Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm recently entered a small "technical alpha", and I managed to somehow luck out and snag a key. I've been playing the game pretty much any chance I get since Friday, quite possible because it seems Blizzard's done it once again. They've taken what makes a genre work, extracted the good and left out what some might consider the bad. Read on to find out why it's eating up all my free time.
A SIMPLER, AND MORE FUN APPROACH
If you're not a fan of the MOBA genre (League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, Dota, Smite), chances are you're not going to be thrilled about Heroes of the Storm. But let me share a secret: I'm not a big fan of MOBAs either. I enjoy Smite, and have a lot of fondness for Awesomenauts, but I've never quite understood why so many people watch League of Legends and Dota on Twitch. But despite my lack of enthusiasm, LoL has quickly become the world's biggest game. It only makes sense that Blizzard would aim take back a slice of the pie that their own games baked. The MOBA traces back to Starcraft's Aeon of Strife map and Warcraft 3's Defense of the Ancients, after all. But there are two facets to most every MOBA that never quite fit in to me: the inventory and gear management, and the sheer amount of time each match can take.
Blizzard made Heroes for people like me. There's no superfluous and overly balanced gear management and most matches take 15-20 minutes. But they went even further and removed something I didn't even realize was a problem. In most MOBAs, you level individually from the rest of the players on your team. This leads to inter-team competition unless you're in an organized group, and everyone's worrying about last hits on minions because that's how you earn a lot of XP to level in a given match. In Heroes of the Storm, that's all gone. Instead the whole team levels together as one. If you get 25XP from a kill, it goes to the whole team. If you gain a level, your whole team does. Not only does this remove a big pain in the neck from pick-up groups, but it creates opportunities to make some truly interesting heroes.
Not everyone will agree with this "streamlined" approach, as the MOBA fanbase has become quite used to the accepted meta game. On our panel at PAX Prime last year, the guys from S2 Games on Strife said it best: everyone clamors for a new game to play. Then when they get it, they start barking and asking for the developer to "make this like this my old game." Blizzard has done what they do best: they've taken a genre and refined it down to its basic ingredients... and then come out the other end with something truly engaging and fun. The lack of gear management, the mechanics of the maps, and the inter-dependency on your teammates more than feeding on minions for half of a match makes for a wholly entertaining experience from minute one to the last.
It's also refreshing from a community standpoint that Heroes doesn't track straight kills and deaths ratios. It tracks your "takedowns" (which combines your kills and assists), your deaths, and your "mechanics" but not much more. This should help to make sure some toxicity stays out of the game, as will the fact that you can only chat with your own team and not the enemy.
Oh, and did I mention that you have mounts in Heroes of the Storm? At first, these didn't make much sense to me. But once you realize how much time you can save by hopping on one to reach an objective, you'll be glad you have them. Meanwhile, I'm sure Blizzard is happy to have them because the item shop of this F2P game has mounts as the most costly items. Everyone gets a free basic horse mount, and the additional cash-purchase steeds don't get speed bonuses or anything. But still, let's be honest... there are plenty of people who will pay for a Rainbow Unicorn to see Diablo riding around on one.
THE HEROES AND MAPS
A big part of what makes Heroes stand out from other MOBAs are the characters Blizzard uses. Not just because many of them are famously known across gaming circles, but because their skills and abilities make them more than just melee and ranged fighters. Abathur, of Heart of the Swarm fame, is a hero that might never been seen directly by the enemy... but his presence will be felt all over the map. He can tunnel to anywhere from anywhere, avoiding all contact. He can create a clone of an ally hero and take control of it (anyone want two Arthas on their team?), symbiote with a hero and protect him for long periods of time... and much more. He's super fragile when put in harm's way, but a well-played Abathur can change the course of a game. And that's just one example of how the characters in Heroes really make a difference. Each of them are unique and powerful in their own way. I've taken quite a liking to Muradin (of Warcraft 3 fame), because DUAL-WIELDING DWARF, that's why. As your team levels in a match, you'll get to pick from different talents for each hero that unlock new active and passive skills, effectively acting as the "meta" for the game. There will undoubtedly be most-wanted builds for each hero, as time goes on.
