I came so close to breaking one of my rules for Overwatch, I really did.
If you’re one of my esteemed long time readers you’ll know that I steer clear of betas and greenlight games. My reasons for this are twofold; firstly reviewing unfinished products feels like I’m doing a disservice to the game and to you, dear reader. Secondly I’ve ruined final releases of games for myself numerous times by playing betas but there is one exception to that rule: Blizzard games. I’ve been in numerous Blizzard betas and every time they’ve made me hungry for the full game. Overwatch was no exception to this and I very nearly did a full review based on the beta alone. It really is that good.
Overwatch takes place in the near future, some time after the resolution of the Omnic Crisis. This event took place after the Omnic artificial intelligence roused all robots around the world to rebel against humanity, causing war on a global scale. To combat this the Overwatch task force was formed, an elite group of soldiers who put an end to the uprising. For some time afterwards they stayed on as a peacekeeping force, ensuring that human and omnic alike could exist together in harmony. However rumours of corruption and foul play began to spread around Overwatch’s activities and they were eventually disbanded. However the time has come for them to band together again as the world needs them now more than ever.
Overwatch isn’t your typical low-poly aesthetic that Blizzard is known for, but you can definitely see and feel it’s influence on everything. The heavily stylised aesthetic is reminiscent of other team based shooters like Team Fortress 2 but retains Blizzard’s flair for colourful and vibrant environments. All of this comes to us via a new engine developed specifically for Overwatch, likely born out of the remnants of Blizzard’s cancelled next generation MMORPG: Titan. Indeed Overwatch carries with it the essence of what that game might have been with many of the levels and characters drawn directly from said game. It should be unsurprising then just how polished everything is; that Blizzard trademark of “only releasing when it’s done” aptly demonstrated here.
As I alluded to earlier Overwatch is a team based shooter, pitting you in a 6v6 fight against another team. Your team, if it’s well balanced, will be made up of 4 different kinds of characters (attack, defence, tank and support) chosen from 21 heroes that are available at launch. There’s only 2 types of game modes available currently: king of the hill, where you have to capture and hold a single point, and payload escort. You’ll gain profile levels as you play and each time you level up you’ll get a loot box filled with random cosmetics, voice lines and sprays that you can paint the level with. At its core Overwatch is astonishingly simple however the various combinations of heroes and maps means that game play stays fresh and challenging no matter how long you play for.
Combat is extremely slick, something which is likely unexpected given the fact that this is Blizzard’s first foray into the FPS genre. Each of the characters has a very unique personality with each of them handling very differently given their wide discrepancies in abilities. For the most though it sticks to the more traditional FPS tropes: main/alternate fire on weapons, non-regenerating health and a tendency towards more run and gun style play. This doesn’t mean it plays out the same way though as the various abilities each of the classes have make Overwatch feel anything but traditional.
There’s two key things to take into consideration whenever you start an Overwatch match: the map and the enemy team’s composition. Some maps play better to some characters than others: the big open ones favouring characters with better mobility whilst the tight, cramped ones favouring those who can surprise you with a lethal dose of damage. There’s also some maps that will favour heroes with, let’s call them “cheap”, ways of instantly killing you by knocking you off the edge or down a bottomless well. I honestly didn’t pay it much mind during the closed beta however playing with an organised group more in the final release has shown me just how impactful the map is on which heroes will work and which ones don’t.
Overwatch encourages you to swap heroes to meet the situation at hand and you should if things aren’t working out for you. Blizzard has been open about the fact that the heroes aren’t balanced with 1v1 encounters in mind and each hero has a rival that will completely counter them. So an Overwatch match is all about adaptability, meaning that if you want to win games you’ll have to be comfortable switching things up on a regular basis. For someone like me who enjoys playing all different kinds of heroes (although I do main support) this is a great thing and is what has kept me coming back time and time again. However I can see how that might irk some players who might be coming from other competitive FPS games as there’s no one class to rule them all. Still I think Blizzards approach is far more welcoming to all kinds of players, something that is reflected in the sheer volume of people that have flocked to play Overwatch.
My only gripe that I have with Overwatch is the relatively basic matchmaking system which could do with a few tweaks to make it a little better. Once you join match that’s going to be the team you’re stuck with until people leave. This is great if you’re with a bunch of great players who help you win, however if you’re on a losing team that’s not working together it’s not so enjoyable. This is where Blizzard could take a leaf out of other FPS’ books as shaking up the team composition every match would make for much fairer and streamlined game play. Of course you don’t have to stay with the same team but having to leave and rejoin after every match can be a little tiresome. Strangely Blizzard isn’t the only one to make this mistake with other big name titles like Star Wars Battlefront making similar errors in judgement. It’s a small gripe but one I hope to see fixed in the not too distant future.
When I first heard that Blizzard was making a team based shooter I wasn’t holding my breath for any sort of depth to the story however in true Blizzard fashion the backstory to Overwatch’s world is deep, engrossing and just begging to be explored. The character biographies, the incredibly well done short films and the comics all build up a world that’s so much bigger than what’s explored in game. It really does make me ache for what Titan could have been as the story, and the characters Blizzard has built out of it, are some of the most interesting and deep that I’ve ever come across in this kind of game. I’m hopeful that Blizzard will keep exploring this world as the game progresses and, should the Warcraft movie commercial success be anything to go by, we could hopefully see it bridge out into other media as well.
Overwatch is everything I’ve come to expect from a Blizzard game and so much more. Whilst I may pine for what may have been with Titan what was born out of its ashes is nothing short of incredible, demonstrating Blizzard’s dedication to quality games that are, above all, fun. The unique and varied classes, combined with the handful of maps, might not seem like much on the surface but in combination they provide near infinite amounts of replayability. The game is polished to the high standards Blizzard has set with all its previous titles, something which was clear even early on in the closed beta. However what clinches it all for me is the story that is woven in the background, something which I dearly hope Blizzard continues to explore. Overwatch has, for me, set the bar for what a competitive shooter should look like and I’m excited to see how it evolves.
