Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Enter the Nexus

I mentioned a few days ago that I had recently begun playing Blizzard's latest videogame, Heroes of the Storm (HotS)

This game is consuming my life! In the past three days since I started playing it, I've played it every morning before work, I've brought my laptop to work and played it on my lunch, and I usually play at least one game when I get home in the evening. I'm boardgaming Friday evening and continuing to play in my friend's Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game on Sunday. But Saturday? My plans for this Saturday include waking up, plopping myself in front of my computer, and playing it until I go to bed. I might...might...stop and eat, at some point.

I have never been into MOBAs. But now, what with being single and all, and not really having anything else to do at the moment, playing HotS and studying up on this strange new world (to me) of MOBAs has proven to be that addicting little mixture of right place, right time.

For those not familiar, a MOBA, or "Massively Online Battle Arena," is an intoxicating love child of a real-time strategy game and an RPG. In it, you control a single character on a team with up to four other players. You have a base with a core of some kind in it. Your objective is to blow up the enemy team's core. Periodically, your base pumps out bands of soldiers who march like lemmings down the main lanes of the map to your opponent's base to do battle. You can defeat these soldiers, as well as enemy players, for experience points to level up your hero. Also scattered across the map are neutral units who you can defeat (or, in Heroes of the Storm's case, recruit) for additional XP and support. In HotS, you also have optional objectives that upon completion will grant your team critical support in your attempts to destroy your opponents' base. These objectives vary from map to map, but they generally boil down to gathering X number of things, destroying Y number of neutral units, or controlling Z number of strategic points across the map simultaneously.

In the past, MOBAs have been an ultra-competitive genre of game, downright hostile to new players who are often looked at as liabilities. HotS, in the genre-defying tradition of Blizzard's previous games Hearthstone and World of Warcraft, have removed the tall barriers to entry of this genre while still maintaining the core deep, addicting gameplay. They've done this through a series of simple, pragmatic changes to the genre paradign, polished and spit-shined to such a glossy sheen it makes its colleagues look like chumps. Here's one simple example: experience and levels. In other MOBAs, leveling is individual. This can lead to situations where you have one hot shot on your team that's several levels above the rest of your team. You can imagine the unfun scenarios this could cause. In HotS, however, leveling happens as a team. Even if you do have one hot-shot making all the kills, the experience he's earning from those kills gets spread to every player on the team. The result is every player levels up at the same time and, from a technical perspective, at least, every hero is as capable as the next from the beginning of the match to the end.

That "technical perspective" bit is extremely important. In HotS, just because you're the same level as another hero, it does not mean you are equal to that hero. Positioning in a battle is important. Knowing what your abilities do and when to use them (and when not to use them) is vitally important. Knowing what your opponents are capable of is important. Knowing the layout of the map is important. MOBAs are games that reward you for geeking out on that kind of stuff. And that's where these games become so damn addicting!

Unfortunately, in a tight game, MOBAs can punish you for not knowing that kind of stuff, too. In this latter aspect, HotS is far more forgiving than its contemporaries, but you still need to know your stuff if you want to rise to a respectable level of play. In one of my earlier games, for example, I played as a healer, and all I did was stick to a nearby hero, conserve my mana by only using my healing spell, and just kept patching up the hero I was following. In a traditional RPG, I'd be doing fine. Here, I was sucking. Why? Because my healing spell has a 10-second cooldown, and I just sat there, doing nothing, as that single spell recharged. I should have been supporting that hero in other ways, using my other spells, or even just sitting within auto-attack range and letting my auto attack contribute to his sick damage numbers. We lost that game. I don't completely blame myself, but I definitely contributed to that loss.

Even a simple and relatively trivial occurence like death is a strategic consideration in a MOBA. In HotS, when you die, the sizeable amount of XP awarded for your demise is valuable XP that can help your opponents get a further advantage over your team. So the ol' game-honored tradition of going down guns-blazing no matter what is not always a great idea here. Sometimes, running away and retreating to a defensible position where you can heal up is actually critical, to not just your personal success, but to the entire team's. Not to mention that at the later stages of a match, death can actually keep you out of the action longer than a strategic retreat to your base.

