If you haven't checked in on Heroes of the Storm in a while, here's what you're missing
No one would accuse Activision-Blizzard of being the “little guy.” But when it comes to the MOBA space, Heroes of the Storm remains in a distant third (or maybe even fourth) position behind Valve’s Dota 2 and the reigning champion, Riot's League of Legends.
For the last two years, Heroes of the Storm has benefited from a steady flow of balance patches and additional heroes and battlegrounds. The iterative updates have culminated in a massive overhaul known as Heroes of the Storm 2.0.
The Heroes 2.0 update launched in April, adding an entirely new loot chest system, revamped experience and leveling, UI improvements, and more Overwatch content. It has never been a better time to jump into the most intuitive and user-friendly MOBA.
The original Heroes of the Storm launched in summer 2015 with a pool of 34 heroes based on Blizzard’s Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo franchises. That’s far, far below the 100-plus character-long rosters found in Dota 2 and League of Legends, but that’s part of HotS’s strength. It has fewer heroes to discover and master, no item shop to overwhelm you in the middle of battle, shared leveling across teams, and blissfully shorter matches that let you play two or three games in an hour.
Since launch, HotS has welcomed numerous updates. A new hero is released about once every three weeks, bringing the current roster as of May 2017 to 67 heroes. A unique twist that HotS brings to the genre are the multiple maps and objectives that change the way matches are played. HotS launched with six different battlegrounds, and since then that number has ballooned to 13. Battlegrounds range from collecting coins to power a ghostly ship’s cannons to securing points to unleash a massive wave of Zerg on your enemy.
Last fall, an all new Brawl mode was added. Inspired from Overwatch’s Arcade Mode, these brawls introduced unique, sometimes silly rules, like "everyone plays Nova with one-hit kills,” or unique single-lane maps with random heroes.
All these updates come bundled with regular balance patches to help keep Heroes of the Storm competitive without adding in too much additional complexity. While new heroes, maps, and modes are great additions, the biggest system that lagged behind was experience and leveling.
Prior to the 2.0 update, once you hit player level 40 you stopped leveling. You could still level up each individual hero to 20, but once they hit level 10 the rewards were almost meaningless (a few thousand gold) for the ridiculous amount of experience that was required.
The 2.0 update overhauls the entire experience system. Now your player level is the combined total of all your hero levels, and the hero level experience curve has been drastically reduced to make leveling much more enjoyable. More importantly, each new hero level rewards you with a loot box.
If you’ve played Blizzard’s incredibly popular hero shooter Overwatch you’re already familiar with the loot chest system. Every time you level up you’re given a chest with four random goodies inside. Like Overwatch these loot items include voice lines, sprays, portraits, skins, as well as the heroes themselves. The loot chests, and the items inside, vary in rarity, with different kinds of chests awarded at various level intervals. You can still find up to legendary items in the most basic loot chests, making each chest an exciting reward.
I found Overwatch’s loot system ultimately frustrating and disappointing, but in Heroes of the Storm it works remarkably well. There are far more heroes to get loot drops for, so the ratio of getting fun skins to boring voice lines is much better. Secondly, you have a lot more control over your rate of leveling, thanks to the fact that each hero still levels up individually. With the smoother leveling curve you’re no longer punished for focusing on just a select few. Level caps have been removed and milestones now include free loot chests in addition to gold every five and ten hero levels.
Loot chests are also an obvious way to add microtransactions to a free-to-play game with the new gem currency. Gems can be purchased with real money, and used to purchase new heroes, loot chests, and bundles. You’re also rewarded with 150 gems every 25 levels. Everything can still be purchased with in-game gold (earned through quests and levels) and now found in loot chests.
I’ve played Heroes of the Storm for hundreds of hours and never felt forced or pressured to spend any money. The result is I’m happy to occasionally throw some cash at bundles of new heroes and skins. That's’ the mark of a good free-to-play ecosystem.
As much as I’ve disparaged Overwatch, its hero and map inclusions into HotS are a welcome addition. The 2.0 update added two new Overwatch heroes in Genji and D.Va, bringing the total number of heroes from that universe to five. A new payload battleground based on Overwatch’s Hanamura level was also added (despite Hanamura not actually being a payload map in OW). It cleverly recreates the dynamic between pushing and defending a payload while still maintaining the lanes and balance of a MOBA.
The 2.0 update also overhauled the UI, making it easier to look up your statistics and level progression for each hero. A new loadout feature helps you select and save up to three combinations of skin, mount, spray, voice, etc. Blizzard has smartly kept everything clean and simple; HotS could be the Facebook of MOBAs in its design, while still keeping it fun to essentially collect and dress up digital action figures.
As much as I’m loving all the new additions it hasn’t all been perfection. Some of the new loot drops— particularly voice lines— are pretty worthless. Banners aren’t all that special, and sprays are a goofy gimmick that most people forget about (and thankfully last only a few seconds). The ability to gain new heroes, skins, mounts and stimpacks at regular intervals, however, is well worth the new loot drop system. I’m also enjoying the announcers, portraits, and emojis.
Before Heroes of the Storm, I found MOBAs an impenetrable, unfriendly genre that demanded too much time and passion. HotS certainly has its share of community issues, like any online game, but it’s by far the easiest to jump into. Heroes 2.0 fixes some of its biggest problems by revamping the leveling curve and adding more incentive to playing and leveling up each hero. I was worried that Overwatch-style loot chests would ruin my favorite MOBA but it’s done just the opposite. I’ve fallen in love with the Nexus all over again.