Video Games Review: Heroes of the Storm (PC, 2015)

If you aren’t especially into the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre, Blizzard Entertainment is determined to change your mind. I’ve played both of the biggest MOBAs in the world – League of Legends and DOTA 2 – and neither of them took. I’ve tried Smite, I even gave the ill-fated DC Comics MOBA Infinite Crisis a go. None of them grabbed me. Why is it, then, that can’t I stop playing Heroes of the Storm?

Perhaps MOBA isn’t the right term in this case. Blizzard vehemently insists that Heroes of the Storm is not in fact a MOBA, preferring to refer to it as a “hero brawler.” The genre comparisons are immediately apparent regardless of Blizzard’s feelings on the matter; two teams of five, player-controlled Hero characters appear on a map that has two clear sides – your base and the enemy’s base. These teams then traverse up to three roads, or “lanes”, that connect their bases to one another – top, mid and bottom, named for their positions on the map. Both bases spew a near constant stream of AI minions that march dutifully toward the enemy base to start chipping away at the other’s defenses. These defenses are made up of various towers and forts, all capable of firing on minions and heroes, all protecting a central core which, if destroyed, ends the game. Your goal is to suppress the enemy team, battle your way into their base and wreck up the place before they can do the same to you.

I’ve never heard of anything that sounds more suspiciously like a MOBA in my life, but whatever, Blizzard, you do you.

There are plenty of things that Heroes of the Storm does differently to any other MOBA though. There’s seven maps currently available that all deliver a wildly different game depending on the layout you’re given and your win conditions. Heroes are also given a shared pool of XP which means they all level up at the same time, keeping the entire match on an even playing field. You don’t need to purchase any items and the emphasis is placed firmly on working together as a team.

The fact that Blizzard dropped the use of items from the game wholesale is one of many examples of the way Heroes of the Storm seeks to take one of the most impenetrable genres is modern gaming and make it easier to parse. Shared XP, the teamwork focus that renders individual characters less crucial to the way a given match plays out – sentences like these may turn off hardcore MOBA fans but it makes the game so much more accessible to new players and those befuddled by the genre. Having a noob on your team in DOTA 2 means certain, swift defeat. Heroes wants to make dragging any deadweight around as easy as possible and still give you a shot at winning.

Indeed, come-from-behind victories are a rather common occurrence in Heroes of the Storm. There are certain mechanics built right into the game that allow a losing team a bit of room to catch up. Again, purists may cringe but as a MOBA noob I found it made for some really surprising games, and it’s far from anything resembling rubber banding. One match saw the opposing team sprint away to a massive lead in the mid-game by preying on some especially inexperienced players and it allowed them to power levelling a bit. They were so much stronger than us and it was proving to be a real headache. Late in the game, we mounted a pretty suicidal push figuring the enemy would shut us down and we could at least say we went down swinging. The enemy team, perhaps not expecting such a display of aggression, reacted like a Tex Avery cartoon housewife confronted by a mouse, making a series of inexplicably daft decisions that left them vulnerable. This one crucial dropping of the ball cost them the match.

In terms of the Heroes available in the game, if you’re familiar with Blizzard’s back catalogue then you’re going to find a lot to like. Almost every character is pulled from Blizzard’s three big franchises – WarCraft, StarCraft and Diablo. There’s even the three Vikings from the classic Blizzard game The Lost Vikings so it’s clear Blizzard wants to incorporate characters from further back in their history too. Prior knowledge of the characters is useful because it gives you an idea of how they’ll play right off the bat – many use similar moves and attacks to the ones they have in their original games. There also aren’t as many of them as there are in other MOBAs which makes choosing a character much easier. It’s possible that if you don’t have any prior experience with Blizzard’s games then you might be at a bit of a loss when it comes to the character roster but odds are good that if you’re playing Heroes in the first place that you’ve spent some time with a Blizzard game before.

Heroes of the Storm is a super fast game as well. Almost every game I’ve played has clocked in somewhere around the 15- to 20-minute mark. There’s no agonisingly long set up period and there’s a far shorter timeframe between the match starting and first blood. Changes to the formula like these that really make Heroes feel lively and exciting.

