Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft review
Blizzard doesn’t often move into new genres, but when it does two things tend to happen. First, the popularity curve of the imposed-upon genre suddenly goes from one that resembles rolling countryside to a steep vertiginous incline seemingly without end. Next, in a classic case of cause and effect, the Californian mega-developer quickly finds itself utterly dominating the competition. We saw the Blizzard Effect first manifest itself after the releases of Warcraft and Starcraft, then again with World Of Warcraft when Blizzard literally took MMO gaming by storm. Naturally it’s happening once more: Barely a week from the launch of Blizzard’s first collectable card game, Hearthstone was tracking as the ninth most popular game on PC, while its closest CCG rival was 244th – shuffling some way behind the first Assassin’s Creed.
What Blizzard has done yet again is spotted a genre with the potential to be absurdly popular, assessed the competition as insular and moved in with a game that is supremely accessible. Let’s be honest, collectable card games, digital or otherwise, aren’t the easiest games to pick up. Quite apart from the play areas, discard piles and various other imaginary zones, there are cards that need to be collected, sorted, flipped, turned and always placed just so. The ultimate evolution of Chess and Top Trumps your typical card duel may be, but to the untrained eye it may as well be a fantasy spin on Numberwang, only played with scraps of virtual paper.
Hearthstone largely succeeds by doing away with the faff. The play area is a single row for each player, an offensive/defensive line populated with summoned minions and augmented by one-off spell cards that will boost health, increase damage, or have the reverse effect on the opposition. Behind this line sits each player’s hero character, each one with a special ability, a unique selection of cards that can be assembled beforehand and a number of health points that need to be picked off for the other player to win.
While games start slowly, each player’s stock of Mana points increases with every turn, meaning that more powerful cards can be played as the match progresses. Far from being less tactical than the likes of Mojang’s Scrolls or Duel Of Champions, this means games are over in a matter of minutes. But instead of feeling flimsy, the speed of thought the game requires has it feeling more like an action game, with you able to line up cards while your opponent is still thinking through the consequences of their next move. It’s as frenetic as a card game can possibly be, thanks to the many graphical sweeps and flourishes that enhance the gameboard, yet without many of the compromises that usually come with simplicity of design.
While a case could be made for Hearthstone’s obvious lack of complexity in comparison to other CCGs, to criticise it for not being closer to the games it’s designed to stand out from rather misses the point. Likewise, you can hardly berate the game’s reliance on random numbers when the luck of the draw is part of the DNA of collectable card gaming. Less fundamental are a lack of gameplay modes, for while there are perfectly serviceable practice modes and a poised matchmaking system behind the game’s bread-and-butter ranked play, beyond the pay-to-access Arena mode the game is currently very light on tournament options. That’s not to suggest Arena doesn’t offer a markedly different challenge.
Whereas the other modes focus around collecting cards and experience points and tinkering with decks, Arena tournaments, which require gold to enter (which can be bought or earned through daily quest completion) require you to make the best of what you’re given: Choosing one of the game’s nine heroes, players go through the process of selecting the best card out of three until they have they their 30-card deck. They are then thrown into a succession of matches until either three are lost or 12 won.
The rewards for an Arena champion are significant. One is Arcane Dust, a resource that’s also a by-product of deconstructing cards you don’t need. There is no card trading in the game, but with a pile of Warcraft’s magic powder it’s possible to create any specific card you think necessary to complete the perfect card stack. It’s an intriguing and perfectly acceptable system, no doubt implemented to circumvent third-party trading, but as a result it does feel that a fundamental part of the CCG experience is missing, even if it’s one that rarely benefits the majority. On balance we should be grateful, given how Blizzard has avoided many other unpleasantries sometimes associated with some of the more ‘grass roots’ CCG competitions.
As light as it may be in some areas – and probably lacking in depth for the CCG grognards – Hearthstone is actually an incredibly generous game, almost to a fault. While most other free-to-play games hook you in with promises that you’ll never need to pay before suggesting that really you do, there’s virtually nothing in Hearthstone that requires gold to unlock. Quite the opposite, you may find buying new cards before you’ve mastered the ones that you already have likely to set you back more than just sheckles.
All of which makes us a little suspicious. Are we being suckered with the sweet stuff now, only to be hit with expensive expansions later? Perhaps, but we’ll revise our view if and when Blizzard introduces the CCG equivalent of WOW’s ‘Sparkle Pony’. For now, Hearthstone is very much a triumph, and with a mobile client rolling out there’s a sense that we’re at the beginning of a phenomenon rather than in the midst of one. Yet again, Blizzard seems to have played its cards absolutely right.