Blizzard Entertainment recently released an Alpha version of their new MOBA, “Heroes of the Storm”. For those who don’t know, MOBA stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. In a MOBA, the player typically chooses a “champion” or “hero”. Each champion is a unique character with unique art and unique abilities (commonly known as their “kit”). Characters usually fill a role in combat as well, such as Support, Damage, “Tank”, etc.
Heroes of the Storm is exciting for a couple of reasons. First, the MOBA game genre began as a player created custom Starcraft map named Aeon of Strife, and was popularized by the Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos player created custom map, Defense of the Ancients (or DOTA). While the two forerunners of the MOBA game style were built using Blizzard’s games, Blizzard has not actively created (or assisted) in the creation of a MOBA until now.
HotS is also exciting because Blizzard has been such an iconic gaming company with many memorable characters throughout all three of its franchises (Diablo, Starcraft, and Warcraft.) Heroes of the Storm brings many of these memorable characters together into one game to duke it out against one another in a battle royale.
Before we get started on reviewing the different parts of this game, please remember it is still currently in Alpha testing and could (and probably will) change considerably before it is released.
The heroes in HotS are interesting and diverse. So far, the game includes fan favorites such as James Raynor, Kerrigan, Zeratul and Tassadar (from the Starcraft universe), Diablo and Tyrael (from the Diablo universe), and Illidan, Tyrande, Malfurion, and Arthas (from the Warcraft universe). There are quite a few other characters as well, including named versions of the Witch Doctor, Barbarian and Demon Hunter from Diablo III.
Character models look well made, despite the fact that they could use a little graphical polishing. Heroes are mostly voiced by their returning voice actors, lending even more depth and nostalgia to playing as some of your favorite characters. Some characters have different voice actors (hopefully stand-ins for the Alpha release) that tend to detract from the enjoyment of playing that hero. We’re looking at you, Zeratul.
Abilities seem to be well thought out and greatly distinguish the heroes from one another. Currently there are some balance issues with some of the abilities, but again this is Alpha. Each hero fills a role or archetype, be it Assassin, Warrior, Specialist, or Support. Players of League of Legends would recognize the Assassin role as being similar to the Melee or Ranged AD Carry roles in that game, while Warrior characters tend to be tanks or “bruisers”. They can absorb a lot of punishment and tend to disable their enemies in some way as opposed to dishing out huge amounts of burst damage.
The Specialist role is something new in comparison to other MOBAs I’ve played, and indicates that this character behaves in a unique or specialized way. One of the returning Starcraft heroes is Abathur, the Evolution Master from Starcraft II’s Zerg expansion, Heart of the Swarm. Abathur never fought directly in that game, taking more of a mad scientist role. In Heroes, Abathur plays by “infesting” his allies from afar, often sitting behind allied fortifications far away from the actual battlefield. He places Symbiotes inside allies that allow him to lob ranged attacks at enemies nearby the ally he has infested, shield the infested ally, etc.
Abathur’s Ultimate ability allows him to clone a targeted ally for a short time and run around as that clone, participating more directly in combat and allowing him to dynamically support the party during key interactions. Need more damage? Just clone your Ranged Assassin. Need to throw out more disables than your Warrior is able to handle? Clone him and enjoy twice the stuns, slows and knockbacks you would have normally. The Specialist role is, so far, one of the standouts of HotS.
In previous MOBA games, there have typically been purchasable items that allow your character to do more damage, take more hits, or provide you with special properties such as causing your attacks to slow enemies or providing you with a shield when your health drops too low. In HotS, there are no purchasable items. Instead, as you level, you are presented with talent choices that let you develop your hero in the direction you want him to develop. These selections last for the rest of the game, and each time you play a new match you develop your chosen hero from the ground up.
Originally, the lack of items seemed to detract from the game, but the talents serve the same function and are in many cases unique to each hero, meaning that your decision is more than “do I buy a bunch of damage items or do I buy toughness items?”. Talents are sometimes generic (enemies within 5 yards of you burn for X damage per second) and can be taken on most heroes that have access to that type of talent, but more often talents modify and improve each heroes abilities directly. One interesting use of Talents is that each hero has multiple Ultimate abilities, and you select them as you would select a talent at the appropriate level.
