Review: ‘Heroes of the Storm’ Alpha

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There’s little denying that Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas, or MOBAs, have become the face of competitive gaming in recent years. With games like League of Legends and DotA2 filling stadiums and offering large cash prizes for their tournaments, other developers have had middling success reaching the heights of the current Big Two. With Blizzard Entertainment stepping into the ring with Heroes of the Storm, however, the genre has gained a massive player for the world of Pro Gaming.

The game is ending its Technical Alpha phase this month, starting an official Closed Beta on January 13th. As such, there will be features not yet implemented for this review. MOBA’s are a consistently changing, however, and for the purposes of review, Heroes of the Storm is largely a finished product. There are few technical bugs to hinder players, and aside from some balance adjustment (a constant struggle for any MOBA) the game could largely be released with little more than a few stress tests of Blizzard’s servers.

The largest features still missing for this review is the addition of a Ranked Mode and proper Matchmaking System, both of which should be coming in the Closed Beta. As it stands, solo players can be matched against premade teams and so on, making some judgements on game balance a little difficult.

Players can play 'Heroes of the Storm' solo or co-op with friends, but a proper matchmaking system will not be implemented until the game reaches Beta.

Players can play ‘Heroes of the Storm’ solo or co-op with friends, but a proper matchmaking system will not be implemented until the game reaches Beta.

Like other MOBAs, the concept of HotS is simple: you have a team of five heroes each with their own unique abilities and moves. Your team is fighting to destroy the enemy’s base in an arena-type map. Along the way, you’ll have to fight to take down barricades blocking the other team’s base, destroy minions that spawn at regular intervals to gain experience, and take side objectives scattered throughout the map to give your team an advantage over other players.

HotS immediately separates itself from its predecessors by removing an aspect of the game normally associated with MOBAs: items. Heroes in HotS do not have to make decisions on what items to purchase in order to maximize their character’s potential. There’s no store in the arenas, no extra hotkeys to worry about, or item builds to pour over.

In addition, the entire team shares an experience pool. Rather than an individual character getting a few early kills and devastating the other team for the remaining 30 minutes, everyone is leveling at the same rate. A hero simply needs to be in proximity to a minion or hero kill, and that xp is doled out.

What results is, at first, a somewhat jarring experience. It feels almost too simple, like Baby’s First MOBA. No items? No steamrolling through the opponent with a huge Kill/Death ratio? What kind of game is this?!

However, where Blizzard took out a few traits commonly associated to MOBA’s, they did what they have traditionally done best: they tweaked the system with their own Blizzard touch by adding their own spin on the genre.

Instead of items, each hero has a list of five talents available at regular level intervals similar to the system in World of Warcraft. Rather than build items, a player must choose talents to fit the nature of each game or their playstyle. Combined with sharing experience, Blizzard has crafted a game that feels much more even throughout entire matches than their competitors. While their goal of completely getting rid of steamrolling matches has not quite been met, by removing the emphasis on individual performance and focusing on a team aspect, players can expect games that swing back and forth right up to the final attacks.

Of course, it’s the design of the maps that completes this vision for Blizzard. Rather than a static arena, players are randomly thrown in one of several map types, each with different objectives. For example, one map has you collecting tributes to curse the other team. Another battles for control of nodes that allow a player to summon a powerful dragon. The objectives turn the MOBA genre on its heels, turning it from a strict battle game into one of true map control and choices.

Emphasis on battling for control of map objectives, such as this Grave Golem, help 'Heroes of the Storm' stand out from other MOBA's.

Emphasis on battling for control of map objectives, such as this Grave Golem, help ‘Heroes of the Storm’ stand out from other MOBA’s.

The end result is a game that becomes all about teamwork. While it’s possible to play solo, and most of our solo queue games seem to be filled with players who understand the real objectives of the maps, the real fun is from playing with friends in your Battle.net list.

Once the games get going, they feel less like a Beginner’s MOBA and more like a different beast altogether. The games require as much strategy and forethought as LoL or DotA2, but the feel of the game is covered with that colorful, casual Blizzard veneer. This could leave some of the more hardcore MOBA players feeling the game is too simple or frustrated. No longer can an advanced player “carry” lower teams, or at least not as easily as in other games, and item builds have long been a factor for major competitors. By stripping the genre down to its essentials, Blizzard should expect some fair amount of division over its game, just as it did with Hearthstone from traditional Magic: the Gathering players.

