Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date: June 2, 2015
When Blizzard decided to enter the online battle arena market, it would have been easy to simply take the core mechanics of DotA and the characters of the Blizzard franchises, and throw them together in the StarCraft II engine. After all, DotA was built in the Blizzard game Warcraft III. Instead, with Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard has crafted a game that is fresh yet familiar by making unique and uncompromising revisions to the MOBA formula.
And while not everyone will love those revisions, they’ve resulted in a fast-paced and fluid experience that’s hard to stop playing. In that, Heroes of the Storm is a success.
Into the Arena
Let’s call Heroes of the Storm what it is: a MOBA. While Blizzard prefers to call it a “hero brawler” due its fast pace and frequent combats, it’s simply impossible to talk about Heroes of the Storm without comparison to the titans of the genre, League of Legends and Dota 2. In many ways, Heroes of the Storm is a game defined by the differences between it and those earlier games.
Like those games, Heroes of the Storm sees two teams of five square off against each other on a map with opposing bases at either end. AI-controlled units spawn at each base and slowly march along pre-defined lanes towards the other base, fighting when they come in contact with an enemy. Players each choose a unique hero to take control of with the ultimate goal of destroying a heavily defended structure inside the opposing team’s base.
Unlike Dota 2 or League of Legends, however, Heroes of the Storm contains multiple differing maps, each of which contain unique special objectives. The team that completes those objectives typically gets a significant advantage for a short time. All such objectives reset repeatedly, allowing the other team the opportunity swing the balance of power by completing it themselves.
For example, in the Cursed Hollow, tribute must be collected to appease the Raven Lord. When one team collects enough tribute, the Ravel Lord will curse the enemy team, temporarily disabling their defensive towers and allowing their AI units to be killed more easily. In another map, controlling two dragon shrines simultaneously will allow one hero to temporarily become the Dragon Knight, an incredibly powerful unit.
Some objectives feel more powerful than others, but in every case both teams have an equal opportunity to obtain them, and both teams must decide whether to go for the objective or to continue pushing up a lane or chasing down enemy heroes. That calculation adds a significant layer of strategy to an already highly tactical game. Mercenary camps, at which heroes can defeat neutral units in order to unleash them on their enemies, bring even more choice to the battlefield.
These objectives and mercenary camps keep players on their toes and encourage frequent team versus team close-quarter battles, often drawing all ten players to converge in a single place. Where other MOBAs might not see a major player versus player engagement in the first five minutes, the small map sizes and objectives ensure that players are skirmishing right out of the gate. By design, Heroes of the Storm is fast and furious, with games lasting less than twenty minutes on average.
Heroes of the Nexus
Perhaps the biggest draw of Heroes of the Storm is the ability to not only play as the various characters from Blizzard’s core franchises, but also play as a team composed of heroes across genre lines. Diablo’s archangel Tyriel might fight alongside StarCraft’s Kerrigan and Warcraft’s Jaina Proudmoore. Even the Long Vikings, from Blizzard’s early game of the same name, come along for the ride.
And while these heroes all already exist in Blizzard’s lore, they’re excellently realized in the MOBA context. The modelling and animations are excellent, and the heroes call out to each other with personality and occasionally even wit. More importantly, their skills and abilities are expertly curated, showing off their trade-mark moves. Priestess Tyrande sends her owl across the battlefield to scout while Diablo sends waves of flame out through the ground. Jim Raynor calls his battlecruiser Hyperion to rain hell down on the enemies, while Lich King Arthas summons his army of the dead.
Each hero is identified with a certain in-game role: the high HP front-line Warrior type, the squishy but high-damage Assassin type, or the healing and buffing Support type. Specialists are the forth type, and their role is harder to pigeon-hole. They may be siege specialists capable of taking down defences like Sergeant Hammer, or defensive specialists capable of setting up turrets and traps like Gazlowe.
Fortunately, controlling a hero feels intuitive and reactive. Spells fire out the moment their clicked and heroes turn around on a dime. Abilities also look fantastic, and when ten heroes duke it out around an objective, you can feel the chaos and magic of battle in the flashing spells and effects that light up the screen.
