Blizzard's winning streak seems to have come to an end! The release of Diablo 3 didn't set the world on fire, Starcraft 2 is still unfolding as we speak and World of Warcraft has seen a another decline in subscriber numbers. The rumors of WoW's demise, however, are simply that. (More on that later). So, what would the once infallible developers of some of the world's most popular franchises bring to the table next? An online collectible card game? Yup.
Heathstone: Heroes of Warcraft, is a project that harkens back to the days of the Lost Vikings and Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. They rounded up a small group of 15 developers and worked, in secret, to create a Warcraft themed online collectible card game. Closed beta has been ongoing for a while now and I've played enough to give my impressions of what is, still, an unreleased product.
The first thing you'll hear upon clicking the Hearthstone in the middle of the screen is a friendly Dwarven voice greeting you. He welcomes you to the table and tells you stay a while. You're thrown right into the thick of it and, right away, you're tossed out brief tutorial tips and setup info. One can notice from the start that, for a Beta product, this is extremely polished. It has the very typical Blizzard shine to it that tends to set their franchise entries above most others. (Is my fanboy showing yet?) This is definitely something new for Blizz but damn if it isn't easily accessible from the moment you begin.
You start with a Mage Deck with Jaina Proudmoore, one of Warcraft lore's more crucial magic users, leading the way. You'll draw cards to start and engage in combat that will feel very very familiar to anyone who has picked up a deck of Magic: The Gathering cards and tapped a swamp.
Don't let the mechanics and complexity of M:TG make you think Hearthstone will be a tough game to grasp, though. This is, very much, a stripped down version of the more complex card battlers out there but that doesn't mean it doesn't have the same sort of nuances that come with them. Board control is still a heavy part of the game and building the right deck is crucial. That, however, can be tough in the early going as the game's tutorial and beginning phases in Practice mode will probably see you take a few losses as you learn the ropes. You'll be seeing new cards and adding them to your collection for further building and/or disenchanting.
Yes! Disenchanting and crafting. Now there is something interesting. Each card can be disenchanted into a certain amount of Arcane Dust. Once you collect enough dust you can then craft a new card from the remains. Depending on the amount you're going to get a different type of card. They range from your run of the mill regular cards up to the Golden Legendary cards. Those tend to be the heavy hitters of Hearthstone though it'll require a large amount of dust to get them.
Oh yeah? If you've ever been into these sorts of games you'll know one thing. Opening packs is a great experience. The ecstasy of scoring a great card or two (such as getting a loot card if you play the current physical WoW CCG) and the agony of getting nothing. That gamble. It's a great feeling and somehow Blizzard managed to replicate that in the online space. It celebrates you opening the pack even showing you were fireworks and some sweet music if you manage to get a rare or legendary card.
There is a time limit imposed upon you and your opponent in trying to decide which card to play. This means most matches are rather hasty with the rare match stretching out into 10 minutes or so. I've seen my "Blitzkrieg" Mage deck destroy an opponent within a few minutes with the right draws. I've also seen a Priest deck with good draws outlast everything I've thrown at it. It is VERY RNG (the luck of the draw) dependent but then again it is a card game.
You can, even in Beta, make purchases from their store to buy packs of cards. 40 packs, for example, will set you back 50 bucks. You can also earn gold, a bit of a grind for sure, by winning matches in Play Mode or in the Arena. It'll take longer, of course, but it can be completely free to play if you wish.
The last closed beta wipe saw all of those Twitch.tv streamers and players who invested early getting their cards wiped away and gold put back in their accounts. There shouldn't be another wipe so cards purchased during Closed Beta and even during Open Beta should stick with you up to release.
This sort of game is made for the mobility/touch platform. Games go quick and the ability to drop in and out at will is quite alluring. Blizzard is currently internally testing it on touch devices such as iPads and Android tablets. I got to futz around with an Intel touch screen at Blizzcon this year. The experience was VERY enjoyable and with the major Hearthstone tourney (the first of its kind) happening in the background behind me it was a very unique experience. (More to come on Blizzcon soon. There's a LOT!) So, it'll be coming to tablets and to mobile phones soon along with being available on PC and Mac. All your cards, experience and gold are tied to your Battle.Net account so no matter what platform you play on you're going to have access to everything you need.
I honestly didn't know if Blizzard could really make this sort of game work. The offline CCG was a solid game that features fantastic artwork, loot cards and aplay system but the audience is limited when compared to the juggernaut that is Magic: The Gathering. What Blizzard has managed to do here, though, is something very distinctly well.. Blizzard. It's an accessible game that is so very easy to pick up, tough to master and great fun. It also serves as a great companion piece to World of Warcraft in that with each lore figure depicted in cards you can find information about them, see who worked on the art and so forth.
I've found myself spending more and more time inside Hearthstone as the days have worn on. It's only a matter of time before I get weak and buy packs. My wallet is already crying.
A little taste of the game from the devs themselves.