Hearthstone Mercenaries hands-on preview: Bounty hunters

Hearthstone's newest game mode certainly looks different, so we take a look at Mercenaries for ourselves in this preview.


One wouldn't imagine that there's anything further that needs to be added to Hearthstone. Blizzard's free-to-play collectible card game is in a pretty good place now, making sure to add new cards every other month, keep things interesting with the occasional balance tweak, and also offering some diversions through the game's Battlegrounds and Duels modes. The fun doesn't look to be over yet, though, as Team 5 is now looking into an entirely new game mode called Mercenaries. This plays much differently than any of Hearthstone's other modes and looks intimidating on the surface, but as Shacknews learned during our hands-on time with the new mode, Mercenaries fits right in with the overall Hearthstone aesthetic.

Before jumping into our time with Mercenaries, we wish to acknowledge the continuing situation at Activision Blizzard. It has been over two months and management has still not addressed the demands of their employees. As a show of respect to those employees, we would like to take a moment to repost those demands that they made public prior to their late July walkout. Furthermore, we would like to encourage our readers to donate to the following charities: Black Girls CODE, FUTURES, Girls Who Code, RAINN, Women in Animation, and Women in Games International.

At the outset, the Mercenaries layout should look familiar to long-time Hearthstone players. This is an RPG roguelike mode that plays out like the final evolution of the single-player Dungeon Run adventures from a few years ago. A Mercenaries run, individually known as Bounties, will consist of a string of battles, all leading up to a final boss encounter. The difference is that players will have a little more agency in terms of where they can go, as the Bounty map will offer branching paths. Sometimes those paths will lead towards more difficult battles, which offer greater rewards. Other times, they'll lead to spots where there are no battles, but add a treasure to assist (or detract) from the rest of the run. I'll touch on that a little more later.

Mercenary battles will begin with players putting down a starting lineup of three individual Mercenaries, out of a roster of six that they select for the full run. For every turn, there's a preparation phase, in which players queue up their attacks, and a combat phase, where everyone attacks. Order of attacks will be assigned by a speed stat number. Lower numbers will go first, while ties will be determined randomly. Play will continue until one side is completely eliminated. For the player, if any of their Mercenary units fall, those units are not available for the remainder of the run. That means it is entirely possible to head into that final battle with just one unit left, so be careful.

Mercenary units are divided into three different combat roles. There's the Protector (Red), Caster (Blue), and Fighter (Green). Certain roles attacking certain other roles will deal double damage. While the game will not indicate that on-the-fly, what deals double damage to what is easy enough to remember if you've played any Pokemon games. Here's a mnemonic device: Fire (Red) double damages Grass (Green), Grass (Green) double damages Water (Blue), and Water (Blue) double damages Fire (Red). While shooting for type advantages is a general rule of thumb that will work in the early going, more strategy is required for the Mercenaries endgame.

To that end, it's important to recognize which individual units play better with others. Sometimes, certain attacks will become more powerful based on how many friendly units of the same Mercenary types, tribes (of which there are many more than Standard Hearthstone), or other factors are on the board. Sometimes, attacks will be enhanced when combined with other attacks of the same Spell School. For example, Uther has a powerful Avenging Wrath spell, which is strong on its own, but it repeats for every friendly Holy attack that preceded it that turn. Likewise, Prophet Velen has a Spitting Light attack that hits a single target hard, but it also acts as a Holy Combo, in that it will follow a friendly Holy attack by also hitting Splitting Light on a target's neighbors. Discovering synergies and finding teams and combos that work for you is a major part of the Mercenaries experience and makes this game mode much deeper than meets the eye.

Players will spend the first part of their time in Mercenaries in the Mercenary Village. This is where players will interact with various characters, take on Bounties, and upgrade their Mercenary lineups. The Village buildings can be upgraded with in-game Gold. New Bounties will pop up each day, each offering its own various rewards. Those rewards can come in the form of Gold, Mercenary Coins to upgrade units, new Mercenary Units, or random Mercenary Packs.

The Mercenary Packs may be where Mercenaries sets itself apart, though not necessarily for the better. These packs contain rewards specifically for this game mode. However, players may sometimes find their contents wanting. While I was initially excited to pick up some currency to upgrade my units, it's important to note that Mercenary Coins are labeled for specific units. Imagine how thrilled I was to open several Mercenary Coin bundles for Diablo and Lord Jaraxxus when I didn't have them on my roster. That felt like a waste. The individual Bounties will generally feel more rewarding, but don't get too excited about Mercenary Packs right now.

Mercenaries looks like a much deeper experience than any of Hearthstone's previous game modes. While it's possible to assemble a deck and jump into Standard or dive straight into Battlegrounds, Mercenaries looks like it requires a little bit more of a time investment. It's different enough from the other Hearthstone modes to stand out, but not so different that veterans shouldn't be able to grasp how it works with some hands-on time. What has me curious is what Team 5 has planned for Mercenaries in the future, how they plan to add to the game mode over time, what new settings players will be able to visit, and whether future updates will be themed after whatever the current Hearthstone expansion is. There are quite a few unknowns, which is why we chatted with Game Director Ben Lee and Lead Producer Gloria Zhang late last week about the future of Mercenaries. We'll have that interview up on our YouTube channels soon.

Hearthstone Mercenaries is out now for no additional charge. Hearthstone itself remains a free-to-play game on PC and mobile devices.

This hands-on preview is based on a demo build provided by the publisher.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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