"We're closing the gap," the Nova standing next to me shouted through her radio. "Keep your eyes on the prize!" But it was only the character saying that. The person playing Nova had already accepted defeat. We all had. Except for the computer.
"It's over," one of my teammates typed a moment after Nova tried to rouse our spirits. "Yup," another responded. They didn't want to keep fighting. But we couldn't surrender, either. So instead we all just wandered idly around the map for a final few minutes, waiting for the enemy team to make one last push into our base.
One of the most curious aspects of Heroes of the Storm is the way it always tries to cheer you on, no matter how bad the battle at hand is looking. The characters fighting next to you will shout things like, "don't give up!" or "keep fighting, the tide is turning!" The fact that Heroes doesn't actually allow teams to surrender shows that Blizzard really means it when it has the game say: don't give up.
It can be nice to hear the game deliver a reassuring message -- one that doesn't usually come so easily to your human teammates. When a game is going really badly, though, it starts to sound out of touch with reality. As if the game itself is behaving like that one strong-headed teammate who just won't accept the fact that he's losing until the word "DEFEAT" is plastered across the screen.
That's Heroes of the Storm in its present form -- an intriguing, colourful mess of apparent contradictions. The game goes out of its way to cheer you on and convince you that you're doing a good job, even when you're clearly not. Its design encourages collaboration and teamwork, but its internal social systems make it frustratingly difficult to effectively communicate and befriend other players. Blizzard has said they want it to be an easier game than its competition -- easier to get into, easier to play, easier to watch. But they also want it to go toe-to-toe with League of Legends as a formidable eSport.
Something like Super Smash Bros. can be a family-friendly party game and a fiercely competitive party game at the same time. But I don't think MOBAs -- which, by nature, are competitive team-based multiplayer games -- can be all things to all people. Many of the features that make games like League of Legends or Dota 2 fun for the people who play them are precisely the same things that make them formidably challenging to newcomers and incomprehensible to outsiders.
Heroes of the Storm often seems like a game that wants to have its cake and eat it too, in other words. What's amazing and more than a little crazy is that it actually sort of works.
I say "sort of", because Heroes doesn't seem quite complete. MOBAs never really are. But what I mean is: The game that left open beta this week is almost identical to the game that was technically still in development a few days ago. "Only difference I can see is more noobs", one Heroes player remarked to me in a game we were playing the hour it officially went live Tuesday evening. Heroes launched with plenty of quirks in tow; it desperately needs some new and better matchmaking and team building tools, and it could stand to have a few more playable characters as well. But the game we have today is impressive enough in its own right that it's worth paying attention to -- and, yes, playing -- as it continues to evolve.
The characters are awesome.
Let's talk about LiLi. She's a tiny, anthropomorphized panda you can play as in Heroes of the Storm. I love LiLi.
LiLi is a support character, which means she's better endowed with healing powers than brawn or damage-dealing ability. She has one dazzling spell called "Jug of 1,000 Cups." When it's cast, LiLi throws one arm into the air, conjuring a spectral vision of what looks like a huge jug of milk over her head.
The jug rapidly heals any ally heroes in LiLi's immediate vicinity. Doing so at the right place and time will bring an entire five-person team back from the outermost brink of death. A LiLi player can change the course of battle in a few seconds. See here:
HOTS games are usually rapid-fire tug of war experiences, the upper hand flipping back and forth with dizzying speed depending on when and how players deploy their characters' thunderous "heroic abilities." What makes LiLi's jug heroic such a neat mechanic is that it pushes her close to the front lines of battle -- the last place she's supposed to be. Throwing out her healing jug is a fraught decision as a result. She's easily torn to shreds whenever opposing assassins or tanks get within stabbing distance. So while Jug of 1,000 cups is one of the handiest tools there is in Heroes of the Storm, using it comes with an immense risk. You have to put your life on the line, quite literally, to make it work.
Casting LiLi's R at just right the right moment is like opening a large umbrella in the middle of a powerful thunderstorm. As your friends crowd around you for protection from the elements, the force of the wind and rain causes the umbrella's shaft to tremble and buckle in your hands. But you hold on as best you can, gritting your teeth and praying it doesn't break under the pressure.
