Hearthstone – Blizzard takes a stab at Freemium with predictable results

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Blizzard does a lot of things right, MMO’s, RTS’s, MMOBG’s (soon, soon) other things that have handy acronym’s… probably. If you were expecting to be surprised by Hearthstone then you will be disappointed. That’s kind of the only way this game is going to disappoint you, but I’ll get to that.

Gameplay-wise you’re looking at a standard TCG (hey look, another acronym). Two players create decks with a combination of instant cast spells, summoned creatures and various spells that makes those creatures stronger (“buff’s” for the initiated) and see whose deck does the most damage to the other in a turn-based style. If you’ve played Magic the Gathering, the existing Warcraft TCG or, really, any TCG then you will be familiar with the general rules. If you haven’t then it might take a while to explain and I’m not here to debate the merits, or lack thereof, of competitive card games that allow you to pretend you’re some powerful spell caster. So assuming you know how TCG’s work, let us carry on.

The intro section does an excellent job of getting people past the initial learning curve in a fun and engaging fashion while at the same time introducing you to some of the key elements that are going to keep you playing far longer and more often than you will care to admit. So if you’re worried about needing to learn a lot of complicated rules while being repeatedly beaten by basement-dwelling Hearthstone-machines then don’t be. This game is very, one might even say too, willing to embrace the casual player.

Blizzard does an excellent job of staying true to the TCG roots (summoning creatures, casting spells, pretending you’re a powerful spell caster) while making it something uniquely their own. Rather than playing a disembodied hand you take the role of a hero from Blizzard lore who embodies one of the core World of Warcraft classes, each of which has it’s own special ability and a small subset of cards that are unique to their class. For example a Jaina Proudmoore deck could play an Arcane Missile, which is an excellent low casting cost spell, while a Garrosh deck would have no such option. Point being that the strategy is deep and involved and does not let down even the more dedicated card players.

So yes, a solid card game, tied to Blizzard lore, pretty, if stationary, graphics, but why play this when I can play a physical card game in the real world and get to own cards with resale value? Beyond my natural tendency to not want clutter in my realspace, I mean. Well, much like all Blizzard titles, they handle the multi-player aspect for you and do it well:

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Players are assigned levels and you are almost always matched to an opponent of equal skill. Although the screen might threaten to match you up with “The Worst Player” or “A Diamond Leaguer” it will in fact always land on “Worthy Opponent”. Plus the little spinner plays old school music from Blizzards titles from the 80’s and 90’s which makes me smile.

What else is on offer here? Other things, for one Blizzard employs the same psychologists that convinced you to kill Attumen 1800 times for a .01% drop of a mount that could only go to one of ten people that were required to beat him. For example, playing a particularly powerful card will make a visible dent on the playing field and a suitably loud sound. Also defeating your opponent, even if he/she concedes, causing their portrait to explode and leave a scorched crater on the playing field. Attacking with a large creature, even one made large by the aforementioned buffs, causes the play area to shake and applause and approving noises to come from the “crowd”. In other words, doing good things make happy noises and sounds so that you are motivated to want to keep doing good things. It’s Operant conditioning, buddy, B.F. Skinner, FTW… or whatever.

Second, voice acting, I know, I was surprised too. The voice actors for the heroes that you build decks around are all present but also each individual card has a sound or voice depending on how humanoid they are. The “Raid Leader” for example says “Handle It” when you drop him into play which is amusing for two reasons. First, because he’s not that impressive of a card on his own and second because, if you get the reference, he’s not actually talking to the opponent but actually giving a “rousing” speed to the other creatures on his team. Point is, the cards have voices and they are frequently amusing.

That’s a lot of positive and I want to be careful to not oversell this. It is still just a card game. If you don’t like card games… you might still like this, but it is somewhat less likely. If you get nervous around paying money for digital representations of cards then… you’re probably fine, I still haven’t invested a red cent into the game and I’m going into hour 20 (suck it, Freemium model). If you don’t like losing occasionally due to forces outside of your control then you definitely won’t like this. But if you’re prepared for a fun, engrossing, somewhat casual title that you don’t have to really sink any money into to enjoy then Illidan was wrong about you. You are, in fact, prepared.

Entire review with no gameplay shots? No, that’s probably not a good idea:

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