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Heroes of the Storm has found its identity in the MOBA genre

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The game’s newest hero, Orphea, is unique to the Nexus

Blizzard Entertainment

When Heroes of the Storm was first released in 2015, the game drew comparisons to its MOBA peers, Dota 2 and League of Legends. There was no way it couldn’t stand in that light; the game was a clear and direct successor to both of them in terms of mechanics and inspiration.

The MOBA genre had been born from Blizzard’s level editors, but the company had missed the boat on popularizing the genre. Heroes of the Storm was meant to be its attempt at recapturing it. It feels as though the Heroes of the Storm team has been left on their own to do as they will, and the results of that experiment have been eclectic and fun.

While Heroes of the Storm hasn’t been able to live up to the prestige and audience of other MOBAs, it feels as though that doesn’t matter — the game has found its own identity, filling many of the same roles while still bringing enough to the table that it feels like a new experience. With that in mind, it makes sense that the game’s newest hero, Orphea, is a complete invention of the Heroes template — she’s the first character to not come from an existing Blizzard property.

“We were excited to have no boundaries,” said Lana Bachynski, a senior animator on Heroes of the Storm, in an interview with Polygon. “Typically when we bring heroes to the Nexus, they have this strong sense of identity that we have to stick true to. We provide them with deep cuts, and flavor, so players are like ‘Oh! I feel like Thrall!’ With writing Orphea, the sky was the limit.”

Orphea is the culmination to build a world in Heroes of the Storm. At BlizzCon 2017, we were introduced to Hanzo and Alexstrasza, both existing characters from Blizzard canon, and after an appropriately cinematic fight, we got to see that the world of the Nexus is a literal “universe of universes”, with portals opening to other worlds. The Nexus is also under siege, which gives us the opportunity for original characters and tie-in comics.

It’s always fun to speculate as to which characters could beat who from various media properties. “Who would win in a fight between Goku and Superman?” was a popular question on the schoolyard when I was a kid. Heroes of the Storm started with that premise, and now the developers are taking it further and building a whole “what if” world out of it.

“We knew that we were finally bringing in Warcraft, which is the last franchise that we really wanted to represent with Alterac Pass, Yrel and Whitemane,” explains Bachynski. “That was an opportunity for us to say, ‘OK, now we want to increase the different types of content we can bring in.’”

That content isn’t always deadly serious. Take the upcoming high school-themed items in Heroes of the Storm, where the cursed King Leoric from Diablo is now a grumpy janitor capturing cheerleader Kerrigan from StarCraft in an unfinished school bathroom so he can hit her with a giant mop. Sometimes it’s a luchadore theme that asks what would happen if Blizzard games took place in an underground Mexican wrestling circuit, or a G.I. Joe-style alternate universe of Cobra Viper-themed terrorists.

When it comes to actually playing the game, the developer is looking to add a little more structure.

“This year, we’ve released a lot of non-assassins,” said Kyle Dates, a game designer on Heroes of the Storm. Assassin characters are flashy and powerful, meant to dive into enemy teams and kill priority targets with high-damage abilities. They’re a popular hero class, but a team needs tanks and supports as well.

These tanks and supports will become mandatory spots in quick match queues, as teams become structured to provide an even composition. That being said, there are no plans to stop the flow of high-damage characters.

“It’s important to have a constant supply of assassins,” says Dates. “It allows us to have diverse teams, because a team is usually half assassins.”

In higher level play, the presence of bans in the draft phase means that the strongest assassins can be removed from play; having a wide pool of heroes available ensures that there’s always a Plan B (and C, and D...) for executing a specific composition or strategy.

Blizzard Entertainment

At the end of the day, I’m finding that when I want to scratch my itch to just play a MOBA, Heroes of the Storm is the game I reach for. It never managed to achieve its goal of claiming the crown of its genre, but in the end, that failure opened it up for a whole new kind of success. It’s fun and accessible in a way that the genre isn’t.

While titles like League of Legends and Dota 2 take no small amount of pride in how much mastery they take, Heroes is much gentler. The lack of items and shared experience means that everyone can catch up, and it doesn’t take a guide or an in-depth mastery of the game to pick up a hero. There’s enough meat to the game that you can pull off a satisfying play or flex on your opponents a little. The highs are still there, but the lows aren’t quite so punishing.

More importantly, Heroes of the Storm has lost the last vestiges of any embarrassment it might have had over its silly premise and alternate universes. Now, it feels like more of a successful Blizzard-themed amusement park than Blizzard World in Overwatch. You run about colorful, stylized environments while a pirate or a Russian CEO cheerfully update you on what to do next. A character like Orphea, the daughter of a mystical tyrant who shoots giant monster energy out of her gothic, coffin-esque magical accessory, fits right into the fun. In between games, events pop up that offer us choices between brightly garbed luchadores, Horde or Alliance, or spectral knight versions of classic Blizzard heroes.

In a genre that has prided itself so strongly on being all about the grind, the climb, and the struggle of competition, Heroes of the Storm feels like an oasis. Instead of frantically hitting tab to see if my CS is high enough or quarreling with another player in my lobby over who gets mid, I just get to focus on something that I sometimes forget with other games: the inherent joy of a MOBA.