Heroes of the Storm (Alpha): First Impressions
Welcome to the Nexus
Blizzard Entertainment have been doing a lot recently that makes me question if they've been replaced by bodysnatchers. Their behaviour seems alien: with World of Warcraft they're making radical changes in the upcoming expansion Warlords of Draenor; with Diablo 3 a new expansion was recently released to give the game more depth and replay value; Hearthstone was Blizzard's first attempt at a multiplayer card game.... and it's working. So what possessed them to make Heroes of the Storm, a multiplayer online battle arena in the same style of DOTA and League of Legends? Both games, by the way, where inspired by a mod for Warcraft 3 called Dawn of the Ancients, which ushered a new way to play multiplayer arenas - long gone has the word MOBA been associated with games like Unreal Tournament and Quake, but there seem to be only two games that dominate the rather small genre.
Heroes of the Storm, originally under the working title of "Blizzard All-Stars" and even "Blizz Heroes" was speculated by players to be a brawler in the same vein has Super Smash Brothers and Playstation Heroes. These hopes and whispers were soon dashed when Heroes gameplay images were revealed to show it as a three lane objective based game, where players could take control of characters from Blizzard games' universe and throws them into a multiverse for the sole purpose of battle. If you're not a fan or familiar of Blizzard's products chances are you won't see the appeal in this game, but for those who have been following their works for either weeks, months or years you'll probably get a kick out of this title.
Keep in mind this game is still in Alpha!
At the time of writing this article Heroes of the Storm is still in Alpha testing. This means that the game, despite its polish and shine, is a long way from the released version. Invitations are very hard to obtain, and for the safety of your Battle.net account, take care when opening any emails that claim they contain a key.
Any real world cash or gold you spend might not be refunded after Alpha. Any heroes, skins, mounts or bundles might not be saved in the beta nor do they have to make it past Alpha. Any levels, daily quests or match history will likely be erased after Alpha. Anything is subject to change, including but not limited to the title of the game. With that in mind, have fun!
Heroes of the Storm has players take control of characters from Diablo, StarCraft and Warcraft in "attack and defence" matches. Players must defend their strongholds containing fortresses, towers and healing wells whilst attacking the enemy's using minions, mercenaries and their own powers. My experience with this kind of game is non-existent but I reckon this will sound all but strange to LoL and DOTA players. The gameplay sounds fairly simple, but upon playing it you'll find how it's not just a battle of might but minds, as it requires good knowledge of maps, the appreciation of minions and most importantly: knowing how to cooperate. That's the bare bones of it, anyway. Let's start from the very beginning!
"Eat your fear--? Alright mister, I'm gonna school ya!"
The game's tutorial is clear and very comical. When you begin you take control of Jim Raynor (StarCraft) who has been backed against a wall by the viscous Zerg until he's brought into the Nexus. There your tutor, Uther the Lightbringer (Warcraft) helps you familiarise yourself with the layout. The dialogue is witty and the set-up very interesting, but as much as I like the opening to my time in Heroes I wouldn't be surprised if there was no more story. It gives you the basic controls such as moving the camera, using your abilities (and Raynor's specific abilities should you choose to purchase him) and getting about the battlefield. It also gives you an idea of how minions work, what the different buildings do and how to fight other Heroes. My favourite thing about the tutorial is that it's not afraid to kill you, and even goes one step beyond by increasing your respawn timer each time you die like in a real match.
What bugs me with Blizzard games is that their tutorials or starting areas never capture the feel of the actual game. In Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty and the expansion Heart of the Swarm (both Heroes and SC2's expansion are abbreviated HotS, y'know, to avoid confusion) you feel more like you're playing Halo Wars than you do a traditional strategy game. The same applies to Warcraft (to some degree anyway), Diablo's first few quests and even Hearthstone which in my opinion is the worst offender. It would be nice if the tutorial covered the three lanes instead of just one, showing that all routes are as good as each other but you need AI partners' aid. I suppose that's what practice mode is for, but I'm experiencing a bug that won't allow me to get the data to run it. No biggie for me; I did most of my learning through experience in real Co-operative matches.
The tutorial's great and I would recommend you take the time to listen to the dialogue. You can go back there at any time from the main menu, which I probably will just to record those scenes.
