After Blizzard's own community invented what is now considered the MOBA genre, the lumbering blue giant finally has one of its own. Again. Heroes of the Storm was originally conceived as a StarCraft II map editor showcase, then reinvented as a slightly more robust standalone, then renamed, then consigned to more than a year of worrisomely silent obscurity. But now, at last, it's slowly but surely trundling down the danger-laden lane to completion. And it's good. Really, really good. Heroes strips the MOBA genre - or "hero brawler" according to Blizzard's sweaty, desperate attempts at renaming the genre - down to its basest essentials, and they just... make sense. Matches are quick, convolution is minimal, and there are even some fairly unique heroes mixed in with a handful of DOTA/LoL re-skins. Read all about it below.
Some of you will probably hate Heroes of the Storm.
If you're a dyed-in-the-wool DOTA player - a taut mass of fast-twitch muscle fiber and synapses that light up like Christmas trees to the most arbitrary of systems - then you might even feel insulted. See, here's the thing: Heroes of the Storm makes sense almost immediately. There's still lanes and leveling and relatively complex heroes, but Blizzard has reached under the hood and ripped out all the haphazardly duct-taped-together bits.
Maps are small and tight, jungling is so direct as to nearly be non-existent, and items have been replaced by character-specific skill choices every couple level-ups. (You don't have to go back to base to pick them either. That part is utterly marvelous.) The arbitrary minutiae other MOBAs force players to constantly keep in the back of their heads is gone. That stuff just happens. You still make similar choices, but a slick-as-an-ice-lake-on-a-planet-where-lakes-are-made-of-tanning-oil interface serves up all of your options on a silver platter.
If you enjoy keeping a tight grip on all those tiny, wriggling complexities, you may well find Heroes of the Storm to be MOBA sacrilege. You thought LoL simplified the formula? Heroes leaves it damn well naked, crucial mechanics wafting gently in the breeze - lean and shameless.
Heroes is not, however, barebones, and therein lies the beauty of it. It's just sleek, streamlined, and smart. Its pace and flow are so much lighter and faster than LoL and DOTA that it feels less like an alternative and more like a supplement. Something genre neophytes can dive into without fear, and hardcores who measure their DOTA 2 prowess by how many other MOBAs they've physically eaten for breakfast can play when they're looking for less of a commitment.
I first tried out StarCraft Ghost's StarCraft ghost, Nova, and she played like a fairly basic ranged fighter - in line with LoL's Ashe or Ezreal. Her Q was a high damage skill shot, while she could slow opponents with W and create an exploding clone with E. In line with the character, however, she auto-cloaked if out of combat for a couple seconds, and the R I selected (you can pick between two when you hit the appropriate level) called down an orbital strike within a fairly wide radius. It was best for AOE on creeps, though bunched together heroes also made for tempting targets.
The first thing that really struck me, though, was the rhino-herd-like cadence of action. Carelessness was immediately punished by the other team banging down our doors because, again, the map (in this case, the spoooooky Cursed Hallow) was teensy tiny. Distance between lanes was nearly negligible, and bases may as well have been the houses of passive aggressive neighbors who, one day, up and decided to assemble armies and murder each other.
The other twist, meanwhile, was a level-specific chain of tide-turning events involving tributes to a fickle Raven Lord. If a team managed to collect three of the intermittently spawning emblems, the stuff of Edgar
Allen Metzen Poe's nightmares would manifest and curse the other team, stopping towers in their (complete lack of) tracks and dropping all creeps' health to one. As you can imagine, teams fought tooth-and-nail for each tribute.
There ended up being some pretty good back-and-forth, but the match still ended in the blink of an eye. 20 minutes later, it was all over, with the other team's main structure crumbling into dust and disappointment. Only not, because the match was only 20 minutes-long, so who really cares? Also, my opponents were robots, incapable of emotion or even the most half-hearted of "GG's." I thought one insulted my culture, my family, and all that I stood for in a single screeching breath, but it turned out to just be a loose ceiling tile. AI wasn't going to cut it. I needed mooooooooooore.
So I went down to BlizzCon's show floor to take on human opponents. This time, we played on a different, more complex map (the dual-floor Haunted Mines) and I picked a far more unique hero, zerg DNA sausage Abathur. The map was definitely interesting, but Abathur was entirely brilliant. He's a support with no direct attacks. Instead, he can possess almost anything friendly - other heroes, minions, creeps, structures - and give them three new abilities which he controls directly while the object of possession otherwise controls themselves. Q is a weak but rapid ranged stab attack, W is a 360 melee strike, and E tosses up a quick shield. His eventually unlocked R, meanwhile, clones an ally outright, giving Abathur full control over a perfect carbon copy for a few seconds.
He can do most of this from anywhere on the map. Meanwhile, he spits out zerg grub minions of his own at regular intervals and can lay down pulsating organic mines that damage and slow unwitting foes. Used in conjunction with his ability to burrow through gigantic swathes of land, he can essentially form a network of warp points across the map. Simply go to place, hide a mine were no one will step on it, let it keep fog of war at bay, and tunnel to its position whenever you please.
Abathur is such an excellent fusion of MOBA mechanics and Blizzard lore, an intoxicating sniff of the potential simmering in Heroes' cauldron. He really shined on Haunted Mines, given that the bulk of his abilities could be instantly effective above ground or - when undead creeps spawned and their golem-empowering skulls needed collecting - in a subterranean mine area. Used well (which, admittedly, I wasn't perfect at) he could be a deciding factor in skirmishes. I'd leap into, say, Diablo on the front lines, boost his already formidable tanking prowess with a shield, and then lay waste with a barrage of ranged attacks and creep one-shotting melee stomps. And then, if our skull collecting efforts were lagging behind, I'd drop my possession, click over to our underground team, and give them a nice, black-and-oily-as-death helping hand. I even held off a base assault entirely with NPCs while the rest of my team sledged down our opponents' last remaining structure. It was a close one, but we pulled off the win in the end.
All that said, I do have some concerns. Obviously, there's far less potential for variation in hero builds, given that you simply select from three skills every couple of levels. Other mechanics involved (for instance, a team XP system that takes some pressure off individual skill in the early game) collude to make that element of the game even more convenient, but long-term depth could wind up lacking. I'm sure there'll be an explosion of interesting tactics and schemes when Heroes first charges into glorious battle, but what about a few months or years down the line?
Matches also felt extremely direct, and while that was in many ways extremely refreshing, I'm hoping that well-designed maps can eventually offer more variety - fundamental shifts in player priority or even hero roles. As is, the to-the-point nature of the proceedings kind of minimizes the empowering character arc games like LoL and DOTA offer. When I began as Nova, she felt more or less effective. As matches wound down, she continued to feel... more or less effective. I never sensed much of a dramatic shift. But then, the match moved quickly and both teams leveled almost in sync. There wasn't much room to grow.
Speaking of heroes, while more inventive, precision-necessary options like Abathur and Illidan were great, most of the demo roster was composed of instantly-comprehensible melee and ranged mainstays. Think the sorts that are generally recommended for beginners in LoL and DOTA, only they made up most of the lineup. Diablo go chargeboom whambam. Rawrsmash blorgmoo.
At this point, however, Heroes of the Storm's simplicity largely works to its advantage. Time will tell how exactly it all shakes out, and since my name is not Timethan Timethaniel Timeson (or Tim for short), that falls outside my purview. I really enjoyed what I played during BlizzCon, and I'm itching to jump right back in as soon as the beta starts up. I think that's as good of a sign as any after only a few hours with your pinky toe in this bottomless deep end of a genre, so fingers (and toes) crossed that Heroes delivers in the long run.