Tuesday, 8 April 2014

What I'm Playing: HEARTHSTONE

And so we return to my ongoing attempt to write about every game I play this year, a project which became quickly complicated by the realisation that I don't play one game at a time. 

If I've recently mouthed off to you in a pub about something I'm playing and you fancied reading about it, fear not - there are another five or so half-written blogs just looking for a spare moment to polish and push out the door.

For now, though, let's talk about my great obsession of 2014 so far, the game that has made me thankful for sick days and waking up obscenely early at weekends. The game known, slightly awkwardly, as...

Hearthstone_Screenshot_4.7.2014.22.36.35

A free-to-play collectible card game for PC, translating Magic: The Gathering from cardboard to silicon and populating it with the dwarves, orcs and anthropomorphic pandas of Blizzard's Warcraft games, all relying on virtual packs of random cards bought with real money as its business model.

Except for that bit about the pandas, Hearthstone sounds absolutely awful, doesn't it? I mean, just look at this screenshot:

Hearthstone

I'm right there with you. Most of my teenage years were spent running away from the awkward flabby kid I was when they began, and from all the interests I'd built up. At age 15, I'd renounce fantasy as a genre to anyone who would listen. I'd cringe at any mention of Games Workshop. I'd hide the fact that I was reading comics or worse, insist that people called them 'graphic novels'. At the time, I thought this was putting away childish things.

But as I get older, and as my gut grows back to the size it was before I spent a summer replacing meals with milkshakes, I've come to terms with the nerd inside. After a few drinks, I'll tell anyone who'll listen about the latest goings-on in the Marvel Universe, or about my latest board game purchase that we've just got to try out. If I understood the message of The Lego Movie correctly, I think this self-acceptance is an important part of growing up.

Honestly, though, fantasy is still something of a sticking point for me. The naff painted art, names like 'Malfurion Stormrage', every card faintly marked with the odour of sweat-starched band t-shirts, sporadic facial hair and dice with more than the usual number of faces. Hearthstone's fantasy trappings are more than a little off-putting.

But actually playing it, I've been reminded that the defence mechanisms I spent those years building up are horrifically shallow, because the game underneath is excellent.

Hearthstone

Hearthstone is remarkably simple to play. Your objective is to chip down the heath of your opponent's hero from 30 to 0, using the cards in your hand, before they do the same to you. You get three cards to start, and draw one each turn, and they split roughly into two types:

Minions come with their own health and attack points, and can do damage to other minions or direct to the other player.

Spells, meanwhile, might pluck a card from your opponent's hand, or transform the fearsomely-statted minion who's about to bite a huge chunk out of your health into a harmless sheep, or just freeze them on the spot for a turn.

There are other types of cards, too, but minions and spells are your bread and butter: a handful of attacks, blocks and counters which mesh in all sorts of surprising ways.

Hearthstone

All the best minions have special abilities of their own. One of most common is Taunt, which means every non-spell attack has to be targeted at them – effectively blocking your opponent from causing damage where they really want to. Plenty have buffing abilities of some kind, healing their fellow minions, or boosting their attack value, or even granting them special abilities of their own. Put a healing-ability minion next to another with a respectable pool of hitpoints and Taunt, for example, and you've got a sponge that will mop up a few turn's worth of damage.

That's just the beginning. Playing my first couple of dozen games online, and getting consistently annihilated, practically every new match saw some new combination that stopped me in my tracks, made me laugh at its audacity or mutter swearily to myself over its elegant bastardry.

I remember the first time I saw an opponent throw an attack spell at one of their own minions. It was a Gurubashi Berserker, which gains three attack points every time it takes damage. By chipping away at the Berserker's health one point at a time, then healing it back to full health, they were able to win the game in two brutal turns.

Hearthstone

Thing is, I'd forgotten how exciting it is to learn by mistakes. That moment where you realise you've made a small but vital error, that if only you'd played that second card before the first then victory would be yours, is almost as thrilling as successfully pulling off the perfect three-card combo.

Hearthstone features unlockables, daily quests and all that lizard-brain stuff, but it doesn't rely on them to get its hooks into you. There's a tangible sense of getting better at the game, and even better, the rare feeling of 'what if I tried...?'.

I've hardly touched the deckbuilding, and my initial efforts have turned out to be nigh-unplayable, but I still find myself bombarded by ideas for how a card might work. Not just while I'm playing, either; I'll be struck by inspiration on the tube, or in the shower, or sat on the loo. Eureka!