Overwatch is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $99.95 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with approximately 10 hours played in the closed beta and 10 hours in the final release.
As a long time Protoss player I can’t tell you the disappointment I initially felt when I heard that they’d be the last race in the StarCraft II trilogy. After the amazing experience I had with Wings of Liberty (and subsequently Heart of the Swarm) however I was far happier; knowing that having the Protoss bring about the ultimate conclusion of this near 2 decade long franchise. Whilst I may have snoozed on the actual release date, meaning my collector’s edition trilogy will have to be completed with a trip to eBay, I’ve since spent a good chunk of time with Legacy of the Void and I’m glad to say many of my expectations have been met.
Legacy of the Void takes place some time after the events of Heart of the Swarm with Zeratul following the trail of the Xel’Naga prophecy. His quest has led him to the home world of the Tal’Darim, a brutal race of Protoss loyal to the dark lord Amon. Upon destroying the void catalyst, a crystal which allowed the Tal’Darim to commune with their dark lord, he is shown a vision of Tassadar who instructs him to retrieve the Xel’Naga keystone. With this information he returns to Artanis who is beginning the raid to retake his home world of Aiur. Zeratul warns him against this however the young Executor proceeds anyway, playing right into Amon’s hands.
It might just be the fact that I’ve upgraded my PC significantly since I last played a game of StarCraft but Legacy of the Void is an absolutely stellar looking game. For the most part the in-game graphics appear to be largely the same, possibly a little more textured, but the graphics outside that are just stunning. Blizzard’s trademark lower poly, highly stylized aesthetic is in strong force here, done so well that their in-game engine cutscenes feel on par for many pre-rendered scenes in other games. This does come at a cost however and even my relatively beastly machine started to struggle when I hit 200/200 supply and started moving my deathball across the map. The game ready drivers from Nvidia did improve this noticeably however, something I had been neglecting to update for far too long.
Once again the core game of Legacy of the Void is the trademark RTS game play, putting you in control of vast armies which you’ll be using to slay countless hordes of enemies. You’ve got your regular build your base and throw your army at the enemy style maps whilst others are focused on small teams or more strategic ones that focus on hero units. The unit upgrade system makes a return, allowing you to choose from 3 different factions which imbue a unit with additional powers and abilities or grant you an entirely new unit to build. The real difference in Legacy of the Void however comes in the form of the Spear of Adun, your arkship which can be upgraded with all sorts of abilities that will aid you in combat. Overall it’s the kind of game we’ve come to expect from Blizzard, exactly what all of us fans were wanting from them.
I’ll have to admit I struggled at the start to get engaged with Legacy of the Void as the missions (and the story, more on that later) just simply failed to grab me like the last 2 instalments did. I think this is partly because at the beginning there’s not a whole lot going on and you spend a decent amount of time building up your cast of characters that will join you along the way. Past a certain point though it’s easy to lose long periods of time, the missions flowing into each other seamlessly and the desire to get more solarite (to upgrade the Spear of Adun) forcing you to try and retry missions to get it right. Towards the end though things start to drag a bit and I think this is probably Legacy of the Void’s biggest flaw for me.
Unlike the previous 2 instalments (and this may just be me looking back on them with rose coloured glasses) Legacy of the Void doesn’t provide the same kind of rewarding challenge at higher difficulties. Indeed there are many missions where higher difficulties (and I did test this) just means more enemies, like any one of the “protect your ally’s base” missions. In those particular missions it doesn’t feel like you’re being challenged so much as worn down by near insurmountable odds, forcing you to cheese encounters or, if you’re just done with a particular encounter, cheat. Since I’ve always played on hard and found the challenge rewarding it was odd to feel this way with Legacy of the Void but it was definitely one of those things which soured my experience towards the end.
The Spear of Adun upgrade system is great, allowing you to select a variety of abilities and passive bonuses that you can use during the missions. For the economy focused missions things like the chrono warp (1000% faster building/upgrading) are amazing whilst others, like the warp in reinforcements ability, make resource constrained maps a breeze. It’s definitely not a one size fits all kind of upgrade system as you’ll be trading off between other potentially valuable upgrades. The encounters are built around you actively using the abilities however so whilst the benefits are awesome it does add another layer of complexity onto this already intense game.
You’ll be making similar trade offs for your unit choices as, whilst some of them are noticeably more effective than others, sometimes the situation will call for a switch. The Zealots, for example, are typically best placed to be upgraded with the stun however there are numerous AOE situations where the others are better suited. The one unit which I don’t think has an equal among the other choices was the Havoc as extended range and +30% damage is just impossible to beat. Other than that though I found myself often switching between different combinations for whatever the mission called for. This is most certainly a departure from the previous 2 instalments which had a very clear “best” option for pretty much everything. It shows that Blizzard has put a lot of effort into making all the choices viable which makes for a far more interesting single player experience.
As I mentioned before the story takes some time to get on its feet, mostly because it’s introducing a lot more plot elements which aren’t exactly interesting when you’re first playing through. However they start to rapidly build on each other as the game progresses and there are some really enthralling moments both in and out of the missions. Whilst they kind of reveal the ending early on in the campaign it’s still interesting to follow it along to its ultimate conclusion. Indeed it’s something I still feel like I’m processing as this is the conclusion of a story that’s been running for almost 20 years. Thankfully though it finishes well, not leaving any loose ends that scream sequel. I’m sure we’ll see more in the StarCraft universe as time goes on though.
StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void is a brilliant conclusion to the story of Blizzard’s flagship RTS, bringing with it the kind of polished experience that they’re famous for. The game play is exactly how you’d expect it to be with the RTS experience just oozing polish at every corner. The upgrade system, along with the Spear of Adun, are great additions to the game, adding another layer of variety and choice that allows you to play out each mission in incredibly unique ways. The story may take its time finding its feet but once it does it ramps up quickly to an ultimate conclusion that’s predictable but enjoyable all the same. It’s always bittersweet seeing a long story arc like this come to its final conclusion but I can say wholeheartedly that I enjoyed the journey that brought me here.
StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void is available on PC right now for $54.95. Total play time was approximately 15 hours with 46% of the achievements unlocked.
Last week I wrote about how Blizzard has been working to revamp itself over the past few years with new games that didn’t follow it’s traditional business model. Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm are both wild successes that followed the free to play model and many were wondering when their other titles would follow suit. Indeed it was assumed by everyone that the upcoming team shooter title, Overwatch, was likely going to follow the F2P trend. However at BlizzCon over the weekend Blizzard made the stunning announcement that for the US$40 asking price you’d get access to all the heroes and maps. Plans for future heroes and other content were less clear however and this sent the vocal Internet minority into a tail spin.
There were numerous interviews floating around where Blizzard employees were pressed about the future of the game and what content they could expect. On the subject of heroes they typically stated that there weren’t any current plans and there would definitely not be any additional heroes at launch. This led everyone to speculate that there were plans to release more heroes in the future and that it’d likely be something that players would have to shell out for. This was concerning due to Overwatch’s emphasis on reactive play, switching up your hero class to counter the enemy’s tactics, which would break if some heroes were locked away behind a paywall. Whilst I’ll admit that the last point is accurate it makes an assumption which I don’t believe to be true.
That Blizzard knows exactly where Overwatch is headed.
As I’ve mentioned before, and which has been mostly confirmed by numerous other sources, Overwatch is the bits and pieces that Blizzard was able to salvage from the failed Project Titan MMORPG. The cancellation of that project occurred in September last year and Overwatched was announced only a few months later in November at Blizzcon 2014. Now here we are, 1 year later, and the game has a solid release date and a closed beta that just got started. Essentially Blizzard has gone from having almost nothing to a fully fledged title ready for release in a year so the project is still very much in the nascent stages, especially by Blizzard standards. To think that they’ve got the whole future of the game mapped out is a huge assumption as Blizzard has likely spent the last year getting the functional, let alone thinking about where they want to take it.
When you also consider the fact that this will be Blizzard’s first FPS title you can see why they’d be a little cagey on what their future plans are. They have a wealth of experience in the MMORPG and RTS genres but little beyond that. Whilst they’ve been successful in some of their recent endeavours there’s a trail of failed ideas behind them which never met the light of day. It’s entirely possible that they’ve been so heavily focused on getting the initial game right that the future runway has been left undefined for the time being. One thing Blizzard has shown a talent for (and I’m ignoring some of the larger issues with Hearthstone for this comment, I know) is reacting to how its community plays its games. My money is on the fact that they’re going to wait until after launch to gauge where everything is at and then, at that point, they’ll see how they want to grow Overwatch further.
Even at that point however I sincerely doubt that Blizzard would break the game in the many severe ways that fans are describing now. The auction house debacle of Diablo III taught them a valuable lesson in how breaking core game mechanics ruins the experience for many and I doubt they’ll look to repeat that with a fresh IP. The good news is that Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director, has gone on record stating that Overwatch won’t be adopting a Heroes of the Storm type model. Whilst this has done little to quell the vocal swell it does reaffirm my position and should give everyone hope that Blizzard is committed to the Overwatch business model as it stands today.
World of Warcraft stands out as an exception in the MMORPG world. Where nearly all other titles have either faltered or drastically altered their business models in order to survive World of Warcraft has remained steadfast to its subscription based system. This has made it the most successful MMORPG ever, making it a multi-billion dollar business all of its own. However its heydays are long behind it, with subscriber numbers slowly dwindling over the years. The more regular release of expansions have helped to keep the number up somewhat but the downward trend was still easily noticeable. Blizzard, obviously aware of this, has decided to stop reporting subscriber numbers altogether after their last quarterly report yesterday.
The last subscriber count pegs World of Warcraft’s player count at about 5.5 million, the lowest it’s been in 10 years. Whilst that number might sound like the first rattles of World of Warcraft’s death knell it’s likely anything but as many long time MMORPGs have survived on much smaller subscription numbers. For Blizzard it does present a challenge as dwindling numbers can often have a runaway effect; reaching a critical point where the majority of the playerbase abandons the title for greener pastures. That point is probably still some time away and indeed if the last subscriber peak (from the last expansion) is repeatable then I see no reason for World of Warcraft to go away any time soon. However the change in what (Activision) Blizzard communicates, as well as their recent purchase of King, is indicative of some of the other issues the company is facing in their attempt to stay relevant.
It was around this time that Blizzard was planning to announce their next MMORPG based on an entirely new IP. This was known internally as Project Titan, a name which got more than a few people fired when it was made public. Unfortunately the game simply didn’t work in the way it was originally envisioned and it was scrapped late last year. Whilst Overwatch may have arisen out of its remnants it meant that many who were looking towards Blizzard’s next MMORPG were left wanting and thus began to look elsewhere. Had project Titan been released around this time the demise of World of Warcraft might have been fully sealed but it would have been a greater win for the company overall.
This has led many to call for World of Warcraft to change their subscription model to be more inline with current trend of switching to free-to-play. To be sure the transition can be made as The Old Republic and other titles have shown however there’s little incentive for Blizzard to do so when their monthly revenue rate is still in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Until they’re really hurting for numbers, and I mean really hurting, such a transition would likely devastate their revenues to the point where World of Warcraft wasn’t sustainable. However I think Activision Blizzard recognises this as a potential possibility and that’s where the acquisition of King comes into play.
