Heroes of the Storm preview: entering the arena with Blizzard's all star cast of heroes

Chris Thursten

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Heroes of the Storm will divide people. Blizzard have taken strides to rework the Defence of the Ancients template for a broader audience, but even that benign effort is politically loaded in a genre this conservative, this hardcore, this embedded in the hearts and minds of so many people. Heroes is still a game where two teams of five heroes, each with distinct abilities, battle to destroy each others' bases by escorting waves of NPC minions along a set of lanes. Beyond that familiar formula, however, little has been left untouched.

Individual players no longer gather experience points or gold for themselves. Instead, teams level up as a unit and while your side might risk falling behind, you never will relative to your peers. Each map has a game-changing optional objective that teams must factor into their strategies. This might be a shrine that can be captured to turn one player into a super-powerful Dragon Knight, or an underground area where players can kill skeletons to boost the power of their Grave Golem, a special minion capable of punching through base defences. Matches are short and the game encourages teams to fight as a group from the very beginning. Strategy and timing are more important than hair-trigger skill, and reacting to the enemy team supplants the extensive extracurricular book-learning required to become adept at Dota 2.

The result is a game that serves newcomers well, particularly those players who've never felt comfortable committing the amount of time these games traditionally demand. Veterans of Dota 2 and League of Legends may feel restricted, however, by a tactical toolbox that feels truncated relative to what they are used to.

“It's challenging to change any rules in this genre,” says design lead Dustin Browder. “I've been surprised at the amount of rage that even the smaller changes have produced internally, and in the community.” This problem, Browder argues, is cultural rather than technical – and attitudes can be changed.

“We've found that with a bit of playtesting and courage that you can change quite a bit – the genre's actually pretty wide open. This genre is not one map, or one set of heroes.”

He compares the lane-pushing game to the earliest first-person shooters. “Some shooters have a sniper rifle and some don't – that's cool. I can imagine all of the different types of games in this genre that could be made. There's always a kernel of goodness in even our more radical ideas.”

Browder is an entertaining person to talk to. A veteran of the StarCraft II design team, he also worked on Red Alert 2 and the Battle for Middle- Earth series. He knows his RTS games, and he sounds infectiously excited about getting to deploy that expertise in a new context.

In particular, Heroes of the Storm's attitude to game balance is markedly different to that of StarCraft II. “The balance of all of the games in this genre simply isn't as tight as a game like StarCraft,” Browder says. “StarCraft we designed to be balanced from the beginning. We made a lot of decisions about cool things we weren't going to do because we wanted the balance to be perfect. We're not going to have more than 14 units per side. That's it. We'll only have three races. That's it. Why? Balance! Balance!”

That matches are fair is still of paramount importance to Blizzard, a fact that Browder is keen to stress. They have three developers working full-time on mechanical balance. But Heroes of the Storm has given its designers the freedom to place innovation ahead of strict parity in a way they haven't been able to before.

This is an exciting thought for players as well as designers. The RTS is absolutely critical to Blizzard's history as a game development studio, and whatever else the company does they will always be the developers who created Brood War and Warcraft III. Even though its character roster is a tribute to Blizzard's past, Heroes of the Storm feels like the most substantially new design to come out of the studio in a long time. As accomplished as Hearthstone is, Heroes' roots stretch far deeper into the company's creative history. The lane-pushing game might have started as an offshoot of a Blizzard RTS, but it has become an opportunity for the developers to explore their past from a new perspective.

I've been playing the game since March, in a technical alpha that includes four maps and just over 20 heroes. They're a varied group. I began by trying to specialise in Diablo's archangel Tyrael – I assumed, somewhat unrealistically, that the head start afforded to alpha players might give me a skill advantage when the game is finally realised. What I've found instead is that Heroes of the Storm rewards being a generalist. Tyrael is a melee tank with a decent amount of manoeuvrability, but that's not a toolset you need in every situation. He's useful on Blackheart Bay, for example, where chasing down enemies carrying bundles of pirate gold is a key strategic concern. Elsewhere, however, there are other characters I'd rather be.

Falstad is one. A dwarf mounted on a gryphon, he has no access to the speed-boosting mounts that most other characters can ride. Instead, he can periodically fly directly a large distance across the map. Selecting passive bonuses that decrease the cooldown of his travel power makes you phenomenally mobile. I like to play him as a roaming capper, flinging myself behind enemy lines to snatch territory-revealing watchtowers or to clear mercenary camps, which temporarily recruit powerful NPCs to your side.

Support hero Uther makes for a good example of Heroes of the Storm's generous approach to hero roles. While his pair of healing abilities make him a natural back-rank utility character, it's possible to turn him into a dangerous tank with the right passive abilities. You can turn his most powerful heal into an equally dangerous damage spell, and upgrade his Divine Storm ultimate ability into a battle-turning mass disable.

