I’ve dumped an inordinate amount of time into MOBAs. Starting with League of Legends, I accumulated somewhere in the ballpark of four-to-five-thousand games played, and with Dota 2 I’m starting to edge closer and closer to that “2000 hours played” mark.
There’s something about them that grips me in a way no other multiplayer game does. It’s a team game that demands both individual skill and team cooperation. There’s a sense of comradery and a depth of strategy that never hits bottom. MOBAs craft entire storylines, exciting twists and turns into a condensed experience, and they’re so easily molded to player agency and metagaming that communities form up around debating tactics and theorycrafting.
They’re thick and dense, but like a tough piece of taffy, there’s a lot of chewing to be done before you get to the sweet stuff. In many ways, Heroes of the Storm seeks to alleviate those problems and even add their own spin to the formula. What results, however, is a game that feels original, but not always able to bottle the lightning of its predecessors.
Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s foray into the MOBA market, takes the standard five-versus-five hero combat simulator and makes some big changes. There are still multiple lanes, creeps that spawn every so often to run down them in a blaze of suicidal glory, towers that assure those creeps’ fates, and a big ol’ Core to destroy for the game winner. There’s jungle between the lanes, populated by neutral monsters, and health and mana bars.
Perhaps the greatest difference between Heroes and other MOBAs is the removal of last-hitting, gold, item shops and individual experience. These are standard progression mechanics in the other games, ones that meter each player’s rate of growth and help to balance out the game-impact-over-time curve from hero to hero. In Heroes, though, experience earned is added to the overall team pool, as each team progresses through a single shared experience bar.
While an interesting concept, and one certainly helpful for newcomers, it also creates some problematic issues in the game’s balance. Those familiar with other games may be wondering how carries and supports differ if there’s no progression to meter out, no items to farm or cores to give farm priority to. Well, the answer is in the kits of each hero.
All heroes start the game with their main three spells usable, and at level six they can choose one of two ultimates to add to that pool. There’s no skilling certain abilities with more points than another, but skill points gained through leveling up instead give you a host of options to accentuate your hero’s skillset. You might be given a choice between earning lifesteal on hit or doing extra damage to non-hero enemies, or you might have to choose between extra damage on one spell or added duration on another.
These systems combine so that each hero is pre-defined before the match even starts, and has a specific role to play in the match. Valla is a carry, a ranged damage dealer who dishes out the damage in exchange for being a little squishy, and that is the only role she serves. Elite Tauren Chieftain is an initiator, so his kit is predetermined to support that and build upon those strengths.
Heroes are rigid more than malleable, and for a lot of MOBA fans coming from other games, this may put you off a bit. In Dota 2, heroes can often jump between roles – we saw that with Faceless Void’s movement from carry to the offlane and the use of Gyrocopter and Night Stalker as supports that transition into four role carries. League also has their fair share of changes, with champions like Urgot being seen in many different lanes and champions like Shyvana and Kha’Zix switching roles often since their introduction to the game. Heroes of the Storm provides little of the same flexibility – while you can often lane in pretty much any combination due to not needing to prioritize farm or experience on certain heroes, each hero is also pigeonholed into a certain role. While they get flexibility and customization through skill upgrades, they never quite allow for clever drafting or surprise picks.
That being said, what Heroes of the Storm nails is the individual personality of each character. Raynor, Jaina Proudmoore, Kael’Thas, and many other Blizzard characters are all here, but they rarely overlap in abilities or themes. Each one feels individual, and while they all serve their own purpose, they do it in a way that is true to their character.
Specialists also change up the way roles work quite a bit, and are one of Heroes’ more interesting changes to the standardized norms of MOBAs. Abathur, for example, spends most of his time sitting in his base, supporting enemies from afar with his massive range spells. Murky is the perfect murloc, sending swarms of himself at enemies unless you can find and break his egg. There’s some really cool concepts in the Specialist department, and they ended up being the ones who captured my playtime most, rather than the standard auto-attack carries and crowd-controlling tanks. Specialists, though, are the exception to the otherwise standard design of playstyles.
