The game has its share of toxic players, but those pigs are damn cute.

What we love — and hate — about Heroes of the Storm 2

OntoGeek founder Bill, edi­tor in chief Oscar, and for­mer staff writer Matt got togeth­er to have a vir­tu­al chat about Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s newish lane push­ing game, and why it simul­ta­ne­ous­ly delights and annoys them.

Oscar: So, you’ve both start­ed play­ing HotS some­where in the past few weeks, right? What are you ini­tial impres­sions?

Matt: Yeah, I’ve been play­ing for exact­ly one week now; just had my first ros­ter shift. I am real­ly impressed with it. I’ve dipped a toe into DOTA 2 before, but most­ly found it impen­e­tra­ble and intim­i­dat­ing, even after 25 hours logged. I got through that phase of HotS quick­ly. It trimmed off all the extra­ne­ous stuff (like last-hits, posi­tion­ing so that your carry gets all the expe­ri­ence and you don’t, etc.)1 and focus­es on the parts of MOBA play that I find most engag­ing. The game is still com­plex enough to be entic­ing, but sur­pris­ing­ly low-stress for that com­plex­i­ty.

Bill: I’ve been play­ing obses­sive­ly for about a week and a half, and I am con­sis­tent­ly sur­prised by how much I like this game. Other than Awesomenauts, this is my first real MOBA, (I played DOTA 2 for like half an hour) and I’ve been enjoy­ing myself immense­ly. Much like Matt says, I find it’s a lot clean­er than what I see in League of Legends or DOTA, and I dig that. I also like that I’ve been called a lot fewer names here than I have in Awesomenauts, even though I’m prob­a­bly bet­ter at Awesomenauts than I am at HotS. Real talk, though: I almost quit play­ing after the intro cin­e­mat­ic. Blizzard’s whole aes­thet­ic is deeply depress­ing, and I was­n’t sure I want­ed to reward that sort of non­sense.

Oscar: Alright, hold that last thought, Bill. I think we should return to the aes­thet­ic at some point in this con­ver­sa­tion. But shall we first dig a lit­tle bit into what has gripped us about HotS? Like both of you, I’ve played quite a bit of Awesomenauts, and a few hours of DOTA 2, and I’d basi­cal­ly echo what Matt says. It feels like HotS strips away a few of the arbi­trary ele­ments of e.g. DOTA or LoL and brings the genre to some­thing of a more ele­gant core. Like I recent­ly wrote, I believe a lot of these deci­sions have to do with the game try­ing to pro­mote team play, more so than other lane push­ers. What do you think about how that turns out in prac­tice?

Matt: The bar­ri­er to team fight fun has been destroyed by the trim. I think it is much more acces­si­ble. In DOTA 2, if you don’t play the early game right, you can fall so far behind that you’ll get creamed in any engage­ment, but the steps to get­ting buff in the early game are eso­teric. There’s the shop (and the SECRET shop), and if you make the wrong deci­sions there, it could hob­ble you. Getting to the fun in DOTA 2 requires some intense ritual-learning — even with a men­tor, it took me a long while to remem­ber all of it. In HotS, you grind a lane in the early game. You go for the map objec­tive when the game tells you to. You gath­er with your team, push hard, and get into big skir­mish­es and brawls. And that’s FUN. It feels great when you get some good team­work going, and the pres­sure that devel­ops after a team fight is won or lost is some­thing you can phys­i­cal­ly feel. I’m not sure if there’s any way to force team play with these mechan­ics; I’ve been quick-matched with enough Lone Wolves. But as one plays the game, it def­i­nite­ly becomes clear that win­ning teams are the teams that coor­di­nate, and that’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly the team with the most tech­ni­cal­ly pro­fi­cient play­ers.

Bill: I’ve real­ly enjoyed the small-scale team-combos, which cer­tain­ly exist­ed in Awesomenauts, but seem so much clear­er here. When Matt and I are work­ing togeth­er well, we are alter­nat­ing our stun­ning abil­i­ties, repo­si­tion­ing our­selves to sand­wich flee­ing ene­mies, and gen­er­al­ly mak­ing things super unfair for the other team. Some of the broad­er, “macro” strat­e­gy still evades me, but those micro­dra­mas cre­at­ed by two or three play­ers all work­ing real­ly well togeth­er are oodles of fun. Just before get­ting into HotS, I’d been play­ing a lot of team Starcraft 2, and as much as I enjoy that game, the team­work is a lit­tle more removed — you’re more like part­ners who are sep­a­rate­ly approach­ing sim­i­lar objec­tives. It would be the­o­ret­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble for one play­er to carry the whole team in Starcraft 2, but that seems very unlike­ly in HotS. I like that dynam­ic, although it does some­times lead to play­ers being obnox­ious in the chat.

