Friday, July 25, 2014

Poison Prices - Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas Impressions

Just before Hearthstone launched, I offered my limited impressions of the closed beta. In retrospect, I was probably a bit too harsh as I chastised the game for not making enough use of the digital medium to facilitate actions that would be too cumbersome with a physical card game. I chalk my criticism up to a lack of experience with Hearthstone (something I admitted could be a factor in my early impressions) as, in reality, many of the card mechanics do make decent use of the platform. Now, several months later with much more play time invested, Blizzard is launching the first expansion to Hearthstone - Curse of Naxxramas - is it worth your time?

As I alluded to in the introduction, I didn't really give enough credit to Blizzard in my initial impressions for creating a card game with sufficient complexity to attract serious players. While I feel I sold Hearthstone short, I also feel that, overall, the game is fairly rudimentary compared to others on the market (ex. Duel of Champions). There is ostensibly plenty of variety to cards and strategies but I find that, at higher levels, matches resolve in favor of lucky draws just as often as solid deck design - a sentiment exemplified by the plethora of one-turn-kill miracle combo decks that are employed.  This doesn't mean that the game isn't fun, but rather that it can occasionally feel lacking in the strategic nuance department. The arena, a mode that pits randomly constructed decks against each other, probably demands the best knowledge of card interactions and counters to be successful and tends to produce the most interesting matches. All-in-all, I recommend giving Hearthstone a try to anyone is interested in collectible card games (and the Warcraft lore) but feel that other games on offer may be more appealing to hardcore strategists.

With the above in mind, I was hoping that the Curse of Naxxramas expansion was going to provide a major reshuffling of the meta game. To be released over the next few weeks in stages, the first set of cards and challenges are available for free for a limited time. The new cards that are focused with on-death effects offer an interesting new substyle of deck but aren't sufficient to shut down the most annoying of one-turn-kill strategies. Consequently, the expansion is unlikely to attract players back long-term who have already given up. Aside from the new cards, the expansion offers eight single-player challenges to test your mettle. Five of these challenges can be summed as an introduction to the new cards and the average player will be able to plow through these in less than an hour. The remaining three 'heroic' challenges offer match-ups that are heavily weighted in the AI's favor through decks stacked with overpowered abilities and beefy health pools. Perseverance and a well constructed deck can overcome these challenges but I found victory to be unsatisfying. I would have rather had the difficulty of the heroic match ups be a factor of cunning deck construction rather than an obviously tilted playing field but I understand that creating an AI capable of truly outsmarting a human is next to impossible.

While the new cards and challenges are a welcome addition to Hearthstone, assuming that the rest of the content will take the same format as the first wing, the price of admission is too steep for what you are getting - $6.99 per wing or $19.99 for all five. A handful of new cards and a few one-off matches doesn't feel like a massive expansion but rather a simple DLC pack that should be running about half of the current price. Blizzard is probably justifying the price tag by stating that each wing can be bought with in game currency but 700 gold takes a fair amount of time to accumulate for the average player (especially when you consider this gold is usually spent for admission to the lucrative arena). Personally, I find the pricing to be egregious enough to negate any sort of pull I may have had to pick up the game again.

Curse of Naxxramas will probably be an easy purchase for long-time fans and active players of Hearthstone who will want the newest cards to complete their collections. Everyone else will probably think twice before paying an absurdly high price. Blizzard is probably aware of this and must be comfortable with the size of their active player base to not feel the need to attract players back. Either that or they are completely out of touch with what most consumers consider value for money.