Beta Impressions: Heroes of the Storm

Heroes of the Storm (HotS) is nearing its final release date on June 2015. The currently (still key-restricted) beta is still in full motion, featuring quite a lot of content and heroes to choose from at this point. The game is reaching a nearly finished state as most patches mostly focus on optimization and balance changes. In addition to that the in-game shop of HotS is fully functional, which by itself puts this F2P game into a position where i can consider it to be a nearly released product.

Looking at the already quite saturated MOBA market, one might ask if HotS even stands a chance. There are also quite few questions that newcomers and MOBA-veterans might ask themselves: Is the game any good? Does it open any defining qualities that set it apart from the strong competition? Why should you play this over established brands like League of Legends, Smite or Dota2, all of which feature a lot more content and polish? I’ll try to answer these questions in the following sections.

I can get into that!

Let’s cut to the chase in terms of the “quality” question: Despite having a Beta label, HotS is a very polished product that is very close to a final state. It has this typical level of quality and polish that you might know from other Blizzard titles. The menus are snappy and well-organized and the game has full Battle.net integration, making use of chat and team-building functionality as you know it from other Blizzard titles. The settings menu is quite feature-rich and allows you to fully customize key bindings and performance settings alike.

Lots of prominent Heroes can be selected within the easy to use menus. Blizzard spent a lot of effort into making the MOBA genre more accessible to a wide audience.

Lots of prominent Heroes to choose from. Menus are well-structured and allow you to easily find your favorite among the 30+ heroes currently in the game. It’s quite apparent that Blizzard spent a lot of effort into making the MOBA genre more accessible to a wider audience.

Hopping into a game also is a matter of seconds, as you just need to choose one hero out of a weekly free rotation and go for it. Aside from a sometimes lengthy loading screen (30 sec to 1 min, also depending on your teammates PCs) the game starts quickly enough to justify a quick daily session very similar to “casual” titles like Hearthstone. In terms of game-modes to chose from HotS also offers an easy Cooperative game mode that allows you to practice against the AI and do your daily quests, earning gold in the process which allows you to permanently unlock new heroes for your roster. The hero selection itself is also quite nice to handle, providing lots of tooltips and helpful filtering mechanics that quickly allow you to find the protagonist that fits your needs.

Mechanics that matter

Randomly selected maps keeps the gameplay fresh. Each map has distinct objectives which you should not ignore if you want to be successful.

Randomly selected maps keep the gameplay fresh. Each map has distinct objectives which you should better not ignore if you ever want to win games in HotS.

After committing to your first hero choice and game mode selection you get dropped into a randomly selected map. The loading screen explains the map objectives, which are further elaborated using a quick narrative cut scene once you enter map itself for the first time. Objectives range from capturing and holding choke-points to killing NPC creatures that drop items which progress your team towards a bigger goal. For example: one map features a small mine shaft which regularly spawns camps of undead miners which drop skulls you need to empower a huge and powerful golem fighting for your side. Since both teams want to acquire as many skulls as possible during that limited time span, bloody group battles are inevitable as the golem can get game-breakingly strong if the enemy team was left unhindered during the gathering phase.

Other maps feature similar mechanics, like controlling a huge (player-controlled) dragon knight or plant monster or gathering coins in order to bribe a ghostly pirate captain into shooting your enemies base. All of these mechanics are implemented with huge attention to detail and a lot of humor, as many of your actions get commentated by the narrator voice depending on how well you performed compared to the enemy team.

The haunted mines have a powerful boss that needs team-commitment to overcome. A high risk as the enemy team is always nearby.

The haunted mines have a powerful boss that needs team-commitment to overcome. A high risk as the enemy team is always nearby.

This focus on objective-based play also is a key factor that sets HotS apart from the competition. It’s the map itself that sets the rules, encouraging you to learning its intricacies and inherent mechanics in order to be successful. It’s a very smart approach compared to competitors like LOL or DOTA2, as the hard focus on objectives forces players to stick together very early during a game instead of focusing on their own character progressions. Like any other MOBA, farming minions and pushing your lane towards the enemy is also a key part of the game, but the emphasis on objectives blows a fresh wind into the genre that finally gives players a welcome break from farming minions and gathering gold.

Easy to learn, still easy enough to master

Controlling your hero is just as easy as in any other MOBA. Right from the get-go you have three abilities at your disposal (Q W E keys), with the fourth “ultimate” unlocking at level 10. Instead of buying items or earning gold you progress with your team using a shared XP bar that determines how quickly you get to upgrade your abilities. The upgrade paths on your talents is quite meaningful as it completely can change the way you approach encounters with your hero: Do you want to play as a tanky brawler or a rather offensive assassin type? Do you want to disrupt your opponents at long-range but sacrifice attack power? It’s all up to your talent choice, which can have a huge effect depending on your ability to judge the enemy’s approach and team setup.

