This past week, Blizzard Entertainment released its new offering into the digital entertainment world in the form of an online, multiplayer battle arena game called Heroes of the Storm. While this is not the first game of this type to be released, it is the first to be released officially by Blizzard Entertainment. This is significant because the multiplayer online battle arena (hereafter called MOBA) genre was created using one of Blizzard’s own games, WarCraft 3. That title included an extensive level editor, and a scenario called “Defense of the Ancients” (DotA) was created by dedicated fans.

The scenario had a punishingly steep learning curve and a large variety of playable characters. It featured a symmetrical map in which up to 10 heroes – 5 for each team – battled along certain pathways to their enemy’s forts in an effort to destroy them. They were supported by randomly spawning computerized ally troops who would attack opposing heroes and structures. Along these paths were guard towers for both teams. One of the key components of this game was teamwork. If you had bad communication and situational awareness, not only would you be hurting your chances of winning, you would also likely be making your enemies stronger – something which happened every time you or an ally bit the dust. This formula – this fan-made map and modification – created an entirely new genre of computer game that is still used as a standard by many today.

Since the development of DotA (circa 2003/2004), many other MOBAs have been made and have folded. Games such as League of Legends (LoL) and DotA2 are currently quite popular, and have a rabid following. Sadly, some similar games which had innovative ideas have fallen by the wayside, such as Gas Powered Games’ Demigod. Heroes of the Storm is Blizzard Entertainment’s foray into this genre, and although the game is not yet a week old, it has a great amount of potential. I’d like to list out my reasons why HotS is at the same time a great release and a worrying release.

The Good

1) The Characters

I won’t bore anyone who is not familiar with Blizzard Entertainment’s works by going into the backstory of the myriads of characters they have created. They have created cartoonish fantasy worlds in which orcs, elves and men battle together; futuristic sci-fi worlds in which humans battle the insect-like Zerg and inscrutable Protoss; and gothic fantasy worlds in which men and angels fight against the incursions of demonic forces. They have brought their heroes, villains, and in-between together for a battle royale. While this means little for someone who doesn’t know who, say, Jim Raynor is, this gives a great amount of variety to those who like characters with swords, guns, lasers, spikes – you name it, there’s a character in the game that will likely appeal to you based on their style of play or by the fact the character models look so polished.

2) Map Variety

This is a big one. The map in DotA and DotA2 is exactly the same. You will fight in the same arena every time you play the game. LoL and Demigod have a greater variety of maps, as does HotS. What HotS has over those games, however, is more interactivity with their maps. In one map, if you collect enough doubloons from chests or the corpses of your enemies, you can bribe a ghost pirate to fire his cannons on your foes’ defenses. In another, you can inhabit an Egyptian type temple and use its sun-powered laser crystals to devastate enemy towers. This sort of interactivity means that where you fight is not simply a backdrop with certain choke-points. The map is a vital part of how you fight, and you ignore that at your peril.

Another major point in HotS’ favor is that instead of having singular guard towers along routes, there are actual towns that need to be defended or conquered. Each town has walls, three guard towers, a gate, a healing fountain, and a keep. These features are useful, and makes defending them seem more important than defending a lone guard tower. It also makes destroying your enemy’s towns more gratifying.

3) Ease of Entry

As stated before, the learning curve for many MOBAs can be very high. This is due to having an overwhelming number of hero options, and not understanding combinations and “meta-game” strategies walking in to the experience. In fact, it’s a common occurrence for new players to be cussed out, ignored, or generally abused by veteran players of most MOBAs. And this is a shame, as it drives people away from the hobby. It lessens the pool of allies and opponents, and destroys the very thing that keeps so many coming back to this genre: fun. HotS does not have this issue. The abilities are easy to understand, and the tutorial does a good job at teaching basic situational awareness. Also, as the game is not even a week old, it has a very clever tactic for keeping totally new players from being muscled out by those who have played MOBAs before:

4) Team Leveling

This is one of the single most important features I can think of for a MOBA. In LoL and DotA2, individual heroes “level up” (i.e. become more powerful) based on the number of kills they accrue, towers they help destroy, etc. In other words, if you are a new player, you are going to be overpowered quite easily because you do not know the ins and outs of the heroes or the map yet, and will be the easiest target for people looking to blame someone for a loss. However, in HotS, what you do and what your teammates do all pools together so that teams “level up” together. Everyone benefits, and nobody is left behind. This means that heroes will unlock skills at the same rate on the same team. The importance of this is that it means if there is a weak link on a team, it’s because they are not playing their hero very well, not because they’re too weak to contribute.

