Hearthstone Beta Review

Written on December 31, 2013 – 5:36 pm by Ding

The Hearthstone Beta review

Initially Hearthstone comes across as a shameless copy of Magic: The Gathering. Of course, Magic: The Gathering is an excellent game marred only by the fact that your friends are smarter than you, know which cards go together perfectly, and don’t keep getting distracted and filling their decks with low-health creatures. I may only be speaking for myself there of course.

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I was ready to write off Hearthstone as Magic: The Copying and call it a day but there’s just something about Blizzard’s level of polish that makes that quite hard to do. Four hours later I had fully filed my nails down with my teeth and had both feet tucked up onto my chair as the last few points hung in the balance between my confused Paladin (he didn’t know why his cards were all low-health creatures) and a suicidal Warlock constantly hurting himself to get better cards whilst I ineffectually poked him with a town guard.

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a Blizzard Entertainment project that looks to be lining its cross-hairs on the lucrative (I initially typed ludicrous and I’m not sure I was right to correct it) free-to-play market. It is a digital collectible card game whereby players collect cards, build decks out of those cards, and then battle each other with those decks. You unlock cards by levelling up or earning gold through the game, or by putting your credit card details down to buy more of them directly.

If you like collectible card games, you’re probably going to like Hearthstone. As mentioned before, it is incredibly similar to the ur CCG, Magic: The Gathering, but with enough differences and additions to carry itself forward. That said, if you are like me and you prefer your cards to be, well, actual cards and you rather like the tactile quality of placing bits of cardboard on top of each other and holding cards in your hand as you glare down and opponent sat across from you, then actually, you’ll probably still like Hearthstone.

It comes down to the almost trademark level of polish that Blizzard tends to reserve for its games. Playing these digital pieces of card feels just real enough that there is a phantom of that satisfaction of real-life card gaming. Even when it comes to opening booster packs, you have to drag the pack and click on it to open it up and then turn each of the cards over individually, a process which really captures the muted thrill of opening a booster pack of cards in real life. The additional effects over the top of that including fireballs, ice darts, quakes, shakes and general clashes further enhances the experience in a way that a video game has the advantage and everything fits into place perfectly.

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The aesthetic is therefore near flawless, from Blizzard’s art style which I’m a huge fan of despite its occasional pulpy nature, through to its audio design and smaller bits of flare that go mostly unnoticed by most gamers. The fear then is that the mechanics are wonky or broken. With nine unique classes each with its own set of 20 class-specific cards and access to a much larger pool of neutral cards, there are bound to be some game breaking combinations that have yet to truly surface and the developers have a truly difficult task in keeping the community happy on this one. As Hearthstone is still in closed beta with an open beta scheduled to start in January, there are numerous fixes, tweaks, nerfs and general shifting around as you would expect but it is hard to find any truly unpleasant-feeling card combinations. There are a few clever synergies which get a raised eyebrow from time-to-time but nothing that feels cheap.

The balancing issue of a CCG is always going to be complicated, and the asymmetry inherent between two players with vastly differing amounts of time and money put into one of these things is almost the thing that sustains such a creation. However, even on a starter deck fresh out of the tutorial stages, you don’t feel outmatched, partly because the game throws you in with people of equal level. Something that Blizzard got down to a fine art in Starcraft 2 was its ability to match players up with those of similar skill levels, and that matchmaking algorithm seems hard at work here too.

By any standard, Hearthstone is an excellent game, incredibly well polished, incredibly replayable and difficult not to recommend. For any fans of strategy or CCGs in general, it is definitely something worth looking in to the second the open beta launches.

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If this were a piece I was selling to someone, I’d probably put an 8/10 on it here and go back and flesh out some of those details above and talk about character powers, the coin, the incremental mana building system, or maybe just the vaguely irritating chat system which lets you semi-spam a set of pre-recorded voice-acted messages at your opponent (creating a potential meta game for seeing how often you can sarcastically say “thanks” each time someone attacks you and seeing just how much of a prat you can make your paladin sound). Ultimately, what I’m saying here is that this is the review over. That’s my verdict. If you were looking for a recommendation, take it and go.  This is my blog though so I’m going to carry on for a bit with a small problem I have with the game.

I do not actually like Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.

The Hearthstone Beta rant

Hearthstone is very well made. I even enjoy playing it once I’m sat down in the middle of a match.  That doesn’t mean I like the game. I suppose its similar to me saying I might enjoy a McDonalds from time to time, but I certainly wouldn’t go as far as to say I like McDonalds. What I am trying to say is I shall not be travelling to the Hearthstone Facebook page and clicking Like.

