Before I dig into how much I like Heroes of the Storm, I’d like to first preface it by talking about my extensive history with the AOS genre (ARTS/MOBA if you prefer). I played Warcraft 3 custom maps back in its golden years, when games like Defense of the Ancients, Life of a Peasant and Hero Line Wars dominated the games list. I was specifically part of a snobby group of map makers who hated Dota, yet worked on games incredibly similar to it. It was and still remains true that DOTA does not represent the best that the genre offers, but I fear I was too tough on the game in 2005. Now that games like DOTA 2, League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth have exploded into gargantuan monstrosities in terms of main stream popularity, other games from the Warcraft 3 mapping community were left behind. Games like Advent of the Zenith, Tides of Blood, Desert of Exile, Eve of the Apocalypse and, to a lesser extent, Age of Myths showed what could be done with the two-teams-of-players-controlling-one-hero-in-a-giant-battle template. The problem is that main stream game developers who picked up where custom Warcraft 3 map editors left off didn’t do their research; they continually made the same mistakes that other independent devs made almost 10 years prior. Instead of trying to do something new, main stream developers are content to recycle the same game over and over to the same audience, made up of people who don’t know any better than to just lap it up.
In the grand scope of the AoS genre, Heroes of the Storm isn’t a messiah sent from on high to save the genre from itself, but it sure is a refreshing look at what these types of games could be. It’s clear that Blizzard Entertainment started their development of HoTS with a focus on fun. Gone are the tedious farming mechanics, the upwards of twenty minutes of feeling completely useless and the rigid role structure of other games like it and in there place is a focus on objective-based team gameplay that focuses the action towards specific parts of the map. Any hero can play well in any “lane” and straying from one’s lane is the main strategy, not something that will get a player yelled at by their team mates. Shared experience means that each player feels just as powerful as their team mates, leaving the concept of a “carry” in the dust (good riddance) and a complete lack of items means that a good player needs to play well, not just farm up the right items and close their eyes during team fights. While other games choose to stick to the basics in terms of initial hero designs, Heroes of the Storm has already proven that it can make some truly incredible heroes, both conceptually and in execution. Heroes like Abathur and Sgt. Hammer are incredibly interesting and unique, something that I’ve never seen before in modern day AOS hero design.
This isn’t to say that Heroes of the Storm is not without its own faults, but at least part of those problems are new problems created by the new mechanics that it brings to the table. While the developers seem to have fun as the main focus of the game, they do fall into the trap of relying on AOS tropes, such as invisible assassin heroes and unkillable support heroes. Heroes like Zeratul and Tassadar represent hero designs that, while completely functional and balanced, are incredibly frustrating to deal with and lead to players not having fun. At least in DOTA or League of Legends players can counter invisible characters like Zeratul with special items that almost completely negate their ability to become invisible, but in HOTS there are no items like that. Instead, invisibility works similarly to how it works in Starcraft: Zeratul and Nova (the two main invisibility heroes) flicker as they move while invisible, allowing players to hit them with area of effect abilities if they are spotted. The problem is that HOTS is a very fast paced game, where awareness is everything and players don’t have the time to scan for flickering shadows while fighting off massive armies of enemies. Similarly, a good support hero can sometimes feel like an arbiter of unbalance, giving nearby allies and themselves an incredible advantage against others. You are chasing an enemy hero that is low on life and you are about to kill them, when, suddenly, their buddy Tassadar pops out of the shadows and gives them a shield. Moments like these may not be unbalanced or dysfunctional, but they do annoy and frustrate players to the point that they may no longer have fun. If fun at any cost is really what Blizzard wants out of Heroes of the Storm, they may benefit from going back to the drawing boards for some of their hero design and work on mechanics that avoid making players feel cheated.
Another suggestion for Blizzard that might help remedy its problem with player frustration is a way to blacklist specific maps in Quick Match rotation. I love the way that HOTS completely scrapped the three-lanes-and-a-river template from Dota and instead focused on making incredible looking maps with amazingly fun objectives, but not every map is a gem to be admired. Some, like the Sky Temple and Blackheart’s Bay, are completely unbalanced and unfun, leaving me with a strong urge to rage quit immediately whenever I get them in my queue. The problem is that these maps represent a frustrating combination of two of HOTS main tenets: team based objectives that lead to huge siege damage on the enemy base. I don’t have a problem with other maps, like Tomb of the Spider Queen, because the rewards for successful completion of the objective is potential damage on the enemy base, in the form of huge spiders that spawn in each lane. If a team sits in base and does nothing after unlocking the spider queens, then they will not have accomplished anything, but if a team captures the temples in Sky Temple, they’re rewarded immediately by having an entire enemy base destroyed with zero effort. Blackheart’s Bay is the worst, by far, as its mechanics snowball into each other so hard that it is nearly impossible for a team to come back once they fall behind even by one barrage of cannonballs. I concede that these maps may just not be for me, but I wish that I was able to consciously opt out of playing on them.
Unlike games like DOTA and League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm is for anyone who wants to have fun with their friends. It’s fun, even when one is losing and allows for enough flexibility and creativity that each game feels fresh and unique. The learning curve is still fairly steep, as there are plenty of heroes with four abilities each, but enough practice or matches at low levels will allow for even the newbies of newbie to adjust to the task of playing HOTS competently.
As an additional bonus to reading this article, the first person who comments below asking for a Heroes of the Storm beta key will get one. Happy hunting!