That's my favourite part of any good MOBA -- the tactile sensation of moving and fighting as a discrete member of a larger whole. As I've delved deeper and deeper into Heroes of the Storm, I've continued to uncover more and more gems like LiLi's jug-wielding power.
Burrowing into the ground as Warcraft's Anub'arak, for instance, either to charge at enemies or run away from them, I actually feel like some hefty beetle of war:
Lifting enemies over my head as Diablo and then slamming them into the ground with a satisfying thud, meanwhile, is probably the closest I'm going to come to feeling like a professional wrestler:
Choosing his brother Azmodan is like playing as a siege engine incarnate: slow, steady, and devastatingly powerful. I always enjoy staring down approaching enemies with his laser attack until they either die or run in the opposite direction:
Then there's an assassin like Illidan, an elf from the Warcraft universe. He can chase after enemies and dice them up with unwavering, unmatched force:
My current favourite (other than LiLi) is Zeratul from Starcraft. His "blink" ability lets him zap forward a few feet to deliver an unpleasant surprise to your enemies.
Zeratul's assassination powers are further augmented by his passive ability, which makes him invisible whenever he's out of battle for more than a few seconds. This makes him a deadly hunter -- one who can prowl around the map picking off unsuspecting foes, then using other abilities to escape from angry teammates who are looking to exact revenge.
In this clip, you can see me do exactly that. E.T.C. -- a large cow-like creature who dresses like a 70s glam rock star and wields a half-guitar, half-battle axe for some reason -- is one of the beefiest warriors in the game. So when I noticed the enemy's E.T.C. was low on health, I knew it was time to go in for the kill:
Heroes of the Storm is a mascot fighter populated by Blizzard characters from the companies celebrated franchises: primarily Diablo, Starcraft, and Warcraft. Given how iconic those series are for PC Gamers, it would have been very easy for Blizzard to lean on its past successes when making this game. I mean, if you have any emotional attachment to the Diablo series, it's pretty awesome to see the gargantuan Lord of Hell himself riding a chirpy little goat that emits a trail of sparkles in battle:
It is awesome to see Diablo or Jim Raynor ride unicorns side-by-side into battle. But Heroes of the Storm is something far more interesting than a series of comic mishaps in brand synergy. Blizzard has turned elements of its past work into fully-formed characters who can stand on their own in a new environment. The coolest evidence of that lies in the game's two most idiosyncratic, unorthodox characters: Murky, a frog-like creature from the Warcraft universe:
And Abathur, a...something from StarCraft:
Murky is a tiny frog-like creature who smacks opponents with a dead fish and has very little in the way of hitpoints. The twist is that while he's very weak, he comes with a secret weapon: an egg.
Whenever Murky lays an egg on the battlefield, his death cooldown is reduced to 2 or 3 seconds -- compared to the increasingly long 30-90 second cooldowns most champions have to sit through during a game. He also respawns directly at the egg. These two factors alone can make Murky an absolute terror when placed in the right hands -- a seemingly unstoppable warrior who just keeps popping up to attack you again, and again, and again.
Playing as Abathur, meanwhile, means that you avoid direct conflict completely. Instead, you summon a vicious little Zerg monster to hover over the heads of your teammates -- shielding them and shooting dart-like projectiles at any incoming threats:
Characters like these are unprecedented in MOBAs. The fact that Blizzard released the game with two such heroes shows me that the developer has genuinely cool stuff to bring to the table. And like any good MOBA, the characters in Heroes become increasingly interesting and fun to play as as you put more time into them. I hated Zeratul when I first started playing Heroes; now, I can't get enough of him.
The characters in Heroes, like the world around them, are all drawn with the charmingly cartoonish, toylike aesthetic Blizzard has perfected in the Warcraft and Diablo series. It's cool to see the company's different worlds colliding, particularly in such a whimsical manner. But even if you're pulled into the game by the prospect of seeing Diablo ride a magical unicorn and fight side by side with his (im)mortal enemy Tyrael, that won't be the thing that gets you hooked. And, let's face it: there aren't that many Smash Bros.-level mascots in this game anyway.
