James explains how Blizzard's F2P CCG has somehow torn him away from Rockstar's unstoppable juggernaut.
By James Pinnell on September 25, 2013 at 12:29 pm
When you’re 30 years old, married and bringing up a rambunctious two-and-a-half year old, time to yourself is indescribably precious. After I run through the post-work routine of dinner, bath, bedtime and wife time, what’s left is a crucial few hours where I can play a few games for business or pleasure. On those nights where I’m not torching the midnight oil in order to produce stellar content for you, the reader, I indulge in personal gaming time. The problem lies in the sheer number of titles that flood across my desk, from debug codes, to developers begging me to try out their new F2P beta.
The issue I was faced with about a week ago was not only that Grand Theft Auto 5 came out, but I was finally offered a majestic place in the elite club of Hearthstone Closed Beta testers. Frankly, I didn’t think that a F2P CCG could ever really compete with Rockstar’s epic.
I was very wrong.
Straight off the bat – since I can foresee many of you are already getting ready to tear me a new orifice — I absolutely love GTA V. The world is enormous and engaging, bristling with people, places, activities and drenched in that black satirical humour that Rockstar are famous for. The switching mechanic is very well implemented and complements the slightly schizophrenic story and heist scenarios. So why aren’t I playing it more often than I am? When Mass Effect 3 came out, I played it almost non-stop for a week, with the final push involving a gradual crescendo of caffeine and a wilful ignorance of the gap between my available sleep and the time I needed to leave for work in the morning. Fallout: New Vegas? The same. BioShock: Infinite? No doubt.
There are a couple of pieces to this puzzle, and both of them tend to stem from the same core annoyance. The first is that Hearthstone is brilliant — it is easily one of the best designed strategy games I’ve had the pleasure of gorging myself on for some time. From the moment you begin the tutorial, Blizzard’s iconic polish and presentation, mixed with a brutally simple learning curve, begins to draw you in. The reality is that outside of a small stint with Magic: The Gathering when I was 13, I have never been a fan of CCGs. The complexity of the ruleset, across the various modules and pack types, made my head spin, and I could never, ever figure out how to design a deck that worked.
The coupling of familiar systems (WoW Classes, abilities and heroes) with a simple ruleset (mana) and a clever tutorial that slowly teaches various tactics and mechanics has struck gold. I now realised why tens of thousands of people brought down this very website to get access to this game — it’s a big deal.
Next to Grand Theft Auto, a game that offers almost limitless potential, I found myself curiously steering back towards Hearthstone. My Xbox 360 sits on my desk, next to my PS3 and plugged in via HDMI to my primary monitor. It’s a simple switch across via a few button presses, but I still find it jarring as I can’t alt-tab out of the game to satisfy my constant need to multitask. Once I’m “in” GTA V, I’m locked into at least a few hours of missions and side quests. It might sound silly, but being forced to switch platforms to play one title is not only irritating but feels entirely obsolete and pointless.
I’ve lost my access to free multiplayer services, I need to ensure my controller is charged, I had to pay twice as much for a hard disc copy which took 15 minutes to install anyway. From start to finish, it takes a good ten minutes to get into the game at all — whereas Hearthstone is a 15 second launch away thanks to Blizzard’s brilliant new desktop app and my SSD.
If GTA V was on PC, would I still be stuck within this conundrum? Probably, but it would be a much harder decision to switch it out. As it stands, consoles (at least the current generation of them), still require too much fiddling around, loading times, abhorrent pricing, and online service subscriptions to offer similar experiences on PC. But in all honestly — as much as I like flaunting the PC’s continued stride towards effortless gaming experiences — Hearthstone is simply moreish in a way that very few games can be. Most matches last between 10 and 15 minutes. The experience is stripped down to its core, with very little in the way of complicated menu structures featuring lobbies and various game types. Losing a game isn’t the end of the world either – since Hearthstone doesn’t log your losses publicly, it just translates your experience into finding more appropriate opponents. As a result, you don’t feel like a failure when a game is over — you tend to know why and how you lost, and what tweaks to make to your deck or play style for the next round.
It’s a recipe for a healthy obsession — matches are almost always intense and exciting, the randomness of your opposing class coupled with the uncertain string of your cards in hand. A match ends, another begins. Before you know it, you’ve gone through 10 opponents in just under two hours and are chalking the odd win under your belt. The key to this effective formula is that, win or lose, you are not penalised for your actions — you gain experience (more for a win, obviously) for playing and, more importantly, for learning, which makes for a much more interesting player base. GTAV, on the other hand, is effectively offering a more high-fidelity version of its predecessor — strip away the gimmicks and what you have is a very similar game in very similar skin. When I die in GTA, it’s usually not due to a poor strategic decision, but an element of pure bad luck spawned within the chaos theory style game engine — I take a bad corner and my car flips or a stray bullet clips my neck causing me to die instantly. Equally, the completion of a mission or side quest feels like a eventuality, rather than a hard fought battle.
It doesn’t make GTA V bad, or a “worse” game than Hearthstone at all, and this is not my point. GTA offers the player a sandbox to in which to play out a mission structure that is purposely not directed. As a result, it’s easy to become distracted and at the same time, bored, because the core experience of the title is vague. Is GTA about heists? Or tennis? Or drug smuggling? Or getting high and shooting aliens? There is so much to do in Los Santos that the sheer thought of loading up the game and diving into that world feels weighty, like hours and possibly days are needed to appreciate it.
Hearthstone, on the other hand, appeals to that side of me that assumes I only have 10 minutes to play — but sneakily steals 3 hours thanks to a solid, directed, cleverly designed platform.
One week on, I’m now 15% through GTA V…. but I have 4 classes at LVL15 in Hearthstone. I’ve actually bought a couple of packs to complement by growing assortment of various decks, and I’m even looking at guides to improve them. I felt once that Blizzard had lost a lot of the magic that fuelled its earlier titles, right up until WoW‘s first expansion, by focusing too much on adding “more” than continually refining and improving its core experience. Hearthstone has managed to do what WoW did with MMORPGs to CCGs — in making them fun, accessible, simple to learn but challenging to master.
I’m sure I’ll eventually finish GTA V, but probably not before I complete those goddamn Arena challenges!