Check out Isentropic's review of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, the free-to-play strategy card game from Blizzard Entertainment.
[ written review below ]
Firstly I have to say that I was a huge Star Wars Original Trading Card Game and Pokémon Card fan growing up, and still am today, so this game had me wearing the rose coloured glasses from the get go. Actually through my entire time spent with Hearthstone I found myself forgiving little niggles like the once charming music now playing on repeat or the over used sound bites as not that important due to its ever alluring game play and nonexistent price tag. Anyway to the review.
Hearthstone is a collector’s card game based on the Warcraft universe and lore. Players receive starter decks through the game tutorial and are taken through the basic points of a Hearthstone match. Hearthstone matches are straight forward in their concept, players summon beasts and minions to fight on their behalf, with the overall aim being to damage the opposing player’s hero for 30 hit points of life. The summoning of beast and minions, and the use of all cards in a match draw form the player’s turn by turn allocation of mana which gets larger per round.
While that sounds extremely basic here is where things get interesting, players can throughout their turns use varying minion types some with Battlecries, or in layman's terms abilities, that change the approach to battle entirely. These Battlecries vary from countering the opposition’s abilities, buffing friendly cards, causing damage to the other player or taunting, which requires the minion to be defeated before any direct damage can be dealt to the player’s hero. These abilities will feel familiar to any players that have spent time in the Warcraft universe or for anyone that has spent some time with RPGs for that matter.
The hero you select for your deck brings with it a host of class specific cards that can be used throughout the match to move the odds into your favour. The hero class types pay homage to the Warcraft lore the game is based off and are all dramatically different in how they influence matches. The tutorial gives the player the Mage as the starting hero and the basic mage deck. Mages utilise spells to damage opponents, lower defences and draw extra cards at the entry level but as matches are won and more cards acquired the spells become more involved. The tutorial does a good job of teaching the match basics and building up a player’s confidence but doesn't prepare you for what to expect when playing real world matches. Other heroes available include the Warrior who uses abilities to buff other cards and can attack directly from the hero, the Sharman who summons totems that buff cards, damage opponents and heal friendly cards and the Priest who can heal, buff and protect cards from harm.
I won't go through every hero class in this review, as a large amount of the fun of Hearthstone in the early game is working out what hero works for you and your deck. I utilised an extremely complex method to ascertain which hero I would use for my deck and after hours of careful consideration and battle iterations I chose the Druid as my hero. Mainly because I lost using every other hero type.
After completing the tutorial phase of the game, the player is let loose with the ability to make their own deck from cards that they have acquired, and from there complete more difficult practice matches or challenge real world opponents in either ranked or unranked play. Daily quests are also set in the background for players to complete with decent gold rewards. These quests help to give players a feeling of accomplishment and allow progression even if you spend your whole play time loosing matches. Oh and trust me this does happen.
As most would expect, with free to play games there is always some sort of in built micro-transactions that are required to progress. In Hearthstone new card packs can be bought using in game gold earned through completing quests, or using real money. These micro-transactions for the purchase of cards while allowing for players to build stronger decks without grinding for gold are non intrusive, and are just another option for advancement offered in the shop. Hearthstone can be played, enjoyed and mastered without the need for any real money to be spent and that is a huge plus and I commend Blizzard for using this approach.
Through the earning of gold and purchase of new cards is how Hearthstone gets its claws into you and keeps you wanting more. In each match I played, an opponent would use a card I hadn't seen before and that made me want it and every card for that matter. The act of buying a pack using your hard earned gold then with the mouse moving that pack in the open pack screen to find out one card at a time what you got took me back instantly to my childhood of opening booster decks. This was pivotal for me in keeping me coming back for more even after a fair few rage quit incidents
Card crafting is also offered in Warcraft style with players able to disenchant cards to earn Arcane Dust which in turn can be used to make other cards. Allowing players to change cards that they have too many of into new cards is a great concept and further increases the draw of the Hearthstone card collection and deck development.
After learning my hero specific cards and how they worked and meticulously crafting my deck, I was ready to take the ranked match play world by storm. I jumped straight into some rank 25 games and started cruising my way up the tiers. I was unstoppable with a three match winning streak and 2 rank progressions when at rank 23 I hit some talented players and was punished for my insolence.
Which brings me to my only gripe about this game, ranked play can be soul crushing. You can spend some large chunks of time training, changing out cards and crafting cards, then take it into a ranked match and get your ass handed to you. Unraked play, matches player skill levels really well so this gripe is only minor but sometimes the losses in ranked play made the hero types feel unbalanced. For example, every time a faced off against a Mage it felt like this is what I was up against.
As I have said this gripe is only minor, and with the action log on the side of the play field hardcore fans can analyse their match techniques and find where they went wrong. After everyone of these soul crushing losses I would still find that I completed a quest and earned some more gold or worked out what cards were letting me down in the match and tweak my deck accordingly before getting straight back into it
Overall Hearthstone is a great free to play game without intrusive micro-transactions and with deep, satisfying strategy. It offers players addictive card crafting and collecting, dangles the quest carrot perfectly and taps into a lot of players rosy memories of trading card games from their childhood. The only downsides of this game is the repetitive music and sound bites and some potential balance issues, but these issues are nowhere near big enough to stop you having a great time. I highly recommend this game to anyone who has played trading card games in the past or for anyone looking for a free game that can be played in small chunks and enjoyed. Hearthstone will definitely have me coming back for more in the foreseeable future and has earned an 8 out of 10 from me.