If learning to play videogames is a little like being schooled in a foreign language, then getting into the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre is akin to trying to master the same language in its obscure medieval form. For many, it’s an initiation they’re unlikely to pass, but clearly plenty do: the MOBA audience is vast and still growing, with millions of players now a part of this notoriously hardcore scene. At present, the market is dominated by two games: Riot Games’ League of Legends, which attracts upwards of 27 million players every day, and Valve’s DOTA 2, currently the most actively played game on Steam, with over 800,000 concurrent players at its peak times. Soon, the market will have its third major player, and it could potentially be its biggest.
Few developers could compete in a genre with two such established titles and become champion, but Blizzard is no ordinary studio. Almost a decade since launch, World of Warcraft is still the world’s most successful RPG, while in Starcraft 2 it not only has the fastest-selling RTS of all-time but a hugely popular eSports title. But perhaps most significant is its recent success with card battler Hearthstone, in which Blizzard took a traditionally niche genre with complex rule sets and made it accessible to just about everyone. With Heroes of the Storm, it’s clearly aiming to repeat the trick.
"The emphasis is firmly on team play rather than star players."
Indeed, it’s also significant that it’s using its own terminology. This isn’t a MOBA, according to Blizzard, but a ‘hero brawler’, a more welcoming term that instantly suggests accessibility. After all, brawlers aren’t generally known for their mechanical complexity. And who doesn’t want to play as a hero? Particularly when Blizzard is able to draw upon its own rich history for the character roster. Which means you’ll see characters from the Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo universes battle it out in the same place, having been sucked in the Nexus, essentially a world-between-worlds limbo.
In some respects, it doesn’t stray too far from the accepted MOBA template: your job, as one of five heroes per side, is to destroy your opponent’s base, with the help of AI units who travel along a series of lanes. But that core objective aside, Blizzard has opted to shake things up quite a bit. There will be secondary objectives on each stage, which will vary greatly depending on the battlefield, and encourage a more fluid tactical approach. The developer is also keen on reducing frustration by curtailing playtime: there’s nothing more dispiriting than knowing you’re fighting a losing battle but having to plough on for another half an hour while you wait for the inevitable. In Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard is aiming for what it calls “that magic 25 minutes”.
Elsewhere, rather than encouraging a focus on levelling up individual heroes, Blizzard has ensured your whole team will level up together. There are no items to collect and no in-game store; rather, each hero has a skill tree, with a range of talents to choose from as they progress. The emphasis is firmly on team play rather than star players, and so newcomers should theoretically be able to join in without veterans getting annoyed at them because they haven’t yet learned the intricacies and nuances of the game. As such, in-game communication should be friendlier and more encouraging.
That Heroes of Storm’s character roster contains over 40 heroes, several of whom will be familiar to anyone with even a passing awareness of Blizzard’s games. Take StarCraft II’s Kerrigan, for example: she’s an Assassin class hero who uses her clawed wings to drag opponents toward her, or to viciously spear enemies after leaping towards them. If the latter leads to a kill, the ability’s cooldown period will be instantly reset, allowing her to chain attacks. Each character is rated according to their damage output, utility, survivability and complexity: with a 10 in the first category, Kerrigan is likely to be a popular early choice, particularly as she’s capable of withstanding a little more damage than most assassins, who tend to dish out much more than they can take.
"It’s Blizzard’s Super Smash Bros. – a piece of fan service that happens to be a thrilling brawler in its own right."
If you’d prefer to wade in rather than taking pot shots from the fringes, then Warcraft’s Muradin, a powerful dual-wielding dwarf, is a solid beginner pick. His heroic abilities include Avatar, which sees him turn into a large golem, gaining in strength and health, and the self-explanatory Haymaker. As with every other hero, he benefits from a passive trait, in this case recovering HP when he’s not swinging his hammer and axe on the frontlines.
At the other end of the scale, there’s the agile Li Li, from WoW expansion Mists of Pandaria. This support-class hero deals comparatively low damage – though she’s capable of summoning a water dragon – but as the party healer she comes in very useful. Her Jug of 1000 Cups not only recovers heals health but mana points, too, and gains a movement bonus when damaged, allowing her to quickly retreat from danger.
Finally, you’ve got the more complex specialists, each of whom has an idiosyncratic range of abilities to get to grips with. Goblin Gazlowe relies on various gadgets, including a turret and a gravity bomb that sucks rivals towards it before exploding. Baby Murloc Murky is particularly unusual, blowing on a conch to summon a swarm of his diminutive friends, or calling up the tentacles of a giant octopus to briefly incapacitate an opponent. Murky can also hide an egg anywhere on the map to act as a fresh respawn point, allowing him to rejoin the battle from a tactically advantageous spot.
In some respects it’s Blizzard’s Super Smash Bros. – a piece of fan service that not only allows you to settle playground arguments about which character is the strongest, but also happens to be a thrilling brawler in its own right. And together with the developer’s familiarly chunky and characterful art, its expansive roster of popular established characters and the developer’s skill at crafting pacey yet very readable action games give it a strong chance of becoming the next big eSports hit. MOBA veterans may sneer at its approachability; the rest of us will likely be having too much fun to care.