I could complain about how I’m not fond of deck building (any decks I used to build with Magic: The Gathering only ever ran on pure luck) but deck building is relatively painless. I could also complain a bit more that I think it’s a shame that this is still confined in the trappings of a card game when I could just be placing actual monsters onto the table instead of cards of monsters, but as mentioned, it feels tactile enough that it sort of gets away with it. Instead, there is something at work here which I’m disappointed by and this disappointment is what ultimately means I will not declare any particular like for the title.

When I play Hearthstone I am filled with regret for what could have been, by what I was wishing for and by what I sincerely hope will happen.

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I wrote about Hearthstone’s existence when it was first announced as part of my regular work at Bit-Tech. It was heralded by Blizzard mostly as an iOS and Android mobile free-to-play title. At this point, the card-game trappings make a lot more sense as iPad-like tablets have huge potential as virtual board-gaming devices, but like most gamers, the phrase “free-to-play mobile title” sends a little involuntary shiver down my spine.

That shiver is by no means an entirely justified shiver mind you and there are some very talented and very hard-working developers working in that space. There’s also a fair few hacks but aren’t there always. I have played plenty of free-to-play mobile titles that have entertained me and some have even made me think they were half-way decent games. However, even the best of them tended to be shallow distractions that could only barely be described as a game. I dearly loved Pocket Trains for the five days I kept up with it, but it didn’t exactly have deep mechanics.

Hearthstone is by no means a Farm-Story-Ville monstrosity with the obligatory “come back in 12 hours to harvest your cow-fruits or maybe buy these magic bean-gems and we’ll just forget about the whole half-a-day-wait-to-play-this-game-thing (by the way would you like to rate us as five stars and download another six of our games?)”  messages, but it is a free-to-play title on a mobile device, ordinarily translating as free as long as you can put up with being reminded that you’re not paying, or more charitably as demo mode.

Free-to-play is not always bad and it has its place, especially in the hostile and competitive market that we have in today’s gaming industry, but for mobile it is so often considered the norm. Here’s what I’m unhappy about with Hearthstone: If anyone could have made selling a solid mobile experience for a flat fee financially viable, it would have been Blizzard.

I’m disappointed that not only do I not get to play a compelling and enjoyable mobile title, but that so many people out there who are being introduced to video games for the first time through their mobile devices are being funnelled into Jewel-Saga-Story-Quest-Ville and being told to go away for five minutes whilst their game recharges unless they keep pouring money into it. I’m sad that business decisions everywhere are being made to keep pushing this sort of destructive rubbish in favour of something more entertaining because that’s what the precedent says and that’s where the numbers take you. It’s not their fault of course, they probably can’t afford the risk and they don’t know that it will work. Those who have taken the risk and made something decent are rarely praised for it and certainly aren’t about to float for any IPOs. Blizzard could have done this though. Blizzard could have made some positive numbers for others to follow. Blizzard could have introduced quality gaming on a new generation of players stumbling into the medium bleary eyed from mind-numbing rounds of office-based Solitaire. From a business and conversion point of few I’m sure they could have probably brought some of those gamers into the wider Battle.net eco-system without resorting to the free-to-play mobile crutch.

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I know I’m being unfair by the way, and maybe it is now unnecessary anyway. Since 2K and Firaxis took a bold decision and released XCOM: Enemy Unknown was launched onto the iPad this year as a largely unchanged version of the excellent PC and console strategy game of the same name and that did very well, maybe there might be a few more games like this making their way to mobile platforms soon. It sold for around £6 and it has done brilliantly. That is a solid and compelling gaming experience on an iPad that works incredibly well, and I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting more like that. Blizzard could have been doing this too. There was a business interest for them to get into mobile, they worked on a mobile-based project and they could have lent their clout to this remarkably ill stocked niche of decent mobile games.

There are other full games on mobile devices, but mostly they are gimmicks, marketing efforts or done purely because they could as opposed to should. It was exciting to see Grand Theft Auto 3 load up on my iPad but disappointing to realise it was utterly unplayable. It would be remiss of me not to mention that a lot of indie devs also bring their titles to Android and iOS, although I’m yet to play one that truly feels comparable to its PC counterpart.

Blizzard could have brought us a compelling, polished and enjoyable gaming experience for mobile devices, but instead they have brought us a digital card game where you can buy booster packs with real money. That it is a very well made digital card game is a step in the right direction, but I just find it a shame. All the learnings the company has from its real time strategy library, from World of Warcraft and from the Diablo series and it has led to digital Magic: The Gathering.

None of what I have said on this matter is fair and a lot of it is the very worst kind of entitlement, but I’d argue that is probably a good sign on Blizzard, because they make me believe that they can do better than this. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft comes highly recommended and is interesting and enjoyable. A lot of love and effort has gone into its creation and it truly is worthy of the Blizzard seal of quality. It’s a shadow of what the studio can do and possibly a wasted opportunity on mobile.

I don’t like Hearthstone. I will probably keep playing Hearthstone.

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