G&G Reviews: Hearthstone

Reviewer: Jacob Toman

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment

Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment

ESRB Rating: Teen

Platforms: PC (reviewed), OS X, Android, iOS

Hearthstone is like a good book. You can cuddle up with a glass of your favorite beverage, a blanket, and a mobile device like a cell phone, tablet, or PC and enjoy a quiet evening.

With each turn new challenges, twists, and options open up. As the game first begins a world is revealed through the introduction of new characters, abilities, and cards.

What Is Hearthstone?

Hearthstone is a player versus player collectible digital card game. 2 players start with 30 HP, and the first person to reach 0 HP loses. Decks are made up of 30 cards (only 2 duplicate cards allowed) with 9 unique classes offering multiple deck types each. Games typically last between 5-15 minutes. The game itself is free-to-play, and all cards are unlockable through playtime, or through purchasing with digital transactions.

The Goal of Hearthstone is simple: make your opponent's life points drop to 0. Just like a good book, each game of Hearthstone offers a slightly different journey, full of excitement and unexpected surprises before the final turn. The fun of Hearthstone can be found in many places, and thanks to the multiple game modes, there is a bit fun for everyone. Whether you’re the ultra competitive type, or you’d like a game to casually play together with your children, Hearthstone has a range of appeal that is rarely seen in today's highly targeted gaming culture.

The Boundaries of Hearthstone

Cards are broken into 3 major categories in Hearthstone: Creatures, Weapons and Spells. Creatures typically have a value for attack, and health. Creatures remain on the game board until they have received enough damage to reach zero life. Weapons are equipped to your character and have an attack value and a durability value (how many times the character can use the weapon before it is discarded). Spells typically are a single use card that gives an immediate ability. All three of these card types have a resource cost displayed in the top left of the card.

Because decks are so small (30 cards) and games are rather short (Averaging 5-15 minutes), one choice can determine a game of Hearthstone. Short turns, fast games, and high impact decisions all combine to make Hearthstone so appealing to it’s wide audience of over 40 million players. (http://toucharcade.com/2016/02/11/hearthstone-heroes-of-warcraft-has-more-than-40-million-registered-players/)

There are 4 different types of game modes to be selected in Hearthstone (Blizzard is currently looking to expand the options for play and has goals for early-mid 2016 of even more options for play):

“Play”

“Solo Adventures”

“The Arena”

“Tavern Brawl”

Players have a choice to play against friends, or against others online in every game mode except “Solo Adventures”. “Solo Adventures” are customized boss battles that have unique rules, and also offer collectable cards that are only earned through completing the adventure.

In “Play” mode players can compete on a “ranked” ladder using custom built decks of cards to achieve recognition and test their skills against other competitive players, or go into “casual” mode for a less intense match.

The “Arena” is a mode where players are given randomized cards to build a deck with and then compete. Playing in the Arena costs either $1.99 or 150 gold in game.

Each week “Tavern Brawl” offers a dynamic option for players looking for unique rules. Once a week Blizzard releases special rules alterations within the “Tavern Brawl” that give Hearthstone a different taste than typical “Play” mode or “Arena” games.

These four game modes offer great options for players. The strength of this particular game is found in its quick playability and its wide variety of potential game interactions. The rules are simple, but the available depth is large enough for any die hard gamer who is looking for a competitive and compelling strategy game.

A Strategic Choice

Players make meaningful choices throughout every step of the game in Hearthstone. As players create a deck they need to decide what strategy their deck is built around. A game of Hearthstone can be won at almost any point of the game, and each deck has a tendency to focus on a few particular cards in order to achieve victory. These cards create what is known as a deck’s “Win condition”. There are dozens of websites dedicated to teaching and sharing deck building strategies, ideas, and game tactics within the Hearthstone community.

Achievement Unlocked

Hearthstone offers daily quests on a 24-hour clock that incentivizes players to return for in-game rewards. This is one of the attractive and fun mechanics that allows this game to be optionally free-to-play. Yes, you can purchase cards and unlock content through monetary spending; however, you can also earn up to 100 gold (in-game currency) per day. Individual packs are available for purchase for 100 gold (the least amount of money that can be spent on packs $2.99 for 2 packs), and entire solo adventures are available for 2800 gold. This means every week players can earn enough in game money for 7 packs (5 cards in each) and purchase new in game solo adventure content with each release (new solo adventures currently come out about twice a year).

