Thursday, April 3, 2014

Heroes of the Storm: First Impressions

Img: Blizzard
It's not often that I get to use the cliche "love-hate relationship," but when it comes to MOBAs and me, there's no better term to describe my feelings. Introduced to the genre but a few years ago via League of Legends, I find the style to be both fun and frustrating---mostly the latter. The learning curve can be quite daunting, random matchmaking can become a disadvantage in and of itself, and the player environment seems less forgiving and quick to judge compared to what I've witnessed in other online multiplayers. Thus, I was eager to see how Blizzard might add to their legacy in the genre.

Quite honestly, I expected Heroes of the Storm to be "Blizzard does League Of Legends." After receiving an alpha invite earlier in the week, I'm pleased to say that's not the case. While LoL and Heroes are competitors on the surface, and many comparisons can and will be drawn, Heroes offers a fresh perspective that will appeal to veteran MOBA players as well as those new to the genre. In other words, Heroes could do for MOBAs what Hearthstone did for TCGs.

Players of any MOBA-style game will find themselves in familiar territory with Heroes, but Blizzard's added their own spin resulting in a unique experience. I've only spent approximately five hours with the game, and I'm fairly noobish when it comes to MOBAs (my two-year-old Summoner sits at level 19), but there are a some things that I feel Blizzard really got right with their iteration in a genre that's only growing in popularity.

Team-wide Leveling

Immediately differentiating itself from League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm eschews individual hero leveling during the course of a match, featuring team-based leveling instead. Any experience earned via minion and enemy kills or structure destruction is awarded to the entire team. This is interesting because unlike LoL, this means no one on your team falls behind; in terms of relative strength throughout the duration of a match, there are no weak links---unless of course somehow your entire team manages to fall three or four levels behind your opponents.

This approach to leveling means there's less focus on grinding minions to get that "last hit," and more focus on truly working with your team, watching the map, and paying attention to enemy movements. There's less time spent claiming and remaining in a lane and more time being responsive to the map objectives and the battles your teammates are waging. It makes for a more exciting, dynamic experience.

While several players on the forums are requesting some sort of "last hit" incentive, I think they're missing the point of this particular design. Without an item shop (which I'll get to in a moment) and absent individual-based leveling, the need for a "last hit" reward in Heroes becomes moot---unless Blizzard decides to conjure up some sort of reward mechanism that fits within their current design systems. Personally, I don't see much room for a significant change here. Abandoning the "last hit" model was a conscious choice on behalf of the game's designers, and it works extremely well given the type of experience they're offering.

Diverse Maps & Objectives

There are at least four maps in the current alpha, and each map has its own unique set of features and related objectives. When I heard about this firsthand at Blizzcon, it wasn't something I got excited about. After seeing it in action, I think it's genius! Like League of Legends, there are camps of mobs in the jungle on each map that can be fought for experience. However, Blizzard calls them "mercenary camps," and for good reason. Say you defeat a camp of wraiths. Not only does your team receive experience, but a handful of wraiths from that camp will rise up to join your team, heading towards the nearest lane to destroy enemy minions and structures unfortunate enough to be in their path. 

And the maps. Oh, the maps! Each is laid out in the familiar style with lanes to push and defenses to destroy, but they also have a related objective the teams can and should take advantage of to do some serious damage to the opposing side. In most situations, it would be folly to ignore these objectives---Blizzard's made them an integral part of each map, and the team that decides to ignore the map objectives hands the opposing team a significant advantage. So not only will you be pushing lanes and trying to make progress in the traditional MOBA style, but both teams' attention will be redirected at times when these objectives become available. Brief descriptions of the four:

  • There are two towers that can be controlled by either team. If a team controls both towers, a statue at the center of the map is activated. If a player from the controlling team clicks the statue while the the towers are still controlled, that player turns into a huge dragon with two massively destructive abilities: a frontal-cone fire breath and a charge that punts opponents back to their base. 
  • Every so often, many dozen undead minions spawn in a mine underneath the map. The teams head into the mine to clear these minions, creating a tally. After the mine is cleared, each team gets an AI-controlled golem with strength relative to the number of minion kills the team acquired. 
  • Coins are collected from killing pirate camps and treasures chests that spawn (with an alert) at specific points on the map. Once a certain number of coins are acquired, they can be used to pay a pirate captain to shoot holes through enemy defenses. If you're carrying coins and you die before you can turn them in to the pirate, you drop those coins, leaving them for the enemy team to snatch up.
  • Some sort of necromancer spawns "tributes" one-at-a-time at a pre-determined point on the map. Several seconds before the tribute spawns, both teams are shown the spawn point, giving them plenty of time to arrive before it spawns. Collect three of these tributes, and the necromancer curses the enemy team for a short period, essentially rendering their minions useless and their forts defenseless.

