Hearthstone, Heroes of Warcraft: First Impressions
About the Author
John Roberts is a video game critic on HubPages and YouTube, reviewing that he sees worthy of the former, whilst reviewing Playstation One games on the latter channel. Roberts is currently studying journalism and is on a course that will last 12 months. He is currently on the unit where he must by a brown trench coat and fedora, with the word "Press" written on a piece of paper in the brim.
The last time Roberts used a Hearthstone, he ended up in Goldshire and was immediately declared insane.
Deceptively Simple. Insanely Fun!
Hearthstone, Heroes of Warcraft is quite the oddity when it comes to Blizzard Entertainment's line of products. These are the guys and gals who made the epic real time strategy games such as Warcraft and StarCraft; the hugely popular MMORPG World of Warcraft and the ultimate dungeon delving experience Diablo. When Blizzard gave clues about a new product which would be available on several platforms like Linux, Mac, Windows and handheld devices like the iPad, everyone was running around mad trying to crack the mystery. Some suggested that their next project would be a WoW 2, maybe a Warcraft 4, Diablo or StarCraft's expansion and some even went as far to say that it was Project: Titan.
Instead they revealed a card game.
Those who are familiar with Blizzard's works that aren't just video games will be aware of the novels for different franchises, collectable figurines and RPG sourcebooks. But they also have the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, or at least they did. Some - myself included - speculate Hearthstone to carry its glory forward now that decks for the WoW TCG are no longer being produced. The hype for Hearthstone was around before it was even announced, and when the game was announced in March 2013 at the Penny Arcade Expo, players were weighing up in their heads if they liked it or not. So far Hearthstone has received generally positive reception from players and spectators alike, but there is a common doubt about purchased card prices and how more powerful they may be than non-purchased ones.
For your chance to get involved in the closed BETA, simply make a battle.net account and sign up on this very page! Please note however that in a recent tweet Blizzard have said invitations will take time to send to different regions, so don't expect a code as soon as you opt in. The BETA is closed so you will need to be invited, rather than just make an account and jump right in. You will also need to download the new Battle.net launcher (which won't be a problem for those making new accounts anyway), as Hearthstone can only be played from that. Should you get in, simply download the game and you're on your way! Happy Hearthing!
Clearing the Air
Before we go any further I think it's important to cover the "F2P" aspect of this game, because there has been the common notion about Blizzard making this their "P2W product away from others". The only purchases players will have to make in this game are for 'Expert Packs' (you may know them in other TCGs as 'booster' packs), which for £1.99 can give you five random cards, at least one of which should be rare. Considering how expensive booster packs for most TCGs are, this isn't all that bad. In a pack of something like eight to twelve cards you could expect to be paying up to £4-6, and they weren't guaranteed to have a 'rare', or the equivalent to a card with some significance. While you may be thinking you'll have to buy loads of these boosters, you'd be very much mistaken because you won't actually be needing all that many per match, though it doesn't hurt to have some in reserves.
What makes Hearthstone instantly attractive to would-be F2P developers or players is that you don't have to rely on purchases from the store. Some games will sell access to bonus quests, powerful armour and weapons and things that may offer multiple purchases such as experience point gain potions, currencies and item enhancements (gems, enchantments and the like). With this game however cards are essential to play the game, but you will have plenty and will probably only use the store if your current deck isn't satisfactory. Any WoW players here who have seen Mists of Pandaria's raid content will be aware of the "bonus roll", so if you do know what that is, think of booster packs as that very coin. You don't get to choose the individual cards you purchase, but you can still get very lucky.
The only big worry I've seen so far is that if you buy booster packs in the closed BETA, you will NOT get them back in the full game. You also won't receive a cash refund, but instead the amount of money you spent will be converted into 'gold', a currency used in-game to save your real cash. When the game goes live, you will be able to use the gold converted from your purchases in BETA. Provided Blizzard has the financial support it needs, your gold will go to use. Don't make the mistake I did in Wrath of Heroes, where I didn't get a refund or any kind of compensation because the game did not go live. Be sure that if you do spend, you do it very carefully!
Let's dive right 'inn'!
As soon as you start the game up you'll find yourself in a tutorial which you cannot skip, which is fine because you will need to use this to your advantage. However the first problem I encountered was that you cannot save your progress easily in this tutorial, so if you're unfortunate enough to have a drive-by disconnect or perhaps need to put the game down for a few hours, you can't return to where you left off at times. I've had the game save during a fight with Hemet Nesingwary, but on other bosses I had the problem of starting all over again. The tutorial provides multiple bosses, each named NPCs of the game with their own voiceovers for dialogue (which, by the way, is grand) and players will take control of Lady Jaina Proudmoore, Archmage of the Kirin Tor. And with her to guide your will, the game begins.
