Monday, June 2, 2014

Heroes of the Storm: A First Look

At the time of this writing, Valve has raised over $7 million to be paid out as prize money for one single eSports tournament, the DOTA 2 International Championships 2014. It has also been a $21 million payday for Valve for minimal work. They have done so by selling the "Compendium", a digital companion book to the tournament. If a player buys it, they can make predictions for the tournament for prizes, vote on two all-star teams, and get in-game items and boosts. This is in addition to the warm and fuzzy feeling you get every time you contribute to eSports. It costs $10, 25% of which goes to the tournament prize pool and 75% goes into Valve's pocket. Furthermore, it's only been out for a couple weeks now and will continue to sell until the end of July, when the tournament ends. Marketing level: Genius. (Sidenote: Did I buy one? Absolutely!)

In an attempt to start getting in on those MOBA/Hero Brawler dollars, Blizzard has finally released a Technical Alpha of their entry to the genre: Heroes of the Storm. (Note: I posted a trailer of it back when it was still called Blizzard All-Stars, literally two years ago. see new trailer here.) By Technical Alpha, they mean the game is playable but there are still lots and lots of changes coming, large and small. Also, you can already give them your real money to unlock characters and items that will later be re-locked (and your money refunded). Heaven forbid they don't get that feature in ASAP.

Anyway, I've played it. I like it! My favorite things about it so far are the things that really make it different from other MOBAs. I like that the games are short. I like that the maps are varied. And I like that the heroes are recognizable to me. However, there are shortcomings, too. Lots of those.

Game Length: If I sit down to play a game of Starcraft, we're looking at a possibility of a 45-minute game. Probably only 15 to 25, sure, but it really could go as long as three-quarter of an hour. Or even an entire hour. A game of DOTA 2? Forty-five minutes, EASY. You have to plan on that before you start a match. It could run as long as an hour, maybe longer, but probably not. I have never had a game of Heroes of the Storm take 25 minutes. Boom. Quick and easy. I love that.

On the flipside, however, each victory or defeat feels very insignificant. But my instincts aren't telling me it's because of the time commitment; it's just a matter of scale. A game of Heroes of the Storm does not feel grand or epic. It just feels like a quick little game. Maybe that's because it's a lot easier to tell if you're ahead or behind in HotS than it is in Starcraft or DOTA. But there's something going on there. And it's ruining it for me a bit.

Maps: So far there are four (maybe five) different arenas (chosen randomly when you queue up), each with a different layout and a major map-specific mechanic in addition to your standard MOBA creeps/towers/lanes. The mechanics all revolve around either collecting something or trying to hold a location, resulting in a nice boost of some kind over your opponent (see in-text image). This kind of activity encourages more frequent teamfights, forcing the players to get up in each other's faces. If you try to ignore the mechanic, your team will undoubtedly lose, so there's even more encouragement. Additionally, these maps are much smaller than your DOTA or LoL maps. This also encourages teamfights, but not in an exciting way. It's in more of a you simply can't go anywhere without bumping into someone else kind of way. Not fun.

Heroes: When I play a game of DOTA, I think in these terms: "Oh! This character is based on [so and so] from Warcraft" (see here). Many, many characters are like this. It's understandable given the game's history, but it's still always in the back on my mind. In Heroes of the Storm, I get to play as the ACTUAL characters! It is extremely satisfying. The selection is currently rather low. And it isn't helping that Blizzard has decided to go the LoL monetization route (pay to unlock heroes) rather than the amazingly-awesome-community-contribution-driven way of DOTA (all heroes unlocked, pay for community-made customizable cosmetics). That means you can't even play as whoever you like at any given time (although you can try all heroes once before you have to buy them) with the exception of a rotating "Free Heroes of the Week" deal. So, that kind of sucks. But that could always change with time. I hope it does.

All in all, I'm very glad I get to be in the Alpha and be part of the process. I am very optimistic, but Blizzard has a long way to go to get this game up to a caliber that will compete with League of Legends or DOTA. I'm going to keep an eye on it and keep playing when there's a new update, but in the meantime I'm sticking with DOTA 2 when I have a MOBA itch to scratch.

Unless I'm short on time, of course.

See the show below!