Hearthstone (2014)

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Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platform: PC

© Copyright Blizzard Entertainment

© Copyright Blizzard Entertainment

I had my reservations about Hearthstone. For one, I couldn’t understand why Blizzard Entertainment was releasing the virtual card game separately as opposed to incorporating it into the next World of Warcraft expansion, sort of like what they did with Pokémon in Mists of Pandaria. I was also worried the title would turn out a lame cash grab with nothing new or cutting-edge to offer. After giving it a fair try, though, I can say the game is a well-crafted CCG that won’t revolutionise the genre but remains enjoyable just the same.

Hearthstone presents an arena where representatives of the nine classic World of Warcraft classes fight for supremacy. You get to chose from the likes of Thrall, a shaman whose powers rival those of deities; Garrosh Hellscream, a warrior currently jailed for his crimes; Anduin Wrynn, an untrained teenage priest; and or Uther Lightbringer, a dead paladin. Each character has a special ability that you can use once every turn: Thrall can summon a random totem to help him in combat, while Anduin can heal and gain back two health points. It’s worth noting that, if the lore were respected, the balance of power would be completely off, so I assume this CCG takes place in a different continuity than its parent MMO.

After selecting your hero, you’re asked to put together a deck of thirty cards featuring various creatures, spells, and weapons. Each class in Hearthstone comes with its own special cards that represent iconic powers from World of Warcraft and allies that fit their theme. For example, Rexxar the hunter can summon animal companions, whereas Gul’dan the Warlock binds demon servants to his will. Certain fighter classes, like rogue and paladin, even offer weapons with which to whack your enemies. I love this feature because it gives players the sense that they’re actually battling as their hero.

You start the match with three cards and no mana crystal. At the beginning of every turn, you draw a card and gain a crystal that can be used to summon creatures or cast spells. Mana is replenished at every turn in Hearthstone, and you can hold up to ten crystals, so there’s no need to ration. The goal is, of course, to bring your opponent’s life score to zero. As most matches are player versus player, a time limit of ninety seconds per turn is put in effect to prevent stalling.

The focus on player versus player is the most disappointing aspect of Hearthstone. Although you’re given the option to be matched according to your overall record, you often end up trounced by a veteran with legendary cards or bullying some newbie with a starter deck. It’s not so bad if you play during peak hours, but I would’ve appreciated a better single-player option. As it is, the game teases you with a tutorial in which you fight your way through a series of cool, diverse opponents, but, after your epic brawl with Illidan, you only get the same nine pre-programmed computer opponents over and over again.

© Copyright Blizzard Entertainment

© Copyright Blizzard Entertainment

This, I suppose, contributes to the issue that’s become the source of an ongoing debate on fan forums: the game’s pay-to-win philosophy. Hearthstone is free to download, but, if you want to remain competitive, you pretty much have to cough up the dough. The daily quests provided by Blizzard don’t yield enough in-game currency to purchase a significant amount of cards, and a lot of them prove outright nightmarish, like the infamous “Win Five Games with a Rogue or Druid”. That’s no easy task if you don’t like those classes and have weak decks for them, and, dang it, I like my shaman deck. I want to use it!

At least the developers have gone to some lengths to make purchasing new cards a bit more rewarding. No CCG player likes getting cards he or she already owns. Hearthstone only allows two of any given creature, spell, or weapon in each deck, but you can disenchant your extra cards to produce magical dust. This dust can, in turn, be used to create new cards, giving you another chance to procure yourself that special ace in the hole you’ve always wanted.

Hearthstone has a lot of potential for growth. Already, the developers have announced that they’re working on their first single-player campaign, “Curse of Naxxaramas”, which should come out “soon”. Also, the death knight and monk classes could make their appearance at any point, adding exciting new possibilities for deck building. Though the game makes for a lengthy download for a CCG, I suggest giving it a try, especially if you enjoy competitive player-versus-player matches. If you don’t, the tutorial is sure to hook you anyway.

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