Blizzards new free-to-play collectible card game, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, is a game of questions. The most common and least significant of which is, ‘Is this the right play?’
Hearthstone faces the question of what it sets out to accomplish. Is it a free-to-play experiment? A fun time-waster for people already involved with Blizzard products meant to as an interesting side-project which might end up turning a profit and possibly even revitalise MMO subscriptions on a downward curve. Is it a serious collectible card game, trying to take on the biggest name in CCG’s, namely Magic the Gathering, at its own game? Or is it a cynical attempt to cash in on the popularity of microtransactions and rake in some extra cash off the back of the Warcraft franchise.
The answer (predictably) is that it’s all of these things. Luckily, if there’s a little confusion over the exact nature of Hearthstone there’s little confusion about the game’s mechanics. Hearthstone has pared down the normal CCG formula by removing the instant cards which can be played in the opponents turn and by removing land cards as a source of mana. You simply gain one maximum mana per turn and any mana you don’t use in each turn is wasted. Hearthstone is also lacking the distinct ‘phases’ of player turns, leaving players free to play cards and attack their opponents in any order they choose. Combining this with the strictly turn-based gameplay leaves the player with no confusion of what can be played when and gives the otherwise structureless mechanics an order to fall back upon.
New players are thrust straight into the heart of the gameplay with a series of tutorial battles, before you even reach a menu screen. These are perfectly crafted rigged games set up for the player to win, while teaching them the basic mechanics of the game. After the tutorial, players can unlock each of the nine decks, each named after an original World of Warcraft character class by winning a battle against them in practice mode.
Expert cards can only be obtained from additional card packs, bought either with in game gold, or real money. This is where Hearthstone has the potential to be a real money spinner for Blizzard. In game gold can be earned by completing a daily quest, which rewards 40 gold, or winning games in the arena, which costs real money or in game gold to enter. Daily quests stack up over three days, making it beneficial for players to play at least every third day. However, quests cannot be dropped once acquired, which can force players to play decks which they don’t enjoy.
Card packs cost 100 gold each or are roughly £1 per pack, with discounts for buying more packs at once and contain five expert cards, with at least one guaranteed rare card. This means that without spending any real money, you can gain about two packs per week, although if you’re anything like me, you’ll be wanting more. I’m not ashamed to admit that between card packs and arena entrance fee, I’ve probably burnt around £10 since gaining access to the Hearthstone Beta. Especially considering that in comparison to many others (TotalBiscuit) I’ve hardly spent anything.
Hearthstone also has a crafting mechanic to creating specific cards. Expert cards can be disenchanted for Arcane Dust, which can be used to create new cards. Obviously, cards require much more dust to create than they give upon disenchantment.
Like most Blizzard games it follows the mantra of, simple to learn, hard to master thanks mostly to the engaging tutorial. Each deck has a hero to represent it from the Warcraft universe, Thrall representing the Shaman deck, Jaina Proudmore the Mage deck, Uther Lightbringer the Paladin deck and so on. Each of these heroes has a unique power which can be used every turn at a cost of two mana, ensuring that no matter what cards you draw, every turn after the first you always have a move you can make.
Like all good card games, Hearthstone’s mechanics are simple enough that it only takes a game or two to pick up but the depth to which the system can be taken is clear even from the third or fourth game. And this depth becomes more apparent and compelling as you gain more cards and the number of choices available to the player expands, which encourage more gameplay which in turn rewards with more cards, and therefore, options.
These gameplay options come in the form of Hearthstone’s standard ‘Play’ in which players may select any of the 9 basic decks to play as, or use decks of their own. Players can choose to play in either ranked or unranked mode. Ranked mode allows players to advance through a series of leagues, beginning in One Star Bronze, progressing to two and three stars before their promotion into One Star Silver League and onwards in a similar fashion to StarCraft. However, you cannot view your progress towards the next star or league, and so it feels slightly like playing in the dark. Similarly, while it’s presented as a ‘league’ you cannot view your position in comparison to other players, instead, your ‘league’ badge feels more like an average of all the games you’ve played, and each loss leaves me in fear of dropping a league.
The other game mode is the Arena. The Arena costs either £1.49 or 150 gold to enter, and gives players a choice of three classes. You pick a class from the options and have a choice of three cards, and then another, and then another. In this way you build your 30 card deck, from selections of 3 cards which appear, if not random, then only slightly directed.
Once you have created your deck, players face other players in the arena until they have lost a total of three times. Arena games feel much more significant even than ranked league games, thanks to the arena entrance fee. Once players have lost three arena games with a specific deck, they receive a reward based on the number of wins they have accrued with that deck, including gold, Arcane Dust and even packs of Expert cards. This is the central premise of the arena, if you think you’re good enough, you can quickly accrue a lot of gold and cards, however, if you aren’t you can lose out.
The feel of Hearthstone is is like 90′s fashion. It looks like it’s not trying that hard, but it takes a lot of work to look that way. The game boards are all casually interactive, if you can see something you want to click on, you will likely be able to click it. While not directly manipulable, a lot of the elements can be fidgeted with while you wait for your turn to come back around.
A subtle decision in the sound design is the low level of background noise. There’s a looping track of the general hubbub and conversation playing under the game sounds and music. It gives the experience a very social feel, as though you’re playing cards with your friends in the pub. However, for a game which tries to be social, there aren’t very many social elements. If you right click on your hero, you can perform basic ‘emotes’ to your opponent, and as far as I can work out, there’s no way to add an opponent to your friends list, you need their character code, which you can’t get without them telling you, and with the limitations of the emote system, that’s impossible.
