After Diablo 2‘s launch in 2000, Blizzard have had a knack for developing games that seriously divide communities. Warcraft 3 is beloved by many (myself included, particularly in multiplayer) while others lamented the focus on super-powerful heroes. World of Warcraft completely changed the MMORPG landscape, but not everyone would agree it’s for the better, and even those who loved vanilla WoW have been completely divided on every expansion since then. Diablo 3 – at launch, at least – was enjoyed by Filthy Casuals, while others complained that it didn’t offer six billion hours worth of play. Etc.
And now there’s Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s latest attempt to start vitriolic flamewars on forums. Let’s have a look at it and figure out if it’s something that you’re going to love or hate, shall we? In the traditional method of “talking to the vaguely insulting voices in my head”, of course.
Alright, you’ve convinced me that the ensuing shitstorm should be fun to watch, if nothing else. So what is Heroes of the Storm?
Heroes of the Storm has been famously described as a MOBA for people who hate MOBAs, and that’s actually not a bad précis of it. MOBAs tend to offer lengthy matches and steep learning curves that require hours upon hours of play before you really know what you’re doing. Heroes of the Storm manages to strip all of this out, while maintaining the 5v5 lane-pushing basics.
You pick your hero out of a pool of (currently) 37, pooled from the Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo franchises, and are dropped into a team of five on one of seven maps. AI-controlled minions spawn from your base and wander along “lanes” towards the enemy base, fighting the enemy minions and trying to destroy defensive towers and gates along the way. Your job is to level up, learn new abilities, fight enemy heroes, help your minions push along the lanes, and eventually destroy the enemy’s core.
That sounds like any other MOBA. Heroes of the Storm is different, how…?
In quite a lot of ways, actually.
The first change any experienced MOBA player is likely to notice is that there’s no drafting phase. In most MOBAs, you get matched up with players and then pick your heroes together, usually aiming for some semblance of cohesion and coordination between the choices. And occasionally, that actually happens!
In Heroes of the Storm, you pick your hero before you search for a game, and are then promptly matched up with a bunch of other players. This has its upsides and downsides. On the one hand, it means nobody will ever scream at you for picking the Wrong Hero for the lineup, and it guarantees you can play as whoever you want. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that your team draft will be decent against the enemy team, or even that your team draft will work that well together. No counter-picking, here.
This is only in the more casual play, mind you. Ranked play – accessible once your profile hits level 30 or 40, depending on whether you’re going for FULL TEAM PLAY or not – actually does appear to have a proper drafting phase.
Yeah, uh, I was looking more for ways that the game was different, not ways that starting the game is different. Are you also going to tell me that the menus don’t look exactly the same as the ones in League of Legends?
Alright, you sarcastic bugger. Let’s talk about the ways matches differ.
So you get into the game, and pick up your starting items to go to the lane… except, no, because there’s no shop. This is a MOBA without items and without gold, so there’s no last-hitting to get stronger, which will delight some and infuriate others. It’s also a MOBA without individual hero levels: the team, as a whole, earns experience and levels up. When you’re level 5, so is everyone else on your team.
This particular mechanic actually does have some interesting strategic ramifications. It doesn’t mean that you don’t earn experience – it just means that everyone benefits from it, rather than just you. You still have to be close to creeps to raise that team XP bar, so while your team could just group up and go crush one lane, that means you’re missing out on getting experience from all the other lanes. If you don’t get a decisive advantage, you might have crippled yourself.
Unfortunately, this has two trade-offs. One is that, if you’re a bit behind, you can’t play sneakily and go hunting for the weaker members of the enemy team to try to catch up, because there aren’t really any weaker members of the enemy team. I mean, yes, there’s squishy supports, but they’ll still be five levels ahead of you or whatever.
The other is what some might consider a minor balance issue. Each of the heroes has an individual set of skills and abilities: Jaina can call down blizzards or hurl out bolts of ice, while Tassadar can drop down psionic storms or shield his allies. At level 10, your heroes unlock their “Ultimate” abilities. Can you see the problem yet?
Er… one team’s going to hit level 10 before the other, and that’s going to result in a precipitous rise in power?
Yup. A team hits level 10 together, and suddenly it’s five ultimates against none.
