When I was in middle school, Magic the Gathering began its domination of nerds. Being part of its target demographic, I quickly turned my discretionary spending away from Star Wars action figures in lieu of the addicting hobby of opening booster packs. Although it has been nearly a decade since I last seriously play MTG, I blame those damnable cards for my lack of willpower when it comes to things like Team Fortress crates, Counter Strike: Global Offensive crates, and any other avenues for collection through randomly chosen purchase. Blizzardís first foray into free-to-play, microtransaction-laden games, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, could very easily eat me alive. And after playing it for a little over an hour, Iím not sure if thatís a bad thing.
Before the open beta launched today, I hadnít really bothered to look into Hearthstone in any meaningful way. In fact, until today I didnít even know it was a card game. As such, this quick review should be read knowing that my hype-level was as close to zero as possible.
But now that itís installed on my computer, and Iíve dipped my toes into its warm pleasing waters, Iím hyped for what it could be as it moves through the early access period and eventually finds itself.
Mechanically, the game follows in MTGís footsteps very closely, with a few simplifications and an equal number of innovations. Like its card game predecessors, Hearthstone pits two players in head-to-head combat through proxy minions. Players control whether the minions attack the opposing player or his or her minions. Similarly, the game allows for various spells and abilities to influence the battlefield and its participants.
Anyone who played a fair amount of MTG for any number of years knows that Wizards of the Coast, by the very nature of an ever-expanding pool of cards to work with, eventually expanded the fundamental elements of the game. Mirrodin, for example, brought forth a slew of ridiculously expensive cards with the Ďindestructibleí modifier, which is just one of many examples of new abilities through the gameís lifecycle. From what I understand having only barely paid any attention, there are now legendary Ďheroí cards that act as a secondary player whose actions are based on a self-derived resource. In a way, this latter innovation seems the inspiration for Hearthstoneís most dynamic mechanic.
In the game, each player is represented by a proxy hero. Everyone begins life as the mage, Jaina Proudmoore. These hero characters represent the various classes from both the core Warcraft canon, and the later additions from World of Warcraft. Unlike MTG, the players have a selection of abilities, weapons, and spells with which to enter the battle.
Another aspect that differs from MTG is the lack of phases. By this, I mean that during a playerís turn there is no restriction as to the order of events, excluding the card draw that accompanies the start of each turn. One minion can be ordered to attack, after which you can decide to play another creature from your hand. This open-ended approach to the genre alleviates many of my qualms with the codification of phases in MTG over the years.
So far during my time with the game, I have noticed a few questionable design decisions. For one, defending players have no control over the outcome. There is no blocking to be seen. While this choice has not put me off the game in any way, it does create a sense of helplessness whenever an opponent suddenly unloads a barrage of minions. Hearthstoneís answer to blocking is the prevalence of the Ďtauntí ability. Players familiar with WoWís mechanics will quickly understand the system. Minions with the ability must be attacked before the player can be targeted. Attackers again are given priority in situations of multiple taunters, since they have sole deciding power in the order of attack. This creates an interesting level of strategy that might well be more complex than MTGís attacking mechanics. For one, it is not as simple as amassing minions and winning through sheer numbers. Since attackers can bypass their opponentís non-taunting minions, setting up a good defense requires a mixture of taunters and a menacing enough counterattack to provoke your opponent into attacking your minions instead of your hero.
In another departure from the expected norms determined in MTGís long history, minions are not limited to one action per cycle. There is no Ďtappingí your minions in Hearthstone. Whether this is a good or bad thing remains unclear in my mind, but Iím interested enough in the altered dynamic of the game to keep playing.
The only real annoyances Iíve found thus far are superficial and easily fixed. The gameís menu philosophy is erratic and poorly thought out. Some menus offer a Ďbackí button, while other require you to either press Escape or click the background to return to the previous menu. There are some other questionable UI decisions, but, I reiterate, there is no reason to believe that this is the final state and it should therefore be judged lightly.
Similarly, the constant banter present during battles could be described as grating, if I were feeling nice. While there was something charming about a mage and a Pandaran exchanging quips, by my fourth game I had had enough and promptly lowered the volume almost all the way. Voice acting might be, in part, to blame. There is a whimsy to every characterís portrayal that seems more suitable to a Sam & Max game instead of a Blizzard venture.
The inspiration for every hero in the game.
With these paltry qualms in mind, my enjoyment of the experience hardly suffered. There is enough competitive theory crafting behind the concept that I can safely admit that Iím hooked. Many hours shall be played and, unfortunately, several booster packs shall be paid for with real money.
After eight months in my new apartment, this past week I finally set up the emulator on the laptop that runs my living room media center. Game changer. This software finagling was inspired by Awesome Games Done Quick. Though I never watched the livestream, I spent several hours catching up on the runs that tickled my fancy. This included the spectacular four-way Super Metroid race, Mario Lost Levels, Mega Man X, and others. So far, Iíve played two of those games and Iíve come to a realization: I just donít have the fortitude for these games anymore.
