BY PATRICK HOWELL O'NEILL AND FERGUSON MITCHELL

A few minutes into the fifth game in our first marathon session of Heroes of the Storm, a champion lurks beyond sight. Nova is a cloaked assassin, not a frontline tank, so she’s been watching her prey out of the corner of her eye for several minutes.

Unlike competitors such as League of Legends or Dota 2, Blizzard's Heroes allows Nova (right) to really, truly lurk. She doesn’t have to worry so much about falling behind in gaining levels or money. With shared experience, she can let her teammates focus on keeping her up to speed. The only thing she has to think about is when to pull the trigger.

Jim Raynor, the easy-going, hard-drinking marine leading the opposing team, doesn’t even know that Nova is breathing down his neck. When she's out of combat, Nova's perfectly cloaked.

Soon, she finds a clear line of sight and fires off a pinning shot, a secondary ability that sends a bullet right into Raynor hamstring. For now, he can barely move, so hitting him with a big snipe right in the head is easy. Looking for an escape route, he drags himself slowly towards the treeline, hoping to hide from Nova’s deadly line of sight.

But there's a final card in Nova's hand: The triple tap, three bullets that track the enemy no matter where they go. They find their mark easily, ending Jim’s agony and adding one more kill to Nova’s death count.

This kind of experience is exactly what drives any strategy video game—a simple plan executed perfectly with brutal efficiency. Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (or MOBAs) feature exactly that, a series of short, player-versus-player engagements that play out much like a real battle.

The thrill of pitting yourself and teammates against human opponents has contributed largely to the growth of the genre over the last several years, including the explosive popularity of League of Legends, now the most-played online game in the world.

And now, one of the most established game developers in the world, and one of the first ever to even create a real-time strategy game is stepping into the ring. Heroes of the Storm is Blizzard Entertainment's first entry into the MOBA genre.

Heroes has been in invite-only alpha testing for only several days now, but that's been more than enough time for players to dive in and get their bearings. And it seems like everyone already has a strong opinion on Heroes of the Storm, especially people who have never played it.

That’s no surprise. Blizzard’s long-awaited entrance into the most popular genre in gaming means that diehard fans can’t help but compare and contrast the new game to League and Dota 2. Watch any Heroes stream on Twitch and witness every chat room inevitably devolve into a shouting match about which game is superior.

Whether you’re a veteran of the genre or new to the whole thing, Heroes has a lot to offer in its own right.

Gameplay

On the surface, Heroes is a much simpler game than League or Dota 2.

All three games have a lot in common. Teams of five players fight to destroy each other’s home base, or, nexus. Players choose to play as an assortment unique heroes, whose abilities endlessly contrast and complement one another resulting in a fresh game every time. That’s ideal, at any rate. Can Blizzard live up to it, or even improve it?

Unlike League or Dota 2Heroes has no complex items to build or money to manage. Instead, one of the few consequential choices a player can make in order to differentiate their character is to pick talents from something called a talent tree. Players choose more talents as their team gain experiences through the game.

And that's another big difference. There are no individual levels, only team levels, meaning that one bad teammate won’t be able to drag their team down quite as much as in similar games. The learning curve feels much smaller in Heroes than its competitors, but there’s definitely room to grow, and strategies to master.

To stress simplicity, Blizzard really holds new players by the hand as they start off. The tutorial is painfully arduous. Then, for the first several hours, a new player chooses between only two hero talents during games, limiting the important choices one can make. That number eventually goes up to four at account level eight, drastically increasing player agency. By no coincidence, the game becomes much more interesting at this point.

The simplicity-by-design has turned off scores of hardcore Dota 2 fans in particular, many of whom have dismissed Heroes as “casual" game. But new players might be a bit more inclined to give it a chance.

For one thing, Heroes is much quicker than other MOBAs. While League and Dota 2 games normally last from 40 minutes to an hour, Heroes can be over in as little as 15 minutes. This harkens back to some of Blizzard’s other games, StarCraft 2 and Hearthstone, where they’ve established 20 minutes as the ideal competitive game length.


Turning around a fight with a heal and an ultimate, then getting another kill with a skillshot stun

Even considering this, Heroes isn't easy. If  you want to understand exactly what to do in any given game of Heroes of the Storm, you’ll have to put in some time. A lot of time.

Luckily, that time will be well spent. Other MOBAs tend to have slow starts where heroes ramp up in power before being able to make much of a difference. Here, the fights begin right away. Any game lasting longer than 30 minutes feels like a relative marathon.

