Review: Hearthstone

It’s quite simply brilliant…

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Hearthstone is a difficult game to review as it’s constantly changing, being updated and refreshed, adjusted and balanced – but with the biggest major change in Hearthstone history shortly upon us, it’s a good time to reflect on the series first ‘phase’.

Fundamentally, Hearthstone is a card game. You build a deck of 30 cards of either your character class or generic all-class cards and face off against another champion. The draw starts with a random three from your deck, and you have an option to reshuffle any of these in favour of a new draw.

Each card has a point system – you start off with one mana crystal and can only spend this on playing cards. Each turn your mana increases (to a max of 10) and as such so do the points you can spend. Later in the game then you can play more costly and powerful cards. Each card has an attack and health value on the field. The goal is to remove all 30 health of the opposing Hero. You might argue whoever goes first has an advantage but this is balanced by the 2nd player having one extra card from their deck and a Coin card – which increases mana by one for one turn.

Games of similar ilk are out there, but Hearthstone hits an incredible balance of simplicity vs. depth. The wealth of cards all add varying tactical aspects to the gameplay – for example, Taunt cards force you to attack those instead of any other card or a Hero, Battlecry cards perform an action on being played and Inspire cards do something everything time you spend mana on a Hero power (which itself can do things such as heal a character, target any character for one damage etc). The simple to play aspect is aided by pre-built decks but the deck building aspect takes on a whole other level.

Multiple websites exist debating deck combinations and new evolutions in the metagame. Maybe you play Aggro Hunter, a deck supported by secrets and low cost minions with Charge (ability to do damage on the same turn they are played) or Control Warrior – locking down your opponent’s attacks and building your own defence until late in the game when you finish them off. Blizzard has kept this alive by regular expansions to the game – either by way of single player adventures or card expansion sets.

The single player aspect is good – essentially a series of AI battles but often with different conditions. One might see you fight an enemy with a very powerful and cheap Hero power, another has you escaping a runaway minecart with the only goal being to survive eight turns. These are wrapped up in a story arc with often humourous characters chatting away – and with one episode of each arc released each week it gives players a reason to check in regularly. Of course now they’re all out they can be bought to play at your own pace.

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Underpinning all of this is the presentation and in classic Blizzard style – it is excellent. Really high quality designs of the front end through to the game board and the cards themselves exist. Fantastic artwork with some snazzy animation around ‘shiny’ rare collectable cards oozes throughout the game but the best bit for me is the sound design. It seems an odd comment to promote this in a card game but from the moment you start it up you know you’re in for something special.

The music is interesting, fun to listen to without every becoming annoying – which is a feat. Each time you play a card you get a soundbite from the card itself and every time you attack they shout things too. It varies from a Mad Scientist’s cackle to a Leper Gnome who when he attacks asks ‘Give me a big hug!’. Ewwww! My favourite is either Houndmaster who when played claims that ‘I let the dogs out’ or Leeroy Jenkins – famously immortalized from a classic (or ‘classic’) Warcraft play who comments ‘At least I have chicken’.

There’s so much more to Hearthstone that it’s tough to capture it all – from opening card packs (earned through in-game currency from winning and completing challenges or just cold hard real cash) and the excitement of getting a Legendary card, to the weekly Tavern Brawl which changes the ruleset completely for a few days in a dedicated mode every week.

For now though, as Hearthstone approaches two years old the biggest change yet is about to kick in. With a new expansion about to be launched, Hearthstone is deploying formats in a similar guise to other long running card games like Magic. The idea is that a Wild format will be introduced where you can use any card ever in building your decks, but a new Standard format will be introduced. This new format will only allow cards used from Basic and Classic sets along with any expansions or adventures from the last two calendar years, and both modes will have Ranked and Casual play.

This should ensure that each new release really shakes up the meta game, as traditionally popular decks get removed from Standard play which will also mean less ‘catching-up’ for new players to the game which perhaps haven’t amassed a huge card collection yet.

Blizzard seems completely invested in Hearthstone and rightly so. Borne on PC with Mac support available too, this is really at home (in my opinion) on tablet. It seems designed for a touch interface and even on phones it’s perfect for on the go gaming.

For something so simple I cannot even fathom the amount of time I’ve put into Hearthstone. It’s quite simply brilliant and I can’t wait to see how it evolves.

Reviewed on PC/Mac/iOS/Android

 
 

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