King, for those who don’t know, are the developers behind the incredibly successful Candy Crush saga. Activision Blizzard is paying a cool $5.9 billion for the company which isn’t a bad deal if their current profit rate of $127 million per quarter is anything to go by. They are undoubtedly one of the leaders in the free-to-play model and there’s every chance they’re buying them with a view to revamp the business models for some of their products. This isn’t limited to Blizzard titles of course, but the timing of the two announcements certainly makes it feel like they might be related.
This definitely feels like a pivot point for Activision Blizzard as they muse through their options for future growth. There’s definitely a trend for their newer IPs to be done differently to those of the past and how Overwatch is positioned will be strongly telling of how they see game development in the future. Right now it points to a free-to-play future, one that could very well make its way into already established IPs. If any company can make the transition work, and work well, it’s Activision Blizzard but no change of this magnitude is without risk.
Logging into my World of Warcraft account is always a mix of feelings for me. On the one hand I have so many great memories, forging friendships with people and just enjoying the enormous amount of content that was on offer. It wasn’t all roses however and thinking back (and looking at some of the screenshots) it’s painfully obvious just how much growing up I needed to do. Today World of Warcraft is no longer a major part of my life, instead it’s something that I enjoy from time to time, reveling in the Warcraft world and trying my hand at the latest raids. Indeed the World of Warcraft of today feels like it’s catered towards people like me and the improvements in Warlords of Draenor continue that theme.
Garrosh Hellscream’s thirst for power has no bounds which culminated in him releasing the Sha of Pride upon the lands of Pandaria. This led to the Horde and Alliance joining forces to overthrow him in the Siege of Orgrimmar which eventually led to his capture. However before he could be sent to trial he was rescued by a bronze dragon, Kairozdormu, who shared in his ambition for power and control. The dragon then sent him back in time to before the orcs drank the blood of Mannoroth, preventing the blood curse. He then united the disparate clans under the banner of the Iron Horde and set out to conquer all of Draenor. It is up to you, dear champion, to stop this madness before it unwrites the history of the world and Garrosh’s madness spreads beyond the lands of Draenor.
Warlords of Draenor feels about the same from a graphical point of view, mostly due to the short difference in time between this expansion and it’s predecessor, however they did make some noticeable improvements to the base character models. It’s a welcome change as those models, whilst looking great in 2004, had started to show their age 10 years on. Apart from that though everything is at about the same level although it seems like the default draw distance has been ramped up significantly (with little impact to performance, I might add). Still it’s hard to get tired of Blizzard’s trademark style with the vibrant colours and wonderful stylization.
Much of the core gameplay remains the same as it did from previous expansions with the classes remaining largely the same with a few tweaks and balance changes. Warlords of Draenor continues on the quality of life improvements that came as part of Cataclysm, ensuring that everything from questing to running dungeons is simple and free of frustrations. The biggest change is the inclusion of the Garrison, your own private town in which you’ll have a multitude of buildings and resources that you can use to craft items or sell on the auction house. The Garrison also brings with it followers which are NPCs that you can send on various missions to level them up, acquire loot and provide resources for your garrison. Overall long time World of Warcraft players will feel instantly at home with Warlords of Draenor and be incredibly thankful for the improvements that Blizzard has made.
Unlike previous expansions, where upon logging in I was greeted with action bars missing numerous skills and dozens of alerts on what I should be doing, Warlords of Draenor kept the character classes largely the same. I’m speaking from the point of view of my paladin, of course, although my cursory look at other classes seems to show they underwent about the same amount of changes as use paladins did. This meant that I was able to get into the game much quicker than I have been able to previously, my muscle memory (and keybinds) still carrying over from my last stint in WoW early last year. It’s both a good and a bad thing as whilst I’d lament having to figure out how to play my character again it is kind of satisfying when I feel like I’ve mastered it again. Still, I’ll take quality of life over many other things these days.
The Garrison is by far my favourite improvement in Warlords of Draenor as it takes away so many of the things that made playing World of Warcraft feel like a chore rather than a game. You have your very own mine, herb garden and fishing pond which you can plunder on a daily basis for resources. You get to select a handful of buildings which do various things, some of which enable you to do things like craft items without having the profession. It also serves as an alternative route to gearing up your character as there are several different buildings which can provide raid quality gear. It also comes with its own currency, Garrison Resources, which whilst primarily aimed at buying buildings and sending followers on missions, can serve as an alternative means to acquiring resources and other things. For the semi-casual players like myself who can’t dedicate a good portion of their lives to the game anymore the Garrison serves as a way of levelling the playing field, although the hard core still have ways of getting ahead.
The flip side of this though means that, should you have the resources to power yourself ahead, you likely won’t be able to. Nearly all of the resources required to craft high end gear or grant you access to epic gear avenues are on strict timers that can’t be rushed. Thus the time your account is active is a far bigger player in how far you’ll progress your character than time you spend in the game, at least for us filthy casuals. For someone like me who sometimes finds himself with a decent chunk of time on his hands to thrash things out like this it’s a little frustrating, but at least it means that I don’t feel compelled to spend that amount of time every day trying to advance my character.
I deliberately avoided playing the game at launch as I was sure that, even 10 years down the line, Blizzard would still be unable to deal with the onslaught that is an expansion release. For the most part my experience has been extremely pleasant with nary a queue to speak of unless I try to login between 8pm and 9pm. Even then the queue, which I’ve seen reach 1000, is usually done and dusted within 15 minutes so no issue there. There are still some quests which bug out or have incorrect minimap icons, which can be highly frustrating at the time, however out of the hundreds I completed I could probably count the number of broken ones on both hands. By this point though it’s somewhat cliche to praise Blizzard for their ability to deliver a polished product as that’s their MO for every single title they’ve released in the last 2 decades.