But the biggest and best difference between Heroes and every other game in its genre is the variety of game modes. Heroes already has four separate battlegrounds sporting four different game modes, almost all of which are fun and action-packed right off the bat. Each have unique features that play heavily into the strategies used on them.

The Cursed Hollow map, for instance, has teams competing to be the first to collect three randomly dropped tributes that can curse opponents. This curse is so powerful that players immediately drop what they are doing when each tribute is announced. The randomness, however, can be detrimental to some, especially when the tribute spawning point favors one team over the other.

Another map, Dragon Shire, is probably the game’s best battleground, because it requires a team to control two shrines on opposite sides of the map. By promoting teams to overcome this obstacle with strategy (rather than crossing their fingers to get lucky), the map gives players a smooth, meaningful progression of objectives—one that ends with a powerful dragon knight literally punting puny enemies halfway across the map.

The number of battlegrounds will soon grow as Blizzard has promised to rotate in new ones as development ticks on. Better yet, if—or when—a serious esport circuit develops, the powerful map editor will let fans influence the game in ways previously unknown to this genre.

Balance

The success of any esport probably depends on its ability to see underdogs come back from the brink to win against all odds. Some of Heroes' features, like the shared experience and the lack of items, seemed to many fans an indication that Heroes games might be decided in the first few minutes, with one team building up an insurmountable lead. But with actual players now taking to the field, it has become clear that Blizzard found a few smart ways keep the game fair.

In one of the first games we played, our team leapt out ahead, only to throw away the lead as we failed to remain organized. We watched in horror as our teammates leapt far too deep into enemy territory, only to be slaughtered by underdogs who were quickly turning the tables.

Teams have to balance these three goals at all times, or risk seeing a major comeback from their opponent:

1) Stay in your lanes and kill the minions sprinting into battle to gain experience and raise the entire team’s level and strength.

2) Always take down mercenary camps when possible to add extra firepower to your pushes.

3) Always make a priority out of each map's specific objective.

The other key element that keeps the game fair and balanced are the multiple heroes who wield various talents that unlock as you level up in game. One of the early downsides we've seen, however, is that many of the game's heroes follow cookie cutter outlines for the basics at least: direct damage, line area of effect damage, and heals or buffs. Playing heroes like Tyrael, an angelic warrior from the Diablo franchise, is, well, boring so far.


Assaulting a cursed tower with mercenaries.

A more interesting hero, however, is Gazlowe, a goblin specialist who constructs turrets, bombs, lasers, and robots in order to exert lane or area control. Gazlowe can have a rough time with direct engagement but can influence the war from afar.

Gazlowe forces you to play an anticipatory game. If you can read your opponent's mind, laying down turrets and bombs a few seconds early as a welcoming party can make the difference between capturing a shrine and losing it. Unlike other heroes, Gazlowe has no obvious counterpart in Dota 2 or League of Legends, making him an important Heroes original.

Another strong champion we found in early play-troughs is Tyrande. She's a “support,” which means she helps swing the battle by assisting her allies and disrupting the enemy. Her abilities seem to vary by a wide margin, from adding an extra punch to your team’s damage, to healing and giving a speed boost to a friend, or to stunning opponents from afar.


Killing with an ultimate and capping a tribute

Each ability can swing any engagement in her favor if used correctly. The key for players who want to become better at the game will be in deciding when and how to use her abilities, along with how to customize her to best aid her team.

Final thoughts

Blizzard has walked a tightrope between shorter games and being fair, but it works. The key lies in each heroes’ ultimate ability, which can swing a fight majorly in their favor. But a long cooldown on these abilities means that they won’t be available for every fight. You really need to think, “Do I want to win this fight right now, or do I want to win the next one?”

Millions of veterans of the MOBA genre will come to the game with prejudices in place, whether good or bad. But Blizzard has gone out of its way to aim for the newbies and those who have been turned off by the genre in the past.

In an effort to build a more welcoming game, Blizzard encourages party play by giving bonus experience points when you play with friends. Players aren’t even allowed to talk to the opposing team for fear of mudslinging, leaving only teammates to dole out praise and insults.

At this point in the alpha, however, almost everyone is friendly as we learn the new game together.

For new players, Heroes of the Storm is a brilliant introduction to the MOBA genre. It's fast, the basics of the game are simple, and there's already real depth, even while it's still in alpha.

Image via Blizzard Entertainment