Hearthstone also offers rewards for climbing the ranked ladder by giving cards and other in-game perks (such as gold, and dust used to craft cards that haven’t been collected through packs or adventures) by giving away tiered prizes once a month to players who compete on the ranked ladder. The better you do in ranked gameplay, the better your end of the month reward. When you’ve hit the plateau of 500 wins with a certain character, the game flashes a special “500th win” animation and from then on, your class character will be a shiney golden version rather than the base plain image.

Personal Notes

As of writing this review I’ve got 4827 wins in ranked play, 221 wins in the Arena and have 6 out of 9 classes with 500 wins or above. We have high standards in our game review system (which you can read more about here) but also want to guard against wasting our time and resources. I’ve been playing Hearthstone since it was in closed Beta in August of 2013.

*As far as tutorials go, Hearthstone's is by far the best I've ever played as an educational piece. The tutorial exposes new players to the rules, mechanics, and options made available through unique card interactions.

*Hearthstone is a quick game to learn, but has a high demand on a player's time or money in order to posses the entire collection of cards.

*Quicker games are the trend over the last 3-5 years in casual game development. By making a game that offers short individual match sessions grows the audience of mobile gamers playing.

*With virtually no objectionable content except for cartoonish fantasy violence, this game’s objectionable content compares to JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit or Brian Jacques RedWall.  

*Hearthstone is a great game to play with friends on the go, at a coffee shop, between classes, or during a break at the office. I play almost every night with my 4-year-old daughter before she goes to bed. She loves to move the cards around, name the characters involved, and we share laughs over the cartoony characters and fantasy themed gameplay.

*Decide before you play whether or not you are going to spend money or not on the game, then stay committed.I’d rather not have any of our readers or supporters of Gospel & Gaming spending $3,000 on Hearthstone (you can read about that incident here [http://www.pcgamer.com/meet-the-guy-who-spent-3200-on-hearthstone-packs-in-one-night/]).

 

The next time you have a few minutes to kill and the itch to play a fun, quick game, I encourage you to try out a game of Hearthstone. In the opinion of this reviewer Hearthstone gets high marks in theme, art, game mechanics, online support, gameplay, and availability. This combination of excellence in multiple facets makes Hearthstone a top tier game.


Overall Score: A+

G&G Reviews: League of Legends

 

Reviewer: Jacob Toman

Developer: Riot Games

Publisher: Riot Games

ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

Platforms: PC (reviewed), OS X

 

It’s hot, sticky, and humid outside. The summer is upon us. Summer camps, vacations, and epic adventures await millions whose lives revolve around the school calendar. Yet inside air conditioned apartments, houses, and gaming lounges, another type of adventure emerges: League of Legends. For many the summer means time off, but for the pro gamers of the League of Legends Championship Series, the hot season means win or go home.

This is the game, that changed the way the world sees gamers.

This review will hardly be exhaustive. I’ve personally played League of Legends since 2010 and know all too well that writing an all encompassing review of this massive game and it’s impact on gaming would be similar to trying to write a review of Football (soccer)...

I’ve tried to boil down some of the most basic aspects of League of Legends for our audience at Gospel & Gaming who may have heard of League of Legends, but have not played it. I’ll be covering four parts of League: the game’s genre, the gameplay, the Esports scene, and some final personal comments.

 

Genre.

League of Legends is what’s known as a “MOBA”, which stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. While this may sound like some kind of mano-a-mano clash between players in a coliseum type environment, it mostly derives its gameplay from a mix of Tower Defense games, Real Time Strategy, and Role Playing games. Each individual player controls a single unit. Different games in the MOBA genre have varying names for these single player controlled units; in League of Legends these units are called “champions”. Champions take actions to further the team’s goal of ultimately keeping their base intact, while destroying the enemy team’s base.

