Blizzard’s first mobile game, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, soft-launched in Canada, Australia and New Zealand last night, after a full year of lead-up. This is a free-to-play live multiplayer card game based on the popular franchise. Even throughout the PC and Mac release, the graphics, animation, and interface all made it clear that this was a game built with mobile in mind. Hearthstone is already one of the most played games on Twitch, which should be an indication of how popular it will be on mobile.
Here’s the gist of the game: players pick one of nine heroes, each representing a popular World of Warcraft class, like Shaman, Hunter, Priest, or Warrior, and each with their own unique in-game ability. They get a 30-card deck full of creatures to summon and spells. After an opponent has been found in either casual or online ranked match, a coin is flipped to figure out who goes first. Whoever loses that toss gets an extra card, as well as the coin, which can be traded in for an extra point of mana for one turn. Mana is the currency players get every turn to spend on playing the cards in their hand. You only get one mana gem for your first turn, but get a new one every other turn.
Players then start taking turns attacking one another with spells and creatures in an attempt to reduce the other’s life score to 0. Creatures have their own attack and health value, as well as special qualities. Taunt, for example, forces all creature attacks to be directed at them before anything else. Stealth prevents a creature from being targeted by spells until it makes its first attack. Like Magic: The Gathering, creatures can’t attack the first turn they come into play, but unlike Magic, health scores are persistent; if a creature takes damage, it sticks once the turn’s over. This gives the owner a chance to heal it, but for the most part, you want to get opposing creatures put down as soon as possible. This often leads to tough decision-making when figuring out which of your creatures you’re willing to sacrifice in order to clear the opponent’s side. Also unlike Magic, attacks can be directed at specific creatures.
You can get new cards in a couple of ways. Every class has 20 basic cards that you can unlock simply by levelling up that class through the practice mode. As you level up beyond 10, you earn packs of expert cards, which have a mix of class-specific cards or globally available cards, each with differing qualities of rarity. After building up a stockpile, you can build a custom deck with the cards available in your collection. A nice addition here is the crafting system.
If you’re really gunning to get a specific card, and have a bunch that you don’t like or aren’t using, you can disenchant them. The resulting dust can be spent on crafting cards you really want. Of course, you’re never quite getting an even trade when disenchanting; you’ll get at most a quarter of the creation cost of a card when dusting it, but that’s the price you pay. I’ve actually had a great time on the PC version with this by burning all of my non-hunter cards so my hunter deck could be absolutely great. You can also buy packs of cards with gold coins, which you earn for completing quests, such as earn three victories as a rogue, or summon 50 creatures with a power less than 3. You can also buy packs of cards outright through in-app purchases. Finally, you can try your hand at the Arena.
The Arena is the competitive section of Hearthstone. You pay an entry fee in gold or in-app purchase. You’re provided with a random deck and are pitted against another Arena opponent online. If you win, you get cards for your deck, and move on to the next wave. If you lose, you get your exit prize in card packs, varying in quality depending on how long you go undefeated.
The biggest downside here is the requirement for always-on connectivity. For one, asynchronous gameplay is much more popular for mobile, since being able to dedicate 15 minutes to a live game isn’t always viable. Seeing as games rarely go more than ten turns, it would be great to be able to queue up multiple matches, and simply get notifications when my opponent has played and it’s my turn. The current timer mechanic could even stay in place. In its current soft launch state, you can’t play practice games against the AI offline, either. Even if you just accidentally tap your lock button mid-game, you’ve got to restart.
Besides that, Hearthstone is promising to be one of the major iOS game releases of the year. It’s doing freemium in a balanced way, wherein you get something that feels permanent from your in-app purchases, and even if you don’t want to spend a cent, the game is actually completely viable. The graphics are vibrant, interactive, and touch-friendly. The gameplay is both accessible and deep. If you’re in Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, be sure to download below and give this game a shot. Everybody else, sit tight — this game is worth the wait.