Heroes of the Storm officially leaves alpha in less than a month, and so now is a good time to get a preview of the core game, as it is being built up. The alpha ending marks a point where Blizzard are happy with the core mechanics and gameplay, they have their formula down. If you don’t follow Blizzard or the MOBA scene, this is Blizzard’s take on the MOBA genre: a mashup of their Starcraft, Warcraft and Diablo universes, pitting the heroes of these worlds against each other. Rather than taking the tried-and-tested MOBA formulas, however, Blizzard are trying to set themselves apart, by creating multiple maps, very different objectives in each map, and through the simplicity.
Let’s go through all the unique aspects shall we?
Talents and gameplay
Where in other MOBAs you will gain gold through killing enemies, there is no gold in Heroes of the Storm. In fact, there is no bonus to getting the killing blow on an enemy (unless it is a neutral enemy, in which case you want to kill it instead of your enemy doing so). Also, you don’t have to put points from levelling up into abilities, instead you have all your abilities except your ‘heroic’ (ultimate ability) from the start. At level 10, you can then choose from one of two heroic abilities. At levels 1, 4, 7, 10, 13, 16 and 20 you can choose a talent: this can be a passive upgrade to an existing ability, a new ability altogether (such as at level 10, where you have to pick your heroic ability), or a passive effect.
Where a character’s abilities and stats often give it a specific role, the talents then give a character a specialisation within that role. You could pick certain talents to give an assassin a bit more health, and a bit more health regen, allowing them to stay in a fight for that bit longer, or give a typical support class, with lots of healing, a significant damage boost, making them a strange support/assassin hybrid.
The limited choice of talents means players don’t have to look at an overwhelming number of items in a store, and instead can make choices that have clear effects, with some talents locked out until you become more experienced with the hero, but more on account progression later. How does a ring in League of Legends or a branch in Dota increase my damage? A stat buff isn’t as clear as an upgrade simply saying “Smite (E) deals 30% more damage to heroes”.
The game hits a sweet spot in terms of hero power, minion power and the power of objectives. It doesn’t have the style of Dota, where minions destroy you and your character is weak, but it also doesn’t have the style of Smite, where minions are simply a target for gold and experience. While the minions aren’t very strong, turrets have one huge downfall in Heroes of the Storm: they have limited, slowly regenerating ammo. This means that if a lane begins to push, it can swarm up very easily if your turrets have no ammo. Again, it’s something that doesn’t make the game really very hard to learn, but it adds to the level of strategic challenge the game has.
There’s one point I’d like to talk about which I don’t like in Heroes of the Storm, despite being an ex-Starcraft 2 player and facing this before: invisibility is weird. Certain abilities reveal enemies, and taking damage removes invisibility, but you’re never really invisible. A character who is invisible doesn’t appear on the map, and cannot be targeted. However, you can see a waviness where the invisible character is, and once you get used to it, you can clearly see it coming. It’s similar to the air when you look at hot tarmac, and the same mechanic is used in Starcraft 2. It makes invisibility strong against players who are bad at noticing it, and weaker against people who know what to look for. It’s a small complaint, as players will eventually realise how it works, I just feel like it creates too much of a skill divide, just because I can notice the shimmer and perhaps someone else can’t. (I also wonder if it’s noticeable for colourblind people…)
Levelling outside of game
One complaint some people have, and simultaneously one reason people are hyped for Heroes of the Storm, is how all of these talents aren’t available to pick the first time you choose a character. Instead, at levels 1, 4, 7, 13, 16 and 20 you will only have 2 talents to choose from, and only one available heroic ability and level 10. This means you are forced to get to grips with the character’s core ideas before you can really tinker around with different talents. After a game, you will gain experience, and usually after 1 or 2 (depending on if you’re playing against humans or AI) games you’ll hit level 2, unlocking a new heroic ability, later hitting level 3, unlocking more talents, and then unlocking all talents for the character and level 4.
This is one feature people seem to love or hate: on one hand, it forces you to play with certain talents that might be downright bad depending on the map you’re on, your team or the enemy team. On the other hand, it means it’s very difficult to not get the hang of a character: it makes them all simple to understand, and grow in complexity as you grow in experience. If you don’t like the system, I would simply argue that it’s a necessary evil due to the way the talent system works, and the simplicity Heroes of the Storm aims for.
A character can go up to level 10, however after level 4, none of the levels add anything to gameplay: you can get gold, skin variants, and at level 10 a ‘master’ skin will be available to buy.