People coming into Heroes of the Storm from Dota 2 and League of Legends will notice a major difference in how the characters work: Blizzard took in-game items out of the equation.
In League and Dota 2, purchasing and upgrading equipment for your champion throughout a game is necessary to keep them on par with the competition. There are hundreds of items in the game, each with specific gameplay techniques and strategies associated with it. Heroes, in comparison, only offers a small handful of customisation options for characters: as you level up in-game, you can select different upgrades and a few extra abilities. LiLi, for instance, can either unlock her jug power or a magical serpent attack when she reaches level 10.
Diehard MOBA fans will probably never stop arguing about the pluses and minuses of Blizzard's approach here. Personally, I appreciate the pared-down simplicity of only having to concern myself with a small handful of variables. It makes HOTS feel more akin to a fighting game -- the depth of which is revealed as you master a comparatively small but precious set of tools and learn to use them in concert with one another. But regardless, these specifics of Heroes' character design reassures me that Blizzard isn't simply looking at Heroes from a "me too!" perspective. Rather, the developer is making a MOBA because it actually has something interesting to say.
The are a lot of cool ideas, but some are left unfulfilled.
Heroes of the Storm only gets better when you're playing it with a team that works well together. That's always the case in any MOBA. But Blizzard encourages teamwork through a different template than those that have been established by Dota 2 and League of Legends.
They do this in two key ways. First, rather than reward character experience on an individual basis, Heroes of the Storm has global experience. That means an entire team accumulates experience and levels up (or fails to) in unison. Tweaking experience this way prevents a single teammate or opponent from doing something like racking up a ton of kills early in the game, quickly snowballing in terms of their experience and equipment boosts, and therefore dominating the rest of the game -- which is a frequent and annoying occurrence in League of Legends.
The second major change is in the way maps work. While most matches in League of Legends and Dota 2 are played on a single map, respectively, Heroes of the Storm has seven different levels, each with its own unique characteristics and in-game objectives. Matches alternate randomly between the seven maps. In a pirate-themed level, for instance, the two teams compete to collect gold coins:
...and then turn them in to a ghost pirate who hangs out in the middle of the map's neutral zone:
Whenever a team deposits a certain number of coins (it starts at 10 and goes up by 2 each time a team turns in), the ghost pirate rewards them by firing cannons at the enemy team's defences -- one cannonball per gold coin. Another map has you venture into an underground mines at regular intervals to collect skulls from skeleton warriors:
...which are then used to summon a golem to fight by your side:
The game only doles out 100 skulls at a time, so you're competing with the other team to see who can gather the most -- and therefore make the strongest golem.
Injecting objectives like these shake up Heroes of the Storm's gameplay in a refreshing way. They also make the game much more legible than its predecessors, particularly for people starting out. But that's only when they work well.
The best designed maps in Heroes succeed because they encourage players to play the game in a particular way -- sometimes by not-so-subtly nudging them in a certain direction. Heading into the mines to collect skulls, or trying to collect little purple tributes in another map pushes you and the rest of your team to engage with the opposition directly, aggressively, and frequently. Doing so can lead to wonderfully, invigoratingly intense matches of tug of war as two teams go back and forth trying to capture a strategic location or object. An entire team might end up dying, respawning, then dying again in the fight for a single tribute.
At their worst moments, the themed maps in Heroes feel less like fully formed levels and more like a patchwork of hokey mini-games. My least favourite map, for instance, has teams compete to kill Plants vs. Zombies-esque NPC monsters and collect seeds from them:
and then use these to summon a big monster called a "garden terror." Unlike the golem in the mines, a player from each team has to control the garden terror to attack enemy structures:
There's just too much going on. The garden map is so cluttered with random bits of stuff to do that it quickly becomes way, way too busy. Players are pulled back and forth between different tasks at an annoying rate, and you almost forget about the match's most basic tasks -- team fighting, pushing lanes -- in the process. Worse yet, the garden terror monster isn't as well designed or finely tuned a character as any of the game's main heroes. But since summoning and deploying the monster affords teams a huge tactical advantage, you can't just ignore the map's object. I like the idea competing for game-changing tactical advantages, but the unfortunate result of Heroes' experiment in this case is a level that just becomes less fun to play every few minutes.
