Without Blizzard’s Starcraft and Warcraft III, the MOBA genre as we know it may have never developed. After all, with RTS designers initially using Blizzard's robust custom map creator tools and distributing via Blizzard's online service Battle.net, it is a wonder that Blizzard has no solid stake in the current MOBA market. But with their upcoming free-to-play title Heroes of the Storm, they aim to rectify that.
Heroes is currently in closed beta. Well, sort of...you can buy your way into the closed beta by purchasing the HotS Founder's Pack for $40. It is a completely raw deal from a value perspective -- it only offers a few heroes, skins, and some in-game currency that doesn’t come even close to $40. If you are a diehard Blizzard and MOBA fan like me, though, it’s enough to make you feel only slightly ashamed of yourself for paying money to test out a free-to-play game.
So now the important question: how does Heroes of the Storm play?
Really well. HotS strips out many features players would consider necessary in a MOBA, like last hitting minions, gaining gold, and buying items, and still manages to work.
As a result, Heroes matches feel more like an arena combat game than other MOBAs. The average HotS game takes 13-18 minutes, and rarely goes over a half-hour. It takes the best parts of MOBAs -- the teamfights, the skirmishes, the sieges -- and condenses them into a much shorter period of time. The maps are small and easy to get around, the controls are quick and responsive, and the focus of the game is capturing objectives around the map. HotS incentives working in small groups, and later on as a full team, to control objectives most effectively.
This makes Heroes really fun to play in a group, since you can strategize and execute plays effectively. However, it also makes it a bit frustrating when playing solo. You need your teammates to help you get stuff done, but if they don’t want to cooperate with you, your team’s disadvantage widens compared to other MOBAs. In DOTA 2 or LoL’s Summoner’s Rift, you can potentially farm up for 40 minutes and just put the team on your back, but that option does not exist in HotS.
It also lacks the strategic depth of more complex MOBA games. Since objectives are popping in around you all the time, what you do next requires less game awareness and long-term planning, and you definitely have fewer overall decisions to make. Heroes of the Storm may be an exercise in “trimming the fat” off of MOBA games, although trimming the fat is only appealing if you crave sirloin and not rib-eye.
Character design and balance
Character design tends to run pretty vanilla in Heroes, and is overall reminiscent of League of Legends with its high mana pools and abundance of skill shots. However, there are some mechanically unique characters, like the Zerg evolution master Abathur who lacks any kind of personal defense and instead infests allies with a symbiote that lets him cast spells from their body.
At this point HotS is remarkably balanced for a game in beta, and a majority of the roster is viable for competitive play. One unfortunate note is that the weaker characters also tend to be the more mechanically interesting ones, like the aforementioned Abathur, though balance patches could easily change this.
Maps and Mechanics
Part of what helps Heroes succeed as an arena game are the arenas themselves. While other MOBAs have a single primary 5 on 5 map that is always used for tournaments, HotS has six that rotate on a random basis. Each of these maps has unique objectives that help you take down the enemy base in different ways. Blackheart's Bay has you collecting gold to pay off a ghost pirate so he will use his spectral ship's cannons to bombard the opposing team's towers. Meanwhile, Dragon Shire offers two obelisks for teams to capture, and holding both lets one of your teammates pray at a shrine that turns them into a giant dragon warrior for a minute. Different maps come with different challenges, and though I find some more fun than others, they are all good at creating conflict in games.
It helps that the maps also brim with personality. When towers are damaged they expose their stuttering clockwork innards. On the Garden of Terror map, giant plants with eyes and mouths bloom from the hedges when it goes from day to night. Each map even has a unique announcer as icing on the cake. Captain Blackheart from Blackheart's Bay excitedly yells at his ghostly crew to start firing when you pay him enough, eager to blow stuff up. Meanwhile, on Sky Temple the snake god Ka's voice drips with derision as he tells you his temples are open for you to fight over.
Outside the game
The one word that describes the structure of HotS is "leveling". You can increase your ranks with heroes as you play more games with them, and your overall profile has a level too. With each hero, you begin with access to only about half of their in-game leveling talents and one of their two ultimate abilities, and you have to rank up to level four to access all of their options. While this only takes a couple hours, max, it is still annoying and requires you to slog through at least a few games while picking less optimal talents. Still, after rank four you start earning cool stuff, like alternate character colors, mount colors, and access to a "master skin" when you hit the max rank of ten.
Profile leveling is much less cool, though. Yes, you sometimes get gold, the in-game currency you use to unlock new heroes, but you also have to unlock access to the entire free hero pool by leveling up your profile. Every week there are seven free heroes to try out, but you only have access to five until you get your profile to level fifteen. I have heard this is done to make sure new players play basic heroes before they try the more complex ones, but it feels like needless content gating.
The gold system seems okay for now, but it has the potential to be flawed. Every game you play gets you gold - twenty for a loss and thirty for a win - but your two main sources of income are daily quests and leveling up Heroes to rank five. Daily quests require you to fulfill objectives, like playing certain kinds of heroes, to pick up a bounty of 200 to 800 gold, and leveling heroes to rank five gets you a bonus 500 gold. Heroes cost anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 gold, and while you can unlock new characters at a decent clip in the beginning, once you level every hero to five and that gold source dries up it's hard to tell how difficult it will be to get new characters without spending money.
If you do choose to drop some dollars on the game, you will find things to be a bit on the expensive side. 10,000 gold Heroes cost $10, and brand new characters cost $15 for the first week they are out. However, every week there is a 50% sale on a character that reduces their price to a much more tolerable amount. Skins are typically between $5 and $10 and vary quite a bit in quality. Some $10 skins include new effects for abilities and new animations, while others seem like little more than palette swaps. It would be nice if the skins at different price levels were more standardized in quality.
Heroes of the Storm is still in closed beta, so there are some structural and technical shortcomings (particularly the awful reconnect system that can take five minutes to get you back into a game if you drop) that hopefully get addressed before it properly releases. However, the game itself is a successful casual twist on the MOBA genre. It does its own thing, has that high level of polish typical of Blizzard games, and above all manages to keep me coming back to play one more round.