For anyone who played World of Warcraft, Talents here are similar in theme if not in power. Talents seem to be neat and fun, but don’t feel overpowering. If an enemy player takes a specific Talent, it doesn’t create noticeable concern in comparison to a player who went a different route. It is unknown if this is the design Blizzard is working towards, or if it is just an issue of balancing. Talents are important but not overbearing.
The inclusion of Talents and exclusion of purchasable items is important for a more fundamental reason, however. In previous MOBAs, one of the primary factors in which team would win (skill aside) is creep farm. As you killed npc creatures and enemy players, you would gain gold (or other currency) that you could spend on items. This meant that it was not only important to kill the other team, but also to make sure you were getting a high enough creep score (and therefore enough gold) to support your build (the items you wanted to purchase.) In HotS, there is no currency. This may raise some more questions for some previous MOBA players, which will be answered in the next section…
Leveling up your hero in HotS is another standout concept in relation to other MOBA games. Heroes in HotS level up as a team, not independently of one another. This takes the place of gold farming. The more active and successful your team is at winning fights, killing enemy heroes, killing enemy npc soldiers, and fulfilling map objectives, the more experience your team will get. One team outleveling the other by 2-3+ levels is very noticeable and creates a large power shift.
Whereas in previous games you would want to “stay in your lane” for creep score (currency), now you want to communicate with your team to determine who will hold lanes, who will satisfy map objectives, and other activities to ensure that you are not only succeeding at those objectives, but also maximizing the amount of experience your team is earning. On many maps, there may be a map objective that is integral to winning the match, but if everyone abandons their lanes to satisfy that objective your team would be missing out on a large chunk of experience, which could allow the other team to outlevel you more quickly. This sort of decision making leads to more teamwork and communication to ensure that all your bases are covered when going after key objectives or trying to take out enemy players.
In HotS, the arenas you fight in are active arenas, not just fields to slay your enemies upon. One of the maps in HotS, for instance, has 3 lanes stretching horizontally across the map; top, middle and bottom.
In the top and bottom lanes, halfway between the two factions, are shrines that you can take for your team by establishing a presence at the shrine for a short period of time, which lets you claim that shrine. In the middle lane, there is a large dragon statue. If one team holds both shrines, a member of that team can click on the dragon statue, which will cause it to awaken after a couple of seconds. The player who awakens the dragon actually becomes the dragon and plays as it instead of their chosen hero until the dragon’s hitpoints are exhausted.
The dragon has a large number of hitpoints and lends a huge advantage to the team that has control of it at any given time. That said, it is not overpowered, and a concerted effort by the enemy team can take the dragon down before it’s able to cause too much havoc. This plays into the previous section of this article. If a team focuses too much on awakening the dragon and not enough on maintaining their lanes, the other team could outlevel them, thus allowing them to more easily nullify the dragon when you do awaken it. Heroes of the Storm seems to be based around balancing all the activities you could do within a given match, as opposed to just facerolling your way through the dynamic contributions of each individual map to win. Completely ignoring those arena specific contributions, such as the dragon, can also spell defeat for a team.
HotS brings back a genre mainstay in Skin selection. Skins can be earned or purchased through various means that allow each hero to be reskinned to look differently. Skins drastically change the appearance of the heroes, from making Uther look like a lumberjack to turning Diablo into a Murloc from the Warcraft universe.
New to MOBA games is the addition of in game mounts. Mounts allow you to move about the battlefield more quickly, and are very easy to dismount from to engage the enemy. Currently in game there are horses, riding wolves and others. Mounts come with their own recolors and skins to allow even further customization.
HotS seems to be a fresh take on the MOBA genre. Many games in the genre have just done what their predecessor(s) did but better. HotS has gone in a new direction in many ways, for better or worse. If Blizzard keeps improving on what they’ve shown us in the current Alpha release, we should be in for a great game. Heroes of the Storm is a fun, original MOBA with nostalgia in its corner. For those that have loved previous MOBA games, it may or may not be your cup of tea depending on how open you are to new ideas. Gamers should look forward to seeing the Beta version of this game and eventually the finished product, and can certainly expect to see follow-up reviews when the time comes for each of those events!
Bevan Dawson, Let’s Level Up