The reason why lane compositions are generally unimportant and farm priority is removed is likely because Heroes of the Storm doesn’t quite focus on the same pillars as other games. While most MOBAs emphasize stages of the game and power curves, Heroes puts the focus on objectives. There is no single competitive map, but a number of maps that make up the pool, each with their own lane layout and set of objectives.
While the goal is always to destroy the enemy Core, the best way of approaching that goal isn’t always in pushing directly. Neutral monster camps litter the jungle, and killing them allows you to win them to your side and sent them down the nearest lane. There’s also map-specific objectives that give your team a significant boost and opportunity to level the opponent’s base without fear of losing a teamfight.
Blackheart’s Bay, for example, spawns treasure chests filled with dubloons every so often around the map. If your team picks up and delivers ten of those dubloons to Blackheart at the center of the map, he’ll turn the cannons of his ship on the enemy team’s base and annihilate some of their towers. Dubloons take time to turn in, and if the carrier is killed they drop their stash, so often fights center around either the chest or the dubloon drop-off for most of the game.
That’s really the crux of Heroes of the Storm – instead of focusing on metagaming tactics, Blizzard wants the focus to be on fighting and contributions to the team. A lot of the “busy work” of other MOBAs, like warding, stacking camps and farming up items, is replaced with vying for objectives and taking monster camps to send more siege golems at your adversary. Game times often run much shorter in reflection of that, averaging around 20 or so minutes compared to the hour-long bouts of other titles.
The ways in which Blizzard challenges genre standards with Heroes is interesting, but it falls into some trappings by still feeling the need to still adhere to the MOBA template. While I really think Heroes is a strong entry point for newcomers and a more welcoming game, it doesn’t capture the same peaks of high-level skill and out-playing that the current e-sports titans boast. Through both playing and watching competitive tournaments of HotS, you can still see the ghosts of the genre haunting Heroes.
Teams fall into predetermined rituals in all MOBA games, Heroes included; but Heroes fails to find the subtle back-and-forth in the minutia that makes other games shine at the highest level. When an objective appears, it means that both teams will arrive there, fight, and the victor takes the objective and reaps the benefits. Winning even one of these gives a massive experience swing for one team, and in a game where experience is the only meter of progression, the chances of a comeback are often abysmally low after losing objectives. You can’t have a hero go off and farm up an important item to make a surprise engagement with, or switch lanes to better shut down a farming carry. In fact, the laning experience feels like a bravado slap-fight, and since there’s no last hits to contest and punish, most heroes just stand around poking at each other while creeps die nearby.
Out-of-game progression is also a bit strange in Heroes of the Storm. Certain in-game skill upgrades are not unlocked until you’ve earned enough game experience with the hero, so the full loadout of options for each hero is a bit slim when you first start playing them. Also, while Heroes is free-to-play, heroes are on a free week rotation. To permanently unlock them, you have to either spend the earned metagame currency of gold, or pay money. While this isn’t that strange for most free-to-play games, the “free” cost of most heroes is insanely high. While you earn about 100 or so gold each game, heroes range in cost from 4000 to 10,000 gold. While the cast of heroes isn’t too large yet, even as-is the time requirement to unlock heroes is a bit stiff.
That all being said, Heroes of the Storm is still an entertaining game. While it hasn’t enthralled me to the same degree others have, it’s become a palate cleanser for my regular Dota group, a game we can play without caring too much about winning or losing. It’s still fun to pick one of your favorite Blizzard characters and get into a big fight, watching Kerrigan take on Thrall and the Lost Vikings crash a boat into Diablo.
By nature, though, MOBAs are an ever-evolving beast. Heroes of the Storm has changed a lot throughout its Alpha and Beta, and will change even more as it approaches full release, so it’s difficult to score the game definitively. As it stands, Heroes of the Storm is a fun game that provides a fresh approach to a lot of standard tropes and puts its chips on the appeal of its franchises’ fame. It just doesn’t scratch quite the same itch that those previous have. You can’t fault it for being different, and it’s a solid offering, but one that will just stay a casual interest rather than obsession. A fun game that everyone can enjoy, but whether it compels the same devotion as other titles have has yet to be seen.