|Dev: Blizzard Entertainment|
|Pub: Blizzard Entertainment|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Alcohol Reference, Blood, Fantasy Violence, Mild Suggestive Themes|
by Sean Engemann
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft was born from a small team at Blizzard with a vision. This skeleton crew of avid collectable card gamers and expert game crafters were given the job of putting together an online card game that was accessible, engaging and simple to play yet full of strategy. I'll admit, as a casual Magic: The Gathering player, I immediately saw some gameplay similarities when I dove into the open beta, but I was quick to dismiss Hearthstone as simply a watered down version of Wizards of the Coast's venerable series.
The tutorial sets you up quickly with the flow of the gameplay. You start with a few cards in your hand and a single mana point to spend. Each card has an attack and health value, and some have special abilities, such as charging to allow an immediate attack upon being played or taunting to impose that minion be attacked by an opposing player. There are also spell cards that can do damage, heal, buff, or debuff. Your mana is replenished at the beginning of each turn with a new point added, up to a maximum of ten (there are no land cards to worry about).
Players exchange turns and blows in quick succession. There's no tapping cards, countering after segments of a turn, or choosing who to block. This streamlined format furnishes Hearthstone with one of its greatest assets – speed. With a rapidly growing mana pool and less than a minute to complete a turn, you could easily finish a game in under ten minutes.
This does not mean, however, that Hearthstone is lax in strategy. Deck building requires a keen grasp of card compatibility. With thirty cards in total, choosing which cards will complement each other will have you practicing against both the AI and human opponents in casual matches until you find that winning combination. There's still a fair measure of luck in the draw of the cards, but choosing which cards to play and in what order is what separates the greenhorns from the veterans. Fortunately, both casual and ranked battles against other players are chosen via the game's match-making system that keeps the skill levels on par.
The Arena is the other game mode, which uses a draft system to create a deck. You then use that deck to wins as many matches as possible (up to twelve) before being handed three losses, with the reward increasing based on your success. Booster packs and Arcane Dust are two of the spoils you could inherit, with the former increasing your pool of cards to customize decks, and the latter being the component used to craft new cards.
Both Arena entry and booster packs can be purchased with real money, but nothing in the game requires a monetary purchase, and no modes are locked to those who wish for a completely free-to-play experience. Daily quests award you in-game gold, just one of the ways Hearthstone beckons you to log on every day. Leveling up your heroes to unlock class exclusive cards and climbing the leaderboard in ranked games are a couple more reasons to return.
But the main reason I keep coming back (and will long after I've finished this preview), is the style that has been added by incorporating the Warcraft trademark. The art design is pure World of Warcraft, with its vivid color palette and cartoonish design. Booster packs burst open, minions (and heroes) are shattered, and magic effects pop to the front of the screen so vigorously that you'd have to convince me that my monitor isn't 3D. Even better than the visuals are the sounds. All the heroes taunt with flare, cards are slammed down on the table, and everything explodes when destroyed ensuring a bombardment of audible delight. Small touches like gasps and cheers from the unseen audience around the table, and the human peasant voice declaring, "Job's done" when there is nothing left for you to do all help keep the mood light.
The team at Blizzard had the gameplay for Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft and much of the interface completed for awhile now. Much of the closed beta was then used to iron out the balance of the near four-hundred cards in an attempt to keep the game from being exploited. Now in the open beta, it's all about the polish, though the game is ready to go live in my estimation. There's work to be done on coding it for tablets and smartphones, as well as cross-platform play, but I believe Blizzard has a firm grasp on the market. The game is easy to pick up for a quick ten-minute match, but addictive enough for long marathons. The rewards are enticing, and the presentation just makes you smile. With a free-to-play model with restrictions, Hearthstone may just turn the tables in Blizzard's favor in the arena of collectible card gaming. We'll see.
Date: February 3, 2014