Earlier this month Blizzard Entertainment entered the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre with the official release of its team brawler Heroes of the Storm. Until now, the MOBA genre has been dominated by Riot’s League of Legends, and companies seeking to draw away market share and gamers have not been particularly successful. That all might change now, as Blizzard, with its decades of game design, support, and infrastructure, has released a MOBA with the potential to challenge Riot’s established control.
At its base, Heroes of the Storm follows the same pattern as other MOBAs. Teams of five players, with each player controlling a hero with unique abilities and attributes, battle over a three-lane map, destroying opposing minions, structures, and enemy heroes on their way to annihilating the enemy core. As the game progresses, heroes gain experience and level up, increasing their stats and gaining new skills.
When it comes to neutral camps on the map, Heroes of the Storm has taken a new approach. Instead of the camp granting a buff or gold, a defeated camp will join the side that beat it and enter the nearest lane. Depending on the map there could be siege minions that can attack enemy towers from outside the turret range, brawlers that push the lane, or a boss type monster that is strong enough to change the course of a battle.
While those neutral camps can be important to winning a game, each of the seven different maps (randomly chosen at the start of each battle) has a unique set of objectives that unlocks game-changing rewards for the team that completes them. On one map, the Dragon Shire, teams must control two shrines, one each at the top and bottom of the map. Once both shrines have been capped, one player can transform their hero into a dragon for a few minutes. The dragon has enhanced health, stats, and abilities, and can make a huge push into the enemies’ defenses. On another map, Blackheart’s Bay, players collect gold doubloons from treasure chests, neutral camps, and defeated enemy heroes. Once a team has collected enough doubloons, the pirate ship will unleash several powerful cannon shots that ravage the enemy structures.
The objectives and subsequent rewards on each map should be contested if a team hopes to win the game. On most maps, players must leave their lane for a time to meet the objective requirements, which can cause some temporary strategic imbalances. Perhaps more importantly, though, it creates a game where there is no boring lane phase. Players in Heroes of the Storm don’t sit in a lane hitting minions for 5 minutes waiting for the game to get going.
Unlike other MOBA games, in Heroes of the Storm, there are no individual levels; all heroes on a team level together. This means that while players of higher skill can still make more of a positive influence on a game, no one hero will really end up carrying the game. There is no last hitting, and you don’t have to worry about a particular enemy hero being fed and unmanageable. On the flip side, however, you might end up in a situation where the entire enemy team is fed. Heroes of the Storm is very much a team game, and the side that is better coordinated will come out with an advantage. Once one team gets ahead, comebacks become very difficult, though not impossible.
Another difference from other MOBAs is the distinct lack of items, gold, or purchasable upgrades in game. At the start of the game and at every few levels, players have options on how to advance their hero, and this goes beyond simply picking which skill to upgrade. Maybe you want one of your abilities to do more damage, or have a lower cooldown, or apply a slow if it hits. Maybe you want your character to periodically block attacks, have basic attacks do more damage to enemy heroes, or have basic attacks heal you. Each hero has a set of options, and there are many ways to create different, yet viable versions, of the same hero.
The playable heroes themselves come from the various Blizzard games: Diablo III, World of Warcraft, and Starcraft II. Players can battle as their favorite Blizzard characters including Thrall, Jaina Proudmoore, Kerrigan, Raynor, Tyreal, or even the Lord of Terror, himself. After each game a player will receive experience for their account and for the hero used in the game. As hero levels increase, new abilities are unlocked, and each hero has two epic powers (ultimates) to choose from in-game upon reaching level 4. Further leveling a hero will grant more skin colors, mount options, and various other cosmetic perks.
