There is a lot to be said about the MOBA genre and its popularity, but one thing that can't be said about it is that it's easy to master. Some guides for Dota 2 claim it takes a least 100 matches (and these typically last from 45 minutes to an hour), just to start to understand what's going on.
Things aren't made easier by the fact that a lot of the core mechanics are in complete conflict with your instincts. At times - fairly often - it's a bad thing to slay the enemy. At times, depending on what game you're playing, you're meant to slay your own units. Add to this a community that typically is very hard on beginners, having a poor player on your team (or simply one who's not up to the same standard as the rest) ensures defeat.
After only a couple of minutes with Heroes of the Storm it's readily apparent that Blizzard have done what they do best yet again. Streamlined a concept, making easy to learn without compromising the entertainment or depth.
It's still very much a MOBA - or 'Hero Brawler', as Blizzard chose to call it (you be the judge if that's an improvement or not). There are two teams of five players, each player picking a hero - the selection includes plenty of recognisable Blizzard mainstays like Jim Raynor, Arthas, Tyrael, Illidan, Kerrigan, Malfurioun, Abathur, and so on - and they battle to take down the palace in the opposing team's base. To help them there are computer-controlled allies (creeps) that spawn in waves and run towards the enemy base down pre-determined routes (lanes).
I cannot help but think of Guardians of Middle-Earth as I play Heroes of the Storm. Many of the changes to the formula are the same. Much like Guardians there is no gold collection or item shop during the round. There is also no "last-hitting" and it doesn't matter who scores the last hit on an enemy. As long as you're nearby as he dies you gain XP and grow stronger.
But Heroes of the Storm take things even further. One example of this is that all heroes on a team have the same level, and this change is much bigger than you might first think. In other MOBAs you typically encounter situations where you allow the potentially strongest hero on the team to "farm" enemies for XP so he quickly gets stronger while players in support roles may not get quite as many kills and therefore are weaker in direct combat.
By letting all players on a team share a level you accomplish two things. First of all it makes it easier to contribute to the team even if you're a weaker player. Secondly it opens it up for a wider spectrum of characters. Take Abathur, the Zerg keeper of DNA from Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm. He's not much use in direct combat - he's capable of waving his arms around, but that's pretty much it. But he possesses a wide range of abilities that strengthen his team mates. Abathur can infest his fellow players, hitching a ride in their bodies while he uses abilities and buffs. He is also very mobile, capable of jumping from one end of the map to the other in an instant with his quick burrow ability.
In my first match I pick Jim Raynor. He's an easy-to-grasp ranged hero who's special abilities include an attack that deals extra damage and knocks the enemy back and a buff for team mates who stick close to him (the more team mates within the area of effect, the bigger the bonus). His ultimate ability - that only unlocks once a certain level is reached - sends Raynor's Battlecruiser, Hyperion, over the map, shooting down any and all enemies in its path.
Most MOBAs only offer one map (perhaps supplemented by a couple of alternative modes, perhaps only with one lane or perhaps featuring control points). Heroes of the Storm has several, or Battlegrounds, as they're called. They mostly stick to the familiar three lane format, but each has some unique mechanic to shake things up.
The Battleground I play on spawns so called Tributes at regular intervals. Collect three of these Tributes and you put a curse on the enemy team, giving their creeps heavily reduced health and debuffing the player characters. In another map there are two obelisks and if your team controls both you can make your way to the middle of the map to an altar where you're transformed into The Dragon Knight - a massive half-dragon in armour who deals massive damage and cuts through the enemies like a hot knife through butter.
There are other smaller changes to the formula as well. All characters have the ability to call in a mount, making for quicker travel outside of combat. The traditional towers that populate each lane are now joined by forts. Magical gates close off each lane so players on the defending team can run through it freely, while the other team needs to take down the gate before gaining access to the other team's end.
Blizzard have designed the game in a way that a typical match lasts around 20 minutes - whereas League of Legends and Dota 2 games sometimes lasts as long as an hour. This is meant to facilitate playing with your friends. And if you miss out on the start of a game you don't have to wait 40 minutes to join the next bout.
The game is built on the rock solid foundation of the Starcraft II engine. The controls and inputs are impeccable and already in place.
As is the norm in the genre, Heroes of the Storm will be free-to-play. Blizzard hope to make money on sales of items, skins and similar thing. No decisions have been made as far as prices and selections go, but producer Chris Sigaty says that it will be primarily items that won't influence gameplay; items of cosmetic nature. We saw a few examples of this - an alternative version of Diablo (half-Murloc) and Arthas in his old Paladin armour from before his time as the Lich King.
There should be no doubt that the MOBA market is packed with strong competition. But the combination of Blizzard's ability to simplify and streamline accessibility with their reputation for great games, makes Heroes of the Storm more than just another challenger to League of Legends' crown. This could be the game that could help my fellow Starcraft, Hearthstone and World of Warcraft players embrace the genre after our fruitless attempts at getting into Dota 2. You can sign up for the Heroes of the Storm beta right now. Blizzard hopes to kick off the beta during the first half of 2014.
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