Smaller Maps & Shorter Games

When I say "smaller" and "shorter," I'm making a comparison to League of Legends---and I could totally be off in some of my observations here. Still, to me it seems like the maps aren't as large both in length and width. I found it quite a bit easier to move between lanes to assist my teammates, and with less penalty to the abandoned lane. As it relates to the randomly spawning objectives, this makes it so that each team has a fair chance at reaching them. 

I think the smaller maps, coupled with the objectives that can greatly assist a team towards victory, translate into shorter games (around 20 minutes). Personally, I feel this is the perfect length. The sweet-spot. When a League of Legends match eclipses the 35-minute mark, I start questioning whether my time has been well-spent. At that point, the only consolation for me is a win, and it's a small one at that. League of Legends is a game that you could try to squeeze in over the lunch hour, but you might not be able to finish. With Heroes, it seems you might have enough time for a match and perhaps a game of Hearthstone with some minutes to spare!


If not a brilliant approach to handling the game, it's arguably a friendlier design. Your hero is who he/she is with a handful abilities that you'll add to and/or augment over the course of a match---no need to worry about purchasing strange item combinations to counter your opponent's build. As you rack up minion and hero kills, you don't earn a currency to spend like in LoL. Instead, at every three team levels players are given a choice between "talents" that will alter certain hero abilities for the duration of that match, or with some heroes, provide a new ability altogether. You know exactly what's in your arsenal and based how the game is going, you can hopefully make an intelligent choice that will greater benefit your situation. 

I had to do some research in LoL before I found my character(s) of choice to be fully optimal in any given match. There were a handful of specific item builds that really needed to be understood to be a true threat out on the field. While there will always be room for research, it's not something I see as a requirement to be competitive in Heroes. Without items, you rarely need to return to your base, save to replenish your health and/or main resource, the management of the latter being the most important aspect for players to be concerned with during the early stages of the game.

Interesting Character Choices

There is a refreshing variety of character choices, both in complexity and role. From what I can see, most characters are hybrids and can be built up several different ways in any given match depending on a player's preference. For instance, the Barbarian can go full-on tank, full-on damage, or some combination of the two. Malfurion can go healer with minimal damage, damage-dealer with minimal healing, or settle in at a spot in between. When I played Malfurion, he ended up having five abilities by the end of the match instead of the traditional four. 

I wasn't aware of just how interesting character choices could be until I elected to be given a random character for a Vs Match (Blizzard's term for PvP games). I ended up with Sgt. Hammer, a siege tank that will be familiar to fans of the Starcraft series. I was overwhelmed by the volume and variety of talent choices I had throughout the course of the match---and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sgt. Hammer seems like a complex hero that can be played in many different ways. I chose a tankier build, and by the end of the match I had seven abilities to choose from. A quick glance at my action bar and one may have thought I was playing Warcraft!


I'm excited to see how Blizzard shapes this title over the coming months. As far as gameplay goes, it feels pretty polished. The response I've witnessed from other players seems to be positive overall. If you head on over to the feedback forums you can read more about what other players are saying. As a novice when it comes to MOBA experience, I'm most interested to read what players think is wrong/missing in the game. Because from this vantage, there's nothing significant I can identify.

Blizzard took World of Warcraft and created an appeal that reached far beyond even their own expectations in a genre that wasn't widely appealing up to that point. I can't help but feel they'll do the same thing with Heroes of the Storm. Don't get me wrong---League of Legends is by far (and will remain) the most widely played MOBA. However, there's absolutely no reason why this game and LoL can't coexist. I guarantee you veteran MOBA players will play Heroes, while at the same time Heroes will have the drawing power and appeal to introduce new players to the genre. What seems to be a mantra at Blizzard applies to this title as well: easy to learn but difficult to master.

Right now, if given a choice between League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm, I will choose Heroes nine-point-five out of ten times. For me, it comes down to the dynamic maps, the shorter game times, and the low barrier-to-entry when it comes to choosing and playing a hero.

And to think, this should only get better? Well played, Blizzard. Well played. 

1 comment:

  1. Gonna plug this article on Eviscerated Gaming Podcast episode #89