Platform: iOS (reviewed) PC, Mac, Android | Available: iPad, PC & Mac: Now. iOS/Android: Late 2014
More Addictive than WoW
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a free-to-play online card-based strategy game based on the well-loved Warcraft universe, and it marks Blizzard’s first foray onto mobile devices. If you have ever played, or are even just vaguely aware of the real life collectible card game Magic: The Gathering then you might have some idea of what to expect here.
Hearthstone was released on PC and Mac last month on March 11th, but I was probably too busy playing Dark Souls II to notice or care very much. Luckily for me Hearthstone recently received a limited early release on iPad in Canada, New Zealand and my home country of Australia, giving me a great chance to see what all the fuss was about.
Fortunately iPad owners in other territories are in luck too, as the game gets a worldwide release today. Anyone hoping to play on iPhone or Android devices however will have to hold off a little longer until the second half of the year to get their hands on Hearthstone’s virtual deck of cards.
Gameplay in Hearthstone involves one-on-one turn-based battles, either against the computer in ‘Practice’ mode, or against other human players in the ranked ‘Play’ mode and competitive ‘Arena’ mode. Players take turns playing cards which have different outcomes such as equipping weapons, casting spells, healing, gaining armor, or summoning minions to go into battle on their behalf. Playing a card costs a certain amount of ‘mana’ depending on it’s strength. When the game starts players only have one mana crystal, but this number increases each turn until players have ten crystals, allowing them to play stronger card combos as the match progresses. Additional cards are drawn at the start of each turn as well as when certain conditions are met. The match ends when one player’s health has been reduced to zero. It’s a simple concept but there’s much more to this game once you delve a little deeper.
First you’ll have to choose one of nine ‘heroes’ to play as, each representing a different class or play style. These roles are based on existing Warcraft lore, and include Warrior (pictured below), Shaman, Rogue, Paladin, Hunter, Druid, Warlock, Mage and Priest classes. Each hero has a unique special ability that can be played once per turn provided the player has enough mana. The Priest for example can heal either himself or a minion, while the Hunter fires an arrow which damages the opposing hero. Each class also has access to an exclusive set of cards in addition to a pool of shared cards that can be used by any hero. Classes start with 10 ‘basic’ cards with an additional 10 that can be unlocked by winning games and leveling up your hero. Players can also purchase packs of five ‘expert’ cards with coins–Hearthstone’s in-game currency–or with real money via in-app purchases.
Carrot on a Stick
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is far from the most aggressive free-to-play game I’ve come across and it rarely prompts you to spend money. Having said that, coins are drip-fed to the player at such a slow rate that even dedicated players will struggle to earn enough for a pack of cards or a single entry to the Arena more than once every two or three days. Blizzard are the experts at creating highly addictive experiences and Hearthstone is certainly no different. Combine this with the fact that luck plays such a big role in the game and the desire to spend some hard-earned cash can become irresistible. Free-to-play games rarely hook me into spending money, but I have to admit that I paid for Arena entries enough times to have lost count. I probably only spent $20 or $30 in total, which is certainly not a bad investment for a game that I’ve spent over 30 hours enjoying, but it’s worth mentioning because I can see how easy it would be for some players to let their spending get out of control. Compulsive gamblers, consider yourselves warned!
“…the desire to spend some hard-earned cash can become irresistible.”
After spending a few hours with Hearthstone, you’ll have collected enough cards to create a custom deck, and this is where things really start to get interesting. I spent ages poring over possible card combinations and strategies, and would constantly come back to refine my deck, making small tweaks here and there. There are just so many different factors to consider. Do you stack your deck with strong but expensive cards, hoping to hold your opponent off long enough to crush them later in the game? Or do you use lots of low level cards early to overwhelm your rival for a quick win? Creative players who think outside the box will be able to devise some truly devious combinations.
Gotta Collect ‘Em All!