There are currently 5 battlegrounds (maps) available, with a random one chosen for each game. 3 more were announced at Blizzcon, however there isn’t any information on when these will be in the game. Each battleground has a different layout and set of objectives for players to fight for, with some involving PvE combat (such as the Garden of Terror, where in between the lanes plant monsters spawn when the game turns to night, which can be killed to gain seeds, so your team can grow the Garden Terror, a powerful siege weapon), and some forcing teams to clash at areas, fighting for a resource (such as in Cursed Hollow, where tributes spawn at marked locations, and when a team gains 3 tributes, the Raven Lord will curse the enemy). Each one requires different strategies, and I can see the game having a very flexible meta if it becomes popular once it is publicly available. Do you take a team with strong teamfight capabilities and get every single objective? Do you take a number of characters who can push lanes very well to force the enemy to defend while you take an objective? Do you leave one member of your team with strong sieging power in a lane while the rest stall an objective? All of these ideas are viable, and it shows that, while the game uses simplified MOBA ideas, the real importance of objectives brings up some interesting strategic questions.
As I mentioned, Heroes of the Storm is a mashup of characters from Starcraft, Warcraft and Diablo, and these characters are split into 4 groups: assassins, warriors, supports and specialists. Typically, assassins are either characters with a lot of burst or sustained damage (either melee or ranged), warriors are beefy, tanky characters with some damage and some crowd control or other utility, supports are characters with at least a heal or shield and then a lot of crowd control or other utility, and specialists are characters with very specific abilities and purposes. The main three classes, assassins, warriors and supports are generally your typical MOBA characters, with some unique characters (Anub’arak for example spawns locusts that fight for him every time he uses an ability). The specialists, then, are often much more difficult to play, and can be weak if played without their purpose in mind. Murky is one such specialist: he has very, very little health, and in certain cases one regular ability can kill him. However, he has a trait where he can place an egg at a location, and as long as it is not destroyed, he will be revived quickly. He is very strong at whittling down down opponents, therefore, as every time you kill him, he’s back straight away. If you were to place your egg badly, however, the enemy can destroy it and kill you, putting you on a regular death timer.
The specialists define a team, giving it an edge in one area, and it emphasises certain playstyles for them as a whole, and when draft pick is a thing, it will be interesting how the specialists could get fought over.
As is the norm for MOBAs, Heroes of the Storm uses a free-to-play model, along the lines of League of Legends. You gain gold at specific account levels, whenever you level a character to level 5, after every game, and after completing daily quests. While this sounds like a lot, the gold gain is balanced heavily against grinding for gold. A typical daily quest might be play 2 games with a Diablo character, for 200 gold. One game, against a human enemy, with give you 20 gold for a loss, 30 for a win. Where characters can cost between 2,000 and 10,000 gold that’s 100 losses for the cheapest character. That’s 500 losses for the most expensive characters (a newly released character is 15,000, but it appears that will decrease some weeks after launch). You can buy characters, skins, or bundles for real money, and recently Blizzard introduced ‘stimpacks’, which increase gold and experience gain.
The characters are very expensive when buying them with real money. There’s no denying it, and the fact that grinding for gold to get a new character takes so long means many people have complained about the gold gain. However, the daily quests being so fruitful in comparison I feel is how Blizzard are balancing the game for everyone. I can get a good amount of gold by playing one game a day, with a few on the weekend to clear out my daily quests. I’m sure those who are used to the Dota model, or even the Smite model where there is a one-time payment option to unlock all characters, will be turned away by this. The system is no worse than that in League of Legends (in fact it’s probably better than the system there, since you need to buy runes which give stat boosts in order to be as strong as other people in game, paid for with the same currency you use to buy characters). You’ll see many people complaining about the gold gain system, but it’s balanced for people who don’t have the time or patience to grind. It’s just that the vocal people are the ones who take it seriously and want to grind. It will take a long time to get all the characters, it’s just hard to decrease that time with grinding. Whether that’s good or bad for you depends on your commitment.
Blizzard have already shown an aptitude for taking an existing genre, creating a game within that genre that has simple rules but a high skill ceiling, and all the while making it fun with Hearthstone. It seems they’ve really taken this idea of simplifying a genre but keeping originality and complexity and ran with it, and I think it works fantastically. There are multiple issues currently with the game, there is no draft picking, or even picking a character around your team, you simply pick a character, go into queue and get put in a random team. This means that there is very little counterplay if the enemy team is simply better than yours, but the game is in alpha, Blizzard are more than likely focused on the core mechanics and gameplay right now rather than balancing and adding features such as draft pick, as to be expected with an alpha version of a game.
Heroes of the Storm enters closed beta on January 13th. There is no current release date for the game, and we know how little Blizzard like to tell us about specific dates from the Naxxramas and GvG updates for Hearthstone. If it follows Hearthstone, however, there may be an open beta somewhere down the line.