The rules to each match are simple: kill the opposing Hero before they kill you. This is achieved by attacking the Hero directly with minions, weapons and 'Hero Power', though there will be certain things you and your nemesis can use to prevent death. Let's cover the basics. There are three important resources which you need to be aware of at all times:
Mana is the resource on the upper left of a card that allows you to place your cards on the board. Your mana capacity will start out with 2 mana, and you will gain one maximum mana per turn, as well as fully regenerate it in the next turn. This also determines if you can use your Hero power, which can be used as a very crafty self defence mechanism if your enemy things he has you in his sights.
Attack is the number on the bottom left of the card, which determines how much damage you will do. If that number is higher than the enemy health, it will kill them. Sometimes you can damage yourself equal to the number of Attack you have, and it can kill you. So be careful if an enemy Hero or minion can return damage.
Health is the number on the bottom right of the card and your Hero portrait. When this figure reaches zero (or minus any number), it means your Hero is dead and the match is lost. Your objective is to reduce the enemy's health to zero, and you can do this by attacking their minions or the Hero directly.
When each turn starts you'll get another 'mana gem', which is used to place cards on the board or use up Hero power. This doesn't regenerate during your turn, but there are cards that can generate some for a single turn and even give an additional gem. You can't reverse any moves you make so choose wisely, and there is also a time limit - once it starts, the opponent is free to do anything while you're temporarily frozen. Placing cards on the mat is easy, and by simply clicking them once and dropping them anywhere on your side on the board will centre them. Then, depending on the power of your opponent you may be granted an attack, or might have to wait until the next turn.
You can also consume mana gems to attack minions and heroes, or use buffs to heal yourself. Each Hero has their own hero power which can be offensive or defensive. For example, Jaina (Mage) will have Fire Blast, which can attack enemy minions and Heroes, and is immune to taunt. Thrall (Shaman) can summon a random totem which can buff, defend or attack. Garrosh Hellscream (Warrior) can use his hero power to give himself armour, which is stackable. So Hero power is a great failsafe mechanic in the event your minions can't make a good move, or if you've not got any on the field at the moment.
There are different types of minion you will encounter, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The most common one you'll face is the simple minion, which has no special abilities but can still attack enemies. Minions that have abilities like Taunt are often strong, and minions can't attack the enemy hero until they defeat the enemy with Taunt. These are excellent if you need a defence against minions, and your hero powers can't help. You'll also come across minions with Battlecry buffs, so when they enter the battlefield they can use their Battlecry power to heal or damage a particular person on the field (for example, the Troll Witchdoctor - upon being placed on the board - will heal a hero or minion once, and then you can command them to attack in the same turn). Other minions with buffs can provide additional damage and health, making them a liability on the battlefield.
Even though the tutorial tells you what to do in certain scenarios, it doesn't tell you why. Unless you observe your opponents carefully in both the tutorial (which you can't return to) and practice mode, you won't have a clue what to do at key parts. The tutorial is deceptively easy, giving the player a false sense of knowledge but upon facing more experienced opponents it will lead to constant loss. Even in practice mode, you may have a tough time and find the game vastly overwhelming because you weren't given enough information and time to strategize in the tutorial.
Losses may feel humiliating and perhaps enraging because of how punishing the AI can be, and PvP duels can last up to ten minutes depending on how well both parties play their cards. However you can still get experience points from losing, and they will count towards the number of 'plays' in certain quest requirements (note it doesn't always say 'win' xx amount of games). Although this may seem great, you still aren't learning much if you're paying more attention to the rewards of losing than actual techniques.
Quests don't play a large role in the game and are very subtle. They're randomly given out and upon completion they'll reward players with Gold, which so far can only be used to buy single packs of cards. They can also reward players with a pack of cards, or a random number of cards exclusive to a single class. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed the quest system in Wrath of Heroes, where you could grind for them or do them at your own pace, this system works really well for me because it's something else to be doing besides playing cards.
Once again there are flaws present and quests can only be obtained once per day. If you've started a quest and dislike it you cannot remove the quest from your logs nor can you replace it. If your logs are full you'll have to complete another quest before you can obtain another. In Wrath of Heroes quests could be dumped but not obtained until the next day, but in Hearthstone if you complete a quest you have to wait until the next day for a new quest. Some players have objected to the declining of quests, as a few have said "Blizzard might as well give a 40 gold allowance each day", but as seen with Wrath of Heroes this is clearly not the case. By increasing the requirements and perhaps lessening the rewards, yet being able to remove/replace quests would seem like a decent balance.
When building a deck there is no such thing as a "healer only" or a "Tanking deck", and the reason is because you will need cards of all kinds and costs if you hope to overcome your enemies and in my case, fears. This is covered very subtly in the battle against Milhouse Manastorm during the tutorial, where he attempts to build up 10 mana gems for his 'ultimate card'. It's vitally important to have a deck that can dish out out damage or halt your enemy's efforts to attack early on, whilst at the same time having the big guns ready for when both of you are at 6-10 mana.
