Blizzard has tried to dip its hand into everyone’s cookie jar in the last several years, between adding Facebook games to World of Warcraft and putting another foot into the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) game style with Overwatch. They’ve also had Heroes of the Storm front lining their MOBA scene for a bit now, so it’s probably a good point to go over many of the features of this title, since most gamers right now will play one of the many MOBA titles off and on.
To get my experience out of the way and up front, I’ve played most of the MOBA titles on the market right now, which would include the biggest ones like Smite, League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth (admittedly not recently), Heroes of the Storm, DOTA2, Dawngate (though EA shut it down, sigh), and a couple other small titles that probably aren’t familiar enough to mention. If my skill level were a venn diagram I would sit somewhere in the overlap of Average and Skilled for these games, I’m definitely not MLG material but I have fun playing these with my friends and that’s about all I want personally.
One of the first things to look at when interpreting a MOBA I think would be Balance. Which is generally hard to gauge in some cases because some companies make everyone very strong and all have strong counters to another, or have most units balanced with not enough testing on newer units and can’t keep them properly tuned. Certain iterations of the MOBA scene will reduce this balance by adding talent trees to your accounts to give minor improvements to your stats or, in League of Legend’s (LoL) case, Masteries to allow you to great improve certain stats of your choosing. Your per-match stats also get greatly increased and changed by which items you build, which order you build your abilities in, or which lane you go to and who you go with. Don’t get me wrong, this is all vital for games like LoL that have built their entire system around it, so I don’t mean to say this is wrong. There is a ‘meta’ to the game, as most people call it, where certain things are proper to maximize efficiency or are just general guidelines to playing better. For games like LoL using items works well, but I’ve always felt that you can’t really be a player until your account hits max level when you get full Mastery access and full Rune Page access. You can be easily hamstrung compared to someone of equal skill with the same character simply because you haven’t spent as much time playing the game to farm up Runes. Also if you didn’t perfect your item builds during a match, you would also be at a disadvantage but this would be typically regarded as ‘skill’ in some case anyway.
Heroes of the Storm does away with all of those aspects. There are no masteries or Rune pages to put you ahead of another player. There are no item builds or skill leveling orders for Heroes. You instead get a talent point every few levels to modify the three skills that you start with, and at level 10 and 20, a choice of two ultimate abilities and their upgraded versions. I heard a lot of flak from friends and co-workers saying that Heroes of the Storm (HOTS) was a heavily watered down game, there is no meta or skill, and it was a horrible MOBA because most of the elements of a MOBA just don’t exist. Is that really the case though? Masteries or Rune pages gives you a moderate advantage over other players that had nothing to do with skill. You no longer have to rely on item builds or armour values or other attributes being modified to overcome gaps against your opponent. I’d argue that HOTS relies more on skill and team-play than other MOBA’s do. Your level is tied to the rest of your team as well, meaning that if one person is doing worse, their team can overcome that disadvantage through smart team work and making more strategic decisions to turn the tables.
The overall balance seems to be a mix of everyone is very strong, if you have a level lead, and everyone needs to play well. You can easily be outplayed by someone who started yesterday if they are better than you at playing their character. This is how it should be. There are some characters that feel like they have too low of a skill cap, in my opinion, as having too much mobility or having too many ways to stop you in your tracks. Some units are just way better at taking down lanes or taking over objectives. But they all typically have a counter that stops them dead in their tracks.
One of the next gameplay elements to look at is the variety of maps and what they contribute to gameplay. Blizzard has been adding new maps, frequently, and they have added objectives to help you win matches in different ways. Yes, most of these maps are the same types of objectives used in different ways, but it adds depth to the level beyond typical MOBA’s. Sporting over 10 maps there is a lot more variety than other titles that usually stick to a single one. Admittedly, Summoners Rift has had so much fine tuning that it’s just a very satisfying map, but it gets very samey after you’ve played it literally thousands of times.
This is also just a personal enjoyment factor that has nothing to do with skill, but it’s part of the appeal of this MOBA against all others, and that would be their selection of characters. Not because of what they do, but who they are. I have a few favorites from LoL like Vi, Varus, Zilean, and about 2 dozen others that I just enjoy playing, or I like the character design of, but I couldn’t tell you almost anything about most of them. Their backstories are made up and hold absolutely no inclusion to the game, it’s entirely optional. Their backstories aren’t bad in my opinion, but it isn’t a factor that drives me to play them. Smite used the lure of gods from various mythologies or cultues to give you a relatable or understandable character to associate playstyle to as most people know who Zeus, Thor, Hercules and Hades are, but also introduces you to lesser known deities such as Hun Batz or Neith. Blizzard has a ton of characters from many games spanning back 2 decades where people know them, and they want to play those characters. I’m consistently hoping to see Gul’dan in HOTS one day just to see what kind of abilities he would use, or how they would include characters like Sargeras and Kil’jaeden. How will they include Hero units like Aldaris or Fenix from Starcraft? They’ve already included units like Zagara and Abathur in interesting ways, where Zagara spawns several small short duration minions to help fight, or Abathur possessing friendly units to aid them by shooting spikes or giving shields and buffs. They have even included units like The Lost Vikings where you play three units at once, or Murky who spawns from an egg and has low health but a short death timer. The last MOBA to incorporate some out of the box gameplay mechanics like this was Dawngate where you had units that would literally jump into another unit to possess them and jump out. Innovation breeds interesting gameplay, and Blizzard is definitely trying to push their fair share of it when they can.
Blizzard still has a few things to work on with their title, and while I’m sure many a gamer will start some sort of flame war defending their MOBA, this isn’t an attack on any other MOBA. There are aspects that work in one game but do not work in another, and I think Blizzard is doing what they can to make their title work in their own way. LoL definitely requires a higher skill cap in the sense of having to memorize a lot more information to simply start playing the game, especially with over 120 Champions to select from, and other games started to innovate playstyle before HOTS was available.
Being different doesn’t mean worse, innovation leads to more innovation, and I hope we see a lot more of that from Heroes of the Storm.