Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Price: FREE
Version Reviewed: 1.0.0
App Reviewed on: iPad 2

Graphics / Sound Rating: ★★★★★
Gameplay Rating: ★★★★★
Playtime Rating: ★★★★★
Replay Value Rating: ★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★★

The twofold attack of complexity and cost have always been the biggest barriers to entry for newcomers interested in collectible card games. Arcane layers of terminology and elaborate multi-stage turn structures can prove daunting to the uninitiated and indeed were almost my own undoing during my teenage introduction to Magic: The Gathering. Even if newbies can handle absorbing the rules, there’s still the financial bite of dropping $4 for a single booster pack of around a dozen cards. But with the release of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, Blizzard has managed to execute a truly impressive feat of plate-spinning. They have not only created a CCG that is both quick and easy for newbies to pick up (while still challenging for veteran card slingers), but have simultaneously crafted what may well be one of the best free-to-play experiences on any platform EVER.

The Worlds of Warcraft

Hearthstone: Heroes of WarcraftDrawing on art and lore from their juggernaut World of Warcraft franchise, players of Hearthstone engage in the head-to-head battles typical of most CCGs using decks of cards themed around various World of Warcraft-specific character classes: druid, hunter, mage, paladin, priest, rogue, shaman, warlock, and warrior. Each class has not only a selection of class-specific cards that can only be used in their decks (alongside the generic cards that form the base of all deck builds), but also a special unique ability. Hunters can deal damage directly to the enemy player, while priests heal the wounds of both themselves and their summoned minions. The shaman can call forth an assortment of buff-providing totems, while the warrior can stack themselves with damage-abating armor. These elements all combine to provide a unique feel for each class’ playstyle.

Trimming the Fat

Hearthstone: Heroes of WarcraftThe degree to which Blizzard has distilled the CCG experience down to its raw essence cannot be overstated. Every decision speaks to the meticulous level of thought and planning that took place, always with laser-like focus on the question of how the product could be made more accessible, while at the same time avoiding the sort of dumbing-down that would seemingly be unavoidable. This streamlining should be instantly apparent to players with previous CCG experience. There are no upkeep phases to plan for, timing rules to be mindful of, or hand size limits to constrain options. Hearthstone also eschews randomly drawn resource cards, with the Mana required to play new cards instead being doled out to both players in an incrementally increasing manner. Likewise, the main phase has little in the way of rigid turn structure, with the active player able to both play cards and attack in any desired combination – provided they have the resources to do so. It’s a simple thing, but it works wonders.

The streamlined design applies to Hearthstone’s audiovisual elements as well. Cards use visual effects and simple, unambiguous language to explain special abilities, and their layout forgoes unnecessarily busy clutter for a clear, simple presentation. Fans of the Warcraft universe will doubtlessly be pleased with the amount of flavor dripping from the game’s presentation. Everything is crisp and clean, with even the grimmest of in-game elements coming off with a slight gleam of whimsical cheer. Even the flat cameo portraits representing a player’s cards have personality and weight to them as they slam around the playing area, spouting battle cries and shooting off visual effects.

Free for All

Hearthstone: Heroes of WarcraftI mentioned earlier that Hearthstone boasted one of the best free-to-play models on the market today, and this is no exaggeration. Players literally do not need to spend a single cent on this game in order to be decently competitive. While paying to purchase boosters can certainly accelerate the speed with which one obtains new cards, in-game gold can be earned via completing daily quests and for winning sets of three matches at such a rate that players will generally find themselves opening a couple of new boosters per day. A word to the wise: avoid spending 100 gold on a single pack of cards when 150 will buy a ticket to the Arena. In Arena mode, players will construct a deck on the spot by picking one card from a random batch of three over and over until a 30-card deck is complete. Then they will have to test this deck out against a gauntlet of other Arena players. Provided one can continue winning, the prize payout escalates until three total losses eventually accumulate. But even if players wash out early, going 0-3, the absolute smallest reward they’ll receive is a pack of cards and a small quality of either arcane dust (used in Crafting Mode to create new cards) or gold. The experience gained, both in terms of learning deck crafting skills and the hands-on time with lesser seen cards, is quite valuable and more than worth the initial frustration that will come from early Arena losses.

Slideshow Attraction

Hearthstone: Heroes of WarcraftThe only gripes I have with Hearthstone are relatively minor, all things considered. Players who have a Blizzard Authenticator attached to their account to prevent hijacking will find that, should they happen to fully close out the game, their Authenticator code will have to be re-entered. This stands in contrast to the PC version, where players only have the launcher challenge them for an Authenticator code after a set number of days have passed. While this can be alleviated by just leaving the game running in the background, there really should be an option present for players who want to keep system resources freed up without having to revalidate every time.

Speaking of system resources, players on iPad 2 may be a bit frustrated by the amount of slowdown that they encounter. While the in-game slowdown never fully goes away, I adapted to it quickly enough, but the menu animations still looked like slideshows most of the time. I conducted some polling amongst a handful of games industry colleagues to see how Hearthstone was running on their respective hardware models and got the following results: Those running on newer iPads mentioned the in-game slowdown was minimal-to-nonexistent, but the pre-game loads and menus remained at least slightly chuggy for most of them. Meanwhile, the consensus among fellow iPad 2 owners closely matched my own experience. These issues are really quite minor as they in no way affect the gameplay; they’re just slightly annoying for those who may be used to the relative smooth sailing of the PC version.

If joining the world of CCGs has always seemed a daunting and vaguely ominous task, Hearthstone may well be the gateway drug that longtime holdouts hoped would never come. Slickly produced, full of character, able to consume vast swaths of free time for the low, low cost of absolutely nothing – this game is a monster. And now that it’s portable? Well, I guess I didn’t really have any important plans for the rest of my life, now did I?


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