Blizzard’s MOBA packs a ton of variety and excellent characters.
[Editor’s Note: This review replaces our original 2015 review which, thanks to Blizzard’s constant updates, no longer reflects the state of Heroes of the Storm.]
If variety is the spice of life, then Heroes of the Storm is the MOBA genre’s ghost pepper. Recognizable characters from Blizzard’s most iconic games face off against each other on themed maps with unique objectives that serve as lightning rods for teamfights. Heroes of the Storm also takes a more simplified and accessible approach to the genre that bucks MOBA trends by implementing a streamlined talent system and team-shared experience. It doesn’t always work, but when its at its best Heroes of the Storm can be one of the most varied and exciting 5v5 competitive games around.
This is a MOBA with all the hallmarks of a Blizzard-produced game: a punchy art style, responsive controls, and loads of stuff to do to work toward satisfying unlocks. But most importantly, Heroes of the Storm’s take on the MOBA formula is distinctive because it’s willing to kill some of the genre’s sacred cows in order to make its mechanics easier to learn and its matches flow differently.
Each person on the two five-person teams selects a hero to play as, and each of its maps (called battlegrounds) have AI-controlled minion waves and bases protected by a series of towers, but upon closer inspection they’ve got less in common with League of Legends and Dota 2 than it seems. From the first moments of a Heroes of the Storm match you’re doing something entirely different: because you don’t have to kill minions to earn gold (in fact, there’s no gold and no items to worry about at all) there’s less at stake if you leave your lane to help out a ally in a jam. While staying in lane soaking up experience is important, there were plenty of times where moving around the map to help teammates was an equally useful play.
Each battleground offers something special in both aesthetic and play style.
Another distinctive design choice that works in Heroes of the Storm’s favor is its loads of map variety – a welcome change of pace in a genre known for focusing on a single sports arena-like map. Each of its 14 maps is built around a unique mechanic that moves the fight from the lanes to a special objective that becomes the focal point of every game. It’s both mechanically and thematically fun to run around a well-kept garden collecting seeds to grow a giant plant monster for my team to pilot on Garden of Terror, or to fight alongside angels and demons on the Diablo-themed Battlefield of Eternity map. Each battleground offers something special in both aesthetic and play style, which keeps things feeling fresh even after having played over a hundred hours.
The design of these battlegrounds is largely well thought out. Great maps like Tomb of the Spider Queen, where you race to collect and turn in gems to call down game-changing spiders, or Braxis Holdout, which is a fun blend of point control and intense base defenses against hordes of Zerg, pack a punch. On Dragon Shire, a map where your team attempts to hold two control points simultaneously and then send a runner towards the middle of the map to take a base-sieging dragon form, I was asked to make split-second tactical calls that could make or break the game. I had to decide whether it was better to defend an already-captured point or aide my teammates in assaulting the enemy’s hold on the other. These tense and exciting-to-make decisions felt like they were a direct result of the map’s layout and objective design, which constantly pushed my team into making meaningful moves regardless of the results. When they’re firing on cylinders, the battlegrounds add to the fun, taking on a life of their own while helping keep the action peppered with interesting and consequential decisions.
Of course, any time you have a long list of maps some will rise above the others, but it still doesn’t make it any easier to stomach the weaker maps (especially since it still isn’t possible to ban the bad apples). The rage-inducing Blackheart’s Bay, for example, has you collect and turn in coins in to a ghostly pirate in exchange for a cannon bombardment on the enemy defenses. But it feels needlessly large, making it difficult to rotate effectively to collect coins and far too easy to simply sit and camp the turn-in location, leading to a barrage of frustration rather than fun. There are more good maps than annoying ones, though, so the balance is in Heroes of the Storm’s favor.
For Blizzard fans, at least, Heroes of the Storm holds a huge advantage.
For Blizzard fans, at least, Heroes of the Storm holds a huge advantage over other MOBAs because it draws its characters from games and universes that Blizzard has been building for decades. It feels like the Blizzard version of Super Smash Bros., with 77 heroes and villains from across Warcraft, StarCraft, Diablo, Overwatch, and classic franchises all bringing their own unique flavor to the battlefield as they take part in fast-paced teamfights. When I played a match as Sylvanas, a connection to that hero had already been forged during my time with World of Warcraft (and Warcraft 3, where she made her debut way back in 2002).
That cast has grown quickly and steadily, with one or two new heroes being added per month. And as the source material expands through new characters in games like Overwatch, Hearthstone, and WoW, the roster has even more opportunity to grow as well. Heroes of the Storm capitalizes on the this, delivering some incredibly varied hero design in the process.
