Heroes of the Storm Preview: Blizzard Heroes Take the Field

Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s upcoming “team brawler,” is looking to make entry into the MOBA genre easier for new players than ever.

The Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre isn’t one that’s been overly welcoming to new players. The learning curves can be quite steep, and the communities aren’t always quick to accept new players.

While no company can force its community to welcome newbies, it can make the game more accessible and understandable to help smooth the way in. That’s the goal Blizzard is aiming for with Heroes of the Storm. At PAX East 2014, I sat down with the game director of Heroes, Dustin Browder, along with Senior Producer Kaeo Milker and Senior 3D Artist Phill Gonzales, to find out just how they plan to accomplish it.

Blizzard’s overarching philosophy with Heroes, Browder said, is to make the game easy to get into, but something you’re still learning hours in. In an effort to show me how easy it is to jump right in, Browder coached me through a session. In about 15 minutes, I was able to play to victory with AI teammates on a map called Dragon Shire. That’s not too bad for someone who isn’t a hardcore MOBA player.

A large part of the effort to make Heroes approachable has gone into simplifying actions that players need to take. When you level up and get a new upgrade for your character, you don’t have to return to the starting area to purchase it. You simply click the upgrade you want on the user interface, and you have it. You can pull up a detailed look at your talents if you like, but it’s not necessary once you learn the character even a little.

As usual, Blizzard also has invested in detailed tutorials to help new players get the hang of the game. As you play through missions against AI opponents, you’ll unlock a co-op mode and other ways to play as your skills improve.

When you first dive in, Heroes feels a lot like other MOBA titles. You right-click the map to move, use hotkeys in conjunction with the mouse to trigger abilities, and try to keep your cannon-fodder minions between you and real trouble. You can dive into the wild areas between the lanes to recruit mercenaries to fight for your team, and you’ll follow your expendable minions into battle. In contrast, one thing that makes Heroes stand apart from other games in the genre are the unique features each map has to offer.

Not sure what all these MOBA terms mean? Find out all about lanes, heroes, jungles and more in our MOBA beginner’s guide.

The Dragon Shire map I played had shrines in the top and bottom lanes. If a team held both shrines, they could trigger the Dragon Shrine in the middle of the map to allow one hero to transform into the nearly-unstoppable Dragon Knight. This transformation lets you basically attack with impunity and deal much more damage than normal.

While it only last a couple of minutes, becoming the Dragon Knight can shift the flow of a game entirely. Despite being powerful, though, the Dragon Knight doesn’t break the game’s balance, mostly because the duration of the buff is short, and you don’t move very fast while in this form. Add in the fact that you need to spend some time “channeling” at the Dragon Shrine to activate it, an action which can easily be interrupted by an attack or by the other team grabbing one of the top or bottom shrines, and it’s easy to see how Blizzard limits the abuse of this ability.

In fact, Browder acknowledged that balance is one of the biggest challenges Blizzard will face with Heroes.

“We have three guys who do nothing but work on game balance,” Browder said.

He also mentioned that one of the great thing about Heroes is the variety of characters and the different balancing options they give the team. For example, Murky the murloc (who was revealed at PAX) is a very brittle hero who is easily killed. However, he can lay an egg anywhere on the map. When he’s killed, he immediately respawns at the egg.

Pitting a brittle character like Murky against Diablo, Lord of Terror, might seem unfair, but Browder said that’s what makes the egg so important.

“One murloc might not be able to kill Diablo, but seven murlocs might,” he explained. Talents like these give the developers the flexibility to make heroes very different while still maintaining game balance.

The MOBA space is extremely crowded, and even though Blizzard might be calling Heroes of the Storm a “Team Brawler,” it’s going to be judged by gamers as the MOBA it appears to be. I asked all three of the Blizzard devs I was talking with what they thought made Heroes stand out in that genre. Their thoughts:

  • Blizzard heroes: Recognizable characters that gamers are already very familiar with.
  • Unique battlegrounds: These offer more than just lanes. Like the Dragon Shire map I played, each one will have unique facets to explore. One will feature a pirate ship whose captain can be bribed to fire the ship’s cannons at one side or another, while another will feature an underground dungeon where players will vie to summon a golem to the map above.
  • Interesting variations on heroes: Heroes aren’t just cookie cutters. Like Murky the murloc, Blizzard wants each hero to be unique in certain, vital ways. They compared heroes Raynor and Tychus as an example: Both may be in power armor, but they have vastly different play styles.

It’s still early days for Heroes. The game recently began its technical alpha, so I’d expect Blizzard will be gathering a lot of data to use in tuning and tweaking the game before its inevitable beta begins. Still, much like it has done for card games with Hearthstone, Blizzard appears poised to smooth the the way for new players to jump into MOBAs with Heroes of the Storm.

Ron Whitaker is managing editor at GameFront. Find more of his work here, and follow him and Game Front on Twitter: @ffronw and @gamefrontcom.

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