Hands On With Hearthstone: Heroes Of Warcraft
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is one of Blizzard’s new games. It sits in the area between the Diablo III expansion and the soon to be announced World of Warcraft expansion.
But, what exactly is Hearthstone? To put it simply, it is Blizzard’s first attempt at creating a wholly free to play game based on the hugely successful Warcraft universe–and it is awesome. Hearthstone is a card game, and its full name tell us what it is about: “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.” We get to play as one of Azeroth’s many heroes, which is a familiar cast of characters, as well as non-playable characters (NPC) and enemies from across the extended Warcraft universe.
The game at its core is a seemingly simple card game, however its apparent simplicity should not fool you, as the game is deeply complex and matches often involve lots of crafty thinking and strategy. Each player in Hearthstone will pick a class–for now the classes are those of original World of Warcraft; (namely every class except for the two newest additions, the Monk and the Death Knight) further, each Class has a Hero representing it. Mages will be depicted by the frost mage Jaina Proudmoore, while Hunters will be Rexxar, the Beastmaster and so on and so forth. These heroes will instantly resonate with the multitude of gamers who have grown to love the Warcraft universe and its comprehensive lore.
Once the tutorial begins, you’re thrust into some battles against very recognisable characters from World of Warcraft, including a rather infamous mini-boss called Hogger. The gameplay is similar to other card games, and its core relies on a few simple concepts; concepts such as resource management, card advantage, tempo and control as well as doing combat math.
Every turn you are given a mana crystal, which acts as your resource. Cards are played from your hand onto the battlefield and thus will deplete that mana crystal for this turn. You spend your mana on minions (all sorts of creatures from the Warcraft universe, including Murlocs, Night Elves and even sneaky Gnomes), or spells which are mostly from World of Warcraft (think Sinister Strike for Rogues, Blizzard for mages). The game doesn’t bother with phases–a hallmark of many other card games, digital or otherwise. You can attack with one creature, play a spell and then attack with another creature. Or you could cast all your spells then attack. It’s this flexibility that makes the game very easy to pick up–you realise when the best time to use each specific card is.
Once you see how wonderful the interactions work between cards and the amount of synergy when you link them up in the right order or context; the game really begins to shine. For instance, let’s say your opponent plays a powerful Minion, who has 6 damage and 5 health and taunt – (a keyword meaning you have to attack this minion before you can attack your opponent’s life total directly.) Normally, this would be tricky to deal with and would involve you trading off one of your minions to see it killed, however that doesn’t matter if you’re a Mage. The Mage’s hero power (a 2 mana ability that each class possesses) is a 1 damage fireball. Now this wouldn’t be enough to take down the big guy on its own, but Mages also get access to a 4 mana cost card called Polymorph, which transforms an enemy unit into a 1 damage 1 health minion. Add in your basic fireball, and we can drop the powerful enemy Minion and get back to bashing our opponents face in.
The sheer amount of cards can seem overwhelming, but the more you play the easier it becomes to recognize certain keywords and what they do. “Charge” means that your minion can attack the turn it was summoned. “Deathrattle” is when the minion dies it will trigger this effect. Once familiar with the keywords and interactions it becomes a lot easier to play the game, and the tutorials do a fair bit to explain. The game is helped by its simplicity, the learning curve is not that intense and new players will be eager to test their mettle against others.
Once I had unlocked a couple of other classes (this was done by playing against AI representations of those classes) I decided to try my hand at deck building. Decks comprise of 30 cards, and are usually a nice mixture of minions and spell cards. The UI for deck building is intuitive and even has a handy “suggest card” button for players unsure what to put into their decks. Once you’ve built your custom deck you can head off to battle other players. There are ranked and unranked matchmaking options, allowing you to dabble and test your creation before entering the ranked portion of matchmaking.
I loaded up my custom built Warrior deck (affectionately dubbed, GET WRECKED) and took to the ranked matchmaking. My first game was against a Warlock, who despite my blistering start using Minions with Charge, managed to survive long enough to board wipe me, and slowly use his hero power (The Warlock’s hero power pays 2 life to draw a card) to gain card advantage and eventually defeat me.
Unperturbed, I decided to try the Arena. The Arena is effectively the “drafting” part of Hearthstone. It’s here where players pick a Class, and are given an assortment of random cards of which they are required to choose 30 and make a deck. It’s this kind of skill intensive process that I’m sure players will flock to. The opportunity to make a deck via random cards and duke it out against others who have all done the same thing is rewarding and fun. Being able to test not only your skill as a player but also as a deck builder at the same time was a rich experience. If you lose three games in the Arena, you’re out. If you keep winning, you keep playing better opponents and will eventually be rewarded with prizes. I got a nifty booster pack and some in-game currency after I won my first two matches, but then lost three in a row.
The main concerns when dealing with a free to play model is that gamers hate pay to win type games, where one can accrue a distinct advantage by purchasing many items/consumables that normal players will be unable to attain purely by playing and not spending money on. However this does not seem to be the case at present. To buy new cards one can spend money or gold (earned in game by the completion of quests) and there is also a similar entry fee for the Arena (payable in gold or real world currency.)
To conclude, Hearthstone is a highly polished and deeply compelling card game, with Warcraft’s substantial lore being put to good use. The art style is wonderfully cartoony at times yet some cards are more realistically depicted. The gameplay is engaging, and the room for customisation and experimentation when it comes to deck creation is huge. Matchmaking is fun and the Arena even more so. This is the kind of addictive fun that can easily lead to six hour long marathons–even though you were only meant to play one game before bed. Not bad for a game still in beta, right?
— This hands-on was written by Kyle Singh. Find him on Twitter at @KyleKY.