Heroes also feel fairly well balanced, although a few feel a little below the curve. Naturally, balancing the large rosters of MOBAs is an imperfect art, and Blizzard continues to make balance changes with each patch. That said, it’s unlikely you’ll jump into one hero’s shoes to find their unable to make a strong contribution to the team.
No “I“ in Team
And Heroes of the Storm is exceedingly team focused, even when compared with other MOBAs. Gone is individual experience for each hero. Instead, experience goes towards a team total, and the whole team levels up at the same time. Gone too are the gold and complex item shops of other MOBAs. Here, every few levels, each player simply chooses from a handful of “talent” options available to that hero. For example, Tyrande might have to choose between granting a movement speed bonus with her healing and increasing the range of her stun spell. Sometimes, these talents might produce effects similar to items in other MOBAs, but there’s no saving up gold for that powerful sword only to have your stockpile cruelly taken away upon death.
Perhaps off-putting for some players, this team focus also makes it hard to shine individually. Get the last hit on that enemy hero? This game neither rewards you individually, nor does the score screen record that you did so. Instead, every person remotely involved in that kill is given equal credit. There are no “carry” heroes here whose early weaknesses require the support of the team to grow and shine in the late game. Hero powers are designed to work for the team, and synergy is key.
These design choices intentionally both increase team-focused play and decrease the complexity of the game, allowing new players to feel like they’re making a meaningful contribution even if they don’t know the best item builds for the situation or can’t perfectly get last hits on units. MOBAs are a genre notoriously hard to learn, requiring significant time investment both in game knowledge and mechanical skill. Blizzard has done everything in their power to reduce that barrier to entry while maintaining a high skill-cap for professional-level play.
Unfortunately, a few design choices undercut this team focus and gentle learning curve. The lack of built-in voice chat hamstrings randomly constructed teams from coordinating. Additionally, the inability to click on opposing heroes to see their abilities prevents new players from learning what other heroes do as the game unfolds. But perhaps none of these design choices is as frustrating as the game’s free to play nature.
Free to Pay
Heroes of the Storm is, like most MOBAs, free to play. Unfortunately, upon installing the game, there’s no immediate access to the entire content. New players will find that they are only able to play as a handful of heroes, rather than the full roster of more than thirty-five heroes. This handful of available heroes changes every week in a rotation. To keep playing any one hero, that hero must be purchased either with in-game gold or real money. And unlocking these heroes isn’t cheap. Most retail for around $10 USD, or 10,000 gold. For reference, completing a standard “daily quest” (e.g. win three games, play three games as a Support hero) might net the player about 300 gold. It can therefore take quite a long time or a lot of money before even a small section of the hero pool is available to a player permanently.
Additionally, players level up both their overall accounts and individual heroes by playing games. Levelling up heroes unlocks new talents, and new skins and color options. Levelling up your account slowly unlocks features, like the ability to complete daily quests, or extra free heroes during each rotation. Only at account level 30 (which I’ve yet to reach after playing dozens of hours), can you play an individual ladder match, and only at level 40 can you play a ranked team game. There’s therefore quite a lot of content locked either behind a grind or a paywall. New players may find the game feels awfully light on content starting out, with only a very long road to walk before it starts to get heavier.
It’s unfortunate that Blizzard didn’t decide to only monetize the wonderful additional skins for heroes. While the game lacks the separate equipable item slots that have made Valve a fortune on hat sales in Dota 2, the skins are each expertly designed. Ranging from absurd and comedic to fierce and gritty, they often come with unique ability animations or voice effects and add a real element of personality to the heroes. I know I would feel more inclined to spend money on them if it wasn’t so difficult to play the heroes I want to.
The Joys of Battle
For all its simplicity and occasional frustrations, Heroes of the Storm is simply fun. Excellent visuals and controls bring you right into the action as one of Blizzards famed heroes, while a multitude of options and objectives keeps you always on your toes. Seeing a carefully planned attack or team fight come to fruition is a joy, even if your own epic contribution is silently ignored. Its fast pace and frenetic combat is reward in itself. It’s got something for everyone, new challengers and seasoned veterans alike. And even if you eventually find yourself preferring the complexity of one of the genre’s other offerings, Heroes of the Storm is a fresh and unique diversion that may just reinvigorate your love for the MOBA.