5) Blizzard and Activision Support

The fact that Blizzard and its parent company Activision have released this game means that they believe in the quality of their product and expect it to stay for the long haul. While Activision does have a reputation now of producing what gamers call “shovel-ware” with yearly releases of the Call of Duty franchise, they have allowed Blizzard enough lee-way to make their own decisions about when a product is done. If you ask any fan what the worst part of Blizzard games are, they’ll tell you it’s the wait. There was an 8 year gap between WarCraft 2 and WarCraft 3, and a 14 year gap between StarCraft 1 and 2. The most common response by Blizzard representatives when asked when the next game would be released was “When it’s done.” The length of development time, however, historically has been good for Blizzard, because this allows them to run a lot of quality control. In this business, reputation is everything these days. If you are wondering if Blizzard believes in the long-term survivability of this product, I would suggest you look at how long World of Warcraft has been running – and running successfully – for your answer.

6) The game is truly free-to-play, and is not pay-to-win like many free-to-play games. I don’t think that much more needs to be said on this point.

7) Battles rarely take more than 20 minutes.

I’ve come to appreciate as I get more and more settled in my career, marriage, and graduate work, that when I do have the opportunity to play a game I need to make the most of it. With more responsibilities on their way, it’s for the best that I play a game that is easily interruptable, or can easily be played in short spurts and still feel satisfying. This is definitely that game for me. Battles rarely take more than 20 minutes, and the gratification of victory or sting of defeat is actually quite satisfying.

The Bad

There’s only one thing I have to say in this regard. The game is truly free-to-play, and is not pay-to-win. However, there is one downright dastardly thing I see with HotS. You have to pay for the characters. There two ways to do this: with acquired in-game gold coins, or with real-world money.

The game starts you off with playing a tutorial as heroic commander Jim Raynor, and by the end of the whole thing, you will have 2,000 coins to your name. You have the option of buying 1 of 4 characters for this price, including Raynor. Currently, Blizzard is running a “Free Heroes of the Week” rotation to allow you to test out some of their heroes and see which ones you might like to save coins/pay money for. However, should they cease this practice, if you bought a character because you liked them in previous games and found out they do not fit your play style, you’re up a creek. All those hard-fought gold coins, straight down the tube. This, to me, is grating. I wouldn’t mind this practice if the heroes were not – on average – $9.99 a piece if you choose to buy them with real money. The other option is fight a lot of battles and save as much as you can for a long time to buy another hero for 4, 7, 10, or 15,000 gold coins. The most coins I’ve ever seen from an individual battle was 10. While there are some daily goals you can complete for a few extra coins (on average, 200 to 300) or 2,000 coin boost for reaching certain player levels, I’m afraid it may take an incredibly fun game and turn it into a grind. I would appreciate some kind of starter kit in which you get 2 or 3 heroes for free, rather than rolling the dice later on if they stop the hero rotation.

While I’m on the topic of their marketplace, some things are not purchasable with gold coins, but are only available using real currency. For example, if you want your decked out space warrior to ride a cyber-wolf instead of a horse, that would cost you $9.99, and there is no pay with gold option. BOOOOO!

The Future

I certainly hope – and anticipate – that Heroes of the Storm is going to be a hit in the MOBA community, and have had nothing but good experiences playing with other people. The game is truly free to play, and genuinely fun. It also explains its mechanics well, and has enough variety to keep you coming back. Despite my grumblings about their market mechanics, much of the marketplace can be ignored. I know I’ll be hopping on from time to time for a quick battle, and I hope to see some of you there!

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