Given the origins of the online battle arena genre, in which StarCraft and Warcraft III modifications played a major role, it was only a matter of time: Blizzard has thrown down its hand in the MOBA market. Heroes of the Storm is yet another example of the quality we expect from the developer: ideas that have been explored elsewhere are given a level of refinement and accessibility that makes the eventual result nigh impossible to dislike. Heroes of the Storm is fantastic, assembling Blizzard’s colorful characters into a highly absorbing tactical arena game.
As with games like League of Legends and Dota 2, two teams of five face off with the goal of destroying the opponent’s base. Unlike those games, however, the map upon which teams face off is not a near carbon copy of those from other genres. Heroes of the Storm features seven unique maps with various secondary objectives that can assist a team in their siege of the enemy base. Each of these secondary objectives serves to create interesting movement and points of conflict, thus preventing the game from devolving into poke wars or stalemates where teams are too afraid to engage with each other.
One such map is the Garden of Terror, in which players collect seeds from monsters upon nightfall in order to summon and take control of a garden terror of their own, which has the power to turn foes into zombie plants and plant vines that temporarily disable enemy towers. The garden terror’s massive health pool forces the opposing team to take it down before it wreaks havoc upon their bases. Furthermore, controlling the garden terror can lead to an interesting minigame of keep-away in the early stages of the game, as you sprint to drop the vines in every lane you can manage before your empowered state runs out or your terror is killed.
In another map, The Haunted Mines, the secondary objective sends players underground, off the main area of the map to collect skulls that empower their team’s massive grave golem. The power of each team’s golem depends on the number of the 100 available skulls they are able to acquire. Teams must react and take position according to how well they managed to acquire skulls underground while the mines were open. A stronger enemy golem requires staunch defenses, while golems relatively even in power enable more versatile splits of defenders and attackers. Each team’s golem pushes opposite lanes, and upon collection of another 100 skulls, revives wherever it died previously, adding a sense of dread when an enemy’s golem dies close to your core. The battles with the grave golem are the main course, certainly, but the skirmishes in the mines and the tight interplay of fending off the enemy team while your team slays the mine’s boss is quite the appetizing hors d’oeuvre.
Blackheart’s Bay, the Tomb of the Spider Queen, and Dragon Shire are all battlegrounds supporting intense and exhilarating comebacks. The game’s inherent comeback mechanics, such as longer death timers for higher level players, and map-specific secondary objectives, offer the trailing team plenty of opportunities to close the gap. In Dragon Shire, for instance, players may channel the great power of the towering warrior known as the dragon knight, allowing one hero to temporarily transform into the knight. Each successive dragon knight summon is stronger, leading to a progressively thrilling brawl each time the dragon knight is summoned.
One of Heroes of the Storm’s primary draws is its cast of characters from Blizzard’s various franchises. Warcraft’s Uther, Malfurion, Illidan, Jaina, Thrall, and others face off against StarCraft’s Raynor, Kerrigan, Tychus, Tassadar, and Zeratul as well as Diabl’s Diablo, Azmodan, Tyrael, and a few representatives of the Diablo III playable characters. Despite being essentially recycled pre-existing characters, Heroes of the Storm’s character design still greatly impresses. Diablo offers his signature red lightning breath as an area-of-effect team fight ultimate, while Raynor may call in help from the Hyperion Battlecruiser to rain down fire from above. Arthas summons Sindragosa to freeze all in her path. These characters bring their own signature moves from their franchises into the arena with them, while still sliding neatly into the mold of a different genre.
While most characters fit into the standard classes of Warrior (tanks with crowd control), Assassin (sustained damage and nuking mages), and Supports (mostly healers), Heroes of the Storm features a fourth classification: Specialists. Specialists all have mechanics unique to their characters and don’t really compare to the other characters in the game. Abathur may attach a symbiote to an allied unit in order to launch his attacks from the safety of his own base. Azmodan empowers nearby minions while summoning a relative army all his own. Murky, the Baby Murloc, may lay an egg anywhere on the map in order to respawn there within a few seconds of death, rather than the long respawn timer to revive in base. The Specialist characters offer an entirely different perspective on Heroes of the Storm’s gameplay.