The store was my first stop after the tutorial to check out Hero prices, the in-game currency and of course point out which character belonged to which game. It was nice to see these heroes and villains from the games as playable characters, not just big names but familiar faces we love and (some of us) know. Ever wanted to play as Valla the Demon Hunter outside of Diablo 3? Now you can! Ever wanted to see what it was like to play as Abathur the twisted scientist from Starcraft? Now you can! Ever wanted to play as Warcraft's Lich King as well as his old self in a different game? Now you can! You're never left asking "Who is that?" or "Where's she from again?", and even if you are you can always read up on the five or six lines of backstory to jog your memory. What's great about these characters is that they remain very loyal to the games they came from, using abilities that are almost identical (mostly) to the original work. Much like Hearthstone, Blizzard didn't just make a subtle nod to Warcraft, taking an ability's name from an obscure NPC; when you play the Barbarian, you're playing no other than the lass from Diablo 3. Don't expect to play as Thrall, Deckard Cain or Kyle Blackthorne just yet, and remember that these characters don't have to be in Closed Beta.
There are four types of Hero: The Assassin, the Warrior, Support and Specialist. Assassins can come as ranged or melee having stealth options and flanking manoeuvres at their disposal to push back Heroes when attacking minions. They like to step in and out of combat to recuperate, all the while contributing to the team's success by assassinating meddlesome Heroes.
Warriors are melee only who have the most health in the game, and can even use talents to increase their maximum health per level, making them great tanks. What also makes them a worthy member of the team is their use of crowd control and AoE, meaning that they can take on multiple targets at any one time with minimal trouble. With a support Hero they can really turn the tides.
Speaking of which, Support Heroes heal and buff the team while also being able to help by stunning other players and summoning creatures to aid them. Don't expect to see much of them, but having one can mean the difference between life and death when you're in close proximity to one.
Finally the Specialists are the bunch who don't entirely fit in either Assassin or Warrior. These are mostly ranged with an array of abilities and talents that can help them take out structures rather than Heroes, not to mention they're weak on their own. They make the perfect companion for someone willing to give their life to defend a teammate, as they have terrific abilities that can cut down minion and towers with relative ease. Just don't expect to get far by going solo with one.
I wasn't too fond of the idea of four types of character but very rarely will it make a difference. It helps to have one of each in different scenarios, but in the end it's really about your playstyle and what talents you'd like to get every few levels in the game. A neat system, but I think the emphasis on terms like "specialist" and "assassin" need to be toned down a little - people shouldn't feel forced to go with the class but rather their favourite character.
The prices for each Hero vary and for the life of me I can't think why. When I played Games Workshop's Warhammer: Wrath of Heroes, the characters were priced differently because of their age - new Heroes could cost something like 30,000 gold whereas older ones could be around 3,000-10,000. Gold in Heroes is a currency which can't be earned from matches but rather levelling up and daily quests, both of which aren't the most interesting mechanics so far. It seems as though only in the US you can purchase Heroes for real world cash, some costing up to $10 a pop to $5.99, and the cosmetics are absurdly priced. Skins can cost more than the Hero at times ($8.99), and mounts are nearly $20 a pop making me question who is running the show here. Is this the work of some automaton who has cliff notes on how to make money programmed into itself, or a human marketing team? Normally I'd defend this practice by saying "It's just Alpha, they're testing the prices", but this is something for Beta when you've got a much larger idea of how many players are willing to pay which prices. Also it doesn't work if the prices aren't varied; the only ones that are are the Heroes. Not a fan, Blizzard.
I'm curious as to what the controversy about gold gain is however. I imagine it's because US testers don't start out with 30,000 gold like I did, but this might be because I can't purchase heroes, skins and mounts with real cash money. So until I get concrete information on how much gold US testers receive when they start the game, I can't fully understand what the problem is. I still hold onto my thoughts about not getting any gold for each win being rather underwhelming, and if you've reached the maximum level cap of 40 you can only get so much from levelling. I believe there should be a 'daily spin', log-in reward or loyalty programme in the game to increase the gain of gold - most of the time we're only getting 500 gold each time we level, and if you're maxed out your progression has completely halted and there's no way you're getting other Heroes in a fun way.
So far the store is looking good but needs improvements with the pricing and economy. Being able to trade and sell Heroes as well as their skins or mounts would help with gaining gold as well as being a good sink for when the time is absolutely needed.
The gameplay may seem pretty redundant at first but the four available battlegrounds makes sure every match is different. The core of the match is simple: lead your minions, or 'creep' to the towers and walls, blast past them and destroy the enemy structures. The first team to destroy the enemy's core wins. This might sound like a simple sabotage mission but it takes time, determination and leadership to claim victory. The little NPC soldiers that march gleefully to their quick demise are the minions, which other minions and structures will always target first. If two armies' minions come across each other, they fight until the death and the victor continues down the lane. They may appear weak and with a short lifespan you'd be right, but they also hit quite hard against lower level and unsuspecting Hero. If a Hero is accompanying them it could spell doom for the unfortunate player who can't retreat. Never underestimate your minions because they can play merry Hell with your enemy's structures, and believe it or not they're more effective alone than you are against structures.