The maps are something else altogether. There are four currently in alpha: Dragon Shire, Cursed Hollow, Blackheart's Bay, and the Haunted Mines. Each of them has the ultimate traditional objective of destroying your opponents towers and base. But each of them also has a unique mechanic to fight over that can completely turn the tide of a battle. Dragon Shire has two shrines that, when controlled by one team, can unleash an incredibly powerful Dragon Knight to be played in battle. Blackheart's Bay as the Pirate Lord who, for enough gold, will unleash his ship's fury upon the enemy team. Cursed Hollow is home to the Raven Lord, and if you pay him three tributes (which spawn randomly periodically on the map), he'll curse the enemy team making their structures weaker, their minions have one hitpoint, and their defenses will fail to fire. Lastly, the Haunted Mines is probably my favorite. You fight above ground, but throughout the match the mines will open up. You then have to race against the other team to fight the undead below ground. Whoever kills the most gets the stronger golem to march towards the enemy base, destroying everything in its path until it's brought down. It's insanely fun, and creates some real tension and skirmishes in the mine.
Across each map there are mercenary camps too, and each of them can make a big difference too. Siege Giants with high HP can be commanded to take down towers, while Knights can be recruited to take on the opposing minions, letting you focus on Heroes. There are watch towers on maps too which, when captured, allow you and your team to see far into enemy territory. There are multiple structures aside from towers and your main palace too. Each "bracket" of a map has a fort: a castle protected by a defensive tower, which itself is guarded by a gate and two cannon towers as well. Now you get why the merc camps can be so helpful. A well-timed push with Siege Giants can break a game wide open. And there are even moonwells at your allied forts, which allow you to get a quick heal and mana regen every so often on a cooldown.
DAILY QUESTS AND PROGRESSION
The basic UI that greets you when you log in to the lobby is one that shows your progress in big bold numbers and shiny graphics. But don't let that fool you, as far as I can tell so far, the XP and levels your account gains are mostly about unlocking other features like an additional free hero rotation slot, the ability to earn gold to spend in the shop (as opposed to real cash), and daily quests. The daily quests are awesome actually, as they give you goals to work towards every time you log in, even if you're on a wicked bad losing streak. I tend to suck at these games, so it's nice to see a big bunch of bonus XP for playing as multiple heroes, capturing merc camps, and other little things like that.
Then, at level 10 you'll unlock Hero Quests on your account. This is a brilliant move, really because each hero from here to eternity will have his or her (or its) own hero quests. An example is playing Uther and healing people for certain amount, or playing Diablo and stunning 10 heroes with a skill. Each quest gives a huge amount of XP for your account, and since you get the gold to spend in the shop from leveling... well, you can see how easily Blizzard will get a lot of people to keep playing. The only things it seems you won't be able to get with in-game gold will be mounts and skins, but that's par for the course. They're purely cosmetic, anyway. But still... why not pay to be Lurkablo?
There's one big thing I'd like to see Blizzard add in coming patches and beta builds: the ability to play a practice map, while queuing for a co-op or versus match. In truth, the alpha field of players is so small right now that it makes sense to have a few minutes' wait. But downtime is a no-no in a MOBA, so why not let players goof off in a practice match, then switch to the co-op or versus match when the queue pops (forfeiting any XP earned on their account for the practice match, of course)? And while you get to unlock talents on heroes while playing each match, I'd like to see Blizzard do something more with the player's account level. I'm not sure what that could be without simply aping Riot's Summoner Mastery, but it's something I'd still like to see added.
I think I've prattled on enough about Heroes of the Storm. Honestly, folks... I didn't expect to like this game at all. But when Mike and Garrett came back from Blizzcon 2013 raving, I took notice. Now that I've had a chance to play it myself, I'm absolutely hooked. I don't expect Heroes will suddenly make people forget about Dota or League of Legends. But when it launches, I fully expect we'll see it mentioned right alongside those two games at major tournaments across the world. If Hearthstone took you all by surprise with just how fun it can be, just wait until the beta broadens for Heroes of the Storm. You will not be disappointed.
Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.