Ideas that have been explored elsewhere are given a level of refinement and accessibility that makes the eventual, golden result nigh impossible to dislike.
Of the many heroes I played, only one made me question its usefulness–and only one other made me feel unstoppable. Overall, excellent hero balancing means that you rarely assume that a game is over before it starts because one team has a hero that yours doesn’t–except perhaps when an opposing player has chosen Sylvanas. The slight imbalances that do exist are cleverly blanketed by the team-focused design that encourage grouping and teamwork, as well as by the game’s matchmaking, which prioritizes balanced team composition over throwing five assassin players into a team. Occasionally, some combinations of heroes are a perfect storm that causes one particular hero shine–Illidan with a healer and an Abathur on his team is one such instance–which may lead to perceived imbalances. But once you realize Illidan isn’t the only one doing work, the illusion is dispelled.
As your character levels up during a match, you choose how to customize your build using various stat-boosting talents that augment your character’s skills. Skills improve in damage on their own as you gain levels, but talents may add additional damage or effects to those skills. For example, Stitches must choose between extending the reach of his hook or enabling it to snag a second target; Valla and Falstad may choose between empowering their basic attacks or shifting more damage to their abilities. Each character has a set of unique choices to customize your style either to your own personal preference, or to suit the map. There are no items to buy in Heroes of the Storm: all of your character customization is handled solely by the talent system. One of my frustrations with the game stems from talents, as two or three of the available talents per level are gated behind a hero mastery system that requires you to play several games as the hero before you are allowed to select some of the more advanced masteries. This cripples character potential in Quick Match and encourages players to grind for experience in matches versus the less capable AI in order to level up their hero’s mastery.
Heroes of the Storm is a free-to-play game; thus, playable characters are limited to a free week rotation and characters are unlocked through Gold (earned by playing) or real money. With the existence of daily quests such as “Win three games” or “Play two games as a Diablo character,” gold comes easily, and it never feels like it will take days of playing to unlock whatever character you’re looking for. Bonus gold is also given out at various account level milestones and for reaching mastery level five of a character. Overall, the free-to-play structure doesn’t feel greedy or insurmountable, even when you only casually engage. Admittedly, it may take a long time to unlock every character in the game, but unlocking a decent variety of characters should come rather easily. I’m admittedly not the best person to trust with regards to games labeled “free-to-play” though; I’ve spent over a thousand dollars in League of Legends over the years.
If you wish to shine individually, you may not enjoy Heroes of the Storm; the game is very team-centric, to the point that even experience is shared across an entire team–all players on the same team are the same level during a match. An individual’s power to affect a match is limited. Grouping up is essential to winning matches, and attempting any sort of heroic 1-vs.-5 play will likely be met with death. This serves to reduce the amount of rampant toxicity the genre is rather notorious for bringing; most game and chat experiences feature very few instances of nasty epithets, and with cross-team chat disabled outright, there is no opportunity for insulting opponents.
The environments, animations, and sounds of combat all evoke a mental investment in the action. Animations are simultaneously flashy and elegant, and ability animations feature enough clarity that it’s rare to be confused about what killed you. Tassadar’s Psionic Storm crackles and flashes for each enemy it hits. As E.T.C. The Rock God leaps into the fray from across the map, a rocking guitar riff signals his landing. The comical trio of Lost Vikings mounts up into its longboat when activating a heroic ability, and the three sing a merry tune as they rain cannon fire down on nearby foes and towers. And the sound of a dead hero (with which you will become very familiar) features a bass “shoomp” to draw just the right amount of satisfaction for each and every kill your team secures.
Heroes of the Storm is a must-play for both MOBA players and Blizzard enthusiasts. It avoids stepping into the exact footprints of the games that paved the way for the genre, and delivers a beautifully graceful, unique experience with familiar characters. And should you not fall into either category, it is still a fantastic casual-competitive game that offers untold hours of enjoyment.