Does any company have a better grasp on what makes a game triple-A than Blizzard? The company responsible for Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo, three genre-defining blockbuster franchises, has decided to step into the collectible card game genre with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. Although this is Blizzard’s first attempt at an online card game, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s packed with detail and play-tested to perfection.
Similar to other iPad card-battling games like Rage of Bahamut or Magic 2014, Hearthstone is a free download that gives you the option of spending money to build your in-game deck. Fortunately, you can still get hours of enjoyment without paying a dime– just be warned, you might encounter a few players with deep pockets and a deck full of dragons.
After a lengthy tutorial that breaks down the game’s simple mechanics, you’ll have the ability to jump into an online match, customize your deck, or practice against the game’s artificial intelligence. When you start playing online, your characters will level up with each win or loss, unlocking unique cards that can only be used by that character type. With each new character you defeat online, you’ll be able to play as them, for a total of nine playable classes.
Once all nine classes are unlocked, there’s an extremely fun and challenging bonus mode called The Arena. Here, you’re given a supercharged deck and are expected to last as long as possible against a string of online opponents with equally overpowered cards. The longer you survive, the larger your rewards. While your first entrance into The Arena is free, subsequent visits will cost 150 units of in-game currency, which can alternatively buy you a card booster pack or cost you several hours of playtime.
With so many cards to unlocked, the best way to advance is to just keep playing, and it’s not a chore at all. Each match can last ten to fifteen minutes, and while the luck of the draw is a factor, you can customize your deck to take advantage of emerging strategies. For example, playing as the Warlock means that you can sacrifice two hits of damage for an extra card. Balancing your hit points and hand is a recurring theme of every online match, which often comes down to the wire in a dramatic showdown.
If this was a bare-bones card game with well-balanced gameplay, that’d probably be enough to make it worth a try. But then again, it wouldn’t be Blizzard. Every piece of card art, background screen, and attack animation in Hearthstone shows a great deal of planning, with perfect execution. Cards shimmer with special effects to indicate their abilities– they’ll cloud over with smoke when they’re stealthy, or flutter in the wind when they have extra attacks. The card art is evocative, with many familiar Warcraft faces like trolls and murlocs. And the epic cards, when you encounter them, will blow you away with their devastating attacks.
From the way the screen rumbles when you take heavy damage to the interactive catapults and banners that line the edges of the screen, Hearthstone is an unbelievably absorbing online experience. Even if you’re already invested in other online card games, Hearthstone will dominate your attention for months. Don’t miss out on this incredibly fun, free game– it may be the best iOS app you’ll download all year.