A hallmark of the MOBA genre is PVP (Player versus Player) play. This is one of the attractions of League of Legends. Since every game you are paired up with different teammates and different opponents, you never quite go through the same experience twice. This competitive angle makes the genre of MOBA rather fast to play, and attractive to watch. MOBAs are similar to traditional sports in that there are clearly defined roles and positions, as well as specific strategies that are practiced and used to accomplish goals.

Depending on the map type, the size of teams are different and the total amount of players vary. On the competitive map for League of Legends (called Summoner’s Rift) 2 teams compete against each other. Teams are made up of 5 players each. In the span of 30-50 minutes (on average) players will collaborate with teammates to compete against 5 real opponents.

 

Gameplay.

There are multiple map types available in League of Legends: Summoner's  Rift (5 players on each team), Howling Abyss (5 players on each team), Twisted Treeline (3 players on each team), and Crystal Scar (5 players on each team). The vast majority of games and strategy for League of Legends revolves around the map Summoner’s Rift since it is the competitive map type of ranked match play as well as for the Esports professional scene known as the League Championship Series.

Summoner’s Rift (Most Popular, used competitively)

This map is comprised of 3 lanes. Each lane includes 3 towers in a set, with the primary objective (known as a Nexus) being guarded by 2 towers. Each tower must be destroyed sequentially as towers that are closer to the Nexus are unable to be destroyed until the previous tower has been removed. There is a clear delineation in the map with a river dividing one teams side of the map from another. This is the most played map, and each year (referred to as season in League language, a season runs from about January through October, with changes happening primarily in the winter/spring) go through a new iteration with updates, tweaks, and hotfixes.

The game occurs through 3 phases: picks & bans (1), laning Phase (2), and late game (3). Each of these parts of the game are distinct. Games begin in the first phase, which isn’t even on the map, but in a lobby where each team may ban 3 champions from play. Then each player takes a turn selecting a champion whom they will use during this particular match. When the first phase is over, the lane phase begins. Each player goes to their respective lane with certain objectives and goals in mind. The strategy of the team will be contingent upon the performance of each individual during the laning phase. The lane phase ends when teams begin to group up for objectives and towers. This transition is sometimes called the mid game phase. The late game phase will see many team fights around towers and objectives, with teams trying to finish off the opponent. The game ends immediately when a team gets the final hit on an opponent's nexus. This can lead to some absolutely crazy moments, like this one from 2013:

Howling Abyss (Widely Popular for fun/cooldown)

Yes...I use the descriptive term "fun/cooldown" for Howling Abyss because this map is used for fun and cooling down. Because Summoner's  Rift is so often used for competitive and ranked play, players actually play League of Legends to take a break from...League of Legends. Originally conceived as a custom game from players on the Summoners Rift map, Riot responded to popular demand by making this map and gametype available through an official map.

The Howling Abyss is a map feature where two teams of 5 players are each given random champions to fight against one another down a single lane. Because there is only one lane of towers, all five players are constantly engaged in poking, prodding, and fighting one another. It’s all the excitement of teamfights from Summoners Rift, without the elongated period of waiting in the laning phase.

Twisted Treeline

The quintessential “3 versus 3” map, Twisted Treeline offers players something between a casual and competitive experience. Players can find 2 other friends and go into a ranked team scenario, or simply play on their own or with their friends for fun. Because of the map differences between Twisted Treeline and Summoner's  Rift, the gameplay is substantially different. Strategy and tactics both change as a game on Twisted Treeline is usually between 15-30 minutes, which is 15-30 minutes shorter than a Summoner's  Rift match.

Crystal Scar (Least popular, mostly played for custom game modes)

This was a map type released in 2012 with the promise of diversity in concept from the other two previously released maps, Summoner’s Rift and Twisted Treeline. Teams compete over control points. Each base takes damage based on the number of control points an opposing team dominates. The game name is known as “Dominion” and was highly popular upon release.

Unfortunately, while the promise for unique gameplay and a change in archtype sounded like a good idea, the vast majority of League of Legends players didn’t join the game for games on the Crystal Scar, and thus it has suffered much the same fate as Twisted Treeline: lower player populations and lower popularity, which leads to a smaller, dedicated portion of the community becoming better and better, while the casual player finds less interest and enjoyment due to the skill gap created by this popularity phenomena.