This is somewhat problematic, but you can work around it by not giving the enemy team the chance to engage upon all of you. Whether or not you see it as a balance issue or an opportunity for clever strategic thinking… well, that’s kinda on you. And possibly on how this stuff works at high-level play, which is going to take a bit of time to shake out.
Still, avoiding or forcing a teamfight isn’t always possible. Heroes of the Storm contains seven maps, right now, and while victory is attained by destroying the enemy’s base, each map also has a sub-objective that contributes to your team and usually causes early teamfights. Garden of Terror periodically changes everything to night and leads players into the jungle to battle shamblers; kill enough shamblers and collect enough seeds, and you can summon a lane-destroying Garden Terror in your base. Blackheart Bay spawns treasure chests full of coins that can be paid to a pirate captain to bombard enemy structures. Etc.
And how well does that work?
Pretty well, honestly. Most of the map objectives aren’t game-breakingly powerful just once, but they quickly become so if you let your opponents take them without a fight, and they definitely give a serious advantage with the whole “team XP” thing. It forces a degree of coordination and some decision making – if you’re pushing into an undefended tower, and an objective pops up, you have to figure out if it’s worth spending time to destroy the tower or if you should immediately beeline for the objective.
As with everything else, though, it means a trade-off. Objectives are really powerful, and this combined with the generally short length of matches means that an early screw up can cost you the entire game pretty damn fast. It also completely redefines the focus of the game, away from lane pressure, ganks, and teamfights; when objectives pop, you have to pay attention. Again, not necessarily bad, but definitely a big shift.
So if this is a MOBA with no gold, aren’t heroes stuck on a single upgrade path?
Actually, no, and this is something I really do like about Heroes of the Storm. Every few levels, your hero earns a talent point which can be used to pick one of a few abilities or traits unique to that level. It might be that your basic attacks will increase in damage every time you kill a few enemies, or maybe one of your abilities can get a 30% boost to range. Whatever you pick will change the way you play the hero.
Let’s take Tyrande as an example, because she’s a nifty support hero… but you don’t have to build her like that. You can focus all of your talents on her healing ability, sure; you can make it cheaper, heal more when you’re on high health, and temporarily boost the speed of the heal’s target. Or you can focus on her stun, giving it a greater range, extra damage, and refunding all mana if it hits a hero. Or you can focus on right-click attacks and damage with Searing Arrows and Huntress’ Fury. Or you can go utility with an ability that renders your whole team invisible, and lets her giant vision wave do more damage and become wider. Or… etc.
So yes, the builds matter, and while heroes will tend to fit into a role – Nova is never going to be anything other than a stealthy ganker, and Tyrande will have a hard time out-damaging an actual nuke hero in a straight-up fight – you can work around your opponents and your own team’s limitations with some clever decision-making.
This also means that playing a dedicated support is a bit more fun than in other MOBAs, because you don’t have to sigh, watch people farm, and spend what little cash you get on things like wards.
Ah, but none of this matters if the free-to-play mechanics are horrible, and getting heroes costs a million billion dollars.
Yeeeeah, the free-to-play mechanics deserve a little discussion.
There are a pool of seven heroes available to play for free every week (slightly fewer until you level up your profile), but assuming you want permanent access to them, they can be bought in one of two ways: for real money, or for gold earned in-game. Cosmetics – that’s hero skins, mounts, and the like – can only be bought for real money, and any bundles or sale items are the same. (The only real exception is the Piggy Bank mount, only available for in-game gold.)
So yes, everything that actually matters in terms of directly impacting gameplay – i.e. the heroes themselves – can be acquired just by playing the game.
This is a good thing, because the heroes themselves can be fairly expensive. Individually, they range from £2.99 up to £7.49; I haven’t done the maths, but outright buying all of them would certainly dent your bank balance. Right now, 14 of the 37 heroes have that high price point of £7.49, so those alone would cost over £100. And it’s presumably only going to get even worse as more heroes are added. This isn’t as utterly loathsome as the recent Hearthstone stuff, but that’s sort of like comparing tonsillitis to heart disease: yes, one’s worse than the other, but that doesn’t mean that the other is good.
That’s kind of ridiculous.