My initial concerns about hero design focused on two heroes: Zeratul and Nova. Zeratul is a Protoss melee assassin with the ability to teleport, and Nova is a sniper who can create illusory decoys of herself. What they have in common is a passive ability that renders them invisible when they disengage from combat for more than a couple of seconds. Their presence on the map is a constant concern, and a rare break from Heroes' otherwise-forgiving design. This is a game where enemy aggression is signposted by the announcer, generous vision ranges, and small maps that make it difficult to lose people. Adding invisibility to the mix felt, at first, like a vast transmission of power to these very specific—and very popular—heroes.

In Dota 2, invisibility is a game feature that players are invited to counter by drafting certain heroes or buying specific items. In Blizzard's new game, there are no items and you can't see the enemy's roster of heroes before the match. I asked Browder if he felt like these characters were a problem for the game given its current structure. His explanation was that the game is yet young, and that the community is still learning. Internally at Blizzard, the situation is a little different.

“We've got really good at dealing with invisible heroes with skillshots,” he tells me. “When you see that they're in the roster, you need to look for the shimmer.”

There's a slight mirage effect around invisible heroes at close range, faint enough that you're unlikely to see it unless you're looking for it. I also realised that it's possible to reveal invisible characters with damage, and started to look at each hero's tree of upgrades very differently. Uther, for example, can select a passive bonus that damages enemies immediately around him. Suddenly, staying in melee range became a viable anti-invisibility technique. The counters were there, but I needed to shake myself out of my 'Dota brain' to see them.

This is another example of the way that Heroes of the Storm encourages decision-making during the match, rather than before it. While Browder isn't opposed to adding a 'drafting' game mechanic – where teams take turns to select heroes – he wants to emphasise the strategic process within the match itself. “We want a lot of that in the game,” he says. “We want you to look at the enemy roster and say 'OK, I'm going to play differently now'.”

The only other concern that I've had during my time with the alpha regards combat feedback. I'm a stickler for feel, and I hold Blizzard to a high standard. After all, this is the company that made smacking a card down onto a virtual board in Hearthstone a tangible, physical and fun interaction. Diablo III sets an equally high benchmark, and even StarCraft II invests an enormous amount in small details that make battles feel lethal.

Heroes of the Storm isn't quite there yet. Initially, I attributed this to the game's design in general. Heroes have robust health pools, and skills are both more readily available and less immediately impactful than their equivalents in other games. You're in little danger of being chain-stunned to death at level one, and you're probably not going to be securing kills with Hail Mary skillshots either. The early phase of the game almost always involves a period of damage trading as players ping abilities back and forth across the frontline, but it rarely feels dangerous.

Browder acknowledges that the design of the game does factor in to this reduced sense of impact. “If we made the laning phase feel like it's really easy to gank somebody, then when we get into a teamfight everybody just explodes,” he says. “There's a tradeoff there that we have to deal with.”

I can respect the nature of that tradeoff, because it does yield advantages elsewhere in the game. Map objectives mean that whole teams are likely to come together for five-on-five battles much earlier than they otherwise might, and this compensates for a reduced sense of individual potency. Also, the more of the game I play, the more I come to suspect that Heroes' problem with feedback can be attributed to something much simpler.

I think it's the audio mix. When we talk about 'feel' in games we are often talking, in effect, about sound. Diablo III's skeletons are 'crunchy'. Hearthstone's cards 'thump' onto the table. By comparison, Heroes' attacks and abilities sound muted, and are frequently overwhelmed by everything else going on – the bellowing announcer, the music, the hubbub of minions fighting. I find this heartening, in a sense, because it's a relatively straightforward fix – and something I believe that Blizzard will be able to address before the game launches. Nonetheless, I'd like to see them make it a priority.

Blizzard have yet to finalise much about the game's social features, including the exact amount of power players will have to communicate with each other – famously abusable power, given the genre's reputation. At the moment, you can only talk to you own team. This is likely to change, one way or another.

“I have a lot of sympathy for users who can't handle being flamed in chat,” Browder tells me. “But I'm also sympathetic to players who want to talk freely in the game. I'm not sure where we need to go at this point. It's not Hearthstone. We don't have a one-size-fits-all approach here at Blizzard.”

As it is, I've noticed that Heroes of the Storm doesn't provoke chatter—or flaming—as much as other games. What you need to be doing at a given point is generally intuitive enough that players come together without much prevarication. Communication is still vitally important for competitive play, but being able to coordinate silently with strangers is key, I think, to Heroes' appeal. It's what makes it a level playing field for veterans to play with or against their newcomer friends. I've found that my experience with other games in the genre has been as much a hindrance as a help, and that speaks to the fact that Blizzard have created something legitimately new despite the familiar trappings. It's a welcome sense of novelty, albeit the one that has taken time to uncover.

As much as I suspect that Blizzard's game will prompt division among the lane-pushing hardcore, I think it has the power to bring people together, too. This is an opportunity for a fresh start within a genre that has become notorious for its factionalism, and I'm looking forward to watching Heroes of the Storm's nascent community transform it from an interesting set of new ideas into a competitive game with a life of its own.

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