Friday, December 27, 2013

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft Impressions


Like many others, I've recently been accepted into the beta for Blizzard's new game Hearthstone, a collectible card battling game based on their popular Warcraft series. For those not familiar, the game is similar (VERY similar) to Magic: The Gathering, with a few twists. While it can be played in single-player mode against a PC, there's no story progression or anything, and the online ranked play is the primary draw, along with an Arena mode where you're tasked with building a deck on the spot from random cards. It's a lot of fun. But it could be a lot more fun. Instead of giving a huge runthrough or even a stream (there are literally thousands of those online already, if you're interested), I thought I'd just give some quick impressions.

What I liked:


- The aesthetics. Hearthstone is a really pretty game. The art is great to look at, the music and voices are wonderful and the UI just works. I never found myself wondering how to play cards or check text. In fact, as a former Magic player, everything worked incredibly intuitively.

- It's easy on the Pay 2 Play stuff. Card packs and entry tickets to Arena mode are available for real money, but they can also be purchased with Gold that you earn in-game. You earn gold simply by completing daily quests, and I've found that I can buy a pack about every two days, or enter the arena (which guarantees a pack as a reward, or more if you do well) every three. That's not bad, as each quest can take anywhere from 3-6 battles to complete, and I don't play any more than that anyway. The bottom line is that casual players will find no need to invest chunks of money to Keep Up With the Joneses.

- It's very casual friendly. Aside from Blizzard's classic ranking system that tries to ensure you win about half the games you play, the cards and decks are constructed in a way to make it very easy to construct a competitive deck even with basic cards. There are no monumentally unbeatable combinations, and while it is possible to make something that just doesn't work, even a modicum of thought will get you a deck you can win with. This, of course, leads to the conclusion that wins are due more to player skill and luck than deck construction, and in my experience, it's more of the latter. Depending on the type of person you are, that is a good thing or a bad thing.

- The computerized nature of the game takes a lot of headache out of playing. There's no "Okay ... does that affect apply before or after I take damage?" stuff. The game takes care of it.

I'm at the bottom, losing horribly.

What I Didn't Like:


- It's missing a lot of Magic -- pun intended. In their efforts to make the game casual-friendly (which I support!) Blizzard has also robbed from Hearthstone a lot of what made MtG great. The primary culprit is the lack of cards, meaning that everyone's deck is the same. Some people will point out that this is often true in competitive MtG as well, but that's not the point. The point is that in casual MtG, there are a WIDE variety of decks to make. Heal deck, burn deck, equipment deck, goblin deck, suicide black deck, etc. The list goes on and on.

In Hearthstone, there are 8 character classes, and each class gets a set of unique cards the others can't access. But that's as far as customization goes. Yes, priest will have some healing cards, warlock will have some demons. But we all have the same 1-mana creatures. At turn 7, we're all going to play the Stormwind Champion, a heavy-duty creature that increases the power and defense of all other creatures.

I have never once felt the feeling of "Oh! Wow!" when faced with a card I've never seen before. I've never been surprised by a combo or synergy or deck strategy I hadn't thought of, because there are very few deck strategies to play around with.

Now, maybe I'm being unfair comparing a brand new card game to one that's been around for 15 years, with all the card types that entails. And maybe a loss of diversity is worth being friendly to more casual players. But in Magic, I was constantly wanting to tinker my deck in response to things I saw played against me. I was constantly thinking up new strategies. In Hearthstone, the deck constructions for each class are pretty obvious, with only a few choices to be made. And even then, there's a lot of luck involved. Simply put, Hearthstone is not as enthralling as MtG.

- To give you a specific point, I feel like Hearthstone's lack of Instant cards takes a lot of strategy out of the game. In Magic, there were certain cards you could play during your opponents turn to mess with their strategy. It required complex thinking from both you ("Do I play a creature, or save my mana so I can use a counterspell?") and your opponent ("Did he just have extra mana, or does he have a card up his sleeve?") Hearthstone tries to compensate with Yugioh-esque trap cards, but there are so few, and they're almost all a version of "If a creature attacks you, it dies," they don't seriously affect the metagame in any way.

Conclusions


Is Hearthstone ready for primetime? Well ... yes, and no. As I said, it's amazingly polished for a game in beta, and I suspect they could release it today and make a ton of money. The gameplay, however, is not currently something that I'd sink any real time or money into. A game or two a day for a little while, probably, but not something I'd seriously engage with. I suspect that won't change. The sorts of gameplay improvements I outlined above are MAJOR changes. Even introducing Instant cards would require a complete rejiggering of deck balance, so what I'm seeing is probably what we'll get.

If it ends up being free to play, though, it's certainly worth trying out, especially for hardcore card game fans.

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