The presentation in Hearthstone is really top notch and Blizzard’s attention to detail is unmatched. You might think “It’s only a card game” but you’ll quickly be impressed by the level of care and polish that is on show everywhere you look. Beautiful artwork is vital for a collectible card game, and Hearthstone definitely delivers with heroes and cards that look fantastic. Cards move and flip in a very tactile way which makes collecting them almost exciting as if they were the real deal. The addition of rare cards and ‘gold foil’ animated cards will have you saving up your coins for a new pack as if you were ten years old again.
The tables you play on look impressive too and feature some fun interactive details. Tapping on a window enough times will cause it to break for example. I even tried placing a rock in a decorative catapult to discover that it fired at my opponent. None of these details have any impact on the game, but they are a fun distraction while you wait for your opponent to take their turn. This reminded me of Disneyland where there are small surprises and details hidden everywhere for no reason other than to reinforce a theme or put a smile on your face.
Hearthstone features some incredibly catchy music which I haven’t been able to stop whistling all week–much to the dismay of my wife. The game also includes some excellent voice work that will provide an instant burst of nostalgia for any Warcraft fans. I had to smile when I heard “Job’s done!” at the end of a turn. Equally impressive is the way that Blizzard have implemented various sound and visual effects to add some real impact and atmosphere to this genre. Spell cards shoot lightning bolts and flames, while minions crash into their targets with a loud crack making battles feel dynamic.
I’ve often wondered why developers would bother making videogames based on card or board games in the first place. After all, they are mostly just simplified simulations of battles, which is something that videogames can arguably do much better than dice and cards. Despite this, Blizzard have provided some very compelling reasons to tackle the collectible card game genre. In the real world it can be tough to organize friends to play games with, but Hearthstone boasts solid matchmaking across all platforms so you will always have a suitable opponent. In the ranked ‘Play’ mode, it was rare to get matched against an opponent who was more than one level above or below myself. Hearthstone also has the advantage of being very easy for beginners to understand. The game’s user interface makes it very clear which cards you can and can’t play, as well as explaining why.
Up All Night to Get Lucky
Some critics have criticized Hearthstone as being too heavily based on luck, while others have gone as far as to call it a ‘pay-to-win’ game. There are some elements of truth here but they don’t paint the whole picture. Players who spend money on cards will inevitably have access to more rare cards and different strategy options, but more cards don’t necessarily guarantee a win. Rare cards can be quite strong, but overall the game does a good job of balancing them so they aren’t too powerful. A smart player will still usually beat a bad one with slightly better cards. It is also true that luck plays a major role in Hearthstone, but probably no more than in many card games such as poker. The luck of the draw can change the outcome of an individual match, but as in poker a good player will win more than they lose. A crucial factor for success in Hearthstone is the ability to adapt to bad luck.
Hearthstone is fun and incredibly addictive, but it isn’t without it’s share of problems either. I played on an iPad mini which might not be cutting-edge, but is hardly ancient either. The game mostly ran smoothly but there were a few glitches and crashes worth mentioning. On two occasions the game was unable to log me in despite multiple attempts, and there are also some slowdown and frame rate issues, particularly in the menu screens. Keep in mind that I was playing during the ‘soft’ release in limited territories, so it’s quite possible that Blizzard has ironed out some of these issues for the worldwide release.
Hearthstone is a fantastic strategy card game that is easy to jump into even if you are completely new to the genre. Luck plays a part in matches, but there is also plenty of strategy and depth on offer for dedicated players. Some minor technical issues hold it back from true greatness, but Hearthstone is still a great way to spend a few (or a few hundred) hours. This game comes highly recommended for any iPad owner–assuming you have the self control to avoid spending a small fortune on virtual cards!
- Polished presentation and attention to detail
- Deep, highly strategic gameplay
- Multiple classes and play styles add replayability
- Can feel ‘grindy’ at times
- Some minor technical issues and slowdown