In each map you'll also find mercenaries to fight alongside your minions to deal additional damage to structures, enemy creep and Heroes. They're fewer in number but their health pools and damage are much higher, putting up a challenge for equally levelled Heroes. To earn their respect you have to fight them at their camps and claim their territory, but if you lose they will recover health slowly and anyone can leap into the fight to claim the mercs for themselves. They're meant to be solo'able allowing players to draw a card that neither team expected to turn the tides of battle. Even if you don't plan on using them yourself, preventing other players from taking their camps and killing the mercs before they reach your towers is essential.
The four battlegrounds are as follows: Dragon Shire is a map where both teams vie for two shrines, one of the Star and one of the Moon. When both are controlled by a single team one can become the Dragon Knight who has additional abilities, greater auto attack damage and additional abilities. This is available for a limited time only, so the power must be used sparingly. Whenever it is however it will leave a mark on the enemy team and rocket that player's experience gain sky high.
Blackheart's Bay is about getting more doubloons than the enemy team and paying them to Captain Blackheart. When the team has given him enough doubloons (starts at 10, and the required maximum amount increases by 2 each time after), he will fire cannonballs at enemy structures to cripple and destroy, and then both must work to keep this up. Much like Dragon Shire this isn't required to win but it will greatly help you in your chances to win.
The Cursed Mine is a mix of Blackheart's Bay and Dragon Shire. Here at certain times players must enter abandoned mine shafts to collect the skulls of fallen undead enemies found there. The more the team accumulates before the time is up the longer their undead golem will live and cause chaos. The golem can't be controlled by players and acts as a very strong mercenary unit, attacking structures in the lane where the most skulls came from. It's a nice diversion from enemy players and requires a good leader to sort out who gets the skulls, and who deals with creep/Heroes.
Cursed Hollow may not be my favourite but it's the most urgent of them all, giving off a well needed adrenaline rush. Here there isn't a buff for your team if you appease the Raven Lord, but rather he curses the enemy to the point where they may as well surrender. To appease the Raven Lord, you must hold his shrines and summon him similar to the Dragon Shire battleground. When he is summoned the enemy minions deal less damage, have their HP reduced to 1 point and enemy structures can't attack. This leaves the enemy completely defenceless except for the Heroes who must make up for their failures to banish the Raven Lord. This is possibly the most competitive map because without the curse it's a bare bones fight with few twists, and the punishments are so strong it's not wise to ignore them.
At the moment they're all quite a joy to play but I find the design of the maps is too similar. Most of them are too reminiscent of Diablo's dark and dingy Tristram, and I noticed there isn't a single structure that resembles anything of Starcraft. The Nexus supposedly tries to be the sci-fi element of the game but only acts as the starting point for both teams (and you can be healed to full health there, unlike the wells). Both the modes and the maps are fun for now, but I can't see them having much replay value if more aren't added in the closed beta.
Thoughts so Far
Heroes of the Storm has potential, and considering how few big names there are in the MOBA genre it could very well be a worthy competitor. Hearthstone was just another trading card game for many, but past its closed beta everybody and their mother wanted to get involved with it, even if they weren't fans of neither Blizzard nor TCGs. From what I can see HotS does everything it should and it's surprisingly polished for a game in Alpha stages, but in closed beta I'd like to see more progress, additional Heroes and even new battlegrounds, especially if we have the ability to pay real cash money in Alphas. Let's see that money go places.
What I don't like about it is that I can see it being short lived. I want to be fully invested in the game but can only play three matches every few hours because I'm burnt out rather quickly. Progression is nice with there being 40 levels but past the initial ten you're only getting gold for rewards. From what I can tell you can't reset your progress, so if you hit the cap you're not going to be getting gold except for daily quests. I've given my thoughts on that already, as have the hundreds playing Alpha so far. My personal gripe is that the game has terrible lag at the halfway point of matches. It might be because my laptop doesn't run the game too well, but at the beginning and toward the end my framerate returns. I'd like to see more options to reduce the settings because the game can still look good despite and maintain a good framerate also - Starcraft 2 on the minimal settings can look amazing, and my matches in that game are usually far busier. But as this is Alpha I expect nothing less than technical issues; let's wait until Closed beta before judging how well it runs on my crummy laptop.
Because the game is in alpha and changes constantly I can't really give a score on this quickly evolving product. So far it's been what I expected and perhaps more, and I can only hope this game hits the genre hard on its release. If anyone can make change happen and stick it's Blizzard.