Another feature which is notable by its absence is any breakdown of statistics for certain decks. It would be very useful for players to be able to see, on a deck by deck basis, their win percentage, a breakdown of wins and losses against other decks, on what turn they lose or win etc. If players were able to engage with these statistics, it would go some way to encouraging players to be more active in what is arguably the most enjoyable part of the game, the deck building.
My advice for playing Hearthstone? Dive in headfirst and experiment with every set of new cards you get. Learn from your losses and build the best deck for you.
The first wave of Hearthstone closed beta invites were sent out on Friday, in typical Blizzard style, with no announcement whatsoever. Thankfully, although beta access remains closed for the time being, several prominent streamers including Sean ‘Day‘ Plott, Mike ‘Husky’ Lamond and John ‘TotalBiscuit’ Bain have spent time playing Hearthstone on air, giving us an insight into Blizzards latest work.
MechWarrior Online is one of a new breed of first-person shooters which have popped up over the last 18 months or so. It’s a mech shooter, and it’s been developed by Piranha Games and published by Infinite Games Publishing.
As is customary, drum and bass blares out under a montage of Sony’s best and brightest to kick things off. Seeing that the ceremonial rites have been observed and the all-mighty gods of internet hate-trains subdued, Jack Tretton CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America begins.
It’s clear from the start that Sony have come to send a message. It’s been widely felt that they won the early skirmishes of the console war with their February announcement. Now they feel they have to move in for the kill.
Admittedly though, things got off to a less than stellar start. Interesting, although by no means groundbreaking news of a new Walking Dead episode, 400 Days, releasing on Vita this summer, and Netflix and other video services were plugged briefly before moving on.
Even then however, the conference took its time to really get started. With Sony showing a rundown of upcoming PS3 titles, and while they are interesting, Beyond: Two Souls looking particularly curious if only for its lack of context or information, it felt a bit like Sony weren’t really trying.
It wasn’t helped by the follow-up announcements of Gran Turismo 6 (very pretty) and Arkham Origins (very Batman), albeit with two Playstation exclusive Batman skins.
The PS3 is set to get a new bundle released this September with GTA5 costing in the region of $300 and include a gaming headset.
But that’s when Sony decided to drop the first in a series of bombs which would stun everyone both at the conference and watching the livestream.
We got our first look at the PS4. If I had to describe it, it would be two sleek black monoliths doing something disgusting, but in an incredibly attractive way.
Sony made an effort to communicate that the PS4 will offer gamers content that has been ‘curated’ for them. Whilst that sounds nice, if a little creepy, it doesn’t offer much in the way of concrete information.
What we do know is that Sony’s Music and Video Unlimited services are here to stay, and that they will apparently be ‘better than ever’. Although I can’t imagine there were too many people who’s worlds were rocked by that announcement.
Next, on Sony’s list of offensives, games. Andrew House stressed that despite all the entertainment features, games are ‘where Sony’s passion lies’.
Shuhei Yoshida announced that Sony’s Worldwide Studios, the first party developer network Sony have set up, have over 30 PS4 titles in development right now, and that 20 are planning to launch in the first year of the PS4.
Of those 20, he said, 12 are brand new IP’s.
With that, we were introduced to the first new PS4 exclusive game announcement of the night. The Order 1886, developed by Ready At Dawn, this game looks to be a steampunk inspired fantasy game including werewolves, guns, possibly with squad or group elements. We don’t know much more about this one just yet.
We saw some footage of Driveclub, and Knack, both of which will be PS4 launch titles, and inFamous Second Sun, which will release Quarter 1 2014.
Sony have renewed their commitment to the Indie games scene as well, announcing a plethora of indie games which are coming to PSN. Rather than go into detail on each, I’ll provide a list here for your own browsing:
Following on from Indie games, we had the chance to see some of the blockbusters coming to Playstation in the coming year. Chief among which were Watch Dogs, Assassins Creed Black Flag, and Elder Scrolls Online. Another PS4 exclusive is the Elder Scrolls Online Open Beta, which will be online on PS4 first.
Even these announcements however, paled in comparison to what came next.
Jack Tretton announced that the PS4 will have no new restrictions on used games. Players will be free to trade their games in at retail, share them amongst themselves, or sell them to each other.
This news was received with rapturous applause and chants of “Sony! Sony! Sony!” from the audience.
Furthermore, PS4 games do not require an internet connection to play, nor does the console have an ‘often-on’ DRM. So the upshot is that you don’t need to connect regularly in order to play your games.
Playstation Plus is being extended to cover the PS4 as well as the Vita and PS3, and the current features will remain and possibly expand.
However, it’s not all good news. It turns out that you will require a Playstation Plus membership in order to access multiplayer content on the Playstation 4. Similar to Xbox Live. Although, with user satisfaction rates of 95%, it’s not really a bad thing to have regardless.
There were two more announcements to round out the conference. Although I’m not sure that anyone was expecting them to be as big as they were.
First off, we had a world first gameplay demo of Bungie’s new IP Destiny. And it looks awesome. The first thing which will strike you about Destiny is that it looks amazing. The environment design is fantastic and works perfectly as they MMO/FPS blend. The second thing is that it really does play very much like an MMO, monsters drop loot there are group quests, and public events which may require a lot of players to complete.
The final announcement of the night was one which nobody was expecting. Sony announced that the price of the PS4 would be $399, and £349. A full $100 cheaper than the competition.
Sony’s job tonight was to send a message. They had to turn to the gaming community, to the developers, to the gaming press and to the general public, and say, we can outperform Microsoft, and we will be the go-to console of this generation, in a similar way that Microsoft did with the original Xbox.
And without a shadow of a doubt, they achieved their goals tonight. They addressed all the concerns that people had with Microsoft, and improved on them.
To sum up:
Following up on my feature last week about hard games, I thought I’d review the head crushing depth of Crusader Kings 2.
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