Each player can hold up to 30 cards in a deck, and make 10 custom decks. The only rules are that you can choose any cards from your Hero's class and neutral ones, and how much mana they cost doesn't matter (though this will heavily influence your odds in the match). So Mages can't have Warlock spells such as Corruption and Drain Life, nor can a Priest have Paladin spells such as Redemption and Light's Hammer.
When in game you can only draw thirty cards and when they're all gone, you become Fatigued. I'm not a huge fan of this for multiple reasons, but I'll explain the mechanic first. Upon being fatigued you lose health per round, and at the beginning of your turn so there's no using the last of your cards to destroy your opponent first. My beef with this is that if you're not careful, you will lose your cards much faster than your opponent and will die from fatigue alone, and it won't be the first time. I've already been taunted three times by an opponent each time it's his turn, and doesn't bother to use any offensive cards against me. Another problem with this is that it is never covered in the tutorial, so up until the first time I became fatigued I wondered what happened when I'd used all 30 cards. It's not that it's unfair but demoralising and never explained before it actually happens to you. Though if a game does last 30 rounds, it has to stop at some point, right? [Deity] forbid you play against Garrosh or Anduin in AI mode, as they perpetually heal/armour themselves each round.
Well it is Heroes of 'Warcraft'
When it comes to loyalty to a franchise, I've never seen it like this. As far as I can tell there is no ability, no Hero or environment that isn't based off the Warcraft RTS or the MMORPG. Boards include Stranglethorn Vale, Pandaren villages, Orgrimmar, Stormwind's Cathedral District and there are many more to come. The Heroes themselves truly are, varying from older ones such as Rexxar and Thrall to newer ones like Anduin Wrynn (who has only recently shown his potential)! There's been no official word about more heroes being added just yet, but it wouldn't be Heroes of Warcraft without giving the most important of characters the recognition they deserve.
But if you take away the boards, characters and class ability names that are related to Warcraft, you're left with a fairly average board game. You could base Hearthstone on any video game universe varying from StarCraft, T'ai Fu: Wrath of the Tiger or Beat 'em and Eat 'em, and there'd be no difference in gameplay. But having Warcraft characters adds far more appeal to the game, and you don't need any understanding of the RTS, the TTRPGs or the MMO to get a hold of the game and enjoy yourself.
Sights 'n' Smells of the Lion's Pride
I've never seen a online CCG as gorgeous as Hearthstone, but in saying that I've not seen that many. Most have been on browsers and the most famous ones like Magic: The Gathering don't impress me to the fullest. With multiple artists for the boards and cards you can find at least one person to like and follow in this game thanks to the astonishing attention to detail in artwork and truly capturing the epic factor of each ability and spell. Some cards will look older and perhaps less detailed because they're from the WoW TCG, but those cards also appear in this game with their original effects. And it's not just the artwork to the cards and boards but the spell effects. Everything you do has some gorgeous effects and even on minimal visual settings Hearthstone is beauteous with its flashes and frostbolts, sparkles and smashes.
The game's audio is by far the most clear I've heard in a Blizzard product, and voice actors never mumble. It'd be nice to have a few more subtitles because speech bubbles don't cover everything that's being said, but once you're out of the tutorial there isn't much that need be. The music is also jolly, reminiscent of inns of Warcraft and I'm hoping more tracks are added throughout the course of the beta and hopefully the full product.
Locking Up Time
Despite being rather limited in terms of everything, it is still too early to give a final judgement on this game. So rather than bubble and hearth right now I ought to give a brief conclusion, and answer the question "is this worth getting involved in"?
Absolutely. I'm still waiting to see a TCG player - on or offline - say that Hearthstone was bad, broken or beyond balancing. It's still early days but I find based on what little experience I've had with CCGs, Hearthstone does everything right. It is still lacking lots of features such as additions to the store, more maps, cards, the Monk class and other things to do outside of PvP and several PvE challenges. However being closed beta there is very little that can be done until most of the technical issues have been resolved - you may have seen streams and YouTube videos, but there are many critical bugs and glitches which need to be sorted, and nobody knows what kind of issues there are in Blizztowers themselves but the employees there. This game has so much polish, shine and is one of the most refined TCGs I've seen since Magic: The Gathering on the original Xbox. It does indeed look as though it's ready for open beta, but until you get in and see for yourself, you'll never know just how unready this game is for the rest of the world.
Many thanks for reading and good luck to everyone who gets involved in the Facebook, Twitter and fansite giveaways! Also, a special thankyou to the MVPs and Community Managers of the European Forums for helping me out with the game! Until the next time, have a pleasant day! Happy Hearthing!