I hated MOBAs. These weird games that called themselves Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas have all but supplanted my beloved Real Time Strategy genre. Requiring minute micromanagement, synchronized teamwork, and a critical familiarity with dozens of heroes and hundreds of abilities, MOBAs are not exactly known for their accessibility.
Leave it to Blizzard, the masters of gameplay iteration, to create by far the most accessible and enjoyable “Online Hero Brawler”. By leveraging their famous stable of larger-than-life characters and streamlining every single aspect of the genre, Blizzard have crafted one of the most enjoyable team multiplayer games I’ve played in years.
Heroes of the Storm doesn’t try to reinvent the genre. The basic gameplay concepts of controlling a single, but powerful hero unit in a multiplayer strategy game are still present. Multiple lanes of constantly-spawning friendly and enemy forces engage each other, while the 5 on 5 heroes remain the stars and deciding factors in each engagement. Heroes gain experience and improve their unique set of abilities over the course of a match, with the ebb and flow of hit-and-run guerrilla warfare segueing into massive team fights as brightly coloured powers fire off in an orgy of adrenaline.
The single biggest and best change from the traditional MOBA model is the addition of map objectives, along with multiple maps. Other online strategy games like League of Legends and DOTA2 employ a single map for every match, like the field of a sports game. Heroes of the Storm eschews this in favor of over half a dozen maps in rotation, like a first-person shooter.
Each battleground is wildly different by offering a major objective that can change the entire course of a match, often dictating the final winner. Egyptian-themed Sky Temple uses a King of the Hill element as heroes race to control multiple zones and their tower-destroying lasers. The Haunted Mines periodically opens an underground lair full of monsters and collectible skulls, powering a giant boss for each team. In July, Blizzard released th new Diablo-inspired Battlefield of Eternity; a demon and angel battle in the middle of the map, causing frequent and exciting 5 on 5 team battles as the surviving titan cleaves the way forward.
The stars of the genre are always the player heroes, and though Heroes of the Storm is the new kid on the block, its heroes have been around for years. Even for casual Blizzard fans, it’s fun to see familiar faces like Thrall, Diablo, and Raynor duking it out. Blizzard have done a particularly nice job with their tutorial, recognizing its overall absurdity at the cross-universe setting and keeping everything light-hearted and fun. As a big Blizzard fan since the 90s, I found myself laughing out loud when Raynor mocked Diablo’s incessant need for feasting on terror.
In Heroes of the Storm, each of the (currently) 39 heroes already starts each match with their three signature abilities, as well as a trait. Each hero is divided into four distinct classes – Warrior, Assassin, Support, and Specialist. Warriors like Arthas and Johanna are your front line tanks, capable of taking the most damage. Assassins are your main damage-dealers, and come in melee and ranged flavors, like Kerrigan, Illidan, and Jaina. Supports like Uther heal and buff everyone, while Specialist is a bit of a catch-all for the non-conforming heroes that add tricky but interesting elements to a match, like the siege tank Sgt. Hammer or the triple threat of The Lost Vikings. All manner of play-styles are supported and encouraged, from speedy healers, to squishy cannons, to cloaked assassins. A balanced team isn’t necessarily the best, but knowing your general role is key.
A hero’s abilities gradually become stronger each level. Levels are shared between teammates, a simple but brilliant change that prevents anyone from lagging behind. Every three or four levels, you choose between one of several talent choices. These let you specialize your hero along a certain path, adding new abilities or passive buffs to existing powers. With the total lack of items or equipment (a staple of other MOBAs), these talents become the only character-crafting choices you have to worry about during a match, allowing you to focus your attention less on meticulously crafting your character, and more on the action at hand.
Heroes of the Storm includes both a player level and individual hero levels for every single hero. You gain experience in both in every match—even versus the decent AI. Leveling up grants periodic gold rewards, as well as additional colour variations for heroes and mounts.
Gold can be used to purchase heroes—at start, you only have access to the current week’s free hero rotation consisting of 5-7 heroes, depending on your player level. These heroes can be used in Quick Match mode, matching you and any friends with another team. Players can use any combination of free or purchased heroes, though it’s a bit of a Wild West when it comes to matchmaking.
Player level 30 finally unlocks Hero League. Hero League is the first ranked mode and requires each player to have purchased ten heroes—no free heroes allowed! At level 40 (the current max), Team League is unlocked, a ranked mode for full five-person teams.
Compared to Blizzard’s other free-to-play game Hearthstone, it takes much, much longer to reach these ranked modes. Gold also comes in a bit slower, even when consistently completing Daily Quests and leveling up heroes. Heroes range in cost from a 2,000 Raynor, to a 10,000 Chen the Pandarian Brewmaster. Purchasing any of the many 10,000 cost heroes becomes an agonizing liability after you’ve burned through your initial influx of gold from leveling.
Since its release, Heroes of the Storm has added a new hero each month. Constant updates and additions are par for the course for this free-to-play genre, and Blizzard is no stranger to long-term post-launch support. My experiences with Heroes of the Storm haven’t changed my opinion of this normally hardcore genre, but it has enhanced my respect for Blizzard in taking the genre and molding a MOBA for the rest of us.
As with any team-based online game, playing with friends improves the experience immeasurably, and my 60+ hours with the community have been surprisingly positive, especially compared to the infamous toxicity surrounding the genre. If you’ve been on the fence with gaming’s fastest growing genre, but understandably intimidated, I can’t recommend Heroes of the Storm’s friendly approach enough.