HotS is a more casual game than other MOBAs, but it definitely is not a game you can completely play casually. Not unless you want a bunch of nerd rage thrown at you, anyway.You may have heard about the legendary lack of social graces of MOBA players. And I can tell you, based on HotS alone, it's true. MOBA players are some of the nastiest, meanest, most emotionally-unstable gamers I've ever come across. When I wasn't into MOBAs, I used to say a lot of judgy things about how pathetic MOBA players were. However, I get that nerd rage, now. I still, of course, think it is extremely rude and immature to yell at someone in chat, and I definitely think people who do that need to step away from the keyboard for a moment, but I understand that frustration now. MOBAs are a genre of game that pushes you to learn from your mistakes, play to win, and work as a team. Where it gets frustrating is when you do all of that properly and still lose because someone else on your team isn't up to snuff. You can spend hours upon hours getting every aspect of play right, then get your ass handed to you because you've got one or two people on your team who merrily chime "Relax, it's just a game!" as they blunder their way through the match. Again; NO excuse for terrible behavior, but if you've ever wondered where it comes from, there it is.

So, if I haven't completely scared you away and you'd like to join me in Heroes of the Storm, but you're just as clueless as I am when it comes to this style of game, here are a couple of "by newb, for newbs" tips I have for you:

1. Play "Vs. AI" Mode. After you finish the tutorial, you basically have three options for games: tutorial games with just you versus the AI, co-op mode vs. the AI, and "quick matches" that pair you with other players for a regular match (there are other modes, but those aren't worth mentioning until you're ready). Until you learn the ropes, stick with the co-op vs. AI matches. They're boring at times, and can even be a little aggravating as you'll get stuck with a lot of other newbs making their dumb newb mistakes, but at least you'll get some time with your hero to learn how he/she/it works, and you can learn the map, and get a basic level of experience to work off of when you go against human opponents. But go to versus mode as soon as you can, because like I said, co-op gets boring fast (the AI is extremely ineffective, making games almost impossible to lose no matter how badly your team deserves to).

2. Pick one or two roles, and learn them: The dozens of heroes available for play in HotS are divided into four categories: Warriors, who have high hit points and are good at blocking/controlling enemies; Assassins, good at causing massive amounts of damage; Support, aiding the warriors and assassins through healing, enhancing their fighting capabilities, or crippling opponents; and Specialists, x-factor heroes who play very non-traditionally and add additional support to a team. As you bumble your way through co-op matches, learn which roles cater to your personal style and get familiar with the heroes who comprise that role. Me? As I stated before, I like to hang back and heal, but when I get tired of that and want to change it up, I go completely opposite; a close-range, high-damage assassin. Good competitive level play comes from knowing the nuances of all the roles, but that will come in time. For now, just focus on one or two of those roles and get good at them.

3. Read up. MOBAs in general have a ton of resources available across the net. Find them and read them! Each guide you come across is bound to have some little tips and tricks in them to help elevate your game. As I said before, MOBAs are a genre of game meant to be played for victory, and are at their most fun when you and your teammates know what they're doing and push themselves to win. So every second you spend studying the game when you're not playing it, whether it's reading about it or talking about it, can contribute to your dominance!

4. Use your down time. When you die in HotS, you spend a number of seconds out of the game before you're allowed to go back in. Don't just sit there; use that time. Follow your allies around the map. Bring up the talent panel and plan out your next couple of talent choices. Think about where you're going to go when you resurrect.

5. Do the objectives. Nothing gets a new HotS player cussed at faster than ignoring the map objectives. Don't. A quick little brief comes up on the loading screen; read it. If you have questions, ask your allies. If someone throws up a ping on the minimap, go to it. There is a time and place when you should push the lanes on a map instead of doing the objectives, but that's a concern for high-level play; as a newb, focus on the objectives, always.

6. Learn the mute button. Tab to bring up the scoreboard, then click the chat icon next to someone's name to mute them. Useful tool, trust me.

Of course, let us not forget that I am a newb, myself. So if there is any basic newb advice that you have for me, Dear Reader, I am, as always, all ears.

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