Particularly after Smite showed that you can basically just sell a free-to-play title as a “game”, offering every single hero/champion/god at a price point that’s competitive amongst most full game releases, and leave the cosmetics as in-game purchases. If I like the game, let me buy the game! And not for £200!
Moving on from your obsession with talking about Smite‘s free-to-play model in every single article you write about MOBAs… You’re saying the free-to-play model is shit, then.
Er… actually, no. It’s not too bad at all, compared to what it could be.
Yes, okay, the heroes are horribly overpriced unless you’re buying them in bundles or when they’re on sale – and even then I’d still argue they’re too expensive, but hey, everyone sees different things as reasonable or expensive – but you can still get your hands on quite a few of them through in-game gold without much hassle.
Firstly, levelling up your profile by playing a few games nets you a pretty large amount of gold pretty quickly. It drops off before too long, but it should get you enough to buy a few of the cheaper heroes, or a nice boost towards getting one of the pricier ones.
Secondly, Blizzard have clearly learned from Hearthstone that daily quests get people coming back. There’s a pool of around 10 quests available, and you’re randomly assigned a new one each day up to a maximum of three. Completing these – and they range from “play three matches as a Warcraft hero” through to “win eight matches” – nets you somewhere between 300g and 800g. Those £7.49 heroes cost between 10,000g and 15,000g in terms of gold, so that’s a fairly nice bump when combined with the thousands you’ll get from hitting particular profile levels.
The flipside is that grinding is incredibly slow, because you really don’t get much gold from playing games. So yes, you do have a method of getting gold at a reasonably steady rate – log in every couple of days and play for an hour or two to clear your daily quests – but once your quests are done for that day, continually grinding to try to get stuff for “free” is going to take a long time.
Props to Blizzard for offering a “Try this hero out” bit in the shop, though. Again, it’s a step back from Smite‘s hero rental service, but it puts you in a quick, customisable bot-match against an opponent that basically won’t fight back, and lets you experiment with the abilities and quirks of that hero until you’re satisfied you want to shell out for them.
None of what you’ve said actually sounds that bad, you realise. The free-to-play model could be, sure, but…
Well, I’m not quite done yet. See, there are reasons this is dividing a lot of MOBA fans – many of which I’ve discussed above – and a large part of that is that the skill ceiling appears to have been drastically lowered. There are exceptions (The Lost Vikings hero requires you to control three separate entities at once, which makes them tremendously easy to play badly) but it really doesn’t seem to have the insane level of depth that you’d see in most other titles of the genre.
Heroes of the Storm is a very, very good gateway MOBA. It’s friendly, it’s very easy to learn and quick to get into, and it’s both well polished and genuinely entertaining. And on starting a round, it even asks you if you want to automatically mute the chat so that you don’t have to hear your teammates calling you rude names, which is something every MOBA ever should have.
But lowering the skill floor down to the centre of the earth and levelling off the learning curve to a very gentle slope has led to the game not actually being as deep as it could be. There’s certainly room for strategy and tactics; I’m definitely not saying otherwise. But it does feel a lot “lighter” than basically everything else in the genre.
Still, you’re right. None of this necessarily sounds that bad, because it’s honestly not bad – it’s just different. It’s a game you’re probably going to find either disgustingly simple, or really rather enjoyable. Personally, I’m having a good time with it; it’s a nice break from the more “hardcore” MOBAs I play, and I can pop in for a largely stress-free 20 minute match whenever I fancy. It’s absolutely not for everybody and I’m not going to mainline it in the same way I do Dota 2, but it’s a fun and unique little blast on occasion. Having well-known Blizzard characters is also doubtless going to be a serious draw for many, because Arthas, Raynor, and Diablo are a bit more iconic than “elf guy we made up”.
If nothing in this has put you off too much, then yeah, I’d recommend spending a bit of time downloading Heroes of the Storm and trying it out. It’s free, quick, and friendly – and you can have Diablo punch a murloc in the face, which is an ever-desirable trait.
Tim has been playing PC games for longer than he’s willing to admit. He’s written for a number of publications, but has been with PC Invasion – in all its various incarnations – for over a decade. When not writing about games, Tim can occasionally be found speedrunning terrible ones, making people angry in Dota 2, or playing something obscure and random. He’s also weirdly proud of his status as (probably) the Isle of Man’s only professional games journalist.