Thursday, December 12, 2013

Hearthstone Beta Impressions

A buddy had an extra beta key to the Hearthstone online card game, and you know how it is: free is a very good price. So I spent a couple days going through the training section of the game and while I haven't knuckled up and gone online to play real people yet, here's what I think so far:

First, it looks very slick. The board is very clear but there are still different 'settings' to play on. They don't affect the game in any way that I'm aware of but the change of scenery is nice. Plus, you can click on the scenery and produce some kind of change in it; windows break, squash shatter and then are regrown by opening a water spigot, a kite is blown away in the wind, and so on.

There are actually a great many little details like this that help give it a very strong first impression: loading screens usually have different taglines like, "polishing the stones" or "placing the scenery", "wiping off the table" etc, etc. Sometimes they're clever, sometimes just filler and occasionally mildly amusing, so at on the load screens there is reason to pay attention.

As a player, you can choose from one of nine classes (Warrior, Druid, Hunter, Mage...), each with their own special power and their own deck to start with. Those classes act as their own character during the match and can, under the right conditions, attack or be targeted by spells. You start with 3-4 cards, depending on who is going first, and you get one 'mana' crystal. One you use the crystal, its gone but every turn you draw a new card, then replenish your crystals and get an additional one, up to ten, so once you've hit ten crystals, that's it, you are maxed out, ten crystals per turn.

As I defeated AI minions, I won cards that could give me more powerful and varied abilities which would allow me to go in and tweak my deck of cards. Certain cards are marked "neutral", meaning they can go in any deck, others are class specific and only available to that class. There are also quests to fulfill or online games to play, which provide 'gold' to purchase extra packs of cards, or I could put real money into the game to buy packs and expand my deck. As with most of these games, there are two major types of cards; creature cards, who go onto the battlefield to crush enemies. and spell cards, which have a single effect and are done. Eventually, I could craft my own deck that I'd take out into the world to play against other online people.

The goal is to reduce your opponent's character from 30 to 0, via damage from those creatures or spells.

It's a pretty easy game to get into and the games play at a very brisk pace. A CCG for the iPad era, if you will; something you can kill time with while waiting in line and be done.

But it's also pretty strategy-light, especially if you're familiar with these kinds of games. I lost very few games against the AI-one because I mis-clicked a spell's target on my last turn- but others because I just stopped paying attention.

The strategy seems to be: kill all the other creatures until your victory is inevitable. Every time I did this, I won. Every time I tried not doing that, or stopped paying attention, I lost. You kill all those other creatures by maxing out your crystal usage every early turn and targeting opposing creatures over the opponent.

This may change when facing real players and I'm interested enough in Hearthstone to see if that is the case.

Another potential issue is the sound cues. In AI matches, every time you've spent all your crystals, a voice says 'Job's done,' to signal the end of your turn. Every. Time. There are other little touches like this: characters will threaten each other with their declarations of power, taking something from a Street Fighter matchup at the beginning of each game but after I hear the tagline three times, I don't need to hear it anymore. While these cues can be a very useful thing for new or visually impaired players, I didn't see something in the settings that let me turn it off.

So it's engaging but it isn't amazing. I'll check it out online to see how that goes. 

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