Heroes of the Storm Closed Beta Impressions: Enter the Storm

heroes-of-the-storm-beta-headerApart from free-to-play mobile tower defence games, I’m not sure there’s a more crowded genre in gaming than MOBA. At the top of the pile, you have League of Legends and Dota 2. Smite is probably the #3 MOBA though Heroes of Newerth would probably give it a run for its money. You’ve also got the like of Strife and Infinite Crisis too. There are probably plenty of other that I can throw in there but I don’t want a 1,000 word intro.

The problem is that while each game has its little intricacies, they all feel fairly similar at the end of the day. You play one member of a five-player team on a three-lane map with towers that you must power through in order to destroy the central structure of the enemy base.

Heroes of the Storm doesn’t completely revolutionize the basics of a MOBA. It’s still a five-on-five match to destroy the enemy team’s core. However, Blizzard has taken the standard Point A to Point B approach to MOBAs and turned it on its head. What results is the most unique MOBA on the market right now.

Heroes of the Storm, formerly Blizzard DOTA and Blizzard All-Stars, features characters (called heroes) from all over the Blizzard universe. For the most part, the Heroes are from WarCraft lore but you will also be able to play as characters from StarCraft and Diablo as well. They fall into the classes of warriors (tanks), assassins (burst-damage), support (healer-ish) and specialists (who seem to defy the other traditional categories). Each class can also have melee and ranged auto-attacks with the exception of warriors who are all melee.

heroes-of-the-storm-beta-screenshot-01-hero-selectWhile the hero pool is only at 35 at the moment and the current competitive meta leaves only two viable tanks at high levels of play, I don’t find the options underwhelming. In League or Infinite Crisis, I only played a handful of Champions. Thanks to the seven heroes per week free rotation and bonuses for leveling up heroes through playing them, not only am I playing a lot of heroes (apart from melee heroes) but enjoying a lot. I routinely bounce between eight or nine Heroes but could easy play over a dozen competently.

The first thing that really seems to set HOTS apart from the standard MOBA is the map pool. If you play League or Dota, it seems like something like 95% of all matches are played on the standard three-lane 5-v-5 map. Sure, there are two-lane and Dominion (capture point) maps as well with their own dedicated player base but the standard map is king.

In Heroes of the Storm, there’s a legitimate map pool. As of writing, there are seven different maps to play on. And it’s not just a matter of the maps looking different or having different shapes. The maps each have different team objectives that influence how they are played.

Perhaps the downside is that most of the maps are geared around collecting various items to activate a boost of some sort for your team. For example, Blackheart’s Bay sees you gather coins from treasure chests to start a ghost pirate ship bombardment of the enemy team’s structures. It’s not too dissimilar from Haunted Mines (gather skulls in the mines to power a golem), Tomb of the Spider Queen (gather gems to send spiders to push lanes) or Garden of Terror (gather seeds to activate a controllable boss).

The other maps (Sky Temple, Dragon Shire and Cursed Hollow) are played around central objective points that encourage everyone to gather to a central point or two. With all ten players heading the same way, you have some epic team fights that separates the men from the boys as skill and a bit of luck are bigger determinants of victory than levels. (Granted, the stupidity of engaging too soon is probably the biggest factor in a team fight.)

heroes-of-the-storm-beta-screenshot-03-blackhearts-bayWhile MOBA purists might think of these big map objectives as a bit gimmicky, the thing is that the objectives open up comeback opportunities. Watching the LCS finals not too long ago, I had an idea of who would win a map in the first 10 to 15 minutes. I can’t tell you how many times in HOTS that an objective or a teamfight turned a match around that I thought my team would win or lose. Take that Heroes of the Dorm final, for example. It’s no fun playing a game for 30 minutes after knowing the result. Playing a game and knowing that the match could turn at any moment? I like that.

The other thing that I like that will probably throw off players of more traditional MOBAs is the lack of a jungler role. There’s a jungle but it’s not about extra experience and various buffs like in League.

If you go into the jungle, you’ll find a few jungle camps but these jungle creatures are neutral mercenary camps that you can bring into your team’s employ by defeating the creatures occupying them and standing on them capture point to earn their service. They’ll then push down the nearest lane and try to power through the enemy’s structures. So they’re a buff to your team and a tactical advantage as your enemy either has to devote manpower or turret ammo to defeating merc camps. Meanwhile, you can be off doing other things like split pushing or taking an objective.

I suppose that brings me to another big difference between HOTS and other MOBAs. Individual players don’t have experience and levels. Instead, you level as a team. Basically, your team doesn’t have one “carry” player that you push around but it does provide an opportunity for a game to snowball if one team has a level advantage.

heroes-of-the-storm-beta-screenshot-04The idea is to foster a team-first attitude. You win as a team and lose as a team. For the most part, that does work. Some people have a hard time with that. In League, you could conceivably get away with taking a 1v2 or 1v3 if you had a level advantage and the right build and abilities. If you try doing that in HOTS, you better be twice as good as the two people on the red team (you always see yourself as blue regardless of whether you are blue or red from a neutral perspective).

In my short stints in League and Infinite Crisis, I tended to play support characters. You’re not exactly going to be pushing max level is your job is to get the Carry running alongside you fed. Compare that to this where you can play support and not have to worry about giving kills and creep score to the Carry. In this, it’s a full push forward. You don’t have to worry about kill-stealing. Any kill helps the team so it all but eliminates the me-first attitudes that make other MOBAs a little poisonous.

I’m actually a really big fan of team experience. Sure, that’s probably because I haven’t sunk hundreds of hours into League and IC (though it’s probably over 100 when you combine the two) but it brings a more team-focused element to what is supposed to be a team game.

