He­roes Of The Storm

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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.

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