Then again, Hearthstone seems to be doing just fine.

For casual players or professional gamers looking for a change of pace, however, Heroes of the Storm is engaging and fairly addictive. It definitely feels like Blizzard, and where else can you see Diablo riding a tiny pony into battle against Malfurion? It’s very well-balanced, even if the maps could use some minor tweaking to their numbers, such as Blackheart’s Bay and its plethora of doubloons. They will likely need to do some tweaking to the stealth system, which feels incredibly powerful at the moment, but none of the characters stand as out as being the end-all-be-all of a match.

That’s not to say the game is free of all criticisms, however. Aside from the divide likely to be found among more intensive gamers, several forum posts and discussions revolve around the store and character management system outside of the gameplay itself.

The in-game store allows players to purchase heroes and skins with real money or, in most cases, in-game gold.

The in-game store allows players to purchase heroes and skins with real money or, in most cases, in-game gold.

Blizzard is opting in for a model fairly similar to that of League of Legends. Each week will feature a selection of free-to-play heroes spread across the various types of roles needed for a match. Players and heroes both start at level 1 and, through playing the game, they level up. Players can permanently unlock heroes using in-game gold earned through wins, completing daily quests, or reaching leveling benchmarks. If players like a character enough, there are custom skins available for purchase, mostly with real money.

Nothing in the store allows a player to buy an advantage over opponents. At the moment, the game only really offers characters, skins, and a small selection of XP boosts for real money, so gone are the days of spending $40 a month on runes that affect all your characters.

However, when playing new characters, not all of their talents are unlocked immediately. Players are limited in talents with that character until they reach Level 4 with that hero, and then they get 500g each time a hero reaches level 5. Such talent gating often feels unnecessary. Perhaps Blizzard’s intent was to allow players to gradually ease into learning new characters or prevent people who don’t know a character from entering Ranked mode upon its release. The actual process to level up each hero ends up feeling tedious and purposely, though, and takes far too long. Spending several games with each and every hero takes an unnecessarily long time for someone who just wants the option of a hero available to them. In some case, heroes are extremely hampered by not having their full range of talents available at first.

Talents replace the traditional item grind for heroes, but must be unlocked by leveling each character.

Talents replace the traditional item grind for heroes, but must be unlocked by leveling each character.

The other issue is the gold system, which has seen several complaints on the forums. Many players feel the cost to buy characters is somewhat high, and the payout for gold is not enough. Most gold is earned through Daily Quests with simple objectives, such as “Play 3 games as a Support hero,” and award anywhere between 200-800 gold. Players also get more gold for reaching level 5 with a hero, and for reaching various player levels up to level 15. 20g is awarded for winning a game.

Blizzard’s intent seems to have been to reward players with new heroes every so many days, whereas other MOBA’s have traditionally rewarded players based on the actual amount of matches or time spent playing. By preventing players from easily obtaining characters through gold simply by playing x-number of matches, many hardcore players feel the HotS gold system is little more than a cash grab to encourage players to spend real money rather than wait for their daily quests.

Blizzard does offer a variety of prices to choose from, however, with characters ranging in cost from 2,000 to 10,000 gold. In my experience playing fairly casually the past three weeks, I’ve managed to unlock a few heroes with gold alone, and have not felt the prices were all that unreasonable for a casual player compared to LoL, which often felt like a marathon of games to earn enough points for a new character, something a full-time worker might struggle with.

Still, it’s likely that Blizzard will be keeping an eye on their pricing system and adjust accordingly if their benchmarks aren’t met. If Blizzard has shown anything, it’s that they tend to do well in listening to fan feedback and criticisms. Whether they permanently decrease costs, adjust gold gains, or offer regular sales on heroes has yet to be seen, but it’s still far too early to know if their current pricing system is working or not.

Overall, Heroes of the Storm is a great addition to the genre, if one of the more unique and divisive ones. It certainly feels different than many others of its class, but there’s no doubt that Blizzard has taken genres and innovated them to fit their own style before. Whether they will be offering $1 Million prizes and selling out the Staples Center with championship tournaments is up in the air, but they’ve done a great job to get started on that path. If anyone can make a tent on the Big Two, it’ll be Blizzard.

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