Regardless of the map type, League of Legends promises action, rewards strategic teamwork, and provides an environment for competitive play.

 

Esports scene.

The makers of League of Legends, Riot Games, have placed an unprecedented priority on the Esports scene. The Esports scene for League of Legends takes place across multiple continents, in South America, North America, Europe, and Asia. Professional teams train and compete year round to reach the annual World Championship event. In 2013 the LOL World Championship was watched by 32 million online, and was held at the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, and Kings, the Staples Center.

Established Pro gaming teams from all across the world have flocked to League of Legends to compete in the many competitions that the game’s developer (Riot Games) host. In 2013 League of Legends was recognized by the United States government by granting sports visas to players wishing to come to the USA specifically to play League of Legends professionally (http://articles.latimes.com/2013/aug/07/business/la-fi-online-gamers-20130808).

The game isn’t just dynamic because of it’s professional scene, but it’s also dynamic because of its viewership. According to Superdata’s research displayed above, more people watched the season 3 world championship than the College Football national Championship. Regardless of the observed angle, from professional players, and nations granting work immigration status, to millions of viewers and millions of dollars, League of Legends in less than a decade has become a worldwide cultural phenomena.

One reason why League of Legends has garnered the attention and fanbase that it has, is due to it’s ability to blend traditional aspects of hardcore gaming with competitive appeal of traditional sports. This has made for a combination of two very different stereotypes into one demographic. While fans of traditional sports like Baseball, Football, and Basketball don’t typically mix socially with fans of Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft, League of Legends puts to use concepts from puzzle, strategy, and reflex based games, while fostering an environment for competitive tournaments, events, teams, and ranking.

Because of this mixing of these otherwise very distinct micro cultures, and the success in Asia, Europe, and North America, League of Legends has changed the way gamers are perceived on a worldwide level. More and more gamers are tuning out of traditional television in place of online programming. This shift has allowed Esports to boom in a relatively short period of time.

 

Personal comments.

I’ve now played League of Legends since 2010. The game was initially released in October of 2009. Having experienced much of the changes, ebbs and flows, and growth in League of Legends, writing this review is overwhelming. This quote sums up my approach.

 

"Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n'y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n'y a plus rien à retrancher." -Antoine de Saint Exupéry

As translated by Lewis Galantière: ... perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away ...

 

League of Legends fits into a sweet spot for the MOBA genre. It came around just at the right time when MOBAs were beginning to take off. It was one of the first major independent MOBAs after the mod for Warcraft 3 called “Defense of the Ancients” was developed.

The learning curve for MOBA’s is INCREDIBLY high. While each individual match is relatively short for a gaming session (typically under 60 minutes), learning what works well & what doesn’t is something of a dynamic study. Because the game is always changing (due to updates, new champions, and content patches) players who wish to learn and grow in their skill must also dedicate time in game, as well as time out of game towards learning what works well, and what doesn't. In this way League of Legends actually resembles more of a traditional sport than a video game.

Don’t think “I’m going to get involved with the gamers in my community, I’ll play a MOBA with them!”. The amount of initial time it will take to learn the game (not master, simply learn) is roughly 100-200 hours (depending on the particular MOBA). League of Legends requires players to attain level 30 on their player profile prior to playing in a ranked competitive match. This means that before you can even compete with other players for a ranking, you’ve got to put in hundreds of hours of gameplay.

Do think “I’m going to get involved with the gamers in my community, I’ll ask them if they are willing to teach me the MOBA they enjoy!”. While the amount of time for learning the game is rather high, this means you can spend lots of quality learning time with other gamers. There is no better way to get to know a gamer than to ask to learn their favorite game.

(Statistics from - https://www.lol-smurfs.com/blog/fastest-way-level-30/)

The importance of League of Legends goes beyond it’s mechanics, gameplay, or unique particularities. League of Legends is a game that has and is still changing gaming culture. While the stereotype of gamers has fallen into either the D&D, pen and paper nerd, the Xbox mountain dew drinking, foul mouthed teen, or some combination between the two, League of Legends has been able to grow competitive gaming in a way that attracts both traditional gamers and also sports fans.

