Heroes of the Storm: First Impressions

Heroes of the Storm: First Impressions

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date: TBA (closed beta began January 13, 2015)
Price: Free-to-Play Model* with microtransactions

While most players will still have to wait to get their first taste of Blizzard’s new entry into the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre, the “technical alpha” of Heroes of the Storm has been open to a limited group of players since March. As the game transitions into closed beta, we take a look at how Heroes of the Storm is progressing and deliver some first impressions of the game.

Disclaimer: It should be noted that Heroes of the Storm only entered closed beta yesterday, and these impressions are only on what we’ve seen so far. Many of the systems that will be in the final release are not currently in place, and it’s likely that both heroes and maps will change considerably before the end of the beta as Blizzard responds to feedback and testing.

Heroes of the Storm is a MOBA

For the uninitiated, Heroes of the Storm is a game that takes major characters from each of Blizzard’s three main franchises (Diablo, StarCraft and Warcraft – although the Lost Vikings will also appear in future) and throws them together to duke it out in a top-down, team based brawl. Due to the many differences between Heroes of the Storm and more traditional MOBAs, Blizzard has taken to calling it a “Hero Brawler” instead of a MOBA. However, while the differences are substantial, they are hardly of a nature to push Heroes of the Storm out of the genre altogether.

Heroes of the Storm positions itself like other MOBAs. Players choose one hero and join a team with four other players to do battle against an opposing team. Each hero comes with his or her own unique abilities and play style. The first team to destroy the other team’s “core” –a building inside each team’s base– is the victor. Heroes spawn in their team’s base, which is protected by a series of walls and gun towers, most of which must be destroyed before the opposing team can access the core.

Groups of weak AI-controlled units spawn periodically at each base to march slowly along the main paths towards the opponent’s base. Killing these units, opposing players, or destroying buildings provides experience points (XP) which are shared across the team. As a team levels up by gaining XP, that team’s heroes become more powerful and players gain access to new talents and abilities.

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For Blizzard fans, the ability to blast enemies as StarCraft hero Jim Raynor, charge into battle with Diablo’s eponymous Lord of Terror, or crush the opposition under a rain of ice as Warcraft’s Jaina Proudmoore, its undoubtedly an exciting prospect. Fortunately, Blizzard has faithfully transplanted these characters into Heroes of the Storm complete with fitting abilities and strong voice work.

Heroes Come in Four Flavors

Heroes generally come in one of four varieties: Assassins dish out massive damage to opposing heroes, Tanks keep the opposing team at bay with their high hit-point totals, Supports provide healing buffs and other advantages, such as stealth or improved map vision, and finally, Specialists are the most varied, often with unique gameplay styles. StarCraft II’s Abathur, for example, often holds back to spawn locusts that push lanes, and can create a copy of an ally to control for a limited time. Heroes synergize well, and team composition is certainly an important factor to consider in each game.

The fundamental gameplay mechanics and features, such as the right mouse being used to move and abilities usually mapped to Q, W, E, and R-keys, will feel familiar to anyone who has played a MOBA before. However, it’s in the details that Heroes of the Storm reveals itself to be a unique experience.

Heroes of the Storm is Not Like Other MOBAs

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Heroes of the Storm differs in a number of important ways from more traditional games like Dota 2 or League of Legends. Many experienced MOBA players will likely find that the gameplay Blizzard has implemented is comparatively simple. The company undoubtedly hopes that the less-knowledge intensive nature of the game will attract players previously turned-off by the steep learning curves of other MOBAs.

Games take place on one of the current pool of six maps, each of which has its own special objectives. The team that completes the map’s objective is granted a special benefit, such as the ability to control a powerful dragon knight. The objectives become available multiple times during each game, forcing teams to fight and complete them repeatedly throughout a match. These objectives introduce a high degree of variability between games, and are generally interesting, not to mention well-implemented. However, not all of these objectives currently feel fully balanced.