Take Cho’Gall, the twin-headed ogre mage, for example. In an unconventional design seen nowhere else in the genre, he is made to be played by two players simultaneously, with each controlling a head and its unique set of abilities. It sounds like madness – and it totally is, in all the right ways. In two pairs of capable hands, Cho’Gall can be a fearsome opponent to square off against – but on the flip side, hilarity can ensue if the two players aren’t well-versed in piloting a single ogre. When playing a finesse character like this, two heads are only better than one if they know what they’re doing.
Most of these heroes feel vastly different from one another.
The same outside-the-box principles apply to the design of the StarCraft Firebat Blaze, who can set up a Terran bunker for allied heroes to hop into for extra defense, grab a flamethrower, and torch the enemy while holding a critical objective or choke point. Those are just a couple of examples, but most of these heroes feel vastly different from one another and remain consistently fun to play and experiment with across the board.
In addition to each hero’s starting set of three skills, there’s a level-based talent system that deftly replaces the tried-and-true MOBA item shop, keeping you close to the action instead of forcing you back to base to purchase upgrades. Every few levels you can augment your hero’s abilities (including choosing between two unique ultimate abilities at level 10) to best fit how you want to play during that match. For instance, if I wanted to focus on Overwatch hero Hanzo’s Scatter Arrow in order to turn the enemy team into walking pincushions, there are talents that improve that ability. But another equally compelling route instead focuses on the long-range, single-target poke damage from his Storm Bow ability. Each talent decision has strengths and weaknesses that are fun to consider, and that makes choices matter. It’s exciting and rewarding to be adaptable throughout a match, especially when you start factoring in the map you’re on and the enemies you’re facing off against.
The biggest drawback of this system is that your experience is level shared across your entire team. Teamwork has always been a key component in competitive gaming, but having your power be tied directly to the performance of others made for some fiery exchanges between teammates playing the blame game whenever we fell behind. Heroes of the Storm leans into the idea that ‘teamwork makes the dream work,’ but there’s also a level of individual skill expression that feels like its missing because I’m so inextricably linked to my allies. The good news is that, when all goes well, victory feels like a complete team effort and GGs are thrown about with glee. Just get ready for when it doesn’t, because feeling like you have no control over the course of a match is no fun.
When all goes well, victory feels like a complete team effort.
The fear of being dropped into a map your team isn’t prepared for can be remedied easily by switching out of the ranked ladder mode. The accessible Quick Play can be great for casual sessions, but the addition of Unranked Draft adds the strategic elements of picking and banning heroes for a specific map without the stress of the ranked ladder until you’re ready to face the real thing.
Of course, Hero League is there for those who want to plug into Heroes of the Storm’s most competitive outlet. It’s got all the modern trappings that hardcore ranked MOBA players are looking for: Ranks, skill-based matchmaking, promotion matches, drafts, and the extra intensity that inherently comes with ranked play are all here. It’s a great option for those who want to get serious and test their mettle and see where they stack up.
Being a free-to-play game, Heroes of the Storm puts a huge emphasis on out-of-game progression systems, many of which tie directly into monetization. There’s three currencies (gold, gems, shards), extra rewards for leveling up heroes, about six-quintillion customization items, and yes, loot chests. Let’s just get this out of the way: Unless there’s a way to opt out of randomized progression, it’ll always be a sub-optimal way to earn items. It robs me of clear goals other than hoping I’ll roll what I want with my next lever pull. With that being said, there were plenty of ways to earn in-game items through leveling heroes, completing quests, and reaching milestones. Parts of the progression may be locked within loot crates, but at least Blizzard is generous with them.
Parts of the progression may be locked within loot crates, but at least Blizzard is generous with them.
Even if I was grinding quests all week for gold (the currency used primarily to earn characters), the time to unlock some of the higher-cost heroes like Malthael or Ragnaros felt like ages. This time commitment was compounded when I was charged gold if I decided to re-roll any loot crates whose yield I was unhappy with. Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to retry my hand again at the slot machine, it’s just a bummer that it hinders my ability to quickly unlock heroes. If I found myself truly smitten with a cosmetic, I also had the option to buy it outright, assuming they were in the purchasable rotation. It’s a nice, albeit still lackluster option, to escape the randomness of loot boxes.
Outside of matches, heroes can be leveled up individually for gold and hero portraits, but also to earn loot boxes, some of which have items specific to the hero you are leveling. There are a lot characters to experiment with (including a weekly rotation of 14 free ones), so leveling often avoids feeling like a grind. If I’m playing a hero a ton it’s because I love their mechanics, not because I’m trying to earn shiny loot. The progression system is bolstered by mountains of unlockable content, like the Transformers-inspired Mecha Tassadar or the Davy Jones-esque Admiral Krakenov, that are legitimately cool and worth chasing; you’ve just got to have the patience – or deep enough pockets – to bag your favorite stuff.