I’ve been personally impacted in playing League of Legends as it has allowed me stay in contact and develop relationships with believers & unbelievers from across the world. The potential for ministry in League of Legends cannot be understated. Jesus set the pattern in his ministry of traveling and going to where hurting people resided, worked, played, and lived life. The paradigm was set to go where people gather. The Apostle Paul continued in this paradigm, traveling to the gentiles whereas Jesus went among the people of Israel. Paul went to the gathering places of communities (most famously perhaps in Acts 17). League of Legends is one of the prime gathering places of gamers, and for us at Gospel & Gaming, we speak the language of League, and therefore have an opportunity to present the gospel to those who would otherwise not hear.

This is the game, that changed the way the world sees gamers, and it’s the game that changed the way I saw ministry.

Infographic from 2013 - http://majorleagueoflegends.s3.amazonaws.com/lol_infographic.png

 

Content Score: SUPPORTABLE

Overall Score: A+

 

G & G Reviews: World of Warcraft

[Originally posted on June 5, 2015]

World of Warcraft

 

 

Reviewer: Jacob Toman

Developer: Blizzard

Publisher: Blizzard

ESRB: T for TEEN

Platforms: PC (reviewed), OS X

Brief History:

World of Warcraft (WoW) is the pinnacle of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Genre (MMORPG). Whether you like the game or hate it, WoW is the industry Standard when it comes to MMORPG’s.

In 2014 this iconic gaming giant celebrated its 10th year of service, having launched on November 23rd of 2004. Over the course of its run, WoW has seen 5 expansions, each releasing new content with new geography, dungeons, raids, and aspects of gameplay. With each expansion, the story, gameplay, and particular distinctive aspects of WoW have grown. Players often self-identify themselves in one of three ways. First, the faction that they play on (Alliance or Horde), second, the expansion version they began playing WoW, and third, the class archetype that makes their character unique.

Blizzard has a pattern of improving, perfecting, and refining a pre-existing game concepts and genres. WoW maintains this pattern, neither being the first MMORPG, nor being an early comer in creating innovative gameplay. What WoW has done better than any other MMORPG, is perfect, tweak, balance, and elevate what other weaker games have tried, but done less effectively. Blizzard time and time again uses mechanics, concepts, and theming that is similar to other brands, but with less polish. The highest praise I’ve heard from any gamer concerning WoW is this:

“[WoW] Focuses on taking other games’ concepts, and doing them better than anyone else” –Sunshine

WoW delivers on all fronts.

*Player versus player (PVP) interactions are balanced and high enough qualify to have grown into an Esport.

*Player versus environment (PVE) interactions include a range of difficulty that allow for new players to learn, and high level of challenge for veterans.

*The environment is richly designed, and includes a level of detail that is unmatched in size.

*In-game community is unprecedented with virtually every level of organizational administrative tasking possible.

*The narrative takes players from learning about the world and challenges of a particular faction, to ultimately leading in multi-dimensional warfare impacting worlds.

When considering all the above, it makes sense that WoW has not only survived for over a decade, but thrived for over a decade. This review will check out content in 4 parts; Theme, Gameplay, conscience areas, and a few personal notes from Jacob.

 

Theme:

Warcraft is set in a universe of Orcs, Elves, Demons, Humans, Dwarves, and other various mythological and mythical creatures. Below is an original retelling of WoW’s narrative.

 

The narrative of WoW has the stability of a television show that's run for over a decade, with several character arcs and plot twists. The setting of WoW is a storied one fabled within gaming culture. It was originally a concept for Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, which was released in 1994. Warcraft: Orcs & Humans was originally a Real Time Strategy (RTS) game. A decade after the original release of Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, Blizzard switched its Warcraft platform from RTS to MMORPG. With the shift in game genre came the opportunity to expand upon the game universe at a previously untapped level of detail.

Gameplay:

As an MMORPG, WoW sets out to give players an immersive experience in a world other than our own by taking the role of a particular character that is involved in world shaping events.

Most of a player’s gameplay comes in 2 forms.

1.      Menu Interactions

2.      Reaction Interactions

Character progression is done mostly by text menu boxes where a player interacts with Non Player Characters (NPC) to acquire tasks known as “questing”.  Game story is conveyed primarily through questing. This means that much of WoW’s epic story is conveyed through menus. No company does cinematic cut scenes better than Blizzard, and the level of excellence they bring in their cut scenes makes me as a player want more epic cinematic, and less menu navigation.

