After having spent a good portion of 2014 in various stages of alpha testing, Heroes of the Storm will finally enter closed beta on January 13. Blizzard have said that they'll aim for a brief period of closed beta followed by the inevitable open beta.
The basics are fairly simple, Heroes of the Storm is a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) featuring heroes from the various Blizzard universes. In essence it's an attempt to streamline and simplify the ruleset of the genre that League of Legends and Dota 2 dominates. But more than that it also adds its own twists and innovations. It's really the classic Blizzard recipe; make things extremely accessible without sacrificing depth.
We're not going to explain the basics of a MOBA (again), but rather skip directly to the part where we tell you what Blizzard are doing differently to the competition. The most important design decision is to cut down the average time of each match to around 20 minutes (instead of sometimes upwards of an hour in others). This decision has also stripped away some of the complexity. There is no gold or item shop. There is no "last hitting". But perhaps the biggest difference is that heroes on a team share their level - this opens up different tactics that don't all focus on progressing your strongest heroes as quickly as possible. It also allows for something that really sets the game apart; specialists.
There are four playable classes - assassins, warriors, support and specialists. The latter are interesting as they offer very different gameplay styles and mechanics, and naturally very unique synergies with other heroes (more on specialists below).
Another thing that Heroes of the Storm does differently is its maps - or Battlegrounds as they are called. There are many of these and they all offer something unique and different to the gameplay, while for the most part sticking with the popular three lane design. Control points or tributes to collect, mixes up the gameplay nicely and shows off some of Blizzard's excellent map design skills.
While the roster is made up of characters that fans of Diablo, Starcraft and Warcraft will be familiar with - there is one notable exception (at least thus far). The Lost Vikings. Revealed back at BlizzCon in November, the trio of characters posed the team with a unique challenge in how to best implement them. We talked to character artist Phillip Gonzales about the decision to bring in "a hero" from outside of Blizzard's power trio.
"When we introduced the concept of the Nexus, being able to visit all these different Blizzard universes, people immediately asked us about our classic games. 'Are we going to see Rock n' Roll Racing, Blackthorne and The Lost Vikings?' And the answer was always yes, but Lost Vikings was very, very highly requested and we came back from BlizzCon last year and we really put our heads together and said what do we need to do to make this happen?"
"One of the things that was really important was the Lost Vikings are three heroes in one. How do we make multi-unit control work in a game that's predominately single character based?"
The answer was to make Lost Vikings a specialist class character - the special category that allows Blizzard more creativity when it comes to abilities and mechanics.
At Gamescom Blizzard unveiled three characters, Diablo's Azmodan, World of Warcraft's Chen Stormstout, and Anub'arak. We caught up with game director Kaeo Milker, to talk about many of the overlying themes and design fundamentals of the game. Much like Lost Vikings - Azmodan is a specialist.
"In our game specialists are kind of the ones that don't really fit into the typical role bubbles. We have a lot of crazy specialists in the game right now. We have Abathur who is this guy who sits back in the base, he infests his allies, he casts spells through them. Pretty complex hero to play. Azmodan is a much easier, less complex specialist. He has less targeted abilities. He's much more, as you know him from Diablo III, giant, huge guy - multi-legged. He's basically a big siege hero, so he pushes down the lane. He spawns demons. He spawns generals that augment those demons and help them along. He has one targeted ability - Globe of Annihilation - that is actually something he can cast basically two screens away. So it's kind of a slow moving projectile, does pretty big aoe [area of effect] damage, but if you get the right timing of that shot you can kill enemy heroes as they're running away."
Heroes of the Storm should be entering open beta during the first half of the year if all things go well, and see its full release not long thereafter. The game is in excellent shape (for an alpha version), so while Blizzard are notorious for waiting to release stuff until it is done, things are certainly looking good for a full release in 2015.
Many analysts consider the MOBA space oversaturated and competitive to a point where newcomers don't stand a chance. And one has to ask whether there is room for anyone other than League of Legends and Dota 2.
Some would say Heroes of Newerth and perhaps third-person MOBA Smite deserve a mention as well. But many have tried and failed to break into the space. Blizzard, however, is one of a kind. And really, if they've nailed the gameplay, and they already have enough fans on Battle.net to create a healthy player base, it could convince some of the Dota 2 and League of Legends faithful, then, all of a sudden, two may very well become three in 2015.
Gearbox are planning on launching their own brand of accessible MOBA in 2015 - Battleborn. While they refrain from using the term MOBA (which seems to be the strategy for anyone trying to enter this space these days), the basic premise of the maps and the push and pull of the two teams points to something similar. However, the shooting makes for a rather significant difference.
Blizzard may be facing some of its stiffest competition from themselves as Overwatch (at first mistakingly identified as a MOBA-shooter sort of like Battleborn), is aiming for the same style of casual (yet deep) team-based online multiplayer. They'll likely offer similar business models and they'll likely compete for the same Battle.net punters.
AAA free-to-play in 2015 looks interesting on the whole. There's BattleCry from Bethesda, that appears to go head-to-head with Blizzard's Overwatch to see who might possibly topple Team Fortress 2. Epic Games are taking another route with Fortnite, a sandbox, survival style offering. There's also Dirty Bomb from Splash Damage, H1Z1 by Sony Online Entertainment, and Human Element from Rob Bowling's Robotoki.
Heroes of the Storm Alpha Livestream Replay (from April):