"Cool in theory, less cool in practice" describes most of the weak parts of Heroes of the Storm right now. I mean this both in a minute, mechanical sense and as an overall picture of how Blizzard is currently helping and hindering the formation of a viable community within its excellent new game.
Heroes developers have often spoken about the ways they're trying to solve common MOBA problems -- things like the confusion new players often suffer from, or toxic conflicts that erupt between players during matches. Simplifying Heroes of the Storm's central mechanics and character development is a great way to address the former problem.
And the latter? As far as I can tell, the main way Blizzard has tried to tamp down on player toxicity is by making it harder for players to communicate with one another. Unlike League or Dota 2, Heroes' standard, non-ranked "quick matches" aren't preceded by a team-building phase during which the five players can chat about which characters and positions they're going to fill and prepare for the game ahead. There also isn't any post-match discussion hosted for both teams, nor is there an all chat system in-game to allow you to talk to members of the other team. Unless you're in a pre-made party, quick matches just sort of...begin.
You select a character, and wait to see who you're going to get grouped with. And against.
I get where they're coming from here. The team building phase in League of Legends is often a caustic element of the game -- players bickering over who gets to play in which position. But the reason people fight about this in the first place is because they care. And they care because team building is necessary in a team-based game. Without it, what you're left with is total randomness. This can be fun, but getting grouped with two other support characters and matched against a team full of tanks and assassins also sort of sucks.
Ironically enough, omitting a team building system from its matchmaking infrastructure actually produces more conflict between players. In one game I played a week or two ago, for instance, one of my teammates started shouting at another one who was playing as Abathur a few minutes into the game. The guy was yelling at Abathur for not helping the team, since the hero looked like he was just sitting back at our base doing nothing. That's what Abathur is supposed to do; the player just didn't know that yet. Would providing these two players a means of communication prior to the start of the game prevented this tense moment? Not necessarily. But it would have at least given them an opportunity to try.
Again, Heroes of the Storm suffers from a contradiction. The game's design encourages collaborative team-based gameplay through things like global experience points. But at the same time, Blizzard makes it arbitrarily difficult for its players to actually learn how to communicate with one another effectively, and how to work together as a team.
It seems like the company tries to address this with the structure of the game's ranked mode, which averages out the composition of competing teams in such a way that highly ranked (and highly experienced) players end up getting grouped with ones at the very bottom of the pecking order. Ostensibly, this is meant to mix the entire Heroes community together -- to get us all talking to one another. But it's a bizarre and sometimes terrible system to play in for a very simple reason: MOBAs like this change dramatically as you improve your skills and gain more experience.
It's hard to tell whether the game's most awkward elements are directly a result of its design, however. Heroes of the Storm is in a weird interstitial phase right now. New players are flooding into it every day, people who know nothing of the game's finer details yet. This has sparked some peculiar dynamics over the past few weeks. Teams I've been grouped with in quick matches since the game entered open beta have been remarkably quiet, even totally silent -- something that's frustrating in its own right when players wander off and do their own thing instead of sticking with the team. Many of the recent matches I've played have also begun with the other four members of my team all racing headfirst into an all-out brawl with the other team over one of the map's vision points...which causes many of them to die one or more times before a minute has even passed in a match.
"What the hell are you all doing???" I remember typing when this started to happen in a match I played last weekend. All I got in response was total silence. My teammates just kept dying, respawning, running headfirst into battle, dying again, then respawning again to restart the process anew.
That's a good image to sum up Heroes of the Storm right now. The high-level strategies, the advanced tactics, the finely-tuned meta game -- all that stuff will come later. Right now, everyone is just itching to start the fight.