With global experience, no creep-denying and other sweeping changes, can Blizzard work their own MOBA magic? Alex Walker jumps into the "technical alpha" to take a look around.
By Alex Walker on March 24, 2014 at 12:36 pm
Blizzard are calling this a “technical” alpha, otherwise known as the “really really early stages guys please don’t be too harsh on us build”. All it means to me, and probably everyone else, is that this is the first playable bit of HotS – which is Heroes of the Storm, not Heart of the Swarm.
It finally answers some questions: what Blizzard thinks players want in a MOBA, what holes they think are missing and what direction they’ll take in the future. Some of the decisions are refreshing. Others – not so much.
Let’s start with the obvious. Heroes of the Storm is a standalone game built on the StarCraft 2 engine, with the in-game options and settings ported from the RTS giant. Many features, such as replays or group sounds, aren’t relevant yet, but at least it gives us an idea of what the game will be capable of closer to release.
Uther Lightbringer and James Raynor walk you through the tutorial, with Uther cheekily brushing away any plot concerns about heroes dying and respawning over and over again. It’s a surprisingly simple take on a MOBA; there’s no denying, no items to purchase or recipes to combine. Experience is shared globally, no matter how close you are to the minions, and skills have a relatively low mana costs and cooldowns.
It’s a setup that will appeal more to League fans than DOTA lovers. The hero model mimics League too, with heroes permanently unlocked through the use of in-game gold, which is either earned through levelling up and quests or through hard-earned cash. There’s 23 heroes playable at the time of writing, with the most expensive like Nova or Kerrigan costing US$10 (or 10,000 gold) and the cheapest, like Raynor, going for US$4 (2,000 gold).
It’s an alpha, so expect prices to change. They’ll probably drop to fall more in line with League champions. But no matter the cost the rotating free-to-play model will be the final nail in the coffin for most DOTA fans, who fervently cherish the added difficulty of things like creep denying and are staunch opponents of any structure that requires payment for non-cosmetic items.
The funding model aside, there are some interesting ideas here. The global experience makes it possible for creatures like Abathur to exist. Abathur’s a pure support hero who essentially plants baneling-like bombs around the map, creates copies of other heroes and attaches himself to teammates, boosting their capabilities. There’s little reason to actually leave your base; you just need to be close enough to a lane to make sure the swarm host knows where to go. It’s a creature that couldn’t exist in rival MOBAs and it’s a really unusual, interesting character to play.
Blizzard’s take on neutral creeps makes for a faster game too. In most circumstances, neutral creeps are mercenary camps that can be killed and converted to join the fight. But each map is different, with some offering tributes instead that can be collected to cast a global curse on the enemy. Others have buccaneers holding coins that can be given to a nearby pirate who then bombards the enemy base. And one map has an entire subterranean level full of undead and a giant golem. Whoever kills the most undead spawns the stronger golem. Honestly, I can’t tell you how much fun it is to finally play a MOBA with more than one playable map.
It’s really too early to comment on balance issues, although the ability of some creatures, like Falstad or Abathur to quickly fly or tunnel to any point from almost half a map away seems exceptionally powerful. Falstad in particular can open up a lot of ganking opportunities; it’s also really handy for jumping to and from mercenary camps. Every character has a mount that offers a 20% boost to movement speed, but it doesn’t come close to matching the ability to switch between the top and bottom lanes in less than ten seconds.
Cursed Hollow, the map with the mother of all curses, will no doubt come in for some tweaking. Having an entire minute where your towers and buildings don’t fire, have their HP reduced by half and your minions’ HP cut to 1 is broken in the extreme. The XP gained from killing the minions isn’t affected when the curse comes into effect. It’s essentially the snowball effect on speed: if you’re a level or two behind and you lose the fight for that curse, kiss the game goodbye. If you’re a few towers down and you’re stuck defending at your base, then forget about any positional advantage you might have had.
There’s no high-ground advantage, just like StarCraft 2, and, buildings and towers have a limited supply of ammunition. Some hero abilities, or talents, can reduce that ammo further, and it’s worth knowing that towers automatically target any minions in range.
That brings us to the final major difference with HOTS: hero abilities. Rather than a fixed set of abilities, HOTS offers a range of talents as you level up. All of the talents are available every game (provided you’re level 8) and the variety is plentiful. There’s a good balance between passive and active talents to suit a range of play styles, although there are some talents that are blatantly necessary, like the improvement to Abathur’s toxic nests that allow them to be spawned anywhere on the map.
The only other thing that’s worthy of note at this stage is the lag. It is there, and it’s about the same as what you’d get playing on any other Blizzard server in the US. It’s stable and, if I didn’t have years of experience playing on sub-30 pings in countless other games, I probably wouldn’t care. But in a game that essentially comes down to pure micro and precise timings, lag does matter — and the other free-to-play rivals on the market do have local servers. It’s highly likely that Blizzard will use their new server space in Australia to slot Heroes of the Storm alongside Diablo 3 — and they’ll need to, because not having that local support will be fatal.
So by the time this “technical alpha” nears, say, beta, that problem might have been neutralised. But a local server is just the first in a line of challenges facing Blizzard if they want to stop League and DOTA 2 players from returning to their respective folds.
MOBA fans demand competition, and while some will enjoy their time with Heroes of the Storm more than others – League players especially – it’s ultimately just an entertaining novelty from the real competition.