Heroes Of The Storm
Heroes Of The Storm was once, in a previous incarnation, called Blizzard All-Stars. Before that, it was Blizzard DOTA. Both titles make more apparent its debt to DOTA Allstars, the Warcraft III mod that launched a genre, laid the groundwork for a freeto-play revolution, and almost single-handedly elevated the profile of pro gaming. Blizzard changing its game’s name indicates something more than a need to adapt to a world where the Dota trademark has become Valve’s property or ‘MOBA’ is sometimes used as a pejorative. It represents a willingness to break with the past entirely.
Heroes Of The Storm is a MOBA in that it places two teams of five RPG-style characters in competition with each other on a map that draws elements from tower defence and RTS games. These characters – in this case drawn from the Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo games – gain power over the course of the match according to the fortunes of their team. Players make decisions about the role their avatar will fulfil by choosing options along branching decision trees; teams make decisions about how to make best use of the powers available to them and express this in the way they move about the map, which objectives they prioritise, and so on.
The goal, as ever, is to help waves of AI-controlled minions break down enemy defences – turrets, walls, fortresses and the like – on the way to a vulnerable core, the destruction of which acts as a win condition. While skirmishes and duels will break out in the hinterlands between each base, these sieges represent the game’s flashpoint battles: open war with ten players and vastly asymmetrical powers.
Blizzard has embraced this aspect of the genre openly, while asking hard questions about the necessity of the more complex systems that support it in other games. In Heroes Of The Storm, players don’t collect gold and they don’t need to buy items mid-match. They don’t have an individual power level at all, in fact. Instead, everybody contributes experience to a shared pool and teams level up as one. The removal of the farming or resource-gathering element places emphasis instead on the objectives scattered around the map. Each map, and there are seven at launch, offers a unique objective that governs the way matches on it play out. The most distinctive example is Haunted Mines, where the entire bottom level is occupied by undead whose skulls can be collected to empower a siege golem to knock over enemy buildings on your team’s behalf. A similar effect can be achieved in Blackheart’s Bay by paying a ghostly pirate for the use of his cannon; Garden Of Terror, meanwhile, reprises the resource-collection mechanic from Haunted Mines, but in this case the siege unit is controlled by a player.
The game makes the importance of these objectives clear. Each map has its own announcer, who calls out as matches progress from one stage to another, and each phase comes accompanied with timers, map indicators, and so on. Heroes Of The Storm has an immediacy that other MOBAs lack, particularly for new players. You are told what to do clearly, and while there is considerable strategic depth to how you do it – and when, and why – there is little of the baffled aimlessness that tends to accompany novice expeditions into this genre.
Coupled with much shorter matches, this amounts to a degree of accessibility that belies the MOBA’s severe reputation. This is the game you play if you’ve never understood the genre and want to, or if you do understand it and want to play it in a form that can be enjoyed fully in quick sessions. Where other MOBAs feel like hobbies and demand a hobby-style time commitment, Heroes Of The Storm feels like a game.
This has downsides. Blizzard’s influence on the art of casual and free-to-play gaming is understated but obvious. Here, the studio enters an arena that it should be able to dominate. Yet Heroes Of The Storm struggles to define itself as clearly as either World Of Warcraft or Hearthstone. It’s strangely anodyne, despite the colourful characters and wide tonal range. Attempts at humour through voiceover aim so wide that they fail to make an impact, and in creating a new fantasy world Blizzard has leaned even harder on old ideas – ghost pirates, spider queens, Egyptian temples and so on – than it already does. It feels at times like all-out war has broken out in the world of PopCap’s Zuma.
The game also shies away from providing much match-to-match feedback, and locks off ranked play behind a substantial time investment. This is in line with Blizzard’s goal to defang the genre – MOBA players have always valorised stats – but it goes too far, leaving you to come up with your own ways to measure longterm progress. In their place, you’re given daily quests that offer you in-game gold in return for, say, winning three games as an assassin or while playing as a Diablo character. This is in turn spent on unlocking new characters. As such, this can sometimes feel more like a game about collecting action figures than about learning a competitive strategy game. Sometimes, it seems like the game is trying to hide that side of itself.
It needn’t. Heroes Of The Storm’s great success is that it works harder than any other game to date to open up the strengths of this genre. It’s not simply an accessible MOBA, but an inviting, transparent and fair one. It shines when Blizzard trusts new players to pick up complex concepts quickly once the most opaque barriers to entry have been knocked down. It could lose some of the softer tendencies of casual game design and still retain that vital generosity. Heroes Of The Storm amounts to a convincing reason to try MOBAs if you haven’t already; Blizzard’s next step is to flesh out the reasons for you to stick around.