Heroes of the Storm: Finding the grit and the grind in Blizzard’s slick wizard-’em-up. - Games Weekly

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Heroes of the Storm: Finding the grit and the grind in Blizzard’s slick wizard-’em-up.

Heroes of the Storm is accessible on the surface but substantial enough to both satisfy and frustrate. Blizzard has come at the genre sideways, drilling deep into ideas that other games brush past and eliding some concepts entirely. Success requires you to reconcile learning, preparation and skill with a substantial element of chance, and its payment structure threatens to absorb you. All of these things are also true of  Hearthstone, and all of them were true for World of Warcraft. This is how Blizzard makes games.

Heroes entered closed beta in January. The big new features are two new characters Warcraft III-era depictions of Thrall and Jaina plus a new map: a desert-themed realm where defending control points against neutral monsters earns your team a building-targeting laser weapon. The community has grown, too, and for the first time I’ve seen the blame game played in team chat as  Heroes becomes competitive enough to make people angry.

In a sense, this was the friction I was looking for.  Heroes of the Storm ’s take on the genre is, as I’ve written before, vastly reductive. It’s a game of teamfights and map control first and foremost, with concepts like farming and ganking sidelined to the point where they only occasionally factor into a victory. It’s so simple, on the surface, that it can appear to be a game that is simply about wandering around an isometric map firing your abilities at the other guy’s face. Hero builds, player roles, even differences in character: these things, on the surface, don’t seem to matter a great deal.
 It could carve a niche as the lane-pusher for people who don’t play lane-pushers
It opens up when you realise that you win by controlling the tempo of the match, which might mean ‘flipping’ neutral camps at the right time or orchestrating a push to draw the enemy’s attention while your team seizes an objective elsewhere. This is fairly high-level stuff the kind of thing you only start to worry about in Dota 2 after mastering that game’s endless list of basics and it’s gratifying to get right. It is also, as it happens, relatively complex, reinforcing the game’s potential as a lightweight but legitimate e-sports contender.

By the same token, this is exactly the kind of thing that is hardest to explain to a new audience.  Heroes of the Storm is a lottery, in that you will either find teammates who are willing to cooperate or you won’t. Blizzard attempts to help with a smart context-sensitive communication wheel, but your experience is ultimately at the mercy of the people you are playing with. That the game is capable of enraging some of those people so that it  doesn’t  just boil down to a big happy fight between chunky and lovable Blizzard staples is a strange kind of relief. There’s a game here.

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of game  Heroes of the Storm eventually becomes. It could, conceivably, carve out a niche for itself as the lane-pusher for people who don’t play lane-pushers. I imagine, however, that it’ll end up with a community-enforced metagame on par with any other game in this genre. I expect, eventually, that new players booting up Heroes of the Storm  will be expected to take on board far more information than they currently have to.
We really wanted ranked play to be the ultimate competitive way to play
My biggest concerns lie elsewhere, however. For the player aspiring to get better, very little is offered no hero stats, win-rates or easily browsable match logs of any kind. Ranked play, bizarrely, is locked off behind strict requirements. You need to reach account level 30 and permanently unlock ten characters. That number doesn’t include the regular rotation of free heroes, so you’ll need to grind or spend.

Buying only the cheapest characters, you’re looking at dozens of hours to get it for free. Taking advantage of store discounts, it’s a cost of around £40 all this just to play the game competitively.

“We went through the entirety of the alpha without ranked mode,” senior producer Kaeo Milker says when I ask him about the decision. “We now have custom games, quick match lots of ways to play the game. We really wanted to make ranked play be the ultimate competitive way to play. Those gates are very intentional. We want people to be very familiar with the game.”

Nonetheless, adjustment is not off the table. “We’ll test it,” Milker continues. “We’ll watch it, and see how long it takes new players for get there. We’ll listen to feedback but right now it’s where we think we want it.”

The notion that serious players may find themselves spending in perpetuity is a real problem. It risks entrenching the hardest of the hardcore behind a wall made of money while exiling others to a lower order of play. I hope, over the course of this beta, that they fix it. This might be how Blizzard makes games, but it needn’t stay that way.

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