Hearthstone Open Beta Review: All The Angry Chickens

hearthstonelogoWhen it comes to free-to-play games, open beta is essentially the same as a regular release, except with a few extra things that need to be ironed out in response to a large wave of new players coming in. So in that sense, a review on Hearthstone, just now entering its own open beta phase, isn’t really that unheard of. The game is essentially finished barring a few bug tweaks and eventual expansions in the future, and so far it’s off to a good start, albeit with some things that could stand to be looked at.

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft takes Blizzard’s most prominent characters in Warcraft lore and puts them in a CCG style game that will recall memories of sessions of Magic: the Gathering. While the two games do share some similarities, Hearthstone offers its own unique blend of gameplay, focusing on quick games, accessibility, and its own share of interesting traits that provide a fresh approach to the genre. Hearthstone’s philosophy follows that of its company, in that the game is simple to grasp, but has a deceptively high mastery ceiling, which can result in some fairly frustrating games when you’re just starting out and have no idea what you’re doing.

Players can build their decks based on nine different classes, which players of World of Warcraft will instantly recognize. Each of these deck types has a different play style, and are represented by a figure from Warcraft lore that specializes in that profession. Warrior decks, represented by Garrosh, specialize in weaponry and using spells that take advantage of weakened minions, while Warlock decks, represented by Gul’dan, excel in offensive spell flinging and card draw. Finding a favorite to play as is easy, and you can also have several side decks as well for whenever you want to try something different.

Each deck type also allows for the use of a Hero Power, an exclusive ability used by your character. Paladins can summon a 1/1 minion as cannon fodder, while Hunters can deal two damage directly to the opposing player’s face. This ties in with your deck symmetry, and can allow for some interesting advanced plays.

Hearthstone_Screenshot_1.26.2014.21.34Aesthetically speaking, the game is very stylish. Cards come into the field with extravagant effects when played, shaking the board heavily and displaying incredible visuals. It lets you feel just how powerful some of the cards are, and adds an extra layer of fun when playing that card for the first time. Messing with the various doodads on the game board is also an amusing way to pass time when it’s your opponent’s turn. The game’s own tongue-in-cheek brand of humor also makes it easy to get into, especially when going through the tutorial stages. Even reading the flavor text on individual cards can be fun.

How you build your decks with these powerful cards is the core area of the game, and one that can stand to be refined a bit. You can obtain cards in one of two ways: either obtaining card packs, or by crafting cards individually. Card packs can be bought with real money for a small sum of cash or won from one of the game’s modes (more on that later). Crafting cards, meanwhile, requires the use of dust that you can get from disenchanting cards that you don’t need. However, the amount of dust required to make one card can be pretty ridiculous, especially if you’re looking to craft a rare or legendary card that would fit perfectly in your deck, and the dust that you get from disenchanting ends up being minuscule at best. This creates a disturbing rift where the fastest way to get the card you want is through card packs, and causes the game to walk a dangerous line between free-to-play and pay-to-win.

Thankfully, the developers have implemented alternative ways of obtaining card packs without having to spend real money. Daily quests give you gold when completed, allowing you to purchase individual packs for 100 gold a pop. These quests include objectives that you normally do during regular play, such as casting a number of spells, summoning specific minions, and more. And if you don’t like a particular quest, you can cancel it and have it replaced with hopefully a better one. Gold can also be obtained from simply winning games, as well as completing hidden objectives.

The game modes available to players are admittedly limited right now, but can likely be expected to grow in the future. Ranked mode allows you to work your way up the leaderboards against other players, filling the competitive requirement for the game, while Casual mode is the unranked option. Ranking up can sometimes be a challenge, especially since there wasn’t a data wipe before open beta, which is very peculiar. As a result new players may end up getting a bit discouraged at first when they realize they’re playing against someone that’s been playing since closed beta.

Hearthstone_Screenshot_1.27.2014.22.58.24There is also the Arena mode, where players put together a deck consisting of randomly generated cards and test their results against other Arena players. This mode is a bit more of a gamble, as doing well can net you extra gold and dust, while doing poorly can leave you with next to nothing, though you are at least guaranteed a card pack for each Arena run. There’s no real strategy in this mode, only that it tests your own knowledge of how cards work. However, even well put together decks can find themselves trumped simply because you run into an opponent that got a luckier pick of cards than you. Simply entering the Arena also costs real money or gold, so you’re better off just simply using those funds to buy packs straight up until you’ve gained significant knowledge on how to use different cards.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the game is the overall balance. Blizzard isn’t exactly well known for their balance decisions in competitive formats (*cough*Death Knights*cough*), and a part of that kind of leaks into Hearthstone’s balance decisions. Mage decks will frustrate you with their superior burst damage and board control, while Paladins are just simply good at almost everything. Meanwhile, Warriors seem to keep getting slapped with the nerf bat, causing them to fall further and further behind everyone else. The game balance is in a weird state, and it can be really aggravating when you lose a game that you know you should have won.

The future however is where Hearthstone’s potential really becomes apparent. Being a F2P game run by a smaller development team can allow Blizzard to work on it as long as they deem it worthy without using too many extra resources, and has the potential for likes of shiny new things to be added to the game. New items that add cosmetic features can potentially be bought with real money, and new cards can be introduced to stir the meta game up a bit. Since this is the company’s first foray into the F2P gaming field, it may take them some time to learn how to go about it all, especially since the game itself is fairly bare bones in terms of content as of this writing.

Hearthstone has the ability to be something truly great once it gets closer to the “launch” date and realizes that potential. While it can sometimes be frustrating to play, it does provide an accessible way to satisfy that competitive card gaming itch. It’s easy to simply hop on and play a couple quick games, and if you want to stay longer, you’re more than welcome to. For being something different from the gaming giant, it can be a fun distraction, and it’ll be interesting to see what other smaller projects the company can come up with in the future.

 

Final Grade: B

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