Playing Heroes of the Storm at PAX, it doesn’t feel like any other MOBA I’ve ever played. For one thing, I’m actually winning.
For another, it just feels less like something derived from an RTS and more like something I’d expect to play on an arcade cabinet somewhere back in the 1980s, or on a console in a friend’s basement in the late 90s. It’s Blizzard’s Smash Brothers, their Gauntlet and it’s a fresh take on the MOBA that steps out Dota’s long, long shadow.
To hear Lead Producer Kaeo Milker tell it, Heroes of the Storm is the answer to a wish-list Blizzard have been compiling for years.
“With a genre like this, it kinda had its roots in our communities — with things like StarCraft and Warcraft 3 — and I think we all kinda had our ideas of where these things could go. And over many years, they didn’t always go there. So for us, it’s all about making that game we want to play.”
It’s also a chance to put Blizzard’s most iconic characters back into the battle. Blizzard plotlines are not kind to fan favorites, with heroes being corrupted and villains being slain at the blinding speed of plot. In Heroes of the Storm, they can all be reborn for one more fight.
However, Milker and Blizzard don’t just want to drop these characters into the familiar tri-lane grind, but explore other possibilities.
“What do we want to do with those characters? What is our canvass that we want to play with them on?” Milkers says. “Battlegrounds is a really big part of that. Traditionally this has been a genre about one map, and that’s kind of been the ‘one map to rule them all.’ We wanted to challenge that and say, ‘What if every map was unique, with unique side-objectives and missions that really vary the gameplay a lot?’”
I experienced some of that first hand during my turn on the Haunted Mines map. After putting the under-achieving AI bots on the back foot (everyone who left that PAX East booth probably felt like they were ready to go pro), I led my team down a mineshaft into a completely separate dungeon. Now there was fighting on the surface over towers and gates, and a close-quarters battle between teams and AI monsters down in the mines.
After slaughtering a bunch of the enemy team, along with several waves of ghost-miners, we killed a giant ghoul, then retreated to the surface to get our Grave Golem — a powerful minion that could give us a huge edge in taking control of the map.
It was an interesting twist, with our team splitting its focus between the lane-pushing on the surface and winning the melee in the mines. But what I liked even more, however, were the jungle creep camps.
While my team stalemated against a fortified gate, I detoured into the jungle to kill two troll mercenaries. They immediately respawned as allies, and followed me around like two big, dumb catapults.
Their presence on the battlefield was so immediate that I became the the point-man for my team’s assault, fighting on the front line to keep enemies away from my troll-buddies. They also let me change my role in the game, turning my Jim Raynor from a sniper into a mobile siege unit. It was nice being able to redefine my character on the fly, both through the AI allies and by making choices on the talent tree.
In what is almost certainly going to be Heroes’ most controversial feature, however, all experience and leveling happens across a team. So even though it was my Jim Raynor and a teammate’s Zeratul who were ripping through the enemy team, we were all hitting new levels together. I may have been the team’s number one or number two headhunter, but I wasn’t outpacing them in terms of damage or usefulness.
I don’t entirely know how I feel about this. On the one hand, it does make Heroes feel like more of a team-dependent game, without the baggage of being a feeder or carrying. On the other hand, it’s nice to be rewarded for having a great game by becoming bigger and badder than everyone else.
That’s a tradeoff that may be worth making, according to Milker.