Heroes of the Storm is a MOBA/ARTS/LMG/WHATEVER that existing MOBA/ARTS/LMG/WHATEVER fans are going to hate - and that's okay. The obvious comparison is to look at it and Dota in much the same way as Hearthstone vs. Magic: The Gathering. Actually play it though, and it quickly becomes clear that the better comparison is to see it as Super Smash Bros versus Street Fighter 2 - if only because it's going to be far easier to pick a character because they're your favourite. That's not to say there isn't scope for high level play, just that it's something to work up to rather than an immediate slap in the face.
At first glance, and especially given that both it and its predecessor Aeon of Strife started in Blizzard games, Heroes looks like it's going to be another stock Dota 2 competitor (and as if the number of names for that genre wasn't already ridiculous, Blizzard would like to add "Hero Brawler" to the taxonomical tar-pit.) Almost immediately though, the changes/heresies begin building up. There's no last hitting for instance, and the whole team levels up as one. A bad player can still feed this way, but can't ever become utterly useless. There's no shop and no items. Instead, each character has a talent tree, with clear English upgrades to pick from. It's every bit as satisfyingly chunky and weighty as Valve's Dota 2, but its own game in all the key details. From first impressions, which are the only impressions available, a really, really good one that looks set to be particularly good for players who've been tempted by the likes of Dota 2 but were scared off after seeing its learning curve built of lava and broken glass.
Speaking with Chris Sigaty, Production Director on Heroes of the Storm, it quickly became clear that none of this is by accident. In particular, Blizzard is aware of the very deserved reputation the genre has for toxicity and is actively working to reduce it. "First of all, the core game de-emphasises a lot of the things that create rockstars, that we think leads to people getting into that toxic space, and reasons to be angry at people who simply don't know things yet. We want to emphasise the team side of it - the feel that we're all in it together. The other side that we think is going to have a big impact is game time - we're trying to keep it around that magic 25 minutes. In a 45 minute or longer game, the frustration just builds and builds and builds."
Certainly, anyone should be able to get into the action - though not all characters are equal, and some of the choices are strange to put it mildly. Stitches from World of Warcraft, and a random goblin called Gazlowe seem like wastes of space on the character menu given how many high profile characters Blizzard has to choose from, but there are plenty more on the way. Thrall is officially in development. Griftah however remains unconfirmed. Please can somebody begin a petition to sort that before release.
Of the current cast though, there's no better starting point than Arthas - the Lich King. He's nowhere near as powerful as he was in Northrend, but that's not the point. His skills are a great match for his character, without copying them directly from his last appearances. He's a combat powerhouse who both tanks and deals immense pain, automatically raising defeated enemies as minions. Picking talents rebalances him between tank and damage dealer, with his ultimate choice being to pick between summoning the dragon Sindragosa or an army of the dead to do his dirty work. Can't argue with that.
Picking another of the big names, Kerrigan is more of an assassin. Her initial Ravage skill instantly recharges and returning half its mana cost if it lands a kill, turning the Queen of Blades into a winged Flymo for wounded foes. She also has attacks that drag enemies into her clutches for a sharp cuddle, and later on, can start calling in Zerg backup.
All characters have their specialities though, including some very precise ones. Nova the StarCraft Ghost for instance gets permanent stealth when not in combat, but her best attacks are skillshots that can be interrupted by another character jumping into the firing line. Playing as her means playing like a sniper, waiting and darting for good positions - at least until she unlocks orbital strikes. By far the most demanding, so far, is Abathur, a Zerg newcomer whose only attack is - to quote the HotS team - 'jazz hands', but who can be a support powerhouse with his cross-map teleportation and ability to infest, shield and back up other players without having to be distracted by levelling up and the need to go gather gold.
Even in alpha, the action is smooth, satisfyingly chunky, and polished to levels most others can only dream of. This being a Blizzard game though, very little is done with a straight face. Every character gets a mount, and if you want to see Arthas riding a pastel coloured 'pwny', thy will can be done. Diablo has a custom skin that turns him into a giant murloc. Elite Tauren Chieftain makes an appearance, with a glam rock look, and the power to make all minions around him dance using his Mosh Pit attack. It's part of the joy of setting the game in the Nexus, a world between worlds where every lore or balancing question can be answered with "Nexus, baby." The humour is backed up by experience though, not least having watched so many other games try and fail to do to Dota 2 what other MMORPGs have spent the last decade trying to do to World of Warcraft.
