Heroes of the Storm [official site], which launches out of open beta today, is Blizzard’s take on the MOBA – and if the very mention of the ‘M’-word made you want to heave your monitor out the window then it may just be a game you should play.
Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas are popular in direct proportion to the degree with which they are hated by people who don’t play them – and there are very good reasons for both of these things. Blizzard have made a game that seeks to make peace with each side. I think, if given time by either party, it would succeed, even if these impulses sometimes leave the game in conflict with itself. I, personally, bloody love it.
Brass tacks: Heroes of the Storm is a free-to-play team game in which players on each side control five variously empowered characters, picked from a larger roster of unique heroes. They vie for control of a map, supporting respawning waves of AI-controlled minions as they plough down the lanes connecting the two teams’ opposing bases. Players knock down forts that hold up their minions’ advance, recruit other, more powerful minions to join the surge and scuffle with their human opponents. All the while, the team sucks up XP and, as they level up, players unlock new buffs and abilities to help them in battle.
The team that gets into their opponents’ base and destroys their core is the winner – which is a grossly reduced summation of a formula capable of so much thrilling dynamism, emerging not just from the choices of when, where and how hard you ram into your enemy’s defenses, but in the way the idiosyncratic skillset of the heroes combines with or counters others. It’s a genre that sustains both elaborate, grand strategies and split-second skills, as players slam together in almighty pyrotechnics. You surge and fall back, flee and turn, regroup and roam – the rhythm of these movements in symbiosis with the map’s own flow of AI and timed events.
There is an ecstasy to triumphant coordination here that exceeds most other competitive genres in the diversity of its roles, in the elegant interlocking of variables in play. That moment when Nazeebo the Witch Doctor, wounded and hounded by the sorceress Jaina, lures her away from her team with the prospect of an easy kill – and turns! Suddenly zombies erupt from the floor to encircle her. Brightwing, who is some sort of magic gecko, teleports to Nazeebo’s side, healing him and transforming his would-be assassin into a helpless squirrel, delaying her escape long enough for Valla, the crossbow-wielding demon huntress, to vault from the nearby undergrowth and deploy a rain of hellfire. A percussive blast signals Jaina’s demise and the victorious team rampage on to the thumping drumbeat of heroic deaths. Rarely, in any other genre, does winning feel so much like music.
But, so far, so MOBA.
Blizzard, for their part, don’t even like to use the term MOBA when describing Heroes of the Storm. It prefers “Hero Brawler”, and perhaps we should at least meet them halfway: HotS may fit well enough within the nebulous category of MOBA that we should all just agree to call it that, but I credit Blizzard with an attempt not to make a game which slavishly follows the genre as it has come to be defined by the likes of League of Legends and Dota 2. Instead, they’ve looked at the vastly intricate things these games have become, born of a mod scene and, over many years of iteration, barnacled with opaque traditions and abstruse, impossibly dense formulae – they’ve looked at all this and said, “What if someone, like, actually fucking designed this?”
Don’t take this as a knock, LoL/Dota fans. The games are evidently very good. Much brilliance and wisdom has been applied to balancing and shaping them. But beneath is something that is less the product of design than simple, unmitigated growth. You know, like a tumour – a gigantic marshmallowy tumour that you love, with teeth and hair in weird places, like Tetsuo at the end of Akira, grasping at you, pulling you into its hot pulsating core and consuming you. But in a good way.
Their bizarre inheritances have become the kind of esoteric knowledge on which social hierarchies thrive: people love Dota at least partly because it is hard to know Dota. It means you are always learning vigorously. It means you always know more than someone else. It’s this currency of knowledge which validates the vast time commitment to the game. It creates complexity and richness, too, of course – but, as an outsider, the very presence of a hierarchy predicated on knowledge that is so baroque, yet so viciously guarded by its adherents, is something that prompts a defensive disdain. Inferred from it or implied by it is the notion that you are somehow a lesser person for not celebrating what seems like unnecessary obscurity.
HotS takes to that arcane knowledge base like Kaneda with a laser rifle, slicing away things that might impede a new player’s access to the game. Off come the bulging scrotums of terminology referencing iterations of design long-since obsolete. There goes the strange, fussy-fingered appendage of mid-game item purchases. Matches that last the better part of an hour? Zap! Last-hitting? Get rekt, pedants.