Heroes of the Storm finally arrived Tuesday, capping years of speculation on how Blizzard would respond to the outsized success of League of Legends and DotA 2. They've brought with them their customary polish, high-quality art, and intelligent understanding of stat-based customization, melding them some unique ideas to offer a wholly original take on the popular genre.
Like most games of its ilk, Heroes of the Storm is a living game, making it extremely difficult to review. But having spent the past couple weeks buried in the Nexus, Kat is able to make a recommendation, with Mike offering some of his own thoughts as well. Does Heroes of the Storm make good on its strong first impression, or does its appeal wane once you get past the first few hours? Here's what we think.
It's been interesting to watch the reaction to Heroes of the Storm as people have cautiously dipped a toe into first the open beta, then the final release. My friends who play League of Legends seem ready to embrace it, happy to see extraneous elements like items getting cut, but confused by the fact that it's possible to select a hero before getting into the queue, removing the negotiation element of League of Legends.
I don't wish to spend all of my time to compare Heroes of the Storm to League of Legends; but in many ways, their differences define them. Heroes of the Storm keeps basic MOBA elements like lanes, minions, and heroes, but junks almost everything else, and it's mostly for the better. The runes that guarantee that experienced players will be at an automatic advantage over newcomers are gone, and matches are far shorter, running a scant 20 minutes. It's been enough to finally drag me into the MOBA genre, and I suspect that I'm not alone.
Fundamentally, I think Heroes of the Storm is a very sound game. Blizzard has done a great job of cutting the fat without completely sacrificing the depth, with much of the fun being in maximizing the efficiency of each character build. It's been fun getting to know such disparate characters as Sylvanas, Anub'arak, Sgt. Hammer and Zagara, all of whom bring very different qualities to the table. That they're familiar Blizzard characters does much to aid their accessibility.
Right now, I think Heroes of the Storm's biggest challenges are hero balance and map design. The maps, which incorporate sidequests designed to encourage team battles, are mostly sound, but they're a couple that I've come to find grating. Cursed Hollow, with its tributes that much be collected in different parts of the map, feels overly punitive, harshly punishing whichever team isn't fast enough by making their minions and buildings all but useless. Dragon Shire, which requires teams to split up in order to take three shrines, is likewise overly punitive while forcing teams to split up.
On the positive side, Tomb of the Spider Queen rather elegantly plays on established concepts by requiring players defeat minions to collect coins, then rewarding them with powerful (but not ridiculously powerful) spiders who can aid in a strong push. Haunted Mines can be tough to coordinate with random players, but it results in lots of entertaining team battles almost from the outset. And Sky Temple is not only beautiful, it encourages teamwork without being overly punishing if one team is able to beat the other to a laser shrine.
As for the hero balance, it's not what I would call acute, but Illidan in particular is a real nightmare to deal with in random queues, able to carve up a team seemingly at will in the right hands. What's more, the nature of Heroes of the Storm's character selection means that teams are often unbalanced, making it less attractive to pick support characters who might get mauled in such an environment. There's no easy fix for this issue, making it something a fundamental flaw. WIth the power to roll with any character you want comes the potential to end up on a team with Zeratul, Nova, and a bunch of squishy characters who are great in the right team but struggle on their own.
As usual, the endgame for HotS is to find a group that you enjoy playing with and group up with them. For those who are just getting into the game and don't have a lot of friends to play with, though, Blizzard does a generally good job of smoothing their transition with lots of smaller goals to pursue, daily quests, and strong tutorialization. More importantly, it's possible to earn a lot of gold almost immediately, making it easy to purchase heroes you like. Like League of Legends, there's a rotation system that makes it possible to try the entire roster as they come around, which has the subtle effect of changing team compositions, with heroes falling in and out of favor as they fall in and out of the rotation.
You've most likely seen me rambling about Heroes of the Storm here and elsewhere, so you know that I like it, but I want to stress that this is a really good game that is deserving of your attention, even if you don't particularly like MOBAs. As usual, Blizzard is years later to party with their take on the genre — which is crazy when you realize that DotA was born out of WarCraft III — but they've recovered with a finely-honed, original effort. Go and give it a shot. It's free, so you really have nothing to lose. Just be careful, because it gets addictive in a hurry.