As a kid, Mega Man X was part of my usual rotation. I definitely remember beating the game at least once, I think. Probably? Whatever the actual results, I spend enough time playing the game that there could be no question as to my perseverance.
This time however, Chill Penguin fell to my mighty arm-cannon. Spark Mandrill, however, was never even reached. That damnable midway boss--you know the one, big water encapsulated spike guy--helped me burn through at least six lives. My younger self, watching from his seat on the floor distracted by his Ninja Turtle toys, looked up with each repeat of the Mega Man death synth, shook his head sadly, and returned to Raphael taking down the Shredder.
Maybe that particular miniboss was particularly tricky. Perhaps Iím not the gamer I once was. Maybe my emulatorís just not quite right. ďLetís try another game, one I know even better than MMX,Ē I thought while sipping some green tea with pomegranate. Scrolling through the games, the choice seemed obvious: Super Mario World. That was my shit.
My memory of SMW is clear. The day I achieved the prestigious 96* stands out because of how long it took. I was only four when the game was released in 1990, and the SNES (pronounced in the traditional midwest manner as a one syllable word) appeared in my house a few years later. SMW began my collection along with TMNT Turtles in Time. So, Iíd say that I beat the former around 1992 or 93. Having defeated Bowser with somewhere around the minimal requirements during my first playthrough, and dicking around enough to earn some more in the following weeks, my parent took pity and picked me up an unofficial strategy guide.
(Yup. This is the guide...)
This little tome was my bible for the following months. Iíd constantly be pouring over the tiny black and white pictures, trying to comprehend its secrets. Those secrets were instructions on how to access all the levels. Though comprehensive, the guide did not adhere to any principles of clarity, concision, or ease of handling. My six or seven year-old brain could not make any real headway. Early nineties cable often offered a reprieve from the quixotic endeavor of 100%. The reprieve quickly took over because of frustration and once a day or so, Iíd get around to adding to my completion score.
This time however, I jumped into a slightly progressed save file I probably started three or so years ago. It began in Vanilla Dome. That relatively small section of the overall game sticks out from my initial playthroughs, more so than seems reasonable now.
Vanilla Dome 1, with its maze of turn blocks, killed me at least twice. I chalked it up to being rusty. (It was probably more than twice, now that, looking at a map of the level, I see the ending with its pipe gaps and that bastard footballer.) Eventually, I made it through and without feeling to horrible about my skills. It began to come back by the end, or so I thought.
My first attempt at Vanilla Dome 2 resulted in a no-death advancement to the red switch palace. Setting up and following those mid-level secrets come naturally. I see a row of coins blocking off a point of entrance, and I instinctively remove two-thirds of them in anticipation of the secrets to come.
At the moment I smacked that red switch, I was feeling good. Like, so good in a mellow way similar to what I expect finding a good parking spot must be whilst going to the mall as a soccer mom with a SUV-full of little shits yelling about iCarly or something similar except relevant to the children of today. No exclamation or other physical manifestation of my paltry accomplishment escaped my cool demeanor. Nothing like that. My girlfriend was making tea at †the time and already thinks Iím a nerd, and yelling like a sports aficionado about nothing spectacular would not help that assessment. It just felt good.
Blah blah blah, I died a few times trying to beat Dome 2 normally, but I did it with no real damage to my mood of exaltation. Then came the ghosts.
Fuck you, Boo.
It all fell apart very quickly from the moment I opened that door. I slid around with no control. All my jumps seemed to be tens of seconds too early or too late. My mojo had gone and left me to the ghosts trying to get all up in my shit. And up in my shit they did get. All up.
Dying six times in a row, and not even making it to the checkpoint was displeasing. I pretty quickly turned it off and chain smoked a few cigs. During my cancer stick suck fest, my shame consumed me. Where had my game gone? Had it left because I hadnít necessarily been using it as much as when I was a kid? Or was it a direct result of some personal deterioration of motor skills? Perhaps Iím developing Parkinsonís (considered seriously for at least thirteen and a half seconds)? I blamed everything possible of blaming: the wired Xbox controller, the (not)emulator, the LCD nature of the television, the six year-old prescriptions in my glasses, and everything between, around, or near me at the time.
Itís been a few days, and my shame has subsided, sort of. My conclusions are far-reaching and personal. In short, Iíve never been very good at games of memory and repetition. Side-scrollers and platformers require pattern recognition and reflexes that I donít think Iíve ever been capable of in any consistent way. I remember all the levels in Super Mario World, but I donít think I remember how to do anything to get from point A to point B. By that, I mean that the nuances of the patterns and flow of my and my enemiesí movements escape my pitiable brainís power of retention. AI recognition also escapes me.
Since its release late last year, Pokemon X and Y have consumed the most of my time playing games. Iíve easily put in 60+ hours between my two copies. Pokemon battles, at higher levels, require that you know the whole range of possible movesets and counters of your opponent, and subsequently how your team can manage to control and alter those opposing possibilities. For me, Pokemon is a game about walloping halfwit AI opponents in a grindfest of satisfying proportions. I donít always remember what type the opposing Pokemon is, that what the Pokedex app on my phone is for. I will never play Pokemon online because to do so would be to step outside both my comfort zone as to what a Pokemon game is, and to step outside my brainís configuration.
