns your more gold, and the increments of 2,000 gold all the way up to 15,000 is pretty fair, but will take a few games to earn. It mostly works because the rewards are much harder to grind out on your own. However, it has to be stated that the real world prices for skins are completely egregious. While obviously every game can’t be like Dota 2 and survive on aesthetic purchases alone, the prices for both skins and heroes is atrocious in HotS. It is by no means the most friendly free-to-play game. In LoL, $10 gets you one of the newest champions as well as a much older champion, or it will get you a normal skin, or even a pricier semi-legendary skin. However in HotS, $10 might only get you one character. The prices range from $4 to $10 for a single character, which in comparison to other MOBAs, may not seem too awful, but considering at least 14 of the roster are $10, it’s an awful pricing model. It gets worse the more money you put into it. Twenty dollars in LoL will get you two expensive champions and leave you with a large chunk of change left over for skins and cheaper champions, whereas putting $20 in HotS may only get you two characters. The bundles aren’t priced great either. I wont list all the prices, but just know that the game isn’t the most generous in pricing. And I won’t lie, I willingly put money into the game for both heroes and skins that I wanted. But coming from other pricing models, I really felt I was being ripped off, even though I felt invested enough in the game to push past that, I wasn’t beyond spending money.
In the end, Blizzard’s daring leap into the shark tank that is MOBAs has them doing anything but sleeping with the fishes. While only time will tell if HotS can make as big a splash as its competitors in the competitive scene, it’s truly carving its own path as the most accessible way into the genre. And there’s really no better way to do it than with a host of beloved characters to pull them along. The game is bright, vibrant and has a deep enough complexity to keep even veterans of the genre enthralled, but it’s still not at the level of LoL or Dota 2. However, this is exactly what the game needs to separate it from the pack. And while I still nickname it “baby’s first MOBA,” I do so knowing the genre would eventually need a starting block rather than having everyone thrown in at the deep end. While the game will never replace LoL or Dota 2 as my MOBA of choice, I will definitely not only follow HotS’ progress, but keep on diving back into it because it provides such a short and condense experience with some of my favorite characters in gaming.
HotS is an incredibly accessible and enjoyable game that everyone, fans of the genre or not, should dip their toes into, if only just to see Blizzard’s own spin on the genre.