New heroes can either be purchased outright, with prices ranging from $2.99 to $9.99, or through gold, which is earned by completing games, unlocking rewards, and completing Blizzard’s signature daily quests. A typical daily, worth 200-300 gold, might be “play three games as a Starcraft hero” or “play three games as a support hero.” When a player levels a hero to 5, he or she earns another 500 gold. At the end of each game, a player can expect to earn between 10 and 40 gold, depending on whether the game was won or lost and if it was against humans or AI bots. Heroes cost between 2,000 and 10,000 gold, which is not too unreasonable. As each player has access to a free rotation of heroes each week (the pool gets larger as player level increases), a week of bringing the free heroes to level 5 and completing the dailies will yield around 4,000 gold, not including the rewards a player gets for reaching milestone player levels.
A typical Heroes of the Storm game is fast-paced from the start, and most games last only between 15 and 25 minutes. There is no two minute wait for the game to start once the game loads, and shorter lanes on the maps means battles aren’t quite so drawn out. Quick games also mean players can complete more battles in a gaming session, granting time to experience more heroes and different maps. Shorter games also mean a steadier supply of experience and gold, reducing the grind of character leveling or gold farming. I found the quicker games to be more exciting and enjoyable, and when I got stuck on teams with a feeder, troll, or leaver, at least the game ended mercifully more quickly.
AFKers and leavers are a problem in any MOBA, and Blizzard has taken a new approach to mitigating the pain felt by a team with one less active player. Once the game has discovered a player to be AFK or inactive and warns the offending account in game, that player is booted from the game server. Control of the abandoned hero is then transferred to an AI bot. Of course, AI bots aren’t normally as good as another human player, but it is nice to not have your team down a complete hero. Additionally, AI bots will respond to pings issued by players to help with neutral camps or defend certain areas, something many human players can’t seem to do.
Overall, my experience with the player base has been a positive one. Maybe because the game is new, players are willing to be more forgiving of mistakes, or maybe it’s much easier to accept losing when you’re only spending 15 minutes instead of 35 in a bad game. Perhaps the player base is just friendlier and less belligerent than that of other MOBAs, but I have really enjoyed a distinct lack of negativity in my Heroes of the Storm games. Of course, in the time I’ve spent playing to do this review, I have not quite made it to level 30 to engage in the ranked play, and I cannot comment of the player attitudes in the most competitive form of Heroes of the Storm play, which is a tiered ranked system similar to the one in Hearthstone.
While my overall review of the game is positive, Heroes of the Storm does have some weak points, with the matchmaking system topping that list. In order to help players spend more time playing and less time queuing or drafting, the standard play mode is Quick Match, where players select any hero they have access to and hit the ready button. The system then finds other players and loads a game when ready. Wait times are low, and you don’t have to worry about anyone queue dodging after waiting five minutes in a champion select. Unfortunately, Blizzard’s criteria for making a Quick Match are a little sketchy. While the system does check to ensure heroes aren’t duplicated within a team, there seems to be no regard for finding players of similar account or hero level. There is a check to make sure that there aren’t more than two of each hero type (warrior, assassin, support, specialist) on a team, but that does not seem to be the best solution. A team with two supports, two specialists, and an assassin can be a pretty terrible team, but players have no way of knowing what the other heroes on their team are going to be when they queue up. This can make for some frustrating games, or string of games if you’re particularly unlucky.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing I encountered with Heroes of the Storm was Blizzard’s customer service department. After experiences with other MOBAs’ customer service, where I had to wait days for an email response, I was very impressed that Blizzard has a live help feature. I was able to chat directly with a customer service specialist within one minute of filing my ticket. My tech, the orc Game Master Thrynaine, was very friendly, very patient, and very gracious considering the problem embarrassingly ended up being operator stupidity on my part.
After a few weeks of playing Heroes of the Storm, I can say I’ve finally found a MOBA that can seriously challenges League of Legends. In fact, after playing Heroes of the Storm for a while, I now have trouble enjoying a League of Legends game. The maps are more interesting, the pace is quicker, the players are more positive, and I really get a kick out of watching Nova shoot Diablo in the face. Ultimately, Heroes of the Storm is just as polished, clean, and professional as League of Legends, and it’s also just more fun to play.