My time with Heroes of the Storm actually came towards the beginning of a larger dive into the MOBA genre. We had no one at USgamer who understood or played MOBA games, so I decided to try every popular MOBA at hand to get a feel of the genre: Dota 2, League of Legends, Infinite Crisis, Smite, and Heroes of the Storm. Heroes of the Storm is probably the one that got under my skin the most.
MOBAs are largely built around the same core. The lanes, the overhead view, the fog of war, the equipment builds; the legacy of Warcraft III is imprinted on the entire genre. Concepts like carries, off-laning, jungling, and last hitting are necessary to succeed and learning the ropes is an arduous process at best. Some titles offer tutorials, but these don't help you with the meta-game, the strategy of it all.
Even with the guidance of my MOBA-heavy friends, each game had various drawbacks that prevented me from really jiving with it. I enjoyed the most League of Legends because the pace of play was faster than its rivals, but wrapping my head around the wide variety builds was tough for the limited time I have available. Dota 2 looks far better than League, but I spent hours just attempting to pick a limited range of characters from the huge roster and frankly, it's too slow compared to LoL. Smite's third-person play gets you directly into the action, but I was playing on Xbox One and a controller is a poor substitute for mouse and keyboard. Infinite Crisis has many DC Comics characters I enjoy, but no one I know plays it.
With Heroes of the Storm, I had the benefit of starting on the ground floor. It's a streamlined MOBA experience. HotS is very much "My First MOBA" and i don't count that as a strike against it. It retains the overhead play and concepts like laning and jungling, but it dispenses with some of the less transparent and more annoying aspects of the genre.
The heavy focus on the team is to the benefit of the neophyte player. Last hitting? Completely gone, as every player or creep kill counts towards the level of everyone on the team. The talent tree system allows for some flexibility, without the more complex item builds you find other MOBAs. The map objectives always give you something to do; if you're lost, just head towards an objective and you'll find the fight. Using Blizzard characters means many players are already familiar with the concepts behind the capabilities of any available hero.
There are definite drawbacks to Heroes' version of the MOBA. Its meta-game probably isn't as deep as its MOBA siblings. The item shop system in other MOBAs is crazy complex for newbies, but it also means high-level players have a number of different ways to turn the fight around. Watching a professional event like the International, where sometimes pro players will just flip out with absolutely crazy builds that surprise everyone; there's less of possibility for that here. That's not to say strategy is gone, merely that there are less chances for a surprise in Heroes.
Map objectives focus the fighting, but they're also necessary to winning matches. They lessen the emphasis on pure hero-vs-hero combat, depending on the map. If your team isn't getting those objectives or trading back-and-forth with the other team, you're going to lose. Of course, an average Heroes of the Storm game is half the time of Dota 2 or League game, so losing doesn't really hurt as much. In fact, the 20-minute nature of HotS games is another big reason I prefer the game to some other MOBAs. Heroes' games feel like they start in the middle of other MOBAs, after the early setup.
There's an issue with the weekly queue ebb-and-flow due to the round-robin of free character choices. The issue lessened as we got farther into the beta, but most of my queues were heavily influenced by the available free characters. Even beyond that, certain characters tend to draw more players to them: Valla, Illidan, and Anub’arak are definite mainstays due to a combination of ease of play and powerful abilities. But these are things that can be tuned eventually.
Blizzard has slowly whittled away most of the rough edges of Heroes' free-to-play nature. New characters will still cost you a significant amount of in-game gold and pimping out your character with the great costumes will probably require you dipping into your wallet, but I spent quite a long time playing for free with no issue. I never felt held back, except in the early levels, where you only have a free rotation of 4 characters, not 6. And if you're looking at ranked play, being held back early on might anger you, but ranked online play has never been my focus.
The truth is, Heroes of the Storm is good enough. Sure, it might not be as deep as Dota 2 or League, but it's very fun and still retains that strong Blizzard polish. "Good enough" will get players in the door. "Good enough" will keep them playing. "Good enough" is all many people really need. The real benefit of Heroes of the Storm for veteran MOBA players is now you have a game to offer to your friends. This is the starter. This is the gateway to the larger genre. They can start here and move to your game of choice. When most MOBAs say "Stay away", Heroes of the Storm says "Come join us."