Diablo rides a horse that looks small enough to buckle under his gargantuan weight. Just like that poor horse, Blizzard has a lot riding on Heroes of the Storm. This is the Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo maker's take on the blossoming multiplayer online battle arena, and its attempt to claim the riches and colossal global audience that come with the territory.
After Heroes of the Storm's initial showing at BlizzCon 2013, the developer launched the game's technical alpha last week. There's a good chance many things will be changed, tweaked, and modified over the coming months. Even now, though, Blizzard's intriguing take on the genre has plenty of fascinating new mechanics and exciting twists. This is no mere attempt at simply re-creating Dota 2 or League of Legends.
Heroes of the Storm is all about the map objectives
Blizzard calls them battlegrounds, and each comes with its own central map mechanic that greatly impacts each game. Let me say that again, just to be clear: If your team ignores the map's main objective in Heroes of the Storm, you will almost definitely lose. Badly. When the announcer tells players that this all-important objective is about to spawn, any feeling of individual freedom at this point is an illusion. Stop whatever you are doing, right now, and leg it to the objective.
Blue and red teams compete to blow up the opposing nexus on each of the four maps--Dragon Shire, Blackheart's Bay, Haunted Mines, and Cursed Hollow--but their various shapes (not every map here involves three lanes, for instance), shortcuts, and those all-important mechanics add plenty of variety, and give the game a very different feel to its contemporaries. It means the rhythm of Heroes of the Storm flicks between traditional phases of the odd offensive push or defensive retreat and frenzied, all-out contests over that all-important objective. What's really going on here is that Blizzard, in the interests of keeping match times down to around the 30-minute mark, is routinely herding players into situations where they have no choice but to fight to the death.
There's some other important things to be aware of, too. Towers are dotted along each lane, but they are fortified with healing fountains that provide a health and mana boost to allied players, and occasionally with a castle that can spawn additional minions. Fancy running past an enemy tower because you're confident you can secure a kill? Not here; Heroes of the Storm has gates that block the enemy team from passing. Towers themselves have an ammo supply, too, so if they pelt out too many rounds they'll need to pause to reload and can easily be destroyed in this time. And while characters tend to move quite slowly, almost all players can summon a mount so they can zip around the map faster. Mounts are no good for offensive plays, mind, as they disappear as soon as a player takes damage.
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Teamwork really is king, too. Securing the powerful dragon knight, feeding enough coins to a ghostly sea captain, getting a stronger golem because your team picked up the most undead skulls from the mines, or winning enough tributes to have the raven lords curse your opposition are all acts of such dramatic significance that they far outweigh a handful of player kills gained (or lost) from team fights. Another game-changing features include a scattering mercenary camps--Heroes' take on the jungle area--on each map, which bestow a gaggle of very powerful siege units if your team captures them. These can easily swing a game in your favor.
Having to divide your team up to claim the north and south shrines on Dragon Shire is a very different process than racing around the Haunted Mines' inner map to slay undead faster than the opposition. Even the shape of the maps affects things massively, such as how working your way around the dense forest area of Cursed Hollow means you're more likely to be able to plan and execute ambushes than the simpler Blackheart's Bay. The design also fits into the objectives of each map; Dragon Shire and Cursed Hollow are about controlling certain spots at the right time, and are therefore larger, more complex Battlegrounds, whereas securing victory in Blackheart's Bay and Haunted Mines is done by collecting more resources than your opponents, so these are smaller are designed to funnel you into conflict.
Despite Blizzard's efforts, bad players will still be able to ruin your game
There are plenty of other big changes (though if you're a religious Dota player, you might call them blasphemies) that affect, well, just about everything. Experience is shared and distributed across the team, rather than going to the individual players. That's a huge shift from other games of this ilk, making it so individual players can't fall ahead or behind the rest of their allies, and softens the pain of being accidentally slain once or twice. Repeated deaths still end up handing a huge advantage to the opposing team, mind. I had a game last night when one Raynor player went and got himself killed nine times in a row, and it's safe to say we ended up losing that game pretty bloody quickly. Believe me, superior enemy teams can snowball out of control just as easily here as in the worst matches of Dota 2 or League of Legends.