It takes me back to when I started playing Spelunky, where perma-death meant every slip was a tiny, lethal lesson. Similarly, just by virtue of it being a multiplayer game, every decision you make in Hearthstone is irreversible.
Hearthstone

Luckily, each move is picked out with such clear lines – a little history of moves running down the left side of the screen, arrows to show what's affecting what, skull icons to show when an attack will prove fatal – that it's easy to spot when you've made one of these mistakes, and mentally rewind a turn or two while you watch the disastrous results play out.

The game also goes to great lengths to highlight everything your opponent is doing. You get to see them drawing those arrows then changing their mind. You can see them fiddle with a card, hesitate, then make the exact move you were hoping they would – or, more likely, the one you were praying they'd miss.

The game only lets you communicate with your opponent using six pre-canned phrases, which cuts out some of the usual horrors that come with playing against strangers online. It's also surprisingly satisfying, especially when you encounter someone who greets you at the start of a match and compliments you on a well-played turn.

Together with the neatly illustrated decision process, this means you can get a read on your opponent's personality almost as much as you would sat across a table from each other. It's just one of the ways that Hearthstone skilfully adapts the pleasures of an analogue boardgame.

Hearthstone_Screenshot_4.7.2014.22.37.18

The menu screen is an ornate wooden box, every skeuomorphic sub-menu stashed away in a drawer or behind a hinged panel. During play, you can see the grain of the table beneath the elaborate board. Even the loading bars say things like 'wiping off table' and 'glaring at innkeeper'.

The game never tries to convince you it's simulating a real battle. Instead, it's set firmly as a game within the Warcraft universe, played in the pub between adventures. You're an orc, playing with cards with trolls and wizards and draculas on them, rather than an orc leading a ragtag army which for some reason enter the battlefield one at a time.

All that high-fantasy silliness is just set dressing, which is lucky because the game doesn't really work as a representation of anything. It works as a game. The cards don't signify much in particular, aren't telling any story. They're just a set of tightly-honed mechanics which interlock satisfyingly.

Hearthstone

Working so hard to emulate the feel of a non-existent card game in a digital medium is a peculiar decision, but Hearthstone manages to pull it off, because it makes a virtue of being virtual.

Being digital means Hearthstone can handle a lot of the maths that is intrinsic to playing this kind of game - think of the little skulls I mentioned earlier - leaving your brain free to make decisions rather than crunch numbers.

There's a certain amount of ceremony to the whole thing that simply wouldn't be possible with a cardboard version - not least the amount of explosions. Opening a new pack of cards, whether bought or won, requires placing them onto a glowing altar. The pack bursts dramatically open, showering you with particle effects, and asks you to flip the five cards you've gained over, one by one. When you win a match, your opponent's avatar shatters into pieces, while tiny fireworks go off above the board.

Hearthstone

The ugly sneery bit of me is grateful Hearthstone is a PC game because it would never let me touch a card game which looked like this. If I did, I certainly wouldn't ask any of my friends to play it with me. But playing online, you can find an opponent at any time of day, and play a game lasting 10-15 minutes. In theory, it's a perfect game for filling small gaps of downtime. In practice, I've found myself arriving late to every social engagement for the last two months.

I haven't really warmed to the way Hearthstone sounds and looks. I'm not interested in the world it presents beyond the few square feet of table directly in front of me. But I love playing it.

As a kid, I used to read fantasy books and have to stop every dozen or so pages so I could run up and down my grandparents' back garden, my head full of talking animals and huge battles. These books weren't even necessarily stories - I'd consume maps and character guides and rulebooks for games I had no interest in playing.

I've since come to realise that it was never really the fiction I cared about. It was just fuel, a framework that I could use for play. It was the same thing as a desperate-to-be-cool teenager, adopting an interest in skateboarding that went no further than hours-long sessions of Tony Hawk's. It was about the chance to play, and videogames just provided a way of doing that without dressing up in a cloak or running around with a stick.

This was meant to be a quick review; it's ended up a small manifesto. The point of which, to be uncharacteristically brief, is: Games are meant to be played. The other stuff, whether it's wonderful or naff, is just set dressing. There are no guilty pleasures. Have fun.

Hearthstone is a good way of having fun.

Hearthstone

Other games I've been playing:
NIDHOGG

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.