What a wonderful week Blizzard Entertainment and I have shared together. The eagerly-awaited Blizzcon is in full swing, and with e-ticket in e-hand it's been an excellent opportunity to reconnect with existing Blizzard franchises, as well as get to know some new ones: enter Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a free-to-play Collectible Card Game (CCG) born straight out of the Warcraft universe.
Though still in closed beta, the game is already garnering something of a following, and should certainly be on your list of up-and-comers to pay attention to over the coming months...
First, and perhaps foremost, Hearthstone is a CCG, and players of the Pokémon trading card game, Magic: The Gathering and others in the genre (including the recently discontinued Warcraft trading card game) should feel right at home with the broad brushstrokes of the gameplay. What I would say Blizzard has most improved upon these with Hearthstone is in its refinement and accessibility. Deck building is intuitive and enjoyable; the game even helps point inexperienced players in the right direction by suggesting fitting cards for their decks. Decks contain only 30 cards - half of that of the related games in the genre. Resources in the game have been condensed into one particular source - "mana" - which accumulates at a more or less constant rate. This helps to focus a player's attention onto what Blizzard is really interested in- the cards. Of these there are hundreds. Players choose one of nine heroes, each of which comes with their own unique abilities and unlockable card sets, with a much larger 'general' set available for all heroes to draw from too. This element of the game is highly rewarding: witnessing your opponent's minions crumble to a combination of cards you had put together for just such a purpose is immensely satisfying.
A good tutorial is often indicative of a good game, and Hearthstone is no exception. In a series of introductory 1v1 matches against AI opponents, you are gradually, almost seamlessly eased into the experience as abilities, features and creatures are unveiled and explained. After that, the player is more or less left to their own devices to explore the multitude of game features at their disposal. The main game modes are match-making and the Arena, for custom decks and random ones respectively. Besides that, players are free to hone their skills against the AI (highly recommended), open up booster packs of cards unlocked through purchases at the store, or through the accumulation of coins in play.
Visually, Hearthstone is not going to disappoint. The UI is highly polished, with a rich colour palette full of bold hues, and chunky, almost cartoonish visuals reminiscent not just of World of Warcraft, but of earlier titles in the series, such as Warcraft 3. All the small details. from card and hero artwork to the movement of menu items as you hover over them, have been put together with masterful care and attention, and it all helps to pull you in to what for me is the most remarkable thing about this title - the wonderful, unadulterated, gleeful atmosphere it creates. Cards land on the table with a resounding thud - the bigger the card, the better the thud - and the rest of the effects are equally satisfying. The table is quite interactive, with catapults, towers, griffons and all other manner of paraphernalia there to keep you occupied while your opponent conjures up their next machination. It's all very Blizzard, and it's all very Warcraft, too; creatures, spells, heroes and lore have all been painstakingly injected into the veins of Hearthstone to keep you very much in the world of Azeroth, with the one caveat that it is very much its own beast, too. The entertaining introductory cinematic, tongue-in-cheek loading bars and good-natured feel of this game help draw you into something quite unique indeed.
Don't be mislead by Hearthstone's cutesy visuals and easy-to-hop-into exterior; they belie a devilishly complex and strategically rich underbelly. Players of equal skill go head-to-head, with the objective being to smash the opponent's hero by reducing their life to zero from a starting value of thirty. As each turn passes, players draw cards and perform actions using their pool of "mana", which increments and replenishes with every turn. Cards come in a number of different forms: minions will do your bidding, possessing health and attack values as per the norm, along with a gamut of abilities of their own, such as taunts for the tankier cards, or battlecry abilities performed when their card is played. Next, spell cards can be played to rend the table asunder, or turn your enemy's most powerful card into a sheep (never gets old), and all manner of weapons can be equipped to your hero, enabling them to join in the fray too. Secret cards may be hidden, and come into play upon certain opponent actions being performed: one particular favourite of mine reduces your opponent's next minion's health to 1 as soon as they play it. Mana increases by one each turn up to ten, improving a hero's opportunities to play more and better cards with every passing turn. This lends every match an exhilarating sense of crescendo building throughout it, and when the truly special plays come out towards the end, often a very rewarding finale too.
I'll come right out and say this: Hearthstone is very, very addictive, in all the right ways. It is, therefore, quite tempting to splurge a great deal of cash on new packs of adorable critters and spells in the hopes of stumbling upon a legendary spell, axe or monster that slots perfectly into your deck, but there is equally great enjoyment to be had in grinding away at the game itself, thanks to its rewarding one-more-game compulsiveness. I am a little concerned at how the store's functionality may affect the game's balance, but the general rarity of deck-making cards and the dedication required to obtain them and use them well will in theory ward off people looking to just buy their way into the higher echelons, where a burgeoning competitive scene and twitch.tv community have already sprang up.
Blizzard are looking to make Hearthstone as ubiquitous as possible too, with it already running on OS X and Windows, and iOS and Android versions announced this weekend. Interestingly, the game is launched from the new Battle.net desktop app, which is itself in beta and provides a Steam-esque launching platform for Blizzard titles. Just remember, if you are attending BlizzCon, e-attending or simply catching up on the post-con gossip, keep your ear to the ground for Hearthstone alongside the old classics, because I think it's going to be something special.