What else? League of Legends and Dota players might squabble endlessly over the merits of the deny mechanic, but Heroes of the Storm has made it so you can't even last hit. There's no gold to worry about and no store to buy items from, and you don't level up your character's individual abilities with each level. If you're a MOBA purist, then you've probably already flipped your computer desk over by now, and I'll admit I was pretty skeptical at first. But now, after many games, I think it works well. These nips and tucks get games off to an immediately confrontational start, removing that initial foreplay from Dota and League of Legends matches while players farm up enough cash to buy their basic starting items. It's a tauter, fiercer way to initiate each game, and another one of the ways Blizzard has shaved minutes off the average game length. And while there's no store to buy items from, characters can be developed in various ways as they are given a list of options to choose from as they level up. Heroes have two ultimate abilities, for instance, but you'll only be able to select one of them in each game.
Right now there's 23 characters to choose from, with Blizzard offering a weekly rotation of six heroes to play for free. The characters are bucketed into Assassin, Warrior, Support, and Specialist categories, and it's the latter one that offers up character that could only in this game. Take the Zerg evolution specialist Abathur, for instance, who has no ability to directly attack enemy players but can instead buff allied players, spawn locusts that act as additional minions, or clone an allied player with his ultimate ability. He could never exist without Heroes of the Storm's shared experience, and he's an absolutely fascinating addition that I'm still trying to get my head around.
I've had some thrilling matches, including games where I've been in a team of underdogs that turn things around after a poor start, games where I've lost a clear advantage by missing out on too many mercenary camps and objectives, and games that have been nothing but tense reversals leading into narrow victories or defeats. When it works, the game is a tense half hour of neck-and-neck fighting made up of a cast of well-known Blizzard characters.
There's a lot to like, but you might not be able to play it without friends.
Big team fights aren't as exciting as they should be, though. Part of this is down to the fact that heroes just don't feel very strong right now. Abilities are weak and easy to spam, and characters survive for much, much longer than in League of Legends and Dota. It's not uncommon to see players, provided they've not been totally caught out of position, nonchalantly run out of fights with the last chunk of their health bar remaining. If you ask me, Blizzard needs to make the game riskier and more dangerous, and that added thrill of peril and power will create something that's more exciting to watch and play.
But my biggest concern so far is that Heroes of the Storm lacks the proper communication tools for its overwhelming focus on securing those shifting map objectives. Blizzard has made the game's minimap confusingly small, and right now there's only a basic ping or teeny-tiny chat window for rallying your allies. With the varied maps, shared experience, and shifting mission objectives, teams have to be on the ball constantly and with perfect coordination, else everything quickly falls apart. These are early days, but I've already had far too many games where crucial map objectives have been ignored in favour of pushing lanes, farming mercenary camps, or attempting to confront the enemy team. There is so much at stake with each objective in Heroes of the Storm that it is utterly galling when you're matched alongside a player that's off in a world of their own.
Think of it like this. When playing Dota with one or two friends, the thing we dread most is the horror of facing a five-stack--an entire team of players who know each other and who are all probably hanging out in a Skype call and plotting how to brutally divide, conquer, and eviscerate our disjointed match-made team. Terrifying. And I now dread the five-stack in Heroes of the Storm even more than I do in Dota. If Blizzard is going to fulfil its self-professed remit of making a MOBA that's more accessible, approachable, and not as toxic as its contemporaries, it's going to have to work something out to address that need for communication and teamwork.
Still, I can't wait to see what comes to Heroes of the Storm next. Blizzard's spin on the MOBA has the potential to be exciting, more accessible, and the most unique take on the genre since the Warcraft III mod that started it all.