On paper, I shouldn’t really be enamored by Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s first foray into the MOBA genre. Its casualized and dumbed down approach to the genre seems like a retraction rather than an advancement for the MOBA formula. On the contrary, where Heroes of the Storm removes complicated staples of the genre, it adds in new mechanics that make it feel fresh and exciting. A few poor design choices outside of the actual game are the only detractors that lessen the otherwise great experience.
Let’s start with the basics. Heroes of the Storm is like any other MOBA out there. Two teams of five players face off on a battleground, controlling different heroes with unique abilities. The goal is to smash through the enemy’s defences to destroy their core. In between all that, you’re constantly battling against the enemies in team fights over certain objectives on the map to give your team an advantage. Pretty standard stuff for fans of the genre.
What makes Heroes of the Storm more unique is in its character selection. Famous characters from each of Blizzard’s huge franchises are the stars here. It’s a bit jarring at first to see Diablo fighting alongside the Zerg queen Kerrigan, but Heroes of the Storm takes the silliness in full stride. Each come fully stocked with iconic abilities from their respective games and have a unique feel to them. There are four main types of heroes: warrior, assassin, support, and specialist. All are self-explanatory aside from specialist, which essentially encompasses any of the heroes with unique styles of play.
Some heroes are certainly more interesting than others. Raynor, for example, is painfully boring to play and requires very little skill to play. On the other hand, Abathur is the most creative hero I’ve ever played in a MOBA. He actually sits behind defenses and produces a symbiote on any allied hero’s head to assist them while simultaneously spitting out locusts to push down lanes. This contrast in hero depth allows newer players to find heroes they can be comfortable with while giving hardcore players more complicated heroes to master.
One of the biggest changes Heroes of the Storm makes compared to other games in the genre is the removal of last hitting and items. In something like League of Legends, you’d have to kill AI controlled minions in order to gain gold which could be spent on a wide array of items. Heroes of the Storm instead relies on a team’s overall level with regards to experience gained from being near minions that die as well as killing the enemy team. No sole player can contribute more than another, as the entire team’s level rises throughout the game. It’s a neat system to alleviate the punishment of one bad teammate and put the focus on overall teamwork. At the same time, it can occasionally be frustrating to not be able to take over a match yourself.
When your team levels up, the talent system takes effect. Every few team levels, you can choose one talent that augments your hero’s abilities – sort of like a skill tree in an RPG. These talents can be small, such as increasing the range of an ability. Others can drastically affect how a hero is played. Rehgar’s trait allows him to change into wolf at an instance, but he doesn’t possess much attack power. However, once you hit level 13 you can choose a talent that allows Rehgar to lunge at his enemies in wolf form for massive damage. It’s these little interactions where you can choose how to load out your hero that sells the talent system for me.
I do think the talent system needs a bit of work though. Too often many heroes have talents at certain level tiers that are far better than others. As Blizzard has moved on in releasing new heroes, they have done a much better job at creating interesting talent choices that require you to make difficult decisions based on the type of enemies you’re facing. Still, I hope Blizzard can take a look back at some of their weakly designed heroes and implement more interesting talents.
Another way Heroes of the Storm differentiates itself from the MOBA pack is the inclusion of multiple competitive maps. Right now Heroes of the Storm has seven different maps that each have their own unique layout and objectives. The Haunted Mines is a simple two-lane map, but at certain times you have to enter a sub-map to collect skulls. The more skulls you collect, the larger golem you create that barrels down a lane destroing any structures in its path. For Blackheart’s Bay, you must kill neutral camps to collect coins which can be turned in to a dirty pirate. In return, he starts launching cannonballs at the enemy’s base. Every map has a fun mechanic like this that drastically changes how you play and plays to certain heroes’ strengths.
Each match tends to play like a game of tug of war, which each sides taking advantages from each other upon gathering objectives. It seems shallow at first glance, but after playing for awhile, complex strategies start to become apparent. Taking a neutral mercenary camp to push down a lane before an objective shows up for taking can be a great way to get a leg up. Team compositions can be built around creating a massive combo that can wipe the enemy team in seconds or they can be made to ignore objectives to continually push structures down. The downside to this wider array of strategy is that it can be hard to communicate with your teammates when you’re not playing with friends. Matches do end much more quickly due to the accelerated pace of the game, roughly ending around 20-25 minutes, which is nice compared to the sometimes hour long matches in other MOBAs.
My only real problem with the actual gameplay of Heroes of the Storm is that Blizzard has built it on an old engine. This results in performance issues for even the most powerful gaming rigs. Framerate drops below 60 in chaotic teamfights which is never ideal for a game requiring quick inputs. Heroes of the Storm is definitely a pretty game, but it comes at the cost of smoothness.
Outside of actual matches, Heroes of the Storm starts to fall apart. There are very few modes in which you can actually play. There’s playing against a team of AI, Quickmatch, Hero League, and Team League. Playing against the AI is great for newer players and does its job well enough, even if the computer gets stomped pretty easily. Quickmatch is where the majority of newer players will be found, and it’s filled with problems. You lock in a hero you want to play, and the matchmaking matches you with other random players. The issue is that the system doesn’t build the best of compositions. Sometimes you’ll be matched with all tanky warriors or all assassins, while the enemy team will have a more balanced composition. These situations feel unfair, and while games with unbalanced compositions aren’t completely unwinnable, it shouldn’t happen.
Once you hit user level 30, you can start playing in the ranked mode called Hero League. This is essentially the best way to play Heroes of the Storm if you’re looking for that competitive edge. You enter into a draft mode where each team takes turns picking heroes and once a hero is picked it can’t be chosen by the other team. Almost every game will have balanced compositions and as a result, more complex and strategical play will come about. The ranking system does seem a bit odd though, with no communication on how points are given and taken away. Also, if you happen to disconnect or bug out of a game, it can count as a “leave” which means your rank gets dropped.
Another detractor for Heroes of the Storm is the fact that Blizzard has gone the free-to-play route and the model isn’t exactly user friendly. Heroes are priced just a bit too high for real money. You can earn in-game gold that is used to purchase heroes without spending a dime, but the gold gain can be a bit too slow once you’ve reaped the “new player” rewards. Luckily there are seven free heroes to play that rotate out each week. Also, before you purchase a hero you can try them in a tutorial setting, which helps ease the pain of the high prices. Each hero has skins that can be bought as well and many of them are excellently made, some with new animations and voice work. It’s just puzzling Blizzard took an outdated free-to-play model when other games have come out with better systems.
There also seems to be a myriad of features missing. You can’t spectate your friends’ games, talk to the enemy team in-game, view replays of matches on a previous patch or watch replays with your friends, there’s no clan system, and no unranked draft mode. You can argue that these features may be implemented in the future, but the reality is that Heroes of the Storm has released years after other big MOBAs who have had these features.
The funny thing is that despite that long list of negatives that surround Heroes of the Storm, I can’t stop playing. I now have 1,200 games logged in just 6 months, and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon. The more casual approach allows me to easily jump in and play a few matches wihout getting stressed out.The bombastic nature of matches of teams constantly battling it out over objectives is just downright fun. And even though it may remove staple mechanics of the genre, there’s enough added to the formula that gives Hereos of the Storm a bit of a hidden depth to it. Despite some hiccups and weak free-to-play system, Heroes of the Storm is a great first step for Blizzard getting into an otherwise dominated genre.