Friday, June 5, 2015

Rican's Free 2 Play Friday: Heroes of the Storm

Rican's Free 2 Play Friday, a weekly look into free-to-play gaming such as MOBAs, MMOs, Team Shooters, and more! This week we look at Blizzard Entertainment's foray into the MOBA space with Heroes of the Storm!

  As far as gaming genres in the PC community go, very few, command such a strong following and communities as the mighty MOBA. I've touched up on both the genre and one of the current kings, within said genre, in the PC landscape. And while DOTA 2 exemplifies the far end of all the gameplay obstacles that the genre has difficulty easing brand new players into, League of Legends feels like the happy medium within the playing curve. But Blizzard Entertainment has had a stake in the MOBA genre since it inadvertently gave birth to it during Warcraft III, or Starcraft if you want to be technical.


A byproduct of all of its existing franchises (and one could argue their genres), Heroes of the Storm is the MOBA specifically designed for the uninitiated in mind, while also keeping enough freshness and tactical dexterity hidden deep in its overly simplistic format to satisfy even veterans of the genre. Today, I look at the final product (after my months spent in the technical Alpha and Beta stages) and give my overall feeling of the game in its current incarnation. This is Blizzard Entertainment's first official MOBA (internally dubbed a "Hero Brawler"): Heroes of the Storm.

Presentation wise, Heroes of the Storm is extremely similar to DOTA 2 and LoL, in the sense that everything is easily identifiable (Match types, character/skins shop, etc.), but whereas DOTA 2 and LoL have a medieval swords and sorcery motif, HotS goes for a futuristic one. Using Starcraft's Jim Raynor as the player's anchor during the tutorial and thereby explaining just how exactly is Diablo (of the eponymous franchise) fighting Uther Lightbringer (of Warcraft fame, not to mention, currently deceased) via inter dimensional space and time travel to a hybrid world called "Nexus." It is here in the Nexus that the Heroes of the Storm fight for supremacy in tug of war similar to all MOBAs before it... with some new twists to throw veterans off.

There's a few things that initially stick out, to MOBA veterans, when playing your first match in Heroes of the Storm. The first is the talent system, in most MOBAs, talents are allocated outside of game matches, usually preemptively with a specific build in mind. The talent system in other games directly affects not only your gameplay, but what items you buy in the shop while fighting against an enemy team, the decisions usually based on your opposition's makeup and your talent choices. Heroes of the Storm effectively combines the item shop and the talent system into one "on the fly" element that forgoes "gold farming" (experience from creeps and "soaking" experience points in lanes now becomes a "currency") and promotes active engagement into map objectives and team fights.

Every few levels characters gain access to a talent out of a pop-up list, the choices are permanent until the end of the match, and range from passive abilities (more Health or shorter cooldowns) to active abilities (Speed boosts or Damage cooldowns). At level 10, players must choose between two "Ultimate Abilities" that can dramatically change a given "Hero's" gameplay. As an example: Kael'Thas Sunstrider is a "Ranged Assassin" that uses damage over time spells and area of effect spells with a crowd control spell as well in his toolset, but his "Ultis" offer either chooses to do a single damage long-cast nuke, or an instant area of effect re-castable damage over time spell. Both choices are good, but are dependent on the enemy team's makeup, the map (and therefore tactical layout) and, most importantly, personal preference.

  The second obvious difference between HotS and other MOBAs is the staggering amount of maps and objectives in each map. Most MOBAs have been perfectly happy with the standard three lane format map (with the occasional gimmick map) but HotS comes right off the gate with: Dragon Knight, Haunted Mines, Pirate's Bay, Tomb of the Spider Queen, Night Garden, Egyptian Bugaloo. All the stages having their own personal announcer, objectives, aesthetics, and even different layouts such as two lane and multi lane variations of the more traditional three lane layout! Also, worthy of notice is a real-time stat tracker that can give your team (and enemy team) a snapshot of: Takedowns (enemy kills/assists), Deaths, Siege Damage (turrets, towers, etc.), Hero Damage, Healing (self and heroes, to include shielding), and Experience contribution (objectives, laning, etc.); the tracker also shows talent choices so discovering new builds becomes an organic discovery, rather than a Google search.

"A flying Egyptian fortress suspended in the air? Surely this will go well!"

Heroes of the Storm follows the standard pricing model of League of Legends (or even Hearthstone if you're a Blizzard ecosystem inhabitant): in-game gold can be accrued by playing games and doing daily "quests" (usually "Play with X class for 3 games" or "Win X amount of matches") that produce a substantial amount of extra gold. Heroes in the in-game shop range from 2,000 G and newer heroes usually arrive for 15,000 G. If you choose to forgo using in-game currency you can purchase both characters, mounts, and skins for real money. Skins and mounts are only available for real money transactions, ensuring that the game doesn't fall into a "buy to win" trap. Most of the best heroes in the game are actually fairly cheap, and over time the prices become cheaper as new heroes get cycled in; balancing itself at the end of the day.

Pictured: Sadly, not the gold to buy new Heroes.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the varying levels of character difficulties. Certain heroes like LiLi (support) and Raynor (assassin) are incredibly easy to pick up and master to satisfying degrees with very few games and tinkering of talents. But the "Specialist" types can be downright unforgiving for new players. Heroes like Abathur and The Lost Vikings (yes, those Vikings) have gameplay mechanics that could easily be their own separate game. The Lost Vikings, for example, are THREE separate heroes in one. Playing them as one unit, and as separate units, in the thick of a team fight or a particularly arduous objective cap can be intense even for the most seasoned DOTA 2 or LoL player.

One last thing to mention, before I go over the hero released on launch, while HotS is deceptively simple, to the point of being mocked and ridiculed by the more poisonous MOBA communities of LoL and DOTA 2, the simplicity hides a deep and engaging game that's, above all, fun. Sure, the loss of the item shop takes a while to get used to, but is micromanaging gold intake and purchasing items from a set build really that engrossing of a gameplay element? Are "last hitting" and "denying" fun elements of the genre? Or are they archaic elements that have been kept in other franchises (some already cancelled or announced to be) only to appease to purists?

At the end of the day: is messing with a courier to bring you items while you're fighting someone that important of a gameplay mechanic? The same question could be asked about last hitting and creep denials. Or would you rather play a game where you can actually, I don't know, PLAY the game and engage in the very essence of a match, rather than fiddle with menus within menus to min max your character on a match by match basis? The jury will be out now that HotS has gone live, but one can only hope that the genre moves away from tedious elements and moves more towards enhancing the gameplay and mechanics the way HotS seems to emphasize heroes' mechanics and objective team-based gameplay.

Not my actual progression screen at all...

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Look into Free 2 Play Columns: League of LegendsMarvel Heroes 2015

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