There are only two outcomes in a Heroes of the Storm match: you win or you lose. But sometimes, it doesn't feel like you do either. Sometimes, the game just sort of... ends.
You might be off in the jungle trying to collect enough skulls to summon a big scary golem. Then suddenly the game wrenches control of the camera from you, pans across the map, and settles on whichever team's core is about to explode.
"Hey," you might think, "whadda ya know, we won!" That's what passed through my head earlier today when my ranked "Hero League" team was taken by surprise — the good kind of surprise:
It wasn't as pleasant in the ranked game before that, though. My team had been losing most of the game. Losing very, very badly. At one point, we were four levels behind the opposition. Heroes of the Storm strongly encourages a "never give up" mentality in its players, thanks in large part to the game's omission of a surrender option. And to our credit, we didn't give up. Slowly but surely, we started to climb our way back from the brink. All five of us grouped together, and we moved carefully around the map, picking off whoever was cocky enough to venture into our territory on their own. After killing three opponents, we even managed to capture the map's powerful boss monster.
It felt like the game was actually tilting in our favour. Or at least, we'd managed to level the playing field and afford ourselves another fighting chance.
Then, this happened:
In almost every League of Legends game I've played, all or part of my team has had to push itself through the enemy team's defences and ultimately destroy their nexus. That's part of the fun: it's like a boxing or wrestling match where the only way to win is by pinning your enemy to the ground. It's a forceful act of submission which makes the victor feel, well, victorious.
The 300-plus Heroes games I've played, on the other hand, frequently end without me getting anywhere near the enemy core. And those are the games I win. Losing is a whole other story.
Heroes developers have emphasised over and over (and over) again when promoting their game in interviews that, unlike other MOBAs, this one has awesome comebacks, ones that happen all the time. Staging a comeback is a task that requires both mechanical and emotional dexterity. You have to summon up the willpower in yourself and in your teammates to keep everyone fighting and working together, despite the fact that you're facing an uphill slog towards probable defeat. Actually making it over the hurdle and regaining the lead triggers a palpable response from a team. Like all five people are thinking (or saying) HOLY SHIT THIS IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING at the same time. Victory seems real, and in grasp, once again.
And there is nothing more defeating in Heroes than having that victorious resurgence dashed in your face for no better reason than some group of NPC monsters managed to sneak their way in through the back door. It's like a player-versus-player game suddenly turned into a player-versus-environment game, and not a particularly interesting one.
Weird or frustrating it may be, there's a logical explanation for why Heroes of the Storm games end like this. In an effort to differentiate their game from its established competitors Dota 2 and League of Legends, Blizzard promised that Heroes matches would be short and to the point. Most games are over in less than 20 minutes, the developer said in April. In order to achieve this level of efficiency, Blizzard had to accelerate the momentum of Heroes matches. There are three main factors that rev the game up:
- Each team's defensive structures are relatively weak and therefore easy to destroy quickly. While this has long been the case, Blizzard further exaggerated it in a March patch that shaved off ten per cent of health for all gates, towers, keeps and walls in a game — i.e., every defensive structure but the core itself.
- They changed the standard MOBA jungle into a series of NPC mercenary camps, which can be captured at regular intervals. While most mercs aren't powerful against hero characters, they're strong enough to essentially push a lane on their own — and, as those videos show, push all the way to the enemy core.
- The also added objectives and mini-quests to each of the Heroes maps, which reward teams with game-changing resources like superpowered laser beams, pirate cannons, or summon-able dragons. These tools can easily destroy an entire enemy base on their own, as long as a team completes the objectives enough times before the enemy team does.
As I noted in my review, the end result of these three changes to the MOBA template is a game that's incredibly fast paced and often turns at a moment's notice — except for those cases where one team manages to give enough of a push to the map that the merc camps, bosses, and everything else gain enough momentum that they become unstoppable. It's almost as if they rolled a snowball far enough down a hall that it became an avalanche.
Regardless of whether or not you think that's a good thing, what's undeniable about Heroes of the Storm's weird surprise endings is that they're going to shape the game's meta. Actually, they already have. People playing in the ranked Hero League mode will often try to outwit each other by, say, sneakily pushing one lane when everyone else is occupied by a team fight. Or instead of laning at all, a team will just focus on completing a map's objectives and frustrating the opponent's' ability to do so. Or maybe a team will ignore the objectives entirely, and capture all of the mercenary camps at once instead. This can easily overwhelm a team.
On the plus side, posing diverse challenges simultaneously means that HOTS is encouraging its players to develop advanced levels of map awareness and control. The downside, however, is that objectives and mercenary-based tactics can seem like a cheap shot...and not a particularly fun one. Winning or losing in a MOBA feels the most intense when you're the one making it happen. With your own two hands, claws, or whatever appendage. You're the one shoving your way into the enemy base and knocking it down. You're the one in the team fight that's going to make or break everything. This is why League of Legends has its jungle monsters grant bonuses to a team or individual champion, but doesn't have them get up and starting fighting for the team too. Keeping jungle camps in the jungle helps centralize team fights, which are the most fun and crazy parts of the game by far.
Objectives spark team fights nonstop in Heroes of the Storm. But they also make you hyper-focused on one particular location for a transparently arbitrary reason. In the pirate themed level Blackheart's Bay, fixating only on objectives can often lead to entire 20-30-minute matches taking place at the one central point where you turn in coins to the ghost pirate in exchange for cannon fire.
It's weird, having this big beautiful map, but having your head shoved to look at this one specific point ninety per cent of the time for fear of losing the match:
I'm tempted to compare Heroes of the Storm to the thematically similar Super Smash Bros. here. When high-level Smash players were confronted with scripted in-game challenges and the random craziness of moving-levels filled with magical hammers and laser guns, they collectively decided to eliminate it from the competitive meta: no items, flat, barren stages only. An unfortunate side-effect of this decision is that it split the Smash community into separate parts: the people who enjoy it as a party game and think no-items-final-destination sounds really boring, and the people who think that's the only way to truly play Super Smash Bros.
The Heroes of the Storm community could split up in a similar way. But I don't think that would be a good thing. I mean, it's a team-based game. It's more fun for everyone when we all stick together.