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Wot I Think: Heroes of the Storm

Hots stuff

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.

This is not to say there aren’t things to learn about HotS or that it is, in the broad scheme of things, an especially shallow game. Its intent is merely to be parsable, to be quickly and broadly accessible. It respects your time (though, admittedly, it respects your money even more). If it sacrifices some of the player-driven dynamism possible in Dota’s web of variables, then it tries to embed designer-driven dynamism elsewhere: by having multiple battlegrounds, for instance, each with their own in-built strategic requirements.

Dota and LoL have a single map in the same way football has a single pitch. HotS has, at the count just prior to launch, seven, each of which jangles with gleefully kitsch gimmickry. In the Tomb of the Spider Queen, minions drop gems, which can be collected and delivered to large pulsating nodes, nestled between the lanes. Pay in enough and the Spider Queen will send her forces to aid you - gigantic arachnid minions which scuttle down all three lanes simultaneously.

While other maps also empower teams through resource collection, the architecture of each shifts the strategy significantly. In the Spider Queen’s case, the lanes are drawn closely together in the centre, allowing players to switch quickly between them, regularly igniting full scale team fights and making quick, sneaky gem payments possible, but prone to ambush. In Blackheart’s Bay, a skeletal sea captain will turn his cannons on your enemy’s fortifications, given an adequate offering doubloons. He awaits in a central location, some distance from each lane, creating a focal point for game-changing conflagrations. The Haunted Mines has just two lanes, but a secondary, subterranean space in which the undead spawn at regular intervals. Killing them earns skulls which then empower each team’s massive AI golem. Being prepared for the mines is essential: lose a hero or simply exhaust your mana just before heading down, and you’re at a significant disadvantage against a well-resourced team roaming as a pack. In such situations it might be wiser to concede the mines entirely and busy yourselves recruiting other minions from the topside.

Other maps allow a player from the team to transform into a single super-powerful unit, or temporarily curse the enemy, silencing their fortresses’ cannons and weakening their minions. Sky Temple requires players to fight AI within the confines of one or more randomly activated zones, during which time giant lasers are turned upon their opponents’ structures. But being distracted by this battle will leave your team vulnerable to attack by other players.

With such critical strategic elements baked into the architecture of each map, there is less emphasis on individualism here than in Dota, and rarely is it possible for a single player to usher their team to victory. Though some heroes can solo successfully as siege units, pushing down towers or capturing minions largely by themselves, without coordination, a team won’t be able to occupy the two shrines of Dragon Shire long enough to take control of the mighty Dragon Knight at the map’s centre, or stop a player-powered plant-monster rampaging through the home base in The Garden of Terror. And, unlike Dota, no unit here has the killing power to just delete an enemy at full health - having your team focus down individual opponents is often the only way to make them pop.

Many roles require facilitation - Nova is a deadly range assassin, but fragile; she’s at her most useful when other characters are serving up single victims to her, knocking them down to half-health before punting them away from their team-mates and into her laser-sights. Many of the heroes classified as warriors have exactly such mobility skills, and team-fights pulse with these movements, as warriors draw opponents into an ally’s AOE attack, stun them or boot them into an assassin’s clutches. Understanding the role of other characters on your team, and helping them be as effective as possible, is as important as understanding your own - sometimes moreso - and since the team shares all XP and levels as a group, being self-serving offers no personal gain. The game is at its most frustrating when colleagues play ungenerously then blame you for not being able to take advantage of situations they did not create, or, even worse, when such Snooty McPisspants give up playing entirely and wait for defeat. This is a misapprehension inherited from other MOBAs, few of which allow for comebacks in quite the same way as HotS. Even substantial level deficits can be ameliorated by a surprise push on the enemy core, or ambushing a team while they fight an AI boss.

Though these loudmouths will likely always be idiots, they have less of an excuse to misunderstand the abilities of their teammates here (though, by God, they’ll give it a go). Dota’s players are empowered across the course of a match by buying any number of generic items which can shift their role in battle unpredictably - HotS discards this entirely in favour of a relatively simple talent tree particular to each hero, by which players unlock a choice of skills or buffs at particular levels throughout a match. Of all of the traditions of the MOBA that HotS reappraises, this is, for me, the most welcome - though Dota players may well suggest this is because I, too, am simple. At any rate, while there is flexibility offered by the available builds for each character, they still tend to occupy much more defined roles. Heroes like the conspicuously-buttocked night elf Tyrande, who seem able to do a little bit of everything, are unusual; Valla’s build options, which emphasise either damage output or vampiric self-healing, are a much more common dichotomy.