The story of Warlords of Draenor is an interesting one, although as someone who skipped the later parts of Mists of Pandaria I did have to do a little reading to catch up on just what the hell was going on. Like most Blizzard games the world has an exceptional amount of detail however it peters out quite quickly once you’re not talking to any of the main characters. The main story is quite interesting however although there just wasn’t quite enough to draw me into it. Then again this isn’t exactly a story-first kind of game so I wasn’t exactly looking for it either. Overall I’d say the story was serviceable, just lacking in an emotional hook to draw me in.
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor demonstrates how well Blizzard knows their subscribers, vastly improving your quality of life when playing through their signature MMORPG. Players returning from a long time break will find the game familiar enough to get a running start but different enough that they don’t feel like they’re playing the same game from a couple years ago. The Garrison is the stand out improvement of this expansion, introducing dozens of new game elements whilst removing much of the grind that is common to MMORPGs. I have yet to set foot in a heroic or the recently opened up LFR for Highmaul however, something which I’m sure will keep me going over the next few months. In closing I feel that Warlords of Draenor is a solid improvement on the World of Warcraft title, one that even decade long players like myself can readily enjoy.
World of Warcarft: Warlords of Draenor is available on PC right now for $54.95. Total game time was approximately 33 hours reaching level 100 and iLvl 617.
My introduction into the world of trading card games began almost 2 decades ago when a friend of mine gave me my very first deck of Magic: The Gathering cards. I didn’t wholly understand the mechanics at the time but I can remember it being a great way to pass the time whilst waiting for the bus to pick me up from school which was an hour away from anywhere. The interest faded in high school, that solitary deck sitting on my shelves for a number of years before it was opened up again. Today I’m more of a filthy MTG casual, attending a draft every so often and playing when my friends and I get together. In that regard then Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft would seem to be right up my alley as it’s almost entirely centered around casual play.
Hearthstone is a free to play card game that uses the vast wealth of lore within Warcraft as inspiration for the cards, abilities and character classes that make up the core game. Long time Blizzard fans will notice familiar names popping up, from the big names of Warcraft lore to the lowly mobs that you might only encounter once when levelling a character in World of Warcraft. The mechanics are simple to understand, especially considering that they’re rigorously enforced by the game rather than you having to remember every rule yourself. Of course the initial simplicity belies the complexity inherent in the various mechanics and wider metagame, making it quite a challenge to master.
Blizzard’s signature low poly work makes its appearance yet again in Hearthstone as whilst it would appear to be a 2D game on the surface it’s actually more akin to the 2.5D adventure games of old. The table you play on is littered with little 3D elements like a zeppelin drifting listlessly around its tether point. Unlike many other digital trading card games though Hearthstone employs a variety of visual effects for creature abilities, spells and almost everything else making it quite an interesting experience visually. It’s not so heavy that you won’t be able to run it as I’ve heard the iPad version works well even on the generation 2 devices, albeit with a little stutter here and there.
Mechanically Hearthstone will familiar enough to most trading card game fans that it can be picked up very quickly although there are some notable differences that change the way a typical game plays out. For starters you don’t have mana/land cards in your hand, instead every turn you’re granted a number of mana crystals that you can use to cast your cards. This means that the pace of the game is rigorously controlled and that no game can really be decided until turn 4 or 5. Additionally you’ll play as one of many character classes, all of which have access to an unique ability as well as a set of cards that other classes do not. So whilst on the surface the Warlock’s ability of being able to pay 2, sacrifice 2 life to draw a card as many times as they want seems overpowered it’s in fact not as their library of cards is designed with that in mind.
The practice matches, ones done against the AI, are a good way to get familiar with the way that the classes play and how best to counter them. The AI, as in most games, can get a little predictable at times, favouring offing your creatures before they try and target you. This often leads them to make incredibly bad trades against some of the stronger cards putting you in a much better position than you otherwise would be if you were facing off against a human. Still even after a dozen or so games (mostly to unlock the characters) I did manage to find myself losing if I made a mistake or didn’t play my strengths against their weaknesses, a common thread that will continue on through competitive play.
Talking over Hearthstones matchmaking with some of my friends who’d just started playing it had shown that the experience was somewhat lacklustre, with many of the people they faced off with often having cards that they simply couldn’t get access to for a long time. Indeed when I first started playing I found much the same thing which was made even worse when I gave the arena a go. However I think this is predominately a function of the default decks being completely crap than anything else as once I found some basic decks online, ones that could be constructed without spending a single dollar, I found I was able to win matches much more consistently. Sure there were times I’d come up against legendary cards that I found incredibly hard to deal with but at least with a non-default deck I had tools to manage them.
The free to play nature though does mean that you’ll either spend an inordinate amount of time grinding out levels and gold to get the cards you want or you’ll have to pony up for some card packs. Now I don’t begrudge Blizzard for doing this, it’s their prerogative to make money off the games they create after all, however it meant that the time required to build up another class to the level I wanted to play it at was a little prohibitive. Some of the more advanced decks did look like a lot of fun but honestly I didn’t really like the idea of spending a good chunk of change just to give them a whirl. Of course I know this has gone the other way for many players as building your way up to that can be just as enjoyable as levelling a new character.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a fun trading card game, taking many elements of its various physical counterparts and wrapping it up with mechanics that are uniquely Blizzard. For those of us who’ve played trading card games before the mechanics will familiar yet different enough to provide some interest and the healthy competitive scene means there’s always bigger and better things to strive for. It’s free to play nature was what lost my interest after a while as I wasn’t particularly keen to invest my cash in getting better cards but considering the number of other players around I get the feeling I might be the odd one out here. For fans of trading card games and the Warcraft universe alike Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is definitely worth a look in.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is available right now on PC and iPad. Total play time was approximately 8 hours.