For example, in Blackheart’s Bay, players collect doubloons from various locations around the map to give them to the pirate Blackheart in exchange for a barrage of cannon fire that quickly destroys enemy fortifications, and can even destroy the opponent’s core. It’s therefore quite possible for a team to win without ever stepping into their opponent’s base. Wins can then feel very anticlimactic. Other maps, such as the Haunted Mines, can quickly snowball out of control for one team as their overpowered golem causes havoc for the opposition.

The maps also tend to be smaller than other MOBAs, and with the ability to increase movement speed while not in combat by mounting, heroes are never for from the fight. For this reasons, team fights are very common in Heroes of the Storm, and often occur very near the beginning of the game. Map objectives also encourage frequent team fights. Fortunately, respawn timers are comparatively short, allowing players to get back into the action quickly. Only at high-levels does death impose a significant time penalty.

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Games tend to be quick, lasting around 20 minutes on average. Gone is the “laning” phase of traditional MOBAs, which delivers a more hectic pace, even in the beta atmosphere. Thankfully, the lingering losses of games like Dota 2, where a game can have reached a foregone conclusion twenty minutes before it mercifully ends, are also gone. Players who want to be in and out of a game without committing the better part of an hour will be happy, as will those who find that other MOBAs bog down at points in a grind.

Heroes of the Storm has a smoother, more immediate feel than most MOBAs, with heroes turning on a dime and cast animations occurring almost instantaneously. Cool-downs tend to be short, and the game encourages constant harassment and engagement. The nearly frenetic pace ensures that there is almost no down-time, and there is always some immediate objective to capture or battle to engage in.

No Money, Some Problems

Amongst the most extreme differences from the other MOBAs is the elimination of gold, shops, and items, which significantly streamlines gameplay at the expense of customization options. Players will also not have to worry about MOBA staples such as last-hitting or denies. Blizzard’s replacement for item customization is a simple talent system, where players can select one talent from between two and five options every few levels. While this system does allow some customization, the radical builds enabled by more traditional item selection are not present.

Unfortunately, the talent selection feels limited, and too few options are provided for players to be able to meaningfully react to the game state. Often, it doesn’t feel like a meaningful choice, and most players will simply follow builds they’ve determined from the start, rather than trying to adapt to the current match. Additionally, many of the choices feel poorly balanced against each other, and there are some options that are likely to go unused regardless of build.

Blizzard has also traded individual experience point progression for shared experience across each team. This prevents any player from falling far behind, but it also prevents players from showing off their individual skills as they blast ahead of their team with strong play. Again, while more welcoming for less experienced players, it undoubtedly mutes the feeling of accomplishment after single-handedly destroying the opposing team.

It’s Still a Blizzard Game

With Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard is entering a competitive landscape dominated by some of the most popular PC games in the world, including League of Legends and Dota 2. Blizzard also has its sizable reputation to maintain, and it’s clear that they do not take this lightly. Fortunately, everything you would expect from the Blizzard polish already taking shape in the alpha.

Visually, the games effects are impressive, looking crisper and smoother than most other genre entries. The sound effects are impeccable, giving each hero and ability a unique and satisfying feeling. The game really hits its heights during team fights where ice may be raining down on a spinning barbarian while fire erupts from below on a Tauren rock-star, mid-jam. In dozens of hours of play, very few bugs or graphical hiccups were apparent. Even so, none the bugs found were of game-breaking quality.

Hanging in the Balance

Unfortunately, the same level of polish isn’t yet present in respect of hero balance. While this is to be expected at this early phase, it looks like there’s still a lot of progress to be made as some heroes feel noticeably more powerful in their defined role than others. Diablo, for example, feels less powerful in the Tank role than Warcraft’s Lich King Arthas, who seems to dish out more damage and be more survivable than the hulking Lord of Terror.

While we expect that hero balance will be an ongoing issue throughout beta and into full release, the tiered heroes appear more rigid than other games, even with considerably fewer character options. Blizzard has already significantly reworked a few in the patch implementing the beta version. In fact, the game currently features only thirty-three playable heroes.

While many more are likely to come, players looking for a wide variety of heroes to learn and play may be disappointed. Fortunately, these heroes all tend to feel highly unique and encourage different play styles. Each hero also feels true to the hero’s personality and history from the respective source game, which adds to the feeling of playing a powerful character, rather than merely a set of statistics and abilities. Tyrande sends her sentinel owl out to do advance scouting, while Nova uses her ghost abilities to cloak before unleashing a powerful orbital strike.