While the individualised talent trees help to differentiate characters from one another, it’s probably true that, overall, the skill-ceiling for their exploitation is lower than it is in Dota. This is partly because there are not the manifold options of an item shop, but also because fewer heroes offer unique and truly complicated control schemes. Compare Dota’s Invoker to HotS’ equivalent hero, Kael’thas: Invoker can cast a huge range of spells via a tricksy Magicka-esque elemental mix-n-match system; Kael’thas uses pretty much the same formula of hot-key attacks that any other character has. HotS does have some excitingly weird heroes, though: Abathur is a giant alien slug you hide in a bush, who can then manifest himself as a floating eyeball above allied units; the trio of Lost Vikings can be controlled with assiduous separate micro-management; Murky is a squishy fishman who respawns near-instantly from a hidden egg; Gazlowe is a goblin inside a robot, capable of taking on and recruiting the large neutral minions single-handedly; Zagara is… I don’t know what the fuck Zagara is, actually. But she’s cool: using spawned minions to fight by proxy, and lacquering the ground with a grotesque goop that enhances her abilities.

Someone will be eager to tell me what Zagara is in the comments, I’m sure, but here’s the thing: I find I just don’t care. As much as I like HotS, Blizzard’s character design and lore is strikingly, painfully anodyne. Each hero is too much of a cartoon to be cool, and yet lacks any of the wit that might make them actually funny. The game is at its most charming when it is undercutting its own fiction - cosmetic skins which transform Abathur the alien slug into a baby, complete with its own crib, or mount the great demon Diablo on a rainbow-farting pony, or turn Muradin the dwarf into an icecream with a cherry on the very top. One of my regular picks is Anub’arak, an undead beetle king, who, thanks to a drunken impulse purchase, is now a giant ladybird, with white hearts emblazoned in his hot pink wings.

My love-bug skin set me back the price of a pint of beer, though it was 50% off. Indeed, HotS is far from the most generous of free-to-play games, and the most recent patch somewhat obfuscates prices - never a thing which instills customer confidence. There’s a rotation of free heroes each week, but the rest must be unlocked through in-game currency or bought with real world cash. Heroes themselves are expensive, even when bundled, and it took some months for me to unlock the minimum of ten required to play in Hero League - a separate tier of matchmaking for higher level players, that allows each team to pick heroes alternately before the battle begins. I wasn’t in any hurry, however - the sloth with which new heroes became available allowed me to properly learn the ones I had - but smarter or more experienced MOBA players may be frustrated.

Or maybe they’ll just pay the fuck up. Eventually, I threw around £30 at an arbitrarily discounted bundle of heroes, but by that time I had spent 60 hours in the game. Now I’ve been playing for at least twice that, and I don’t really feel an urgent itch to acquire that many more heroes. The trickle of gold I receive seems acceptable: granting me windfalls for daily quests to play as a particular type of hero or one from a particular Blizzard franchise. These stack, allowing you to fulfill their conditions simultaneously with canny hero selections. You also get gold for winning matches, losing matches, levelling up your overall account and levelling up individual heroes - unlocking the full range of their talents as you go.

This last happens pretty quickly, and is a reasonable way to ease players into new characters, but does end up hobbling heroes like the Vikings whose basic repertoire of abilities is dependent on a fully unlocked talent tree. Another way in which the free-to-play economy distorts the game is in its enticements to earn gold: even in Hero League, players will be tempted to pick characters to fulfil quests rather than that which will offer the best synergy with their teammates. I’d suggest making quests relevant to normal matchmaking only and offer a different reward scheme for Hero League which better encourages thoughtful team composition.

It’s not the only struggle HotS has with itself as it moves towards a dual destiny as the genre’s most accessible offering and as an e-sport capable of supporting an extremely high level of play. It’s a game that dearly wants you to have fun, and fast. It’s quick, colourful and without pretension. The map-specific gimmicks inject dynamism into matches that, given its relatively reduced hero complexity, might otherwise risk strategic stagnation. I don’t really buy the notion that it is significantly dumbed down - many of the ways in which it is a more transparent game than its competitors are simply good design choices - but, in its map design, HotS defers some of the responsibility players might otherwise have to AI. Dota fans I know take this as something of an affront to their agency and I haven’t yet decided if that’s fair or not. Blizzard may need to choose who it is building and balancing the game for: an elitist hardcore, obsessed with stats, strats and ranking, or the morass of folk with a more casual but hardly contemptible interest in just enjoying themselves. Perhaps Heroes of the Storm is neither quite one thing nor the other - but then, I suspect, neither am I.

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Heroes of the Storm

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Marsh Davies