First Impressions – Heroes of the Storm

Go team!

MOBA’s are intimidating.  They require a high degree of skill and knowledge coupled with an often hostile community that penalizes new players.  The genre’s standard bearer, League of Legends, works feverishly to mitigate the abuses of its community, but still must convince its players to be nice to each other.  On the upside, the incredible depth and free-to-play model mean that there is a reward at the end of all the pain.  Blizzard wants to shorten that trip with its new MOBA entry, Heroes of the Storm.

The basic gameplay is nothing you haven’t seen before.  Teams of five players battle across a closed arena filled with monsters and cut through with specific lanes.  Automatically generated minions called creep rush headlong into each other while players fight with and amongst them in hope of knocking down powerful towers that guard the lanes along the path towards the enemy base.  Players win when they destroy the enemy base.  In addition to the gameplay, Blizzard carries over the free-to-play model from the genre staples.  Players receive in game currency at the end of every round that they can use to purchase playable heroes and experience points to net them in-game content.  Players may also use real world money to buy heroes and character costumes.  To this, Blizzard has added the daily quest system from Hearthstone allowing players to fulfill quests and acquire in-game currency.

What sets Heroes of the Storm apart is the focus on accessibility to new players.  Much of the character specific complexity of the genre has been replaced with straightforward, build oriented choices.  Players can’t buy items or equipment and nor do they pick abilities.  Instead, heroes start off with access to all three of their main abilities and modify them with choices that arise at specific levels.  At level 10, players may choose between two ultimate abilities that play to the character’s available builds.  Heroes of the Storm’s restricted approach make understanding and devising character builds easier by reducing the number of options.  The game also increases accessibility by creating a shared pool of experience.  Other MOBA’s count experience on an individual level meaning new players inevitably fall behind as better players leap ahead.  This shared system ensures that new players always have the tools to compete, even if they don’t have the skills.  It’s clear that Blizzard hopes to fill the gap between the interested players and the barriers that stop them.

Veterans will inevitably complain about the lower skill ceiling, but they’ll appreciate some of the interesting design decision.  The first is the introduction of map gimmicks.  Each of the 7 maps has an interesting gimmick that can have a major effect on the battlefield.  For example, Haunted Mines has a separate map where players go and collect skulls.  Once teams collect all the skulls, they receive a powerful golem whose strength is based on the number of skulls collected.  The balance between achieving the gimmick and pushing a lane is tight and forces teams to make tough decisions.  Another interesting change is the speed of the matches.  Heroes of the Storm adds ammunition to the towers (towers stop shooting after the ammo runs out) and building destroying oriented gimmicks to prevent drawn out fights around super powered buildings.  These changes combine to combat the common MOBA situation where a team has won, yet must play for another 20 minutes to overcome the enemy’s defenses.

Heroes of the Storm is still in beta, but plays like a finished product.  To be sure, the matchmaking still pairs newbies with veterans and the practice mode insists on cluttering the screen with controls, but these issues don’t detract from the solid gameplay and quality formula changes.  Blizzard’s attempt at creating a new player friendly MOBA succeeds.  Experienced MOBA players might object to the changes, but even they can appreciate the casual model with faster battle resolutions.  When Heroes of the Storm hits the public, check it out.

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