Heroes of Newerth is an online multiplayer PC game, so it is likely you are outside the target niche. However, if you’re like me and easily succumb to addictions involving competition with other players, then please read on; for Heroes of Newerth (HoN) is an online experience with solid gameplay and sharp graphics, intense heart-thumping action and tactical decision-making – and ultimately, mind-crushing defeats coupled with deeply satisfying victories. To truly enjoy HoN, you have to accept and overcome the steep learning curve and hostile community, but for some (including me) the reward of competitive success is definitely worth it.
HoN has taken the key elements of ‘Defence of the Ancients’, a Warcraft III custom map, even porting heroes and items from the original and renaming them to accommodate DOTA veterans, and improved on them. The limits of WarcraftIII are no longer an issue, and the new engine and user interface offer both new and old players a much refined graphical experience, as well as a simple, unobtrusive menu system. Many of the problems that DOTA players faced, such as having games ruined by leavers or being matched with players of an entirely different skill level, are solved in inventive and cunning ways. There is now a 5-minute reconnect countdown, for example, as well as a matchmaking and rating system; and, of course, a friends system.
The objective of HoN is this: as a hero of either the Legion or the Hellbourne, help your AI-controlled ‘creeps’ storm their way through towers and barracks to the main enemy building, either the Legion’s World Tree, or the Hellbourne’s Hellshrine, and destroy it. Destroying towers gives your team money (and stops you getting killed by the tower), and with towers destroyed in a given lane you can destroy the barracks in that lane, which improves your creeps and makes it difficult for the enemy to defend. And once as many lanes as necessary have had their barracks destroyed, you can attack the crucial main building. It is a simple premise, but one that has been replicated only in DOTA’s unashamed successors, and one which you will find hides layer upon layer of added complexity.
For starters, there are sixty-one heroes. Heroes are divided into intelligence, agility and strength characters – some ranged, some melee – and every hero boasts their own strengths and weaknesses. Each hero has four skills that you level up, but one of those skills is what is called that hero’s ‘ultimate’ skill, achieved at level 6, which can be anything from a highly damaging single target fireball to a disabling area of effect whirlwind, or more tactical, contextually effective skills such as one that swaps your hero with an enemy hero, or one that teleports you and your heroes to a specified destination. Then there are items. Many, many items. And I haven’t even mentioned neutral creeps and secret shops. As you learn the heroes, their skills, the items, their uses, which items work better with which hero, as well as which heroes work better with which heroes, then you will ultimately improve. But, of course, for this you need to play the game.
So what does a game involve? Matches are generally 5v5, and a host of game options allow you to customise various things – the main one being the method of picking heroes e.g. ‘all pick’, allowing the selection of any hero, or ‘single draft’, giving you a selection of three random heroes – one each from the categories of strength, intelligence and agility. There are three ‘lanes’ that your creeps follow that lead to the enemy base, and a river diagonally cutting of either side’s half of the map. The first few minutes are spent gaining experience and money from killing enemy creeps, while trying to either avoid or harass the enemy heroes trying to kill your creeps, and possibly attempting some devilish (and often suicidal) hero-kill attempts.
Sound dull? This part usually isn’tmajorly exciting. However, as you level up, learn newer and more powerful skills, and purchase increasingly devastating or supportive items, hero versus hero clashes become a lot more interesting. These can range from 1v1 skirmishes, to 3v1 ‘ganks’ (ganging up on stray players), or, as the game progresses, full-on 5v5 battles. Whatever happens, the ones that surviveare the ones that get the boosts of cash and XP, allowing their heroes to improve faster, forcing the other team to either play defensively or resort to desperate measures and perhaps attempt some of their own ganks. The level cap is 25, but games usually end by this point – though at this level they can reach ridiculous levels of intensity.
So is it fun? Hell yes. Heroes of Newerth is a game that can hook you tightly in its virtual claws, where you follow victories with an intense desire to do it all again and reap that same feeling of achievement, and where you follow defeats with a similar longing for a game in which you can redeem yourself as the hero-slaying prodigy that leads your team to a whitewashing triumph.
Well, I say it can hook you tightly. I’m embarrassed to say that of all the 71 heroes available, I’ve played every single one at one point or another, and thus know all their skills. I also know most of the items, and statistically I’ve died and killed thousands. And the scary thing about that? Skill-wise, I’m actually pretty average. My kill to death ratio is 1:1 (one of the main stats that HoN players look at), and I’m often the one that’s letting the team down. As a beginner, then, chucked head-first into a game that requires such a long time to master, it can be somewhat overwhelming. I’vehad friends that played one or two games and then just gave up. There is a tutorial, which does help to an extent, but of course only playing the game and learning the details will ever allow you to rid yourself of the ‘noob’ label. If you’ve never played DOTA, you will inevitably join dozens of ‘noob only’ games before getting anywhere (something I’m still guilty of doing), though the journey can be enjoyable regardless, as long as you manage to face off against those of your own skill level (or slightly lower!).
