Saturday, December 21, 2013

Hearthstone: Closed Beta Impressions

Recently, Blizzard admitted a swathe of new players to the Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft closed beta and I was fortunate enough to get an access code! Rather than keep everything to myself, I figured I would give some of my impressions of the game before it gets opened to everyone early next year. Two caveats to keep in mind as you read: First, the game is still in beta phases so any design feature I mention are subject to change and second, I have only had a few days with the game so my impressions are not complete and don’t necessarily represent a high level mastery.

I have always been a fan of collectible card games. I had a pretty decent collection of Magic cards when I was in middle school but stopped playing as an increasing homework load and lack of disposable cash prevented me from keeping up with each new set. I fondly remember opening packs and scoring a rare card being almost as much fun as playing the game itself. Hearthstone does its best to capture this feeling and generally succeeds. That said, there is one major drawback to playing CCGs digitally, you don’t actually own the physical cards. Losing out on the sensory pleasure of opening a pack with that ‘new card smell’ and sifting through a friend’s collection in an afternoon of high stakes trading is a deal-breaker for some people. If you are in this minority and can’t live without the physical collection, you will probably never be sold on the concept of digital CCGs. For everyone else, Hearthstone represents a pretty fun, if simplistic, experience that is well worth checking out.

What is immediately evident with Hearthstone is the trademark Blizzard polish. Menus are slick, animations and art are top notch, and small bits of flavour are sprinkled everywhere. From the solid voice acting to small details such as a flying gryphon on the outskirts of the playing board, everything demonstrates the attention and love that has made Blizzard one of the most respected developers around. The game also does a pretty good job of porting Warcraft mythos to a new genre. While not crucial to enjoying the game, Hearthstone offers a lot of fan service with numerous inside references and plenty of tongue-in-cheek quips that are sure to delight. Compared to the other major digital CCGs on the market (namely Duel of Champions), Hearthstone’s presentation is in a different league and sets the bar somewhere in the stratosphere.

Where Hearthstone falls flat, however, is the actual gameplay. It’s not bad, but borrows heavily from Magic and doesn’t make the most of the digital format. This medium means that menial tasks such as tracking counters and resources can be simplified for players allowing for a focus on higher level strategy. Unfortunately, a single escalating resource stock and few genuinely unique card abilities suggest that Hearthstone could just as easily be played as a physical game. Accentuating the shallow depth is a card collection that clearly favours monster heavy decks and an intentional resource curve that ensures rush-type and spell-heavy strategies are stifled. While it’s cool that matches last more than a few minutes and generally see an end game with high-cost heavy hitting creatures on the board, I don’t like that you are mostly railroaded into this style of play. I feel that CCG veterans won’t find enough here to scratch their strategic itch but more casual players will feel comfortable with the simplified approach.

Blizzard will be launching an open beta for Hearthstone in early 2014 and has opted for a free-to-play model. The cash shop is currently active and prices are competitive (around £1 for a pack of 5 cards). While decks stacked with rare cards will invariably have an easier time at winning, a behind the scenes rating system should ensure that players with insane collections won’t be squared off too often with new players. Also, the implementation of a sealed deck format (a tournament with randomly assigned cards) means that players can duel others on a level playing field. At the price of free, giving the game a try is no-brainer; whether the basic gameplay will be enough to keep you hooked remains to be seen.

Note: This article will be appearing on StudentCom in January 2014. It appears here in draft form.