I guess the other MOBA question is how do creep score and kills not impact your leveling and build. Well, that’s because items are gone too. At levels 1, 4, 7, 10, 13, 16 and 20, you can choose talents which affect your characters abilities, passives and give you activatable spells. Unlike having to memorize a purchase order of items for the store, you get to choose from up to five talents at those levels to power up your character. And there isn’t a one-size fits all build for each character. You can tailor your build to your team, the map and the current situation. Need more DPS? Spec into that. Dying a lot? Choose survivability talents. Need some AOE? There are probably talents for that too.

Right now there are five game modes. There is Practice mode which pits you and four AI bots against five bots. Cooperative mode sees you and four human teammates against five AI bots. Quick match throws two teams of five humans into battle. Hero League (available at Level 30) is a ranked mode for solo gamers or parties of less than five. If you have five people, then you’re off to Team League (unlocked at Level 40) where your team of five battles for supremacy.

heroes-of-the-storm-promo-01-team-leagueThe not League modes allow you to pick your Hero and get matched up with other players of similar skill on a random map (though Blizz is trying to keep you from replaying the same map endlessly). The problem is that your team comp sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. In Practice, it’s never an issue. It’s seldom an issue in Coop (though a three support team makes life a little hard). In Quick Match, it’s hard to overcome a clearly inferior team comp. More work has to be done to ensure teams are balanced in composition in addition to MMR.

The two League modes have draft modes to select Heroes. There aren’t any bans (most competitive championships use a third-party solution that adds bans). Hero League puts teams in order for drafting but you can talk to your team in chat and click on a hero to call dibs. Team League is basically catch-as-catch-can. Anyone on a team can lock in a pick when the team is up to draft so you do have to do a little bit of communicating to prioritize picks and who gets them.

The economics of the game have come under fire. It’s not unusual for free-to-play MOBAs to have a slow in-game currency payout to encourage real money payouts. HOTS might be the slowest with 10 gold per win in a vs. AI match, 20 for a loss in a quick match and 35 for a QM win.

heroes-of-the-storm-beta-screenshot-05-daily-questsThere are a few ways to boost your gold intake. A stimpack costs $3.99 for 7 days or $9.99 for 30 days and doubles your XP and more than doubles your gold from matches. Getting a character to levels 5, 10, 15 and 20 will earn a not insubstantial chunk of gold. Most early levels and every five later account levels earn gold. And there are the unique daily quests. You can have up to three active at a time. They’ll earn you from 200 to 800 gold per quest so you can play every three days and pick up 1,000 gold plus what you earn for a game. It’s not great but it beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

So I’ve come all this way without getting to the beta bugs. There are a few issues that this game has. The first is that your framerate seems largely reliant on getting a good connection with the server. It seems to be something to do with the setup of the game. I don’t quite understand it but it also ties into the reconnect system. When you reconnect to the game, the game will fast-forward through all the commands of the game until you catch up to the game at its live point in time. It’s apparently a more reliable but slower version of the reconnect system other MOBAs use.

At the very least, the game is very detailed. It uses the StarCraft II engine which looks fairly good but the framerate can breakdown when the screen gets really busy. There have been times when team fights will drop my framerate from 60 to 30 or less. In fact, I’ve seen casters have their game do the same in big team fights. I’d hope that there are some performance improvements, whether it’s on the server end or in the game engine to improve overall performance.

heroes-of-the-storm-beta-screenshot-06The good news is that apart from server-based connection problems and the associated performance issues, I’ve found game-breaking glitches few and far between. Shadows sound like they aren’t fully sorted out. SLI comparability is a work in progress. Characters and abilities are still being balanced. An ability here and there is claimed to be broken. Occasionally, a post-match character leveling screen will show completely wrong info but the correct effect of the XP and gold is applied to your account.

There is a tonne of voice acting in this game. There are interactions between characters in the same franchise that reference game lore. Characters have some Easter egg lines for while they’re waiting for you to do something or getting credit for a kill after death. For the most part, the voice acting is pretty good and the dialogue is enjoyable. Infinite Crisis did have some character interaction but it didn’t feel like it was on the same level as HOTS.

Conclusion

heroes-of-the-storm-beta-screenshot-02-victorySo I’ve spent over 2,000 words talking about Heroes of the Storm and I feel as though I can keep going. I hadn’t planned for this to be such a long post but I also hadn’t planned to play this game almost every night for the last month. I’ll never be a pro at it and I’ll probably never solo queue to anything above Rank 40 of Hero League but it’s just way too much fun not to play.

There is still a bunch of polish work that needs to be done to the game before release. While Blizzard says they’re working on new maps and heroes, it’s been since March that we’ve seen anything resembling a patch. I’m fine with seven maps, that’s plenty, but more heroes and some more regular balancing would be welcome. I think some serious beefing up of the servers is needed before the open beta launch in May because they’ll make the Diablo III launch look like a picnic.

I won’t say that Heroes of the Storm is going to rapidly ascend to the top of the MOBA genre or eSports scene. I won’t say that fans of other MOBAs will be instant converts. I will say that I think this is a far more casual friendly MOBA than the competition. After all, not everyone wants to be a pro.

Heroes of the Storm closed beta was reviewed on Windows PC but is also available for Mac OS X. The game will be available in open beta starting May 19th with the full release to follow on June 2nd. The impressions of the game as written do not necessarily represent the state of the game at final release. Your impression of the game may differ based on PC specs, bugs encountered and whether you like the old standard of MOBAs or want something new.

Cross-posted from et geekera. For more from et geekera, follow us on FacebookTwitterGoogle+Tumblr, Steam and RSS.

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