"We're not trying to compare ourselves to an existing game community and make that community want to play Heroes of the Storm - we're making Heroes of the Storm as a game we want to play," says Sigaty, who like the rest of Blizzard's staff seemed under orders not to name its inspirations. At one point at Blizzcon, I heard someone use the acronym 'AoS', and suspect they got whipped for it. But I digress. "I think that ultimately, that strategy, that depth is there, and we want people to come in for the ease of access and stay to discover that later on. The talent system combined with custom battlegrounds means it's there, just in a different form."
These custom battlefields bolt a number of extras onto base assaulting, including a map with an underground full of skeletons to fight through, a struggle to turn one player into a mighty dragon knight, and a ghost pirate happy to assault the enemy with his cannons in exchange for cursed doubloons. On the Blizzcon map, the twist was tributes to the powerful Raven Lord randomly spawning. Collecting one curses the enemy team for what's currently a very long time, switching off their defences and making their minions useless. It's a savage disadvantage, creating a real incentive to keep battle-lines fluid instead of just focusing on the main assault.
One thing that immediately sprang to mind here was that while this promises to add lots of variety to the main game, it feels like a tough sell for e-sports and professional play. There isn't due to be a vanilla Dota style map without the extra bits, Blizzard having admitted that once it started playing with extras, it got bored of maps that didn't have them. Will the more complex ones just come across as silly? In fact, while we're on that subject, will the pro-scene be willing to embrace a game that can so easily be seen as an advert for Blizzard?
"I don't know. I've never thought of it that way before," confesses Sigaty. "Even Starcraft, people connect it to Blizzard, and that became a very prominent game, so I don't think that would be a problem. The team wants to focus on the fun first though, because it's a slippery slope. I don't think you can just say 'We're going to make the next eSport.' We already had that legacy with Starcraft 2, but you can't just go to the community and tell them that you've made their next sport. If you try to, I think you can lose sight of making a really fun game, and if it's all about micro-balancing around a super eSport experience you can make mistakes on your way there. We definitely have the facilities to stand it up as an eSport, but we'll see how it goes."
"The thing that's most exciting for us is that the Nexus is this collision of worlds that lets us do whatever," says Sigaty. At the moment, all of the revealed maps are fantasy themed, with even the Starcraft team complaining about a lack of mana. That part isn't going to change, purely for the sake of consistency, but future maps will be branching out to their world, and the darker corners of Sanctuary. "We'll definitely see sci-fi settings, and heroes from other franchises, and maybe even some that are truly new," said Sigaty, with other talks confirming that yes, Blizzard wants to get The Lost Vikings in there sometime, somehow. Their original 90s hero Blackthorne is also a possibility, maybe with the cars from Rock n' Roll Racing showing up at some point as mounts.
Longer-term, players will also be able to put a stamp on the worlds, instead of simply stamping around them to take out towers. HotS is going to have full map creation tools at least, with the possibility for more in-depth modding to follow. It's become far, far more than the Starcraft mod originally demoed as Blizzard DOTA back in 2011, but it's still using the same technology underneath and being made by the same team.
"We love modding, and I think the best editor we've ever done is the Starcraft 2 editor. We see it as a platform, the Galaxy engine, and that's what both Starcraft and Heroes is developed on. Giving the power of those tools to the community is something we're going to do, though when is the question. I'd love to see it happen by the open beta. I don't think we're on track for that, but I'd like to shortly thereafter do that."
As for that open beta, don't hold your breath. A closed beta is due in the first half of 2014 though, and you can sign up for it now. Heroes of the Storm will of course be a free-to-play game, though Blizzard isn't talking monetisation yet, beyond promising that you'll earn gold that can be used to acquire things you want. That should definitely cover heroes, if not necessarily skins. If the success of Hearthstone is anything to go by, Blizzard won't have trouble attracting a curious audience willing to at least give the result a shot.
Will the result be enough to drag people way from Dota, from LOL, from Smite, Infinite Crisis, Heroes of Newerth and the many other games out and on their way? That's a trickier question, and Blizzard's approach so far seems to be not worrying about it at all. "I don't know that we're trying to target any one of those communities with a specific thing," says Sigaty. "People are entrenched in those games and only have so much time. By focusing on fun, I hope we'll get them to look regardless, and have their friends say they've got to come and play."