As I mentioned earlier in this review, Blizzard have made the call to remove any itemisation from the game, instead starting every hero off on equal footing with a multi-level experience system. Everyone starts at Level 1 and can choose from a list buffs to their character’s existing abilities. As you level up, you start choosing from a pool of talents to create a build for your character and it’s the talents that are Blizzard’s substitute for items. It allows you to change up your build in answer to the way the game is going instead of forcing you into a particular build from the jump.

I frequently gravitate toward a medic main in any class-based game and Heroes was no exception. After WarCraftcharacter Li Li, a Pandaren support character who throws potions to team-mates, came up as a free Hero on last week’s rotation, I fell instantly in love with her. Using Li Li, I was able to take her from fairly decent support character and turn her into a serious headache for the enemy team simply by choosing very particular buffs to my healing ability. I was constantly restoring massive amounts of health to my team mates, two at a time, regenerating mana at an alarming rate and if anyone actually managed to land a hit on her she’d get a brief buff to her running speed to get out of there. Best character ever. Well worth the 2000 gold I paid to unlock her full time (I’m going to come back that later on, however).

You can play against the AI but that’s basically an instant win for the human players. I’ve played around fifty matches against the AI and I’ve won every single game. Quick Match will drop you into a game with randos. The big problem with Quick Match is that, because the matchmaking isn’t quite there yet, you’ll frequently end up with a horrific party makeup (three support classes and no DPS, for instance) which puts you behind the eight ball before you even begin.

There’s also Hero League which allows teams to create Hero drafts. The thing is, if a hero is picked by one team, they can’t be picked by the other. This leads to players sussing out which map the game will be played on and trying to snake particular Heroes, even if it’s just to prevent the other team from having them.

This leads me to the way the Heroes have been balanced. At this point in time, they’re mostly fine barring one or two rather notable exceptions like Anub’arak, who is still rather grotesquely overpowered. These few over or underpowered Heroes will likely be brought into line with future updates but it still feels like something the team could have ironed out before release.

Each Hero fits into one of four classes – tank, DPS, healer and assassin. As you would in any other MOBA, creative Hero curation and the ability to recognise moves and abilities that will synergise well is key. Smart players tend to treat synergies similarly to way NBA players use layups. Run the ball to the net, get it in the air and let somebody else bring it home. Such tactics require a great deal of communication between team members, which makes the lack of voice chat built into the game a bit of a mystery. The game gives you map pings that will alert other players to what you think should be a priority but it doesn’t allow for solid playmaking. Back to Skype or Ventrilo for those who want to work together properly.

My biggest gripe with Heroes of the Storm doesn’t actually have anything to do with the way the game plays, funnily enough. It’s the freemium nature of the game. Heroes of the Storm is free-to-play but, while it represents fantastic value for money if you don’t mind sticking the weekly, rotating roster of free Heroes, it also makes no secret of the fact that it really, really wants your money. Microtransactions abound, urging you to buy things like Heroes themselves, skins, mounts and stim packs – a boost to the rate at which you accrue XP and gold from playing the game. This would probably be less of a bugbear for me if everything wasn’t so hideously expensive.

If you want to purchase a new hero, they’ll run you anywhere from 2500 to 10000 in-game gold. Gold takes a long damned time to accrue, even when using a stim pack. You can hurry the accrual of gold along a bit by completing daily objectives, which the game will spit at you randomly once a day. These objectives are usually pretty simple – play three games as a support character, win five games, that sort of thing. But next to each item’s price in gold is it’s price in actual money, usually about US$12 for Heroes and anywhere up to US$20 for some of the more flamboyant decorative items. You may think I’m being a miser but for me, and you might be right, but for me it just doesn’t represent good value any way you slice it.

Despite this one glaring shortcoming, Heroes of the Storm is a rock solid game. It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s easy to learn and difficult to master. It oozes Blizzard’s trademark charm, lavish production values and largely even-handed design. It’s the MOBA for people who can’t get into MOBAs and if that sounds like you then you should definitely give it your attention.

Review Score: 7.5 out of 10
Highlights: Accessible, fun, fast MOBA; great map designs
Lowlights: A few unbalanced Heroes; in-game purchases are overpriced
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Released: June 2, 2015
Platform: PC, Mac (via Battle.Net)

Reviewed on PC