The first of these, the latest World of Warcraft expansion – Warlords of Draenor – is widely expected to launch sometime later this summer. Another, Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void, is a largely unknown quantity at this stage, other than the fact that it will revolve around the Protoss race.
But possibly the most interesting project in development is a new IP. For a developer not exactly well-known (at least in recent years) for branching out into new properties, two new IPs in as many years is practically bombarding us with the things.
So far, Blizzard has only sent out a select amount of Alpha Testing keys for their new MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) game Heroes of the Storm, or HotS for short – though much like how Hearthstone keys were sent out in ever-increasing waves during development, we expect them to gradually ramp up access to its new game over time.
Heroes of the Storm sees Blizzard attempting to enter into the MOBA market that has become so popular in recent years with titles such as DotA 2 and League of Legends. Will Blizzard’s changes to the “traditional” MOBA gameplay – in an attempt to reach a broader audience – hurt or help their new title? We’ve spent some time with the game in an effort to find out.
First off, HotS’ visual style should feel familiar by now. Blizzard has re-purposed the Starcraft 2 engine into a new MOBA game that is much in the style of the developer’s previous output. Blizzard’s games all have a distinctive look and sound that makes them instantly recognizable – they all have similar effects, buttons, and user interface quirks which help them all feel part of the same gaming ecosystem, and HotS is no exception.
Just as with Hearthstone, Blizzard has packed HotS full of all of your favorite characters and voices from their extensive roster. But while Hearthstone is rooted firmly within the Warcraft universe, HotS draws from the whole spectrum of Blizzard IP (though sadly, so far there’s no sign of anyone from The Lost Vikings). Thus you’ll see Diablo going up against Arthas, or Kerrigan facing off against Tyrael.
Veterans of Starcraft 2 will feel right at home with some of the mechanics of the game as well as menu navigation. HotS was originally designed to operate within Starcraft 2’s Arcade feature, before the developer made the decision to expand into full-blown standalone release.
Even though HotS is only in Alpha and still nowhere near being a finished game, it’s already remarkably polished. Characters are already fully-voiced and the starting character models seem to be in place, even if there are some notable performance and resolution issues that are still being worked on. Yet for the most part, the core game mechanics seem to be in the right place and all the maps are functioning. It would seem that only major balance and server capacity testing is in order.
Indeed, for a game still in Alpha, Heroes of the Storm feels like it’s in a surprisingly advanced state of development than you’d expect. Blizzard has clearly taken many of the lessons learned from the lengthy Hearthstone Beta; the daily quest and account progression of Hearthstone have made their return in HotS, and both add some much-needed direction to the genre, something that is often lacking in other titles. We’ve been playing the game for several weeks now, and played a number of matches, but it always feels like we’re accomplishing more and working towards a goal.
Hearthstone’s influence – as well as the looming shadow of DOTA 2 – is also keenly felt in the fact that Heroes of the Storm is going to release as a free-to-play title. More content is unlocked as you play and gradually complete quests, but players who want to bypass all of this can purchase the characters they want, much like in League of Legends. In theory, this should mean that you can unlock all of the content without ever spending a single penny, but no doubt progress will be just slow enough to make you still feel like you’re making meaningful progress, while ensuring that a trip to the in-game store remains a tempting prospect.
The questing system also serves as a gated tutorial that introduces new players to much of the MOBA style game play and mechanics. This is particularly welcome considering that the genre is often known for a notoriously difficult entry bar; while DotA 2 made an impressive amount of progress in opening up the genre, it’s still notoriously complex, and Blizzard is determined truly open the genre up to a wider audience. HotS is noticeably easier than DotA 2 and LoL, with just the right amount of Blizzard hand-holding and a shallow learning curve. Based on our experience so far with the game, they’ve succeeded in their goal; Heroes of the Storm is far more accessible to novice players than either of those titles, with a few key changes to the traditional MOBA gameplay.
First, and most noticeably, are the removal of items and economy that is often one of the most daunting aspects of a traditional MOBA for new players. It may seem sacrilegious to some, but the removal of items is all part of the pick-up-and-go mentality that Blizzard has imbued throughout the experience. Coupled with the removal of items, is the removal of talent progression of player characters. In their place, at certain levels the player is given a choice between two or three perks to pick up. Usually, these are survivability or offensive choices. This streamlines a lot of out-of-game character research that market rivals generally require of new players before they feel as though they can play competitively.
However, players new to the game will still have to work out how to manage between survivability and offensive abilities. Each hero has their own unique choices that bring a nuance to each individual character and player.
Another concession to greater accessibility comes in a lowered penalty for being a novice, by giving each team shared experience and levels. This keeps one team from completely being dragged down by a new player and helps to make matches feel far more competitive in the process. Games are also shorter, running from about 15 – 25 minutes, so there is less of a time investment in a lost game. Some DotA matches can often last as long as an hour or more, but in Heroes they’re short enough that you can dip in for a quick match without having to make sure you put aside a good chunk of time, just in case you end up in a game that becomes a drawn-out war of attrition.
Elsewhere, Heroes of the Storm is also more focused on map objectives and mercenary camps, rather than how many player kills you can rack up. Completing the main map objectives can swing the balance of the map wildly in your team’s favor, rewarding you with the ability to summon in large monsters, or reducing enemy towers to half health. Mercenary camps allow your team to gang up and forcefully “persuade” neutral monsters to fight for your side. The newly-recruited mercenaries will then move down the nearest lane and help with your team’s push. Often they can turn the tide of battle.
All of these changes help Heroes of the Storm to feel more casual and accessible than traditional MOBA games, and if there’s one area that the developer needs to be careful, it’s here. Blizzard needs to exercise caution lest they put off too many genre veterans who are used to – and enjoy – the staggering amount of depth and complexity found in the game’s rivals.
With this in mind, if you are currently invested in another MOBA, then HotS might not be for you. It would be a shame if it wasn’t – because it really is rather good – but some are bound to be put off by the more relaxed style of play on offer here. However, if you have ever been interested in a MOBA but were unwilling to grind your way through the steep barrier to entry, then Heroes of the Storm is a perfect introduction to the genre. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed the more relaxed and casual gameplay that it brings to the table so far, and the lowered time investment needed suits our busy lifestyle.
We’ll continue to keep a close eye on Heroes of the Storm as it moves into beta and beyond, but it’s already a highly enjoyable experience. Blizzard has created a great way for new players to experience a dynamic genre that has been on the rise in the past few years, and that can only be a good thing.