Monday, June 1, 2015

Games Review: Heroes of the Storm

I thought I was done with Blizzard after the vague disappointment of Starcraft 2, and the harder disappointment of Diablo 3. I mean, both were decent games, I don't regret buying them, but both felt played out a little - neither as good as their illustrious forebears and both failing to bring much new to the table than Blizzards usual high polish. Thats not something you should dismiss lightly, but at the same time I'd seen the fundamentals of both games done more interestingly elsewhere, and in Diablo 3's case, without punishing the player by breaking a core feature like itemization to service some Valve-esque auction house system. So with my poor World of Warcraft hunter gathering dust in Orgrimmar, I'm done, right? Well no, because the buggers mailed me a Closed Beta invite for Heroes of the Storm, as it officially launches tomorrow, here's what I think. 

This is Blizzard's take on a genre that was invented by the modding community for one of Blizzards own games, Warcraft 3. That mod, known as Defense of the Ancients, went on to be the basis of a whole genre of arena based games known as MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) of which the two largest are League of Legends and DOTA2, which confusingly is owned by Valve. The gameplay is pretty straightforward, you play a hero, who levels up during a match gaining new powers as they go. Each team defends a base area, with a series of "lanes" connecting the two bases guarded by Towers. Your bases spawns a number of little fighters that charge off down the lane to fight towers, enemy fighters, and ultimately destroy the enemy base. This is setup to be fiercely symmetrical, so that the difference is the actions of each team of heroes. 

Its actually a pretty brilliant idea, and you can quickly see why its become a popular e-sport as well as just a popular game genre full stop. Its got a strong tradition of being free-to-play (more on this later) but also a strong tradition of having a steep learning curve and a punishingly unfriendly online community if you're just starting out. Many games have huge rosters of heroes, each with wildly different abilities you need to know when facing them, and an exciting barrage of convention and jargon to pick up. So Heroes of the Storm aims to get rid of all that, and bring in the casual player base. 

Straight away it does two things right. First, it's average game time is about 20 minutes long, which means a bad match with terrible teammates is over quickly and you can get to the next one. This is driven at least in part by each map having some sort of "swing" feature - a boss you can control/summon, or a method of cursing the enemy team for a short time - which forces the game forward and against stalemates. Secondly, its hugely stripped back in terms of character progression. Now, every couple of levels you get a new "talent" which has a noticeable effect, and the more you play a character the more talent options you get. So the first time you try a character, you've very little choice in how you spend those talents, but thats a good thing, because it helps you learn the character before the game throws more complexity at you. At the same time, most abilities are helpfully clear in the characters look and feel, with a great sense of intuitive design at work.

Heroes of the Storm is free to play, but they also want you to spend money on it. You gain access to heroes by buying them, either for in-game Gold, which you can earn slowly by doing daily "quests" or for good old-fashioned cash. You can of course also buy skins, fancy mounts and short terms boosts too. There is also a "rotation" of free characters at any one time, but it does mean you won't always get that guy you like, until you buy him. Simple. I've not spend any money so far, but have earned enough to buy several heroes from across Blizzards franchises, and I've had enough fun that spending real cash would feel more like a "thank you" than anything else. 

So what we have is a great starter MOBA for anyone interested in trying one of these games out. It's great fun, moment-to-moment, quick, non-threatening and accessible. It's oddly the sort of thing that I didn't like about how Blizzard took some of the challenge and complexity out its other games, but here it takes an infernally complex genre and makes it clear, and legible and open to a much bigger audience, which is something it probably needs. Also, it's free, and from tomorrow, you can go try it out yourself.