Spotlight: Hearthstone

Blizzard are such an established feature of the PC gaming landscape that it’s strange to think back on when this was not the case. There was a time, after all, when they were the plucky young development studio behind puzzle/platform game The Lost Vikings (1992). Then they released Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, an early real-time strategy game which offered one major innovation over Westwood’s Dune 2: you could select more than one unit at a time.

Zip forward to the end of the 90s and Blizzard were well-established in the then-mighty RTS genre, thanks to Warcraft II and scifi variant StarCraft. They also found the time to create Diablo, a game which came to define the action RPG much as StarCraft came to define the esports RTS.

And then in 2004 there was World of Warcraft, a game famous around the world for Mr. T’s Night Elf Mohawk. Oh, and also defining the MMORPG. And making Blizzard more money than several small countries combined.

There’s a lot to be said about Blizzard, but one thing that is for sure is that they only release games when they feel they’re ready, that they are obsessive about quality control and doing things right, and they’re very focused on their fanbase. So when they announced that they were going to be releasing a combat card game title for the PC, you can bet that Wizards of the Coast – the company behind Magic the Gathering – sat up and took note. Blizzard had already produced what were arguably the world’s leading RTS, action RPG and MMORPG titles. Were they about to do the same for the CCG?

Hearthstone 01

This opponent tore me apart, but used the in-game communications system to commend my defence. It was a nice touch.

I bet you hate me for the tease, but I’m not really in a position to answer that question. Sorry!

In truth I’ve never played too many CCGs and it’d be misleading of me to try and provide a definitive answer. I’ve dabbled in CCGs, sure: some friends dragged me along to a few Star Wars CCG tournaments as a teenager, where I always lost, and a few other friends and I briefly played Magic before realising we had no property to remortgage to afford more cards. I’ve also played the Magic games on the PC and Xbox over the years, plus other CCG-hybrid efforts such as the bizarre use of the Panzer General IP on the 360, or the faltering Guardians of Graxia. I ever read some of the Magic novels before my taste in literature was able to tap more mana.

But I’ve never gone deep into the hobby, not deep enough to really talk with authority about the mechanics and balance and deck-building and competitive play, and all the other stuff that’s really important when it comes to CCGs.

What I can tell you is that Hearthstone looks and feels a lot more polished, slick and streamlined than every other CCG I’ve played. It dispenses with resource-type cards, instead utilising a mana pool that increases from one pip to nine over the corresponding number of turns. Each player is therefore focused on the minion, spell and other cards in their hands, planning what they can use and when. Turns have also had the fat trimmed away; unlike Magic’s clumsy phases, Hearthstone allows players to execute actions in whatever order they wish. Rather than defenders choosing which attackers to block, attackers choose to attack minions or enemy players directly – and minions with the ‘taunt’ ability become a significant part of a defensive strategy.

Other concepts are lifted wholesale: newly-summoned creatures are ‘asleep’ (aka. have ‘summoning sickness’) on the turn they’re played, unless they have a special ability that circumvents that. Interrupt cards exist that can interfere with an opponent’s play (although I’ve encountered less of these among the basic decks and cards). Different character types have different decks and different specialisations. Each player has a life bar that must be depleted to defeat them… but it’s important to kill off enemy minions, too, lest they overwhelm you.

The free-to-play elements are inobtrusive, as you’d hope. Since money you do spend is probably going towards special cards for your decks which will always be useful, there’s also less of the sense of hurling money down a hole than you’d get from paying to, say, skip a cooldown timer. Playing in the ‘Arena’ – which I’ve not done yet – reportedly requires gold, but apparently half-decent players won’t struggle too much to keep gold coming in. I’m basing that last point on what Nick Breckon said on the Idle Thumbs podcast, by the way, so if you disagree go shout at him.

Hearthstone 02

Don’t quit the day job, guys. No seriously, you work for *Blizzard*.

One warning, though. The game thinks it’s funny in that special way Blizzard often attempt. Take, for example, the Finding Opponent screen (click the thumbnail to the right for a bigger version). There are also periodic nuggets of voice acting that are, ugh, just painful. The Scottish dwarf is a fine example. I feel bad for any Scots playing this. I recommend turning all of Hearthstone’s audio off and just playing your own music or a podcast in the background whilst playing.

I doubt I’ll play Hearthstone a huge amount – as I said, I’m just not that into CCGs – but I suspect it will prove a game I regularly dip in and out of whilst, say, eating a sandwich or enjoying a cup of tea. Each match lasts about ten minutes, so it’s a perfect game to play in short bursts. And since you only need to use the mouse, it’s easy to play one-handed.

Oh, not like that, you dirty bastard.