While the MOBA genre may have its roots in Blizzard’s titles going as far back as StarCraft mod Aeon of Strife and WarCraft III mod Defense of the Ancients, Blizzard itself hasn’t made an official foray into the wildly popular genre until now with the release of Heroes of the Storm. Over the last few years, the gaming world has been set on fire by the likes of Riot Games’ League of Legends and Valve’s Dota 2, all while Blizzard spent the extra time, as it’s known to do, refining the formula.
Like World of Warcraft, Heroes has been derided for dumbing things down, but the reality is that Heroes makes MOBA more accessible while also preserving what makes the genre fun. The game is the latest example of Blizzard doing what Blizzard does best, and just like what Hearthstone accomplished for the world of TCGs, its efforts are likely to open up the complicated world of MOBA to a much wider audience.
I like to think of Heroes of the Storm as the Smash Bros. of MOBA, and no, I’m not remotely the first person to make the comparison. To some this may seem like a negative connotation, but it’s not. Smash Bros. isn’t nearly as complicated as its more serious and traditional brethren such as Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, but beneath the game’s deceptively simple veneer lies a game full of depth and nuance that makes for a compelling and competitive experience. Heroes of the Storm is the same in this respect.
Sure, you don’t have to worry about last hitting creeps to earn enough gold to buy items and experience is shared globally with your team, but there’s more to these departures than simply streamlining the game for ‘casuals’. Global experience opens up the hero design space for specialist characters like Abathur to exist. This ugly zerg creature has almost zero offensive capability while on his own, but he can form a symbiotic bond with an ally across the map, shielding and using that hero as a source to launch his own attacks. With at least one person in each lane soaking up experience, other players can freely roam the map making plays for ganks, objectives, and so on, without lagging behind.
Talents replacing items has been a work-in-progress so far, however. Personally, I prefer the potential for the talent system over buying items. Talents are more finely tuned for each particular hero, adding flavor and appreciable differences in how your hero plays. Still, that potential isn’t quite realized just yet. Depending on the hero, you may use varying talent builds for different matchups or team compositions, but Blizzard still has some work to go in ensuring proper amounts of diversity are viable from hero to hero.
Objectives are another key difference in Heroes of the Storm. While League of Legends and Dota 2 have objectives to contest and manage, objectives are front and center in Heroes. Unlike the aforementioned games, Heroes of the Storm features multiple maps, each with its own distinct set of objectives, where playing those objectives is your key to success. For me, it’s reminiscent of a game of Battlefield or Team Fortress 2. When your team is tackling the objective and it works out, it’s a lot more satisfying than if you just came out ahead of your opponents in a more straightforward game mode by snowballing kills or lane dominance. On the flip side, there are few things more frustrating than knowing that like those other objective based games; you’re basically destined to fail if your team isn’t participating. The huge focus on objective play won’t be for everyone, but this change is definitely in the positive column for me. The varied experiences from map to map are also a benefit in terms of keeping the experience fresh over the course of multiple games.
Speaking of multiple games, one of Blizzard’s most impactful strides in making MOBA accessible with HotS has been in its approach to game length. I played League of Legends for years, but after a long day working, I just don’t have time to waste in a 40-minute game I know is already lost at champion select because two idiots both stubbornly lock in for mid lane after arguing about it. This sort of thing will pretty much ruin my entire evening. Heroes of the Storm matches are roughly 15 minutes on average, 20 minutes for a longer game, and 25-30 minutes are the equivalent of your 50 minute to hour long slugfests in League. If the game’s going poorly, at least you know it will be over soon and you can move on to the next one. It seems like such a small thing, but it makes a world of difference. The shorter matches are also action packed due to the fact objectives are always keeping the pace of the game moving. I often find myself wondering how we managed to fit all that’s transpired over the course of a match in a meager 15 minutes.
In terms of aesthetics, Heroes of the Storm is one of the more eye-pleasing MOBAs out there. The game’s art style is a mish mash of the various Blizzard games its heroes hail from and Blizzard’s managed this combination quite seamlessly. Somehow, Diablo, The Lost Vikings, and Tychus all look like they fit together on the same map. This is sort of a double-edged sword, though. Part of the success here derives from the fact that none of the maps introduced have been based in Blizzard’s source game properties. They’re all sort of generic. Things might change a bit when you’ve got Rainbow Nova roller-skating around on the upcoming Diablo-themed map, so we’ll have to see. In any case, potential future visual clashes aside, all of the characters are highly detailed and expressive, and spell effects have both the visual and auditory impact you’d hope for. It’s a tight visual package that’s benefited from iteration over the course of beta and into release.
Where Heroes of the Storm is sort of a mixed bag is in its value as a free-to-play title. Building up your hero roster can be a bit of a grind if you’re not willing to shell out cash for characters, though it’s more than possible to earn yourself a sufficient number of heroes for Hero League (the game’s ranked mode) by the time you get to level 30. Still, most things feel like they’re priced a bit higher than they should be when compared to other games in the genre, but you should find yourself with a steady influx of gold to get you started in the beginning. It’s really only once you’ve exhausted the bonus gold from leveling up your account and heroes that things begin to feel more grindy.
If you’re both a fan of the MOBA genre and Blizzard’s various properties, there’s no reason you shouldn’t check Heroes of the Storm out. It may seem like Blizzard’s just got another “me too” on its hands at first glance, but there’s enough to set this MOBA apart from the rest and it all combines together to make for a distinct and thoroughly fun experience that no fan of the genre should miss.
GAMEPLAY – 8.5 | Fast paced, objective based gameplay, with an emphasis on the team over the individual. If you’re looking to put your team on your back and carry the game, this one probably isn’t for you. But if you love to “PTFO,” Heroes blows its contemporaries out of the water.
VISUALS AND SOUND – 9 | A seamless combination of art styles from across some incredibly different game franchises. One of the more aesthetically pleasing MOBAs on the market.
LONGEVITY – 8.5 | The roster size is considerably smaller than League of Legends and Dota2, but the multiple maps keep things fresh. Lower skill ceiling and uncertain future as an eSport may limit the game’s longevity.
POLISH – 9.5 | Like everything else Blizzard, they took their sweet time with this one and it shows.
VALUE – 8 | It’s hard to argue with free, but things appear to be a bit pricier here than in other games in the genre. Fortunately, frequent sales, bundles, and a decent flow of gold keep things manageable.