Blizzard also did a great job at trimming away unnecessary meat from these mechanics: the shift towards meaningful talents combined with a shared XP bard makes team progression as a whole a lot more manageable. People are not left behind as everyone is sitting in the same boat. You don’t need to last-hit minions in minute-long laning sessions as being present in the lane is enough to earn XP for your team. Yes, removing items from the game has sacrificed a great deal of complexity you might expect from a MOBA, but it also removed the need for people to “carry” the whole team or buy items they originally didn’t want to use just because those items are currently “best in slot”.

Your talents reset with each match, but have an huge impact on how your hero plays in battles. Be sure to make the right decision.

Your talents reset with each match, but have an huge impact on how your hero plays in battles. Be sure to make the right decision.

All these design choices have a very simple idea behind them: They make HotS much more manageable to balance, as all the power sits within few Hero talents instead of hundreds of items. In addition to that the game is much more accessible to newcomers while still offering enough depth for pros to come up with good talent builds and team setups. Luckily i have yet to see a totally overpowered team setup or hero build, both of which being essential factors in a MOBA being successful in the competitive scene. Heroes of the Storm could best be described as “Mario Kart” of MOBAs in that respect: It looks very simplistic, sometimes childish in its design, but the underlying mechanics are deep and solid enough to allow professional players to bring in their own gaming meta and style of play.

Free to P(l)ay

This leaves one last and not important part of the game open: monetization. Being a free to play title, HotS needs to get some players into dropping some hard currency into the game so Blizzard can justify running the servers adding new heroes. For you as a consumer the biggest questions might be: Can I buy power for money in this game? Do I need to invest money to stay competitive or progress? And both of these questions can be answered with a clear “No!”.

Skins - while mostly being horribly overprized  - don't offer any kind of gameplay altering benefits.

Skins – while mostly being horribly overprized – don’t offer any kind of gameplay altering benefits.

The in-game show uses gold as currency to buy and unlock new heroes permanently (outside of the weekly free rotation that is). Gold prizes range from 2000 to 10000 per hero but are rather dependent on a hero’s time of introduction to the game rather than his actual power level. All the heroes are currently very well-balanced, so it doesn’t matter if you start your game with “budget” hero. Alternatively, all heroes can be unlocked with real money, with prizes ranging from 3-10 €, which sometimes get discounted.

XP boosters for your account (which has unlocks, no power-gain) and cosmetic items like skins are the only thing that require you to pay real money. It’s also very fair that Blizzard offers one alternative skin for gold once you have the corresponding individual hero level unlocked. Aside from that these skins offer no ingame benefits and remain purely cosmetic, which also goes for the other alternative mounts you can buy in the shop.

Quests allow you to earn gold that can be spend on new heroes. The pricing ranges are fair and allow you to quickly unlock new heroes simply by playing.

Quests allow you to earn gold that can be spend on new heroes. The pricing ranges are fair and allow you to quickly unlock new heroes simply by playing.

Gold is earned by doing daily quests which range from simple “play 8 games” tasks to playing a specific character (i.e. out of the Diablo universe) – if you play Hearthstone you will instantly grasp and understand this concept. Aside from that, leveling each hero to level 5 also grants you gold, as does leveling your account. The overall gold income is falling off at higher levels, but still allows you to buy at least 3-4 of your desired heroes after only a few days of play. The income is enough to stay competitive, as there are four major hero roles to fill (Fighter, Assassin, Support, Specialist). Given that you keep playing the game at a steady pace, unlocking all the heroes is a manageable task even if you don’t intend to spend a single dime.

Summary

All things considered, Heroes of the Storm is a very fun game that finally allows newcomers to the genre to experience the “thrills of MOBA”. It’s easy enough to pick up and play for a quick session, but also deep and polished enough to justify long-term commitment and mastering your favorite hero. The complexity of HotS is largely based on the map scenarios which highly encourage team play and communication in favor of rather boring creep farming that other MOBAs strongly focus on. Blizzard managed to simplify the formula without sacrificing the essence of the genre.

Monetization in this game can be considered very fair as you are never allowed to buy power or straight progress. Real money skin and hero prices in the shop are something that should be revised as it will only keep players from supporting this game.

Skins are nicely done, but don't have the high standard of competitors like Smite. The pricing should be adjusted accordingly to get people into buying them.

Skins are nicely done, but don’t have the high standard of competitors like Smite. The pricing should be adjusted accordingly to get people into buying them. Some packages are ridiculously overpriced up to the point of purchasing a whole new game instead, leaving a bad aftertaste in your mouth.

As far as the Beta goes, the technical side of the game can be considered quite solid. There are rare scenarios with lags and disconnects, but all games can be resumed instantly. Being built on the Star Craft 2 engine the game looks quite detailed and runs on a variety of machines, but also has problems in running absolutely perfect on high-end machines as it was originally optimized with low-end machines in mind.

If you have always hesitated to play MOBA games like League, DOTA or Smite due to their complexity, learning curve and toxic community I’d strongly suggest giving Heroes a close 2nd look as it is much more manageable to learn and master. Even cross-players are highly encouraged to give this game a try as it has enough redeeming factors and unique features to set it apart from the rest.

 


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