Not So Massively: Revisiting Heroes of the Storm in 2023

    
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Social media algorithms are a dangerous thing. A few weeks back, Reddit began recommending me the sub for Heroes of the Storm. Although I had played zealously for years, I’d quit some years ago and never returned. But when I started reading posts by those still playing, the nostalgia hit hard.

Before I knew it, I was reinstalling, wondering what the state of the Blizzard‘s ill-fated MOBA was now that it’s in maintenance mode. What I found was an inconsistent experience that reinforced some of the ways the game went wrong… but also reminded me of all that the game did right.

If you’re wondering why I initially stopped playing, you can find my detailed thoughts on the matter in a previous column¬†from when the game’s fortunes first started to decline. Most everything I said there is still applicable, save for my faint optimism that the game might experience a revival.

The short answer is that I think players and developers alike lost sight of Heroes‘ original identity as a low stress, casual alternative to other MOBAs. It’s an arc eerily similar to that of World of Warcraft, a game built as a casual MMORPG that began to decline in popularity the moment it stopped pushing towards more accessibility.

When I reinstalled, I expected to quickly become frustrated with all the issues that previously drove me away and quit all over again. However, that’s not quite what happened.

To be sure, some of the problems are still there. When I left, one of the reasons was that the game’s design felt too chaotic. Too many of my beloved characters had changed too much, and they didn’t feel familiar anymore.

That process did continue while I was away. One of my most-played characters was originally Tassadar; I loved his quirky support style, with no direct healing but a bevy of utility and buffs. He’d already received some severe nerfs before I left, but upon my return, I was shocked to discover he isn’t even a support anymore. Most of his abilities were replaced, and he’s now an assassin, a damage character.

I can’t play this new version of Tassadar. It feels so wrong.

The entire role of specialist — which focused on the game’s PvE elements — is also now gone, with most specialists converted to assassins. This feels like a misstep, as specialists were one of the more unique things about Heroes of the Storm.

My previously favourite specialist, Sylvanas, seems to have suffered especially hard. This is a bit ironic since she was already halfway to being an assassin before, but this seems to have led the developers to offer little to no compensation for her specialist abilities being gutted.

Even maps have not entirely been spared the flame of drastic revamps. Garden of Terror, once a unique and interesting map, is now little more than a reskin of Cursed Hollow, with players fighting over singular seeds to spawn a wave of NPC terrors that disable enemy forts. Hanamura, meanwhile, now features only a singular payload to encourage teamfights, although that’s something I would judge to be a positive change, at least.

I have also noted a significant level of complexity creep throughout the game, another thing that runs counter to Heroes‘ original identity as a casual MOBA. Almost every character, even the simple ones intended for newbies, has gained new abilities and/or additional functionality for the old ones, with many talents added into their baseline toolkit. I can see how this might have been a good move for balance, but it significantly increases the game’s learning curve.

However, it’s not all bad news.

For starters, there have been some nice quality-of-life improvements. You can now set talents as your favourites, making it easier to find them in the heat of the match. You can even save multiple talent builds for each character if you so desire.

Another major factor in driving me away was that the meta-game had increasingly trended towards sudden burst damage, leaving little time to react or recover. The hero Chromie was an especially egregious offender, throwing out massive burst damage from long range with little potential for dodging.

I noticed something interesting shortly after my return, though: I played a few matches against Chromie, and not once did I curse the day I was born. I did some reading and discovered that Chromie had been reworked to reduce her burst and make her abilities easier to dodge.

[Cue angelic choir singing “hallelujah”]

And the more I played, the more I realized that burst damage in general seems less than it once was. Burst is still a big part of the game — maybe a bit more than I’d like it to be — but it feels far less oppressive than it once did.

In fact, in general the meta feels pretty good right now. Bar a few outliers like Sylvanas (whom I grant I may not have relearned enough), everything seems pretty balanced. The fact I’ve had a few years to recover from my burnout probably helps, but it really does feel like the game is the most fun it’s been since its early days. It feels like Heroes of the Storm again — fun, back and forth, and relatively low stress.

It also occurs to me that in a way maintenance mode fixes my other big problem with the game, too. With balance patches a rarity — without even the guarantee there will be any more — I no longer need fear my characters being mangled into something new every few months. The game is stable, and that makes it feel worth investing in again.

All the other kids with the pumped up swans you better run, better run...

Of course, maintenance mode also has its downsides. It’s hard to judge the current population numbers, but they are surely on the low side. Queues are still quite fast for quick match and ARAM, but you will run into the same players with an unnerving degree of regularity. It also seems like the matchmaker may be having trouble finding evenly matched teams; the number of matches that devolve into total blowouts is much higher than it once was.

But when you get a good, even match… the game sings, and I remember why this is the one PvP game I’ve ever truly loved. The struggles over map objectives are thrilling. The nail-biting comebacks keep you coming back for more. The heroes, maps, and announcers ooze with personality. It just feels good to play.

In the end, I did uninstall pretty quickly, but not because I wasn’t having fun. I uninstalled because I was playing so much I was running out of time for other things. And I may yet return again when my gaming backlog is smaller.

In the meantime, I need to tell Reddit to stop recommending things to me…

The world of online gaming is changing. As the gray area between single-player and MMO becomes ever wider, Massively OP’s Tyler Edwards delves into this new and expanding frontier biweekly in Not So Massively, our column on battle royales, OARPGs, looter-shooters, and other multiplayer online titles that aren’t quite MMORPGs.
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