Oscar: So, as an aside: I’ve briefly men­tioned the tox­i­c­i­ty ele­ment, and Cameron Kunzelman dis­cussed it quite thor­ough­ly in his review on Paste. How do you feel HotS com­pares to other online games in terms of tox­i­c­i­ty? And do you fore­see any way in which this aspect of online play could be improved? I do like that HotS has a fair­ly straight­for­ward way of mut­ing, block­ing, and report­ing play­ers, and that it was a sim­ple but sur­pris­ing­ly use­ful ping sys­tem, with which you can quick­ly give direc­tions and sug­ges­tions to your team by click­ing on the map. Any other solu­tions you see for improv­ing the atmos­phere of online play, and do you notice dif­fer­ences between dif­fer­ent games modes?

The game has its share of toxic players, but those pigs are damn cute.

The game has its share of toxic play­ers, but those pigs are damn cute.

Matt: I haven’t encoun­tered any tox­i­c­i­ty so far, but I most­ly play with Bill or against AI, so that min­i­mizes or elim­i­nates my chances of encoun­ter­ing jerks; worst I’ve had is peo­ple com­plain­ing about the game and declar­ing that they’re going back to League of Legends. I will say that the ping sys­tem is great.

Bill: I hon­est­ly haven’t played online games much in a while — I would say gen­er­al­ly that there’s less tox­i­c­i­ty in HotS than in Awesomenauts or some of the shoot­ers like Gears of War 3 that I used to play online a bunch. The only other thing I play online these days is Starcraft 2, and there’s gen­er­al­ly less non­sense in that because you’re too busy click­ing to type. That said, I sus­pect I will encounter more tox­i­c­i­ty once I break into Hero League, which should hap­pen soon. People are like­ly to take that more seri­ous­ly than they do the occa­sion­al Quick Match.

Also sadly, “less tox­i­c­i­ty” does not equal “no tox­i­c­i­ty.” I have seen sev­er­al play­ers say­ing some pret­ty dread­ful things, and had my Allied Chat turned off for a while accord­ing­ly. I do gen­er­al­ly like the ping sys­tem, although frus­trat­ed play­ers will start ping­ing over and over and over again if they feel they’re being ignored or just if they want to be obnox­ious. That’s prob­a­bly bet­ter than being called names, but it’s still pret­ty frus­trat­ing.

Oscar: I will say that I found the amount of tox­i­c­i­ty and flam­ing to be less on aver­age in Hero League, at least on the EU serv­er. People seem to take the game more seri­ous­ly, yes, but that does­n’t trans­late into nasty behav­iour auto­mat­i­cal­ly. That said, that’s just my per­son­al expe­ri­ence.

So, to return to your remark ear­li­er, Bill. Let’s talk a lit­tle bit about the theme and the visu­al aes­thet­ic. What put you off the trail­er, exact­ly? And how do you feel about the aes­thet­ic now that you’ve seen more of the game? Matt, did you have the same reac­tion?

Bill: Yeah, so I made Hero League the other day, and so far folks have been pret­ty nice, three games in. I’ll report back!

As for the trailer/intro cin­e­mat­ic, it just feels like the sort of thing a group of 14-year-old boys would doo­dle instead of pay­ing atten­tion in English class. Everything about it so very bor­ing and tired, spandex-clad space babes blow­ing kiss­es, spiky demons roar­ing, some super-cool dude say­ing “oh shi-” before an explo­sion cuts off his cuss word, so the con­tent isn’t too edgy and the game can still be rated T for exTreme. As soon as Tyrael and Kerrigan leaped into the air to trade inef­fec­tive but super cool attacks, the sound­track kicks into hyper-generic metal gui­tar chords that remind me of noth­ing so much as the ill-advised music of Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. Arthas swings his sword at Nova and the cam­era slows down so we can all admire his pre­pos­ter­ous sword. The ridicu­lous cos­tumes are all over-designed fan­ta­sy trash, the women are all (except Sergeant Hammer) exact­ly the same size and build, char­ac­ters growl threats and spout ter­ri­ble dia­logue,2 and it’s just so very embar­rass­ing.

