Heroes of the Storm preview: storming the MOBA gates

For years, MMORPGs had to compete with the behemoth known as World of Warcraft and even the biggest games would fall at its feet. Now Blizzard finds itself going against giants, as its new MOBA Heroes of the Storm attempts to compete with the likes of Dota 2 and League of Legends. I got to go hands-on with Blizzard's foray into the MOBA space at Blizzcon and I'm pleased to say that it fits into the genre well, while also adding in some neat new mechanics and a number of the studio's most recognizable characters.

With 18 characters available to choose from, it was hard to decide who would fit my taste best, especially since I came into Heroes of the Storm as somewhat of a MOBA novice. Fortunately, the available characters all came labeled with a particular difficulty level. Characters like Valla were designated as "Easy," with other characters gradually increasing to "Very Hard." In fact, Abathur from StarCraft took things a step further, as not only was he labeled a very hard character to use, but he came with his own disclaimer detailing just how difficult he was, which should entice hardcore MOBA players. Other available characters include Kerrigan from Starcraft, Tyrael from Diablo, and Falstad from World of Warcraft.

For my inaugural session, I selected Raynor from the world of Starcraft. While most MOBA characters come with at least four attacks, complemented by passive abilities, Raynor lived up to his "Easy" label by only starting out with two attacks and two passives.

As I started my first match in the Cursed Hollow battleground, I felt a sense of familiarity, as everyone was rendered in the familiar Blizzard art style. After that sank it, the game started to feel like a standard MOBA, as I selected a lane and began plunging through. One criticism I have is that while characters can be easy for newcomers, they won't be helped much further, as I had to figure out exactly what the objective was. Unless tutorial entry zones are added in the future, it looks like players will be expected to know the rules going in.

Battles went back and forth, as I clumsily started out by standing in front of a tower and getting myself killed, which resulted in a fairly long (about 30-60 second) respawn timer. As I accustomed myself to playing, I noticed the battleground's main feature, the Raven Lord's arrival, begin to commence. The Raven Lord asked for tributes, with the first team to bring him three receiving his assistance. My AI-controlled teammates gathered the required tributes, which led to the Raven Lord cursing the opposing team's minions and towers and reducing their HP to 1.

As my team collected kills, everyone leveled up at the same rate. Once Raynor leveled up, he had the option to select a boost, whether it would be an increase an attack power or a reduction in ability cooldown time. However, Raynor also received a special heroic ability after leveling up to about 5. This special attack fit in with his character, as he could summon the Behemoth-class Hyperion battlecruiser to rain down hell on anything in its path. Though I held my own just fine in combat, once I started using the Hyperion, I started racking up double kills and had my first killing spree. Other characters will earn similarly powerful attacks over the course of the game, though they'll all come with a long 60-second or longer cooldown time.

After recruiting the Raven Lord enough times and bashing my way through with Raynor's Hyperion attack, my team destroyed the opposing palace to attain victory in about 17 minutes. Heroes of the Storm sessions are short, as they come with a 20-minute time limit. While its competitors thrive on longer battle phases, Heroes of the Storm will embrace shorter games, which should attract players without a lot of time on their hands.

Heroes of the Storm needs some improvement with its camera, some finicky movements, and troubles with aiming at targets, as I did have a few instances in which Raynor was blasting a fallen tower wall instead of helping my teammates with a batch of minions. But overall, the game felt solid and removed much of the intimidation factor that normally comes with picking up a new MOBA title. Team leveling helped me progress my character quickly and gave me access to new attacks, which kept the experience feeling fresh.

Those looking to try out Heroes of the Storm for themselves can sign up for the closed beta now. Heroes of the Storm is "coming soon" to PC.