I was never particularly good at RTS games, mostly because I never dug deep into the mechanics or got involved in higher level strategies that would have enabled me to progress my sills. However I found a lot of joy in the custom maps that many RTS games had and this was especially so for WarCraft 3. Inbetween my bouts of Elemental Tower Defense, Footman Frenzy and X Hero Siege I inevitably came across Defense of the Ancients and like many others became hooked on it. Whilst I still favoured the less directly competitive maps, much preferring the spam fest that other customs offered, the original laid the foundation for my current obsession with DOTA2 a game which has claimed almost 1400 hours of my life so far.
However DOTA2 wasn’t my first reintroduction into the MOBA scene, that honour goes to Heroes of Newerth which I was somewhat intrigued by whilst it was still in beta. I had a small cadre of friends who liked to play it as well but for some reason it just wasn’t enough to keep us interested and eventually fell by the wayside. The same crew and I had tried League of Legends as well but the experience was just too far away from the DOTA we knew and after a couple games our attention was turned elsewhere. If I’m honest though we were mostly excited to hear about Blizzard’s own version of the MOBA genre as that was one of the reasons that WarCraft 3 DOTA was so enjoyable: it had many of the characters we knew and loved.
It was looking like Blizzard DOTA and DOTA2 were going to launch around similar times and indeed once Valve officially announced DOTA2, with the original map maker IceFrog at the helm, news of the work on Blizzard DOTA went silent. Whilst this was partially due to the court battle that Blizzard and Valve became embroiled in afterwards there was little doubt among the community that Blizzard’s original vision for their MOBA title was going to clash heavily with that of Valve and the work we had seen up until that date was to be scrapped. What was less clear however was what they were working on instead as whilst no one doubts the calibre of Blizzard’s work they were going up against 3 already highly polished products, all of which had dedicated communities behind them.
Well it seems that Blizzard has done something completely out of left field, and it looks awesome.
Heroes of the Storm is the final name of Blizzard’s entrance into the MOBA genre (although they’re hesitating to use that term currently) and whilst it shares some base characteristics with other titles it’s really something out of left field. For starters the typical game is slated to last only 20 minutes, something which is a downright rarity in any other MOBA title. Additionally some of the signature mechanics, like individual hero levels and items, don’t exist in the Heroes of the Storm world. It also has different maps, various mechanics for helping a team achieve victory and a talent tree system for heroes that’s unlike any other MOBA I’ve played before. The differences are so vast that I’d recommend you take a look at this post on Wowhead as it goes into the real nitty gritty of what makes it so unique.
From what I’ve seen it looks like Blizzard is aiming Heroes of the Storm primarily at people who aren’t currently MOBA players as it seems like the barrier to entry on this is quite low. Traditionally this is what has turned people off playing such titles as the learning curve is quite steep and quite frankly the communities have never been too welcoming to newer players. Heroes of the Storm on the other hand could be played 3 times in the space of an hour allowing new players to get up to speed much more quickly. At the same time though I think it will appeal to current MOBA players seeking a different experience, whether they’re feeling burn out on their title of choice or just want something different every once in a while.
I’m quite keen to get my hands on it (I’ve signed up for the beta, here) as I think it’ll be quite a bit of fun, especially with my current group of friends who’ve all taken to DOTA2 with fervour. It’s great to hear that it’s going to be a stand alone title rather than a map within StarCraft 2 and I think that will give Blizzard a lot of freedom with developing the idea in the future. Whether or not it can have the same longevity through a competitive scene like all MOBA titles before it thought will remain to be seen but I get the feeling it’ll be something of a LAN favourite for a while to come.
Long time readers will know that Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty has long held the crown for the highest rated game here on The Refined Geek. It’s not an undeserved title either as they managed to capture in my attention in a way few games have been able to and indeed only one (DOTA 2) has been able to do so since. From the start I knew it was set to be a trilogy carving the game up into 3 separate installments each of which would focus on a single race. Heart of the Swarm, the second game in the Starcraft II trilogy, continues the story started in Wings of Liberty and as the name implies focuses primarily on the Zerg race.
Heart of the Swarm picks up not too long after the final events that take place in Wings of Liberty. Kerrigan has been locked away in a test facility run by prince Valerian who is eager to see how much control she retains over the Zerg. Shortly after the final test is complete (which had resulted in Kerrigan using the Zerg to destroy much of the test facility) Dominion forces attack, forcing them to evacuate. However in the confusion Raynor is unfortunately left behind and Kerrigan refuses to leave without him. After waiting for him to contact her she reads a news report that he was captured and summarily executed, causing Kerrigan to swear brutal vengeance against Mengsk yet again.
As always Blizzard has delivered an incredibly beautiful game, one that will run well on nearly any system built within the past 4 years. Whilst the in-game graphics haven’t changed significantly, apart from higher-resolution textures and better lighting (which you could say is significant, I guess), the whole game feels a heck of a lot more polished. The in-between mission cut scenes, dialog sequences and cinematics have all seen improvements which are very obvious when comparing them side by side.
From a core game perspective Heart of the Swarm doesn’t change much with the standard real time strategy mechanics applying throughout the game. However like Wings of Liberty not every mission is simply a build army, send at enemy, rise and repeat deal with most of the missions being rather unique in their implementation. Of course there are your standard base/army building type missions however most of them have an unique twist to them which can make them more complicated or provide opportunities to make them far easier, should you be willing to take the risk.