Besides the learning curve, another factor can ruin the playing experience entirely – the online gaming community. The torrents of abuse I receive sometimes leave me feeling angry, frustrated, and even depressed after losing a match. Sometimes I even get abuse when our team is winning. Although there are plenty of people whom I’ve had jovial team-chats with, or playful inter-team teasing. For every one of these though, there seem to be countless other players that shout at you, swear at you, and just make the whole experience quite a bit miserable, really. Also, for some reason, apparently originating with the DOTA community, everyone seems xenophobic towards Russians. If the learning curve doesn’t get you to quit, chances are the people that play it will. Thankfully, if you have a bunch of friends that can join you on your heroic 5v5 escapades then the defeats aren’t so bad, and the victories are that much sweeter. All-in-all, though, the HoN community is probably the worst online community I’ve ever experienced outside of 4chan – even the tutorial warns you not to let it stop you playing. Saying that, at least the community is well-established, so finding a game is never hard – not with tens of thousands of people online at any one time.
The online system and user interface is superbly elaborate while appreciably simplistic. Your profile tells you various things about you to do with kills, deaths and assists, as well as a multitude of other statistics and even a history of your matches, with their own summarising data and the option to download replays. A friends list as well as a matchmaking system are very handy, as well a list of heroes with their statistics and abilities, and there’s even a history of patch notes and changes accessible from the menu. The server browser is easy to use with an effective filtering system, and the servers themselves are generally sound, located in places throughout the world and thus offering decent latencies should you acquire one nearby, which is only difficult at peak times. S2 Games have stayed faithful since the beta, updating the game with new heroes and bug fixes, and performing regular maintenance, with version 2.0 a very imminent release.
The controls are simple, taking from DOTA the default of Q, W, E, and R keys as the basic skills, which in combination with the mouse are all that is strictly necessary. It works well, although some may find it finicky, if not dexterous or accurate enough, with mouse-oriented gameplay – particularly those familiar with using the arrow keys to move the screen. But then, there are plenty of customising options.
Graphically, HoN is nothing special. It does, however, look crisp and alive, and has a cartoonish but gruesome aesthetic appeal, and importantly it is rare to see any kind of graphical hiccup. Heroes each have their own detailed models, and their animations rarely belie their actions, meaning losses of hero fights can rarely be blamed on the game itself, leaving the responsibility of failure attributable only to either yourself or your allies (blaming one’s allies being a common verbal path to take). The game takes and improves on the Warcraft III engine, but keeps it both reliable and relatively easy to run, allowing decent performance on a diverse range of computer specifications. Though not graphically outstanding, the emphasis on performance over breath-taking visuals allows the reliance on split-second decisions and frantic responses that make HoN so exciting.
The music does get kind of irritating after a while – I turned it off and now replace it with my own – but the sounds of sword-throwing, vampire-biting, fireballing and bone-crunching really does help emphasise gameplay and immerse you into the action. Calls of ‘bloodlust’ upon the first kill, and ‘genocide’ upon wiping out a whole team will become familiar to you, and are always spine-tinglingly satisfying to hear. There is nothing quite like storming item-stocked and well-levelled into a tightly packed group of low health enemy players and blasting them with whatever ‘ultimate’ you might have and having that affable voiceover grace the ears of everyone playing with ‘B-B-B-B-BLOODBATH’, reminding everyone just how wonderfully skilful you are. Their accompaniment by text describing you as having ‘pwned’ opposing players seems to complement the maturity of the community that you will be playing with, but it does inspire a hidden sense of competitive pride within me to make itself known, just a little.
HoN is a complex, immersive and addictive online experience. Its highs are intensely exhilarating and its lows are horrendously frustrating, but it remains a polished and streamlined example of competitive multiplayer gaming. DOTA veterans will find the switchover particularly easy, though newcomers may struggle to overcome the immaturity and impatience of the community as well as the difficulty in full hero mastery. It took me a while, and I still slip up quite often, but I don’t regret it for a second. My only wonder now is how Valve’s upcoming “DOTA 2” will fare in comparison – but until then, HoN will keep me more than busy.
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