When I jumped into Heroes of the Storm for the first time last week, my first thought was, "Uh oh, I'm in trouble."
I've been playing games long enough to know when one really has its hooks in me. I'll find myself playing until all hours of the night, sneaking off for a quick round when I'm supposed to be working on something else, and thinking about it when I'm not at home. After awhile I usually have to forcibly pry myself away, because if I don't, I simply won't get anything done.
Heroes of the Storm is like that for me right now. It owned my Memorial Day weekend, eating up a large chunk of Friday night and Saturday morning. I've been experimenting with different hero classes, learning the different maps, and slowly getting to the point where I'm not a liability to my team. Now I'm even starting to win a little bit.
It's grabbed me in a way that no other MOBA really has until this point. And I suspect I'm not the only one.
In the summer of 2005, I was invited to a friend's house to play DotA Allstars, the mod that was at the time dominating WarCraft III. Using Blizzard's extensive map creation tools, an enterprising user had created a game that mated WarCraft III's heroes with a variant of Desktop Tower Defense. The result quickly garnered a large following, eventually overtaking the game that spawned it.
My first experience with the genre was overwhelmingly positive. We had a large group that we were able to split into two teams, and I was assigned to Team Living Room. Though I was entirely new to DotA, I quickly grasped concepts like lane discipline and when to push, and combined with my prior experience with WarCraft III, I was more than able to hold my own. We defeated Team Kitchen with ease.
DotA rattled around in my head for some weeks after that party, and when I eventually got a computer that could handle WarCraft III (I was a poor college student), I decided to load it up. To my surprise, though, I found that I didn't enjoy it as much as I had at the LAN Party. It wasn't nearly as fun to play with random people as it was with friends. I quickly gave up on it, but I catalogued it for future reference.
Years later, I was offered an opportunity to check out what I was told was a DotA clone at GDC. It would have the same concepts, I was told, but new characters, and it would be free-to-play. I had never heard of the studio behind the game, and I was skeptical that free-to-play could work in the U.S. I wrote it off as a cheap knockoff of DotA and went on my way.
You know where I'm going with this, right? That game was League of Legends, and it eventually went on to dominate PC gaming, becoming the "WoW Killer" that so many studios had dreamed of creating.
League of Legends, in retrospect, was brilliant. Its modest tech requirements and free-to-play business model enabled it to quickly build a huge and loyal following. And by utilizing a cartoony art style to mask their game's basic graphics, Riot Games borrowed a page from Blizzard's playbook, making their game both attractive and accessible.
And yet, for one reason or another, I've never been able to get into League of Legends. I've dabbled in it here and there, but I haven't had the time or motivation to really embrace it and learn the metagame. As a result, I've mostly been a bystander as the MOBA train has roared ahead and destroyed everything in its path. Until now, at least.
I've had a few reasons for avoiding MOBAs until now.
I don't particularly like the pressure of playing team-based games with random people. I'd rather have the opportunity to make mistakes and embarrass myself on my own. There's nothing worse than feeling like a liability to your team in a competitive game, particularly when your team is comprised of strangers who are judging you from afar.
I've been a bit leery of the time commitment. I liked what I played of League of Legends, but the fact that games took up to an hour to complete made it less than compulsive. It was also a lousy feeling to screw up early and find my team in a death spiral, painfully aware that defeat was inevitable.
Finally, I'm never content to just pick up and play a competitive game. If I'm going to devote time to something, I generally want to be at least kind of good at it. But with my time at a premium, I've lately been less inclined to throw myself into mastering individual characters, let alone an entire competitive metagame. I've got other games that I'd like to play.
In the meantime, an entire culture has grown up around League of Legends — a culture that I've struggled to grasp at times. It has its own language, its own heroes, and its own holidays. Following League of Legends and Dota 2 makes me understand how people who don't follow sports feel during the Super Bowl.
MOBAs remind me of how much gaming has changed in just the past five years. In some ways, I hate it. It makes me feel hopelessly out of touch, which is an awful feeling to have when you're supposed to be covering an industry for a living. There's a part of me that wishes it would all go back to the way it was before. But I also know that change is inevitable, and some of it is even for the best.
That hasn't made me want to play MOBAs, though.
So what's different about Heroes of the Storm, you ask? Quite a bit, actually.
In playing catch-up with Riot Games and Valve, Blizzard is doing what they did with first WarCraft II, and later World of WarCraft and Hearthstone. Like Apple, they've almost never been the first to the party. They're content to hang back and refine, eventually releasing the definitive version of whatever is popular at the moment and taking control.
The first thing I noticed about Heroes of the Storm is how fast it moves. I went in expecting the usual 45 minute game, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was finished in around half that time, putting it right in that optimal 15 to 20 minute range. It works out in part because Heroes of the Storm is much more free-flowing than other popular MOBAs. There are early, mid, and late phases, but once the map objectives start to hit, any semblance of structure quickly evaporates.
Map objectives are Heroes of the Storm's main contribution to the MOBA milieu, and they affect pretty much every aspect of the game. Objectives vary from paying off a pirate to rain cannonfire on the enemy base to battling for skulls in a haunted mine to raise a powerful golem, and they almost always result in the sort 5v5 battles that make for great viewing in Twitch. They also speed up the game considerably, making it much easier to break down enemy defenses and attack their core.
Superfluous elements like items are gone, and while there are plenty of abilities to choose from, they are presented in such a way that it's relatively easy to memorize a character build. As such, I've been able to pick up quite a few characters with relative ease, with roles ranging from offensive tank to pure assassin. Characters like Nova — a pure sniper who relies on a cloak and high burst damage to take out foes — can be tough to learn, but the reduced time commitment from the shorter matches makes them easier to embrace.
That they're also familiar faces from games that I've loved over the years, from WarCraft to The Lost Vikings, certainly doesn't hurt either. Just by virtue of having used them in other Blizzard games, I generally have a good idea of how they're supposed to work in-game. But there's still plenty to learn.
The upshot of all this is that I basically can't put Heroes of the Storm down. I expect purists will complain about the slimmed down mechanics and the removal of such time-honored elements as last-hitting, but as a relative newcomer to the genre, their absence doesn't particularly bother me. If anything, the simpler the better. Heroes of the Storm focuses on the aspects that make MOBAs fun, most notably teamwork.
I've heard some call it "Baby's First MOBA" or something to that effect, much as I've heard MMORPG enthusiasts grouse about World of WarCraft over the years. Blizzard has long had a reputation for dispensing with complexity in favor of accessibility, and Heroes of the Storm certainly doesn't seem any different. But subtraction isn't always a bad thing so long as it's done intelligently and with a view toward improving the game as a whole. And as far as I can tell, Blizzard's changes have done that.
It'll be interesting to see whether Heroes of the Storm ultimately has any staying power, particularly with League of Legends and Dota 2 being so established and dominant. There's always the possibility that it will prove too shallow and people will drift away. But my suspicion is that it will be fine. Blizzard has a knack for building addictive multiplayer games, and there's enough of an appetite for another good MOBA that there's reason to believe that HotS can go "full Hearthstone," as I like to call it.
As for me, it's been a pleasure to finally be able to put aside some of my misgivings about the genre, roll up my sleeves, and dive in. I've got a long way to go, but I can't wait to play more. If you see someone under the handle "KatZeta," give me a shout. Don't take me lightly though. I'll be more than happy to wreck you with Anub'arak.