Combat is done primarily through reaction interactions. Reactive combat means that players must react to the environment or other players (depending on PVE or PVP scenarios) by using various skills known as actives or passives. Reaction interacts require players to get to know their class specific skills and spells in relation to how frequently they can use an ability and how long an ability will be unavailable after use (called a cool down).

Conscience Areas:

wow themed wedding.jpg

Yes, this is a WoW themed wedding...

dirty dishes wow.jpg

Playing a game, shouldn't feel like entering a kitchen full of dirty dishes.

I don't know why, but this is trade chat spamming the phrase "in my pants"...

WoW is filled with brewmasters drinking ale, wars of racism and political interest, and has its share of immodesty. Violence is a given in a fantasy universe, and many of the tropes within magical fantasy worlds are included within WoW. As in any MMORPG, slaying monsters, bad guys, and various faction members is a part of the progression of the game. This slaying of various enemies is given moral grounds through narrative, and serves a mechanical purpose for gaining levels and items. The violence of WoW offers relatively few conscience issues, unless you are of a pacifist conviction in general.

Most of WoW’s questionable levels of modesty are equally distributed between males and female characters alike. My own confusion with the dress of character surrounds the level of armor certain characters wear. While I personally don’t have a problem with any of the characters dress, I would say that WoW’s target audience is an audience that is capable of holding full time employment. Because of the target age I wouldn’t recommend anyone in their teens to play the game.

Personal Notes:

1.      Internet Chores

I’m going to take a moment and talk about something I’ve named “Internet Chores”. Playing a game ought to be an enjoyable thing, not something that is a grind or monotonous. Any system which requires players to log in and participate by creating a fear of missing out is one that has the possibility to create an addictive habit. Having played WoW for 7 months I can say that the game highly incentivizes players to log in with great frequency through their daily quests, and weekly resets of content.

2.      Game versus User Experience

Ask any WoW player “How do you win” and you will undoubtedly get a puzzled look. WoW isn’t a game that you “win” or “lose”. It’s more akin to a user experience than it is a traditional game. With so many options and modules for player interaction, trade, combat, guilds, alliances, looking for raid, faction swaps, guild hall, garrison, and more, players are always being offered ways to interact with each other and the games universe.

3.      Trade Chat

Many players warned me about the notorious nature of trade chat to take any topic, and react in an unhelpful or toxic way to the topic. I found some of this toxic chat, but many times I found the opposite. Conversations could be had in trade chat with hundreds of other people, and those conversations were easily moved into one-on-one chats that led to great in-depth conversations.

On my second day in WoW, I had a very lengthy conversation with someone about the topic of the historicity of Jesus. Later that week the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri were the topic of trade chat. For almost 3 hours various viewpoints we’re represented by the members of trade chat. While some of the comments were inappropriate, much of the discussion was focused on the topic at hand.

In total I was able to have 57 Gospel Conversations in World of Warcraft, topics that led to these gospel conversations ranged from political debates, blatant religious banter, and sarcastic critiques of Christianity, to personal problems and questions surrounding morality. WoW has a storied community filled with rich interactions. For us at Gospel & Gaming it was an opportunity to share the love of Christ, and I’m thankful for the 7 months of gameplay on mission I experienced.

Here are all the cinematics from World of Warcraft, from 2004-2015.  

One of the reasons I highly recommend WoW is because there is a correlation between the events and choices of characters within WoW. These events and choices are integrally related to the way good and evil are portrayed within the universe of WoW. There is no better example of a game that creates scenarios where moral choices made by in-universe characters shape the game’s circumstances. Blizzard shapes narrative within WoW better than any other game I’ve seen.

WoW sets the standard for MMORPG’s. Any other company that is creating, developing, or thinking about entering the MMORPG world, has to both compete and compare to World of Warcraft. Its commitment to excellence & refinement earns WoW the highest marks in our rating system. In every facet of gameplay that WoW seeks to deliver, it exceeds expectations.

Content Score: SUPPORTABLE

Overall Score: A+