While this goes a long way to ensuring that even lower tier heroes will see play from their fans, we look forward to seeing further balancing updates down the road.

Free to Play or Free to Pay?

Heroes of the Storm is embedded in the free-to-play business model, which means that while you won’t have to shell out for the base copy of the game but not all heroes and skins will be immediately available. In fact, for players not willing to part with their cash, only a small rotating selection of heroes will be available for play each week. While heroes can be obtained on a permanent basis with gold earned by completing daily quests and leveling up one’s player profile, once a player has reached level 15, the gold grind can feel especially slow and acquiring a single new hero may take weeks of play. Some heroes cost upwards of 10,000 gold, and daily quests typically only reward around 300.

The real-money pricing of heroes also seems at odds with their gold cost. Heroes that cost 10,000 gold retail for about $9.99, while heroes that cost 2,000 gold sell for a surprising $3.99. This means you’re almost always better off spending your gold on the cheaper heroes and paying for the more expensive ones.

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Here is an example of a skin variation available for $3.99.

Additional skins and mounts for heroes are also available, but only for cash. Fortunately, these skins are mostly excellently crafted, and can add a varied feel to each hero. Unfortunately, there are only a few optional skins for each hero at the moment. Players looking to find Dota 2’s complex itemization and player economy will be disappointed, as there is no piece-by-piece item slotting, and players do not maintain inventories. Players looking for hats will be especially disappointed, as only a handful of characters even sport them.

The lack of item customization increases the overall simplicity of the game at the cost of making the game feel more homogeneous. Scores of other players are likely to be playing exactly the same Blood Elf Tyrande as you. Hopefully additional customization options are introduced down the road.

Heroes of the Storm Will be Competitive

If the recent BlizzCon tournament is any indication, Blizzard expects that Heroes of the Storm will compete as a serious e-sport, and the beta version finally introduces a competitive ladder mode.

While players can always load up a Quick-Match for speedy, un-ranked play, there is now Hero League, in which players can solo-queue or queue with their friends for ladder play. Rankings will be on an individual basis in this mode, regardless of whether you join with a party or join solo. While not yet implemented, Team League will also appear which will allow players to form consistent teams of five to compete for rankings on a team basis. Hero draft for these competitive modes is also debuting, allowing the strategic hero composition decisions necessary to a competitive MOBA.

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Whether Heroes of the Storm can compete with other successful MOBAs in the e-sports scene remains to be determined, but a number of professional teams, including Evil Geniuses and Cloud 9, have already established their rosters. Blizzard appears confident it will competitive alternative, and games certainly are entertaining to watch.

Heroes of the Storm is All in the Feeling

Heroes of the Storm is shaping up to be a strong entry into the MOBA category, and all of Blizzard’s hallmarks are certainly present. Undoubtedly, those who cut their teeth on some of the pioneer MOBAs like DotA: Allstars will feel disappointed in the relative simplicity of the game and the elimination of customization options.

At the same time, it’s clear that Blizzard is staying true to their design philosophy of “easy to learn, difficult to master.” Most new players will have a basic understand the game after playing just a couple of short games. Despite its simplicity, there’s still quite a bit of depth to Heroes of the Storm, and certainly enough to keep most players honing their skills for endless hours.

Ultimately, Heroes of the Storm lives or dies by its feeling of speed and responsiveness. It’s rarely a game that rewards patience or carefully constructed hero builds. Instead, it rewards aggression, teamwork, and strong tactical play. Those frustrated with the overwhelming amount of game knowledge required from Dota 2 or League of Legends will find Heroes of the Storm a breath of fresh air, as will those who want to jump quickly into an action-packed brawl that doesn’t eat up most of an hour.

It’s in this quickness of play that Heroes of the Storm excels. It’s a well-crafted, unique game full of design choices that will ensure hours of entertainment for casual players, while providing enough depth for seasoned pros. Games may be short, but after you finish one, chances are you’ll want to jump right into the next one.