The alpha marches on, but there are a few clouds on the horizon.
Blizzard and PopCap resemble each other more and more. They share a love for compulsive feedback loops, a growing interest in free-to-play, and a talent for creating chunky, colorful art that you would probably try to put in your mouth if you were three years old.

That affinity is most obvious in The Garden of Terror, the latest map to be added to the Heroes of the Storm alpha. Two teams of five players, each controlling a different character from Blizzard’s stable, clash in a botanical garden with the objective of destroying one another’s bases.

When night falls, zombie plants emerge that can be harvested for seeds. When one team has enough seeds, a player can transform into a plant pot tossing monster with venus fly traps for hands. If there was ever going to be a  Plants vs. Zombies  MOBA and perhaps that’s inevitable I suspect it’d look like this.

Garden of Terror borrows a little from each of its predecessors. It has Dragon Shire’s player-controlled super unit, Blackheart’s Bay’s currency collection and Haunted Mines’ monster-hunting. Like Cursed Hollow, the team that stays on top of the map objective gains the power to disable enemy buildings, making it important to lay siege while you command the advantage. It’s another expression of a familiar theme, and the first few times I played it I wasn’t sure what it brought to the
game beyond a new arrangement of lanes.

Then I figured it out. The plant monster isn’t the main event: night time is. Dota 2 players will be familiar with the idea of a day night cycle where line-of-sight is heavily truncated in the darkness. This game mechanic is absent from the rest of Heroes of the Storm ’s maps, axed as part Blizzard’s comprehensive sanding-down of this complex genre. Garden of Terror restores some of the tactical possibilities of night to the game, such as ambushes from cover, subtle rearrangement of heroes, and sneaking objectives while the enemy stumbles about in the dark. Furthermore, night doesn’t end until the last of the garden terrors are slain: a team that’s comfortable in the dark can make it last a long time with sufficient map control.

This map, which feels straightforward and familiar, reveals its strategic potential over time, and that is my experience of Heroes of the Storm  as a whole. Heroes are designed to be playable by anyone with a vague grasp of RPG conventions.

Recently-added orc shaman Rehgar is a good example: he has a bouncing heal, a damaging shield, and can slow enemies in an area. As a support, it’s possible to play him serviceably by staying behind the frontline, shielding and healing your allies, and using the totem to run away when things go wrong.

His movement ability is what raises the skill ceiling for the more experienced players. Most heroes require mounts that take a short time to summon. Rehgar can turn into a swift spirit wolf at will, and in combat this can be used to stay one step ahead of the enemy team. In a game where most heroes have approximately equal movement speeds, being able to dash ahead to place a slowing totem gives you a huge advantage if you’re nimble-fingered enough to pull it off. It’s never as complex as Dota 2 can be, but that’s not the point: the freedom to experiment is the important thing, something I felt was missing in my first experiences with the game.

A new ‘looking for group’ system makes it relatively easy to party up with strangers, something that I’ve not seen happen much in other games of this type. A scrolling ticker on the main menu enables you to request an invite to parties with an empty space, and playing this way where you have a bit of extra time to introduce yourself and plan a strategy is vastly superior to flying solo.

The company’s approach to free-to-play is still haphazard, however. It experimented with adding account-wide account upgrades called Artifacts that promised to give experienced players a substantial lead over newcomers from the very beginning of the match, forcing you to spend the in-game gold you’d otherwise be using to unlock heroes. The system was removed following a player outcry.

That Blizzard is willing to listen is promising, and this would have been a very different preview if it hadn’t. But the studio also needs to be more astute with how it asks players to spend their gold, and what it offers in return. I wonder if everybody Blizzard included would not be more comfortable if  Heroes  was a full price game, and not free-to-play at all. It’d certainly make the experience more palatable to long-term fans, and it would remove the danger of further missteps in the future.

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