I thought I was through with Azeroth when I canceled my World of Warcraft subscription years ago. They’ve pulled me back in -- but now I’m just hanging out at the tavern, playing cards.
It may seem odd for Blizzard, the makers of the world’s biggest subscription-based MMORPG, to downshift to what seems a relatively small-scale, even trifling effort. There’s no vast open world here, no mighty armies contending, no graphical razzle-dazzle or epic storyline. There’s just a virtual tabletop with some collectible cards laid out in a turn-based, one-on-one competition.
Not to worry: there’s a method to Blizzard’s madness. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft brings the illustrious developer into the much-maligned free-to-play market, but in the best way.
The gameplay is reminiscent of Richard Garfield’s classic Magic: The Gathering, which inaugurated the modern era of collectible card games in 1993. You use a finite resource -- mana -- to play cards out of your hand, summoning creatures and casting spells to battle your opponent. As with Magic and most other CCG’s, you are able to construct your own deck from a large pool of available cards. Much of the real fun comes in this deck construction, and in combining different cards’ powers to attain unexpected and devastating effects.
There are some notable differences between Hearthstone and Magic, apart from the Warcraft theme. Where Magic made use of specific ‘land’ cards in your deck to generate mana, Hearthstone simply uses the game clock: each player gets one mana the first turn, two the second, three the third, and so on, up to a limit of ten. It’s an elegant solution that lets you put nothing but fun, interesting cards into your actual deck.
Also, Hearthstone includes no cards which can be played during the opponent’s turn: it’s completely turn-based, in contrast to Magic, which allows complex ‘interrupt’ effects to be played. Hearthstone’s approach simplifies the game mechanics, eliminating the quick-reaction timing and complex rules-lawyering that can make Magic stressful for the uninitiated.
Once you start heading down the rabbit hole of Hearthstone’s strategy, you’ll find plenty to sink your teeth into. There are eight classes, each with its own lineup of unique cards, as well as a larger collection of ‘neutral’ cards that can be put in any deck. Thanks to subtle variations in design, the classes feel genuinely distinct. Want to play aggressively, using direct-damage spells to burn down your opponent? Play a Mage. Want to exercise control, using spells like ‘sap’ and ‘assassinate’ to clear the board while you line up stealthed minions for a sneak attack? The Rogue’s got you covered.
In the many months that it’s been in beta, Hearthstone has already amassed a huge community of players who have attained dizzying levels of skill. This can be intimidating, but it’s also encouraging: there’s a wealth of online material to help you hone your game, from Blizzard’s own official forums and various fan sites to Twitch TV, which features an endless parade of live-streaming games from top players. The tools are out there to get as good as you want. Or, via a friends network integrated into Blizzard’s Battle.net system, you can just take out your aggression on your buddies.
Hearthstone costs nothing to download, but you can spend cash to buy extra cards and extra chances at a special ‘Arena’ mode. For a free-to-play game, it’s handled about as well as I’ve seen. You can use in-game currency (gold) to buy cards, but it can take a while to amass enough of it to afford a new pack. Impatient players will reach for their wallets, but for most of us, the gold trickles in just fast enough to keep things interesting. I’ve been playing for months and have had a blast without dropping a cent (or getting any gold codes from Blizzard, who really didn’t have to file that restraining order).
The game has all the surface polish you’d expect from a Blizzard game. Everything about the interface -- from picking up cards to designating targets for spell effects -- feels solid and subtly reactive. The artwork is charming and the sound effects are peppered with clever callbacks to previous Warcraft games (bonus points if you remember where the ‘Job’s done!’ notification comes from). While there are occasional bugs like hovering cards, garbled text, and mysterious purple squares, such glitches are rare and seem less frequent now than they were in beta.
On the downside, it’s disappointing that Hearthstone doesn’t come with a beefier single-player experience. All you get is a series of quasi-tutorial matches in which you’re introduced to the game mechanics. Some sort of a campaign, stringing things along with a nominal storyline and cutscenes, might have helped draw players into the game more effectively. It’s also unfortunate that Battle.net’s notorious weekly server maintenance is still present, making it usually impossible to play Hearthstone on Tuesday mornings. I know, I know: it’s all part of keeping a good online infrastructure. It’s still annoying.
These gripes are pretty minor when set against the sheer quality of Hearthstone’s design, and the fact that, y’know, it’s completely free. And for those of you asking, ‘why have you only just published a review of a game that officially launched a week ago?’ I can only say this: I would have finished it sooner, but I was too busy playing Hearthstone. Don’t tell my boss.
What’s hot: Typical Blizzard polish; Deep strategy; free-to-play that’s actually fun even if you don’t put down money
What’s not: No single-player campaign; Tuesday morning downtime