Jaina. So boring. And don't get us started on most of the other humans.

Jaina. So bor­ing. And don’t get us start­ed on most of the other humans.

Of course, this isn’t real­ly Heroes of the Storm’s fault. It’s tasked with stay­ing true to Blizzard’s broad­er aes­thet­ic, whether in World of Warcraft or Diablo or Starcraft 2, and that’s a shame, because the car­toony, boun­cy, super-spiky, many-pauldroned out­fits and gen­er­al vibe of those games is ter­ri­ble.

Matt: I’m not as offend­ed by the game as Bill is, I sup­pose, but I trade in dis­gust for dis­ap­point­ment. I care about char­ac­ter design quite a bit, and on the game design side, it’s of course extreme­ly ben­e­fi­cial for char­ac­ters to have a dis­tinct sil­hou­ette such that a quick glance can com­mu­ni­cate what you’re up against and what to expect. The game is crap at that. Especially if you’re just start­ing off, it’s hard to rec­og­nize and react when a hero emerges from the dark­ness. A good half of the char­ac­ters are the same shape and armor-clad, and scrolling through the avail­able char­ac­ters evokes a vanil­la bland­ness.

To make things worse, some char­ac­ters look and move far too sim­i­lar — Raynor and Tychus, Tyrande and Sylvanas, Leoric and Arthas, Stitches and Butcher, Thrall and Rehgar, and, on the icon side, Li Li and Chen (how many times have I wan­dered into an objec­tive fight assum­ing Chen was already there and find Li Li get­ting mur­dered? More than five!). It’s a real shame, because the mechan­ics of each char­ac­ter are entire­ly unique; no one char­ac­ter feels like play­ing any other, which is great. It’s a mag­nif­i­cent shame that those char­ac­ters don’t look as dis­tinct, and are instead fun­neled into the same bor­ing shapes and tropes. There are notable excep­tions — Johanna, Sgt. Hammer, and Anub’arak all feel spe­cial, as does Tassadar’s ethe­re­al glide and Nazeebo’s hunched walk — but you so fre­quent­ly get match-ups where five peo­ple are play­ing the Buff Warrior, the Slinky Woman, or the Horned Devil. It’s dull and it’s lazy.

Oscar: I think I’m with you on most points. I agree with you, Bill, that a lot of it is due to the game stick­ing close­ly to Blizzard’s past aes­thet­ic, which is under­stand­able, but lazy, and to be hon­est, there’s not all that much to work with in that depart­ment. Blizzard’s whole shtick has been to do mild­ly amus­ing takes on fan­ta­sy and sci-fi clichés. At the same time, there is real­ly no excuse for not tak­ing this moment as a cue to start doing some­thing dif­fer­ent. Why are there more aliens in the game than non-blonde women? Why is the only char­ac­ter of colour a hor­ri­ble voodoo stereo­type, includ­ing a faux-Caribbean accent? They wise­ly left out the Warcraft trolls at this stage, but real­ly it could­n’t get any worse.

You get the sense that maybe they’re try­ing to move in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion with Overwatch,3 but we’ll have to wait and see. And yes, there are excep­tions in the game. Anub’arak is prob­a­bly one of my favourite char­ac­ters, as are the Zerg, except for Kerrigan, I sup­pose.

Our main man Anuby.

Our main man Anuby.

As a bit of a wish­ful think­ing thought exper­i­ment, take a look at these tweets from Rowan Kaiser and imag­ine an alter­na­tive uni­verse:

Would we jump on this in an instant? (Yes, we would).

Bill: Yes, I’m gen­er­al­ly more inter­est­ed in the Overwatch aes­thet­ic than the rest of their games. It’s got a pret­ty strong Pixar vibe, which I’m in favor of. And yeah, I would play the heck out of a BioWare MOBA.

Matt: I’m incred­i­bly excit­ed about Overwatch, and men­tal­ly praise its char­ac­ter design every time I see the logo on Battle​.net. More of that, please.

Now, I am in favor of a BioWare MOBA, with the caveat that it also has some major redesigns in there. I’m pret­ty sure its char­ac­ter sil­hou­ettes would be even worse off than Blizzard. You need some car­toony exag­ger­a­tions when work­ing from a top-down per­spec­tive. That said, give me a Rachni Queen to break down some Geth tow­ers already. Or Wrex. Give me Wrex.