Whilst this might not be too different from Wings of Liberty (although individually the missions are all very different) the levels do seem to be better designed as I can remember struggling to get into the campaign in the original whilst it didn’t take me long to get hooked on Heart of the Swarm. Indeed since all the missions are so varied and unique I rarely found myself becoming bored with them. This ended up with me engaging in a rather ravenous binge on missions which only stopped when I realised I was playing on into the early hours of the morning. That hasn’t happened to me in a while and is a real testament to the quality of each mission in Heart of the Swarm.
Outside of the core missions you’ll be given the opportunity to upgrade your units, giving them unique abilities that will make them far more effective in game. There’s 2 types of upgrades that will be available for all of your units, the first being a choice of 3 different types of specializations which you can change at any time. The second is a permanent change to the unit itself giving it either additional abilities (like the Raptor Zergling pictured about which can now leap at targets and jump up cliffs) or giving it an evolutionary path (like the Hydralisk being able to evolve into a lurker). Thankfully you’re not making this decision blind as all of the permanent evolutions come alongside a mission that gives you a feel for how the new unit will behave and where it will be effective.
For long time Starcraft players the upgrade paths have a pretty obvious “best” path as certain combinations become almost completely unstoppable. Sure each of them is viable in their own sense and some choices are better than others in some situations however my initial combination of frenzied hydras with roaches that slowed was enough to melt most armies without too much hassle. Once I got respawning ultralisks it was pretty much game over for any large army as they couldn’t kill them quick enough and all their precious siege defences just melted away, leaving the rest of their army vulnerable.
Wings of Liberty included some hero units but apart from the basic in game upgrades (which were only available during base building missions) there wasn’t much you could do to customize them. Heart of the Swarm often gives you direct control over Kerrigan and her list of abilities is quite impressive. The good thing about this is you can craft her to fit your playstyle effectively as you can play her as a big spell nuker, tanky siege destoryer or 1 woman army that can take out bases without the assistance of any other units. On the flip side however this can make it feel like your army is just like an accessory for Kerrigan, something that’s nice but not necessarily required.
For me I went with a tanky building that favoured direct attacks over spells. Her attacks would chain and she would attack faster with each subsequent attack which would allow her to melt armies in no short order. Couple that with a spammable healing ability and she was for the most part invincible and should she get into trouble I could simply walk her out of there whilst healing her every 8 seconds. It did seem somewhat unfair at times as since the heal was AOE I could keep my army going far longer than it should have been able to normally which usually meant once I hit 200/200 I rarely found myself building any further units. I get that she’s supposed to be an immensely powerful being but she does take some of the challenge out of it. Maybe it’s different on brutal (I played on hard, for what its worth).
Although there were no bugs to report, even with the streaming which I thought would cause all manner of strife, there were a couple issues that marred my experience in Heaert of the Swarm. Whilst the out of mission upgrades were good they were often choices between upgrades that were available in multiplayer games. As someone who played Zerg back in Wings of Liberty (well, I randomed for a long time so I played all races) I often found myself missing some upgrades that overcome the inherit weaknesses of particular units. The removal of larva injects also didn’t sit particularly well for me as that was an in-grained habit and its removal relegated the queens to creep tumour/heal bots which, after a certain point in the game, relegated them to units I’d only build when I was running low on larva. These aren’t systemic issues with the game per se, but they definitely detracted from my experience.
Warning: plot spoilers below.
I also can’t praise the story as highly as I did back with Wings of Liberty as Kerrigan starts off strong but quickly degenerates into a character with confused emotions who makes decisions that don’t make a whole bunch of sense. This might be because the over-arching plot is somewhat predictable (the twist about Raynor for instance) and when her motivations don’t line up with the direction you think they’d be going in it just feels…weird. I did like the nods to previous unresolved plot threads from the original Starcraft series (if you can’t figure out who Narud is then your head is on backwards, hint hint) as Wings of Liberty only half alluded to them. The foreshadowing for the final instalment has got me excited for what’s to come however, even if the story might end up being not much more than your generic sci-fi action movie.
Plot spoilers over.
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is a solid follow up to Wings of Liberty providing a highly polished game experience that is par for the course for Blizzard games. All of the missions feel unique, banishing the usual RTS campaign drudgery and creating an experience that is both challenging and satisfying. Unfortunately I can’t rate it as highly as its predecessor as my many hours in multiplayer set up expectations which would probably never be met and the strange treatment of Kerrigan as a central character marred an otherwise great experience. Still these are comparatively minor nit picks in a game that drew me in and trapped me for hours and I would do it again willingly.
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is available on PC right now for $48. Game was played on hard with around 12 hours of total play time and 35% of the achievements unlocked.
The defacto platform of choice for any gamer used to be the Microsoft Windows based PC however the last decade has seen that change to be some form of console. Today, whilst we’re seeing something of a resurgence in the PC market thanks in part to some good releases this year and ageing console hardware, PCs are somewhere on the order take about 5% of the video game market. If we then extrapolate from there using the fact that only about 1~2% of the PC market is Linux (although this number could be higher if restricted to gamers) then you can see why many companies have ignored it for so long, it just doesn’t make financial sense to get into it. However there’s been a few recent announcements that shows there’s an increasing amount of attention being paid to this ultra-niche and that makes for some interesting speculation.
Gaming on Linux has always been an exercise in frustration, usually due to the Windows-centric nature of the gaming industry. Back in the day Linux suffered from a lack of good driver support for modern graphics cards and this made it nearly impossible to get games running on there at an acceptable level. Once that was sorted out (whether you count binary blobs as “sorted” is up to you) there was still the issue that most games were simply not coded for Linux leaving their users with very few options. Many chose to run their games through WINE or Cedega which actually works quite well, especially for popular titles, but many where still left wanting for titles that would run natively. The Humble Indie Bundle has gone a long way to getting developers working on Linux but it’s still something of a poor cousin to the Windows Platform.