The late-twenties has been a period of retrospection for me in regards to my capacities and potentials. Going back to college late in life taught me a few things about what I can actually hope to do. For one, my memory is abominable for intentional usage. I can read the shortest, most moving book in the world, and the next day have no recollection of any name of any character in it. Having studied literature, this causes some problems. Some strengths have appeared to counteract this weakness, but still, there it is.
Iíve been coming to terms with these shortcomings for a few years now, but in relation to my gaming, itís required a whole different self-evaluation to break myself out of the resulting shame spiral. Itís one reason, Iím sure, that I play so much FIFA. The tension coursing through the pitch during a soccer match is not one of ďremember what to do when you get to the back four,Ē so much as it is like a flowing river. Reaction time is necessary, but there are ways to control the pacing. There is no immediate punishment to losing the ball, unless you have played too greedily. Although there is a timer attempting to rush you towards victory, it differs from the timer found in Mario games. Both teams are affected by time in soccer, whereas the Koopas and Goombas could not care less if you sit in the middle of the level making no forward progress. Mario must be stopped again and again. He is powerless except as a force upon the clockwork machinations of the level. FIFA allows me to use my intuition to manipulate the twenty-two players on the pitch.
None of this is to say I donít love sidescrollers still. I do. I plan on going home after writing this post up and playing one or another of the many waiting for me. However, I do not plan on doing that well. I will not beat SMB 1 or Sonic 2 in a sitting or two. Nor will I persist in trying, after some weeks, probably. At 27, Iím learning to let go of my preconceived notions of gaming, and to allow myself to play to my strengths.
I was born of video games. Huddled around the blocky, wood-paneled television in a corner of my childhood dining room, I watched my parents roll the counter on the Atari version of Asteroids. To this day I believe they were better than I could ever hope to be.†
Until the age of 21 or so, I'd game everyday. Through some financial magic, my impoverished parents always managed to buy the newest system--though perhaps a year or two after release. With each new system at my disposal, I'd button-mash my way through the eclectic selection of games I'd slowly gather. Final Fantasy did not enter my life until Tactics, yet for some reason I owned Bubsy and all the sequels.
I loved that damn cat and his lust for balls of yarn.†
The transition to the third dimension began as I entered middle school. The world took on new meaning the first time I played Mario 64. That first experience with an analog stick, not long after midnight with school menacingly awaiting me in the morning, nearing made me vomit. Vomit with excitement over a changing paradigm. Of course, that's an observation of hindsight. At the time, I just felt a looming sense of change.
That system, the Nintendo 64, also marked my entrance into the mainstream. By that, I mean that the gaming industry was shifting. Because internet. Because slow acceptance by the cautious public.†
In elementary school, I'd talk on the phone with my friends for hours while playing games. We'd discuss other things at times, but ultimately our conversations would fixate on the game de jour. Oftentimes, we'd be playing quite dissimilar genres on diametrically opposed consoles. While I was struggling with Chemical Zone, my friend might be vanquishing Klingons on his old IBM.†
By high school, nightly chats had evaporated into the ether as a result of the shame of conversation. Camaraderie gestated in person whilst mowing down pedestrians in GTA3, or during all-night Warcraft 3-driven LAN parties. Our tastes were no longer self-derived. Our games of choice were the games of choice of almost everyone (or, if not quite everyone, everyone among our clique).†
We began to accept hype as a determining factor in our purchasing decisions. High profile games, including sports franchises, crept into our collections. The number of hours I played Madden 02 is absurd considering my sustained disdain for the sport disregarding a few aborted attempts to become a 'football person.'†
The rise of IGN is partially to blame for my own assimilation into the morass of big budget. Although I almost never read its fragmented attempts at early internet games journalism, most, if not all of my friends did. And then they'd hype and hype and hype the flavor of the month.†
Where am I going with, you're probably asking. In a roundabout way, I'm trying to track the situation I currently find myself. I graduated college on my second attempt at 26, having dropped out when I was freshly 20. During the interim of six years, my gaming was extremely limited. What was once an everyday hobby, became an indulgence rejected but once or twice a year: usually for a Pokemon game, or maybe a passing interest in something sparkly and addictive. Instead of sinking endless hours on this game or that, I began a regimen of reading "high Literature" for eight hours a day. I maintained that pace for well over four years.†
Attending a preeminent liberal arts college with constant social alternative in comparison to my ungodly boring midwest homeland, my pace slackened. And then I graduated, and found myself with the ambition or perseverance to read. Burned out? Maybe. We'll see.†
In short, I've been playing video games again! Even more worthwhile of an exclamatory piece of punctuation is the fact that I'm going to attempt to write up some thoughts on my experiences. My first planned post (after this rambling monstrosity of self-indulgent retrospection, that is) shall cover my time with the past two iterations of FIFA, my futbol addiction in general, and thoughts thereupon.†
Thanks to anyone who managed to stick through to the end. As a reward, here's a picture of me with my precious hedgehog, Romana.†