Wait, you could legit­i­mate­ly make an Elcor Turret-soldier in the BioWare MOBA.

Oscar: So, I think we’ve dis­cussed most of the things we want­ed to. Is there any­thing else you’d like to add? I know Bill and I have been watch­ing some of the pro­fes­sion­al HotS match­es in American and European open the past few days, and I’m feel­ing like this is the game that might me get into watch­ing eSports a bit more. What are your impres­sions?

Matt: Margaret and I hooked up the lap­top to the tele­vi­sion, grabbed some snacks, and watched for hours. Watching team Bob? field a team of three spe­cial­ists and no assas­sins against Gamers2 was a treat. That sort of expe­ri­ence is total­ly new to me; I’ve never real­ly been into watch­ing eSports or sports, and I felt like I final­ly tapped into an expe­ri­ence that I’ve seen from afar but never truly under­stood. I want to invite friends over and yell at HotS games with a buf­fa­lo wing in hand. It might be the most American I’ve ever felt (out­side of Bill’s bach­e­lor party).

Bill: Yeah, I have enjoyed the heck out of HotS esports. I watched the August North America Open cham­pi­onships all day its first day, and my wife and I watched sev­er­al games togeth­er, too. I think part of what makes it an enjoy­able esport is its rel­a­tive new­ness — the cast­ers still feel like they need to explain a lot of what is going on, which means it’s more com­pre­hen­si­ble to newer/more casu­al view­ers. I tried to watch some of the International last month and my insuf­fi­cient DOTA knowl­edge meant I could bare­ly tell what was going on. HotS does­n’t feel quite like that. Its rel­a­tive lack of com­plex­i­ty com­pared to DOTA or LoL makes it much more acces­si­ble, as well. Its new­ness also means that there’s a lot of room for new strate­gies and new ideas to devel­op in the meta — at least half of the char­ac­ters made an appear­ance in the August Open, and even though some teams (*cough* Tempo Storm *cough*) are much bet­ter than every­one else, there are still a lot of new and young teams try­ing to make names for them­selves and thus try­ing very, very hard. I’m look­ing for­ward to the Americas Championship in September, and intend to invite some friends over to watch the games and eat buf­fa­lo wings, per Matt’s sug­ges­tion.

That about wraps up this con­ver­sa­tion. At some point we might get our servers and accounts in sync for a spe­cial OntoGeek HotS day. Until then I’m sure we’ll be enjoy­ing the game some more in the near future, with the idea firm­ly in the back of our heads that there’s a lot of room for improve­ment when it comes to the aes­thet­ic of the game, and per­haps eSports in gen­er­al.

  1. A carry is a char­ac­ter that is sup­posed to become the most pow­er­ful damage-dealer in a team, and the rest of the team is sup­posed to sup­port and play with the car­ry’s growth in mind. []
  2. I do feel sorry for the poor folks who had to fig­ure out how to make every char­ac­ter say “hey, you’re hurt, go to a heal­ing foun­tain” in a way that best com­mu­ni­cat­ed that char­ac­ter’s essence []
  3. A mul­ti­play­er shoot­er game, cur­rent­ly in devel­op­ment by Blizzard. []

2 thoughts on “What we love — and hate — about Heroes of the Storm

  • Andrei Filote

    I enjoy HotS but it feels san­i­tized, the Diablo 3 to your Path of Exile. Dota isn’t an easy game to like, and its com­mu­ni­ty has all the joy of cor­ro­sive phlegm, but its sheer weird­ness is what makes it work in the long, long term. Hots mean­while is doing the death­match thing, a great niche if you ask me, but I feel like play­ers can’t define their roles and play quite as well. Blizzard’s inten­tions about what should hap­pen in a given match are too vis­i­ble.

    • Oscar Strik

      I do see what you’re get­ting it. The over­all design, par­tic­u­lar­ly with regard to the objec­tives, puts a big mark on the gen­er­al out­line of each match, which is both a strength and a weak­ness. The risk is that the game will get too pre­dictable too quick­ly. That said, this might be reme­died if they would allow for more extreme spe­cial­ist char­ac­ters that, when left unchecked, may swing a game even when objec­tives are ignored. This would add anoth­er layer of strat­e­gy to the game over and above “how will we win team­fights”. Not sure if that’s where they want to go, but that would also make char­ac­ters like Gazlowe more accept­able in the metagame.

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