A few weeks ago, I was on the Justice Points podcast, and we were going through the podcast motions of what we were playing, how we liked the games, and so on. I had been playing Heroes of the Storm relentlessly, religiously, ten or fifteen games a night for the week previous. I had been in the beta since it was launched, but I hadn’t even installed it until the fortnight before it went live to everyone, and in those two weeks I had become a devout player of a game that I had nearly negative interest in before.
A confluence of factors led to this. I had a friend who was on a tight timetable before he went abroad for a job, and he was interested in giving the game a good go. It was about to release to the broader public. Most importantly, and what I ended up talking about with the Justice Points hosts, was that this game eliminated a lot of the complexity that I had run into with my admittedly limited experience playing games like League of Legends and DOTA 2.
Heroes of the Storm (or HOTS) is a game that delivers the blow-by-blow tactical decisions of other MOBA games without the long level and item grind of those other games. It pares most everything down to a very tight set of in-game experiences that can be honed from game to game.
HOTS shines outside the comparative, so let me be direct: in Heroes, you progress by getting better with your chosen hero and learning the specific mechanics of the relatively limited number of maps. That’s it. You learn builds, you deploy builds, and you do the mechanic.
There’s a version of this review where I slowly work through the ways that HOTS works its way into your brain and muscles. It delivers skills slowly. It makes you work through a character in such a way that you’re left thinking that you want to do more with that character, and after a couple games of pushing against that limit, the game gives you more abilities precisely so that you can do more. The skill and level progression is fine-tuned to perfection. It delivers pellets of enjoyment on the hour.
That version of this review is the one I started writing. Then the game came out of beta and into full release, and hell descended on us all.
During the beta, HOTS was a semi-toxic place. If you were doing poorly, you’d be shamed. If you were totally ignoring the mechanics on the maps, someone would say something. For the most part, though, players seemed to be more interested in winning a match than brutalizing other players. The game has standard chat and an extensive map pinging system for declaring short-term objectives and communicating strategies, and players would use both of those things in tandem. Alongside that in-game communication, there was also a cottage culture in explaining maps before the match started. I know that Cursed Hollow requires collecting tributes not because the game told me (which it does, to be fair) but because someone explained it to me in the thirty seconds before the game started.
Semi-toxic. 60% of the time you would have a team that was decent, nice, or some passive combination of the two. 40% of the time you would have someone screaming at you the entire time while they died over and over again in five-on-one fights against them. Horrifyingly, this semi-toxicity felt fresh and new and like an online gaming miracle.
HOTS feels different after the full release. The jargon has increased. The amount of assumed knowledge has exploded. The worst part is that the harassment has shot through the roof.
I’m decent at this game. I know when to fight and when to run and how all the mechanics work. I am a perfect middle-of-the-road player, and yet, I catch an unthinkable amount of shit. I catch so much shit that I’ve decreased the amount of time that I am playing the game.
HOTS has implemented measures to alleviate this problem. It has the gesture system that I mentioned above. Alongside that, it has the ability for any individual player to drop out of the realm of textual communication completely, instead giving you access to map pings alone. Beyond pulling out of textual communication completely, and living in self-imposed communicatory exile, you have very few methods for dealing with the kind of trash talk your own team deals out to you.
That’s the brutality of it. You see, the other team cannot speak to you in HOTS, so if you’re getting talked down to, it is by your own team. No matter what you do, or how you do it, you’re likely to get some kind of brutality thrown your way. Is your Gazlowe doing poorly against an enemy Diablo? You’re going to get trash talked. Are you performing too well and carrying your team? Trash talk. Refusing to follow your team into an objectively bad tactical choice or arguing against a loud, forceful teammate? Buckle in for a dope time.
Mechanically, very little has changed from the beta. Good team execution around a set of group-decided objectives is always going to win the day, and I even have a good time losing if I’m on a team that is amenable to that. The game is fun to play, not merely fun to win, and that comes down to the satisfying kick of taking down a tower, escaping the attacks of an enemy player, or using one of your super Heroic powers to push the enemy team into a series of bad choices. There’s rarely a game of HOTS that I have played where I have not had at least one moment of “whoa, did you see that!” or yelling “hell yeah!” at the actions of a teammate.
Socially, the game is often a hellhole compounded by an extensive lack of understanding the particular rules of Heroes versus its other MOBA competitors. I have been on teams where dominant players will yell at teammates for not playing the game as if it is League, and when told by other teammates that their strategies and expectations do not transpose, they have abandoned the game and stood in the base. I have watched “gamers at large” come into the game while bringing their desires and biases with them, and it has been a truly horrific experience. It’s even worse knowing that there are new players and “non-gamers” – perhaps people who have seen the ubiquitous ads for the game on television or Hulu – getting the same treatment as the longtime players have been.
It’s infinitely sad to me that Heroes of the Storm has been mechanically designed to solve a lot of the issues around online competitive multiplayer games but cannot socially sever itself from the festering online community that surrounds all of the games of this genre. It is a game that has made itself welcoming to me in a way that relatively few other games have been able to. I loved it during the beta, because it was mostly sweet and only a little sour. I’m slowly drifting away post-release, because nearly every game is chock full of bile. I feel bad, because I feel like I’m being robbed of something, and I feel worse for people who never got to experience the better version.
There’s a solution, I guess. It would be to recruit my team of five and play with people I know. It would be to vet the world and close myself off from the weird chance of playing with randos. Lots of people have no choice but to do this for various reasons. I understand that’s a solution, but it isn’t a road I want to go down. I want to be open to the clever teammate. I want to be open to the all-star player who happens to queue alone. I want to be open to wonder.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.