Late last year saw Valve open up beta access to Steam on Linux bringing with it some 50 odd titles to the platform. It came as little surprise that they did this considering that they did the same thing with OSX just over 2 years ago which was undoubtedly a success for them. I haven’t really heard much on it since then, mostly because none of my gamer friends run Linux, but there’s evidence to suggest that it’s going pretty well as Valve is making further bets on Linux. As it turns out their upcoming Steam Box will be running some form of Linux under the hood:
Valve’s engineer talked about their labs and that they want to change the “frustrating lack of innovation in the area of computer hardware”. He also mentioned a console launch in 2013 and that it will specifically use Linux and not Windows. Furthermore he said that Valve’s labs will reveal yet another new hardware in 2013, most likely rumored controllers and VR equipment but we can expect some new exciting stuff.
I’ll be honest and say that I really didn’t expect this even with all the bellyaching people have been doing about Windows 8. You see whilst being able to brag about 55 titles being on the platform already that’s only 2% of their current catalogue. You could argue that emulation is good enough now that all the titles could be made available through the use of WINE which is a possibility but Valve doesn’t offer that option with OSX currently so it’s unlikely to happen. Realistically unless the current developers have intentions to do a Linux release now the release of the Steam Box/Steam on Linux isn’t going to be enough to tempt them to do it, especially if they’ve already recovered their costs from PC sales.
That being said all it might take is one industry heavyweight to put their weight behind Linux to start a cascade of others doing the same. As it turns out Blizzard is doing just that with one of their titles slated for a Linux release some time this year. Blizzard has a long history with cross platform releases as they were one of the few companies to do releases for Mac OS decades ago and they’ve stated many times that they have a Linux World of Warcraft client that they’ve shied away from releasing due to support concerns. Releasing an official client for one of their games on Linux will be their way of verifying whether its worth it for them to continue doing so and should it prove successful it could be the shot in the arm that Linux needs to become a viable platform for games developers to target.
Does this mean that I’ll be switching over? Probably not as I’m a Microsoft guy at heart and I know my current platform too well to just drop it for something else (even though I do have a lot of experience with Linux). I’m very interested to see how the Steam Box is going to be positioned as it being Linux changes the idea I had in my head for it and makes Valve’s previous comments about them all the more intriguing. Whilst 2013 might not be a blockbuster year for Linux gaming it is shaping up to be the turning point where it starts to become viable.
It’s scary just how much of my World of Warcraft life mirrored that of your run-of-the-mill addict. At the start everything was good: all my friends were playing and we were all having a blast, whiling away our youth in the fantastical land of Azeroth. Then people started to leave, the ones who couldn’t spare the time at first but as the month went on the nomenclature changed from “I just stopped to playing” to “I’m out” or “I’ve been clean for 2 weeks now!”. Indeed in the years that have followed since my hey days where I was spending 1 day (total play time) out of every 6 in World of Warcraft I’ve found myself relapsing and going back to it whenever an expansion comes out. Strangely enough though whilst the attraction to go back is strong it seems I’m becoming better at saying no.
I kind of missed everything in the Burning Crusade as that was when I found myself destitute, languishing without a guild and without a group of friends I wanted to play with. However Wrath of the Lich King saw me return with meteoric fury, flush with a new group of friends I made through work I lovingly plunged dozens of hours back into the game. It wasn’t the same as the height of my addiction days but then again I had much less time on my hands than I did before so on a relative scale it was probably pretty close. However the same cycle of people leaving and going clean happened again and eventually I found myself leaving the world once again.
I returned for the latest expansion, Cataclysm, for a while and even made my way into some of the high level raids thanks to having some contacts in the right places. However this time around I didn’t last that long before the magic wore off and I realised how long it would take for me to gear up a character to the level I wanted. I haven’t gone back since then as my dedication to reviewing one game per week (only 1 week missed so far!) has overridden any desire I might have had to while away my time in that familiar crack den.
This is a feeling that I believe is shared by many long time World of Warcraft players who have been with the franchise since day 1. It’s hard to believe it but release day was almost 8 years ago and those fresh faced teenagers who started out with this game are now adults with all the fun responsibilities that come along with it. Thus it is not surprising that for the first time in 4 years World of Warcraft’s subscriber base has declined to 9 million. Whilst this is very likely to see a major bump come Mists of Pandaria time they’ve been on the downward slope for a while and that makes you wonder what the future holds for this iconic game.
Ever since I first heard about the latest upcoming expansion I heard in tandem that it was slated to be the last expansion with World of Warcraft bowing out to the upcoming secret MMO dubbed Project Titan. It made sense as the writing appeared to be on the wall with subscriber counts but it seems that Blizzard intends to keep World of Warcraft going for much longer with the expansion pack to follow Mists of Pandaria already in production. Whilst that might seem crazy if you compare the numbers on other MMOs that are widely believed to be successful you can see that Blizzard could easily keep the franchise going with 10~20% of the numbers they have now. Depending on how well Mists of Pandaria does at stemming the attrition rate it may take the release of Project Titan to see the end to World of Warcraft. Even then it might take a year or two before the subscriber count hits danger territory for Blizzard.
I’ve long relegated myself to coming back and playing through each expansion that comes out mostly because the levelling experience, especially since Cataclysm, is one I very much enjoy. I’ll definitely be back for the expansion when it comes out late next month but as for me becoming a long time subscriber again? I can’t see that happening any time soon. In fact I’m not sure that any MMORPG will be able to captivate me in the same way as World of Warcraft did back in the day and from what I can tell I’m not alone in this feeling. Still the nostalgia feeling will be enough to swell their ranks for a time and that may be all Blizzard is looking for.