Heroes of the Storm outshines the likes of Dota 2 and League of Legends because it respects the value of your time. Blizzard's 5v5 team brawler takes a familiar framework, where heroes battle back and forth alongside waves of AI-controlled minions, and shaves off all the bits you never knew were so unnecessary until they're gone. Its brilliantly streamlined design makes for a faster, leaner experience that maximizes your fun-per-minute ratio, making its predecessors feel stagnant by comparison.
This battle royale can't be canon: iconic heroes and villains from across Blizzard franchises (Warcraft, StarCraft, Diablo, and even The Lost Vikings for good measure) have all been warped into the Nexus to fight for... the heck of it. With lore swept aside ("You really shouldn't think so hard about these things" says your paladin tour guide, Uther), all that's left to do is select a hero, then team up with four allies to destroy the enemy's main structure before they can level yours. At a glance, the colorful, cartoonish aesthetic and suite of five abilities per hero seem to be mimicking LoL, not building on it.
But all it takes is one match to realize how drastically HotS changes its forebears' formula, always for the better. There's no last-hitting (the game-prolonging practice of only attacking when you'll secure a minion kill) or denying (depriving your enemies by killing your own forces), so you won't get screamed at for proactively pushing the lanes that lead from your base into hostile territory. Items are nowhere to be found, eliminating the need to mindlessly farm gold for something that makes or breaks your effectiveness. There are no kills or assists, only shared Takedowns that count for all participants in a fight, meaning you're never angry at a teammate for stealing your glory. And your entire team shares a unified experience bar, so you won't have any one player lagging behind or carrying their inconsequential teammates on their back. If you're out of combat, you can mount up to gallop towards wherever you're needed most, getting you back into the action ASAP.
Beyond the constant push and pull of combat, the battlegrounds also stray far off the beaten three-lane path. The randomly selected maps (seven in total, as of writing) are practically characters themselves, each with its own distinct personality, distinct mechanics, and even lively voiceovers. Perhaps your team will be jockeying for control over Egyptian obelisks that fire lasers at the opposing base, or collecting seeds to summon a player-controlled plant monster that wreaks havoc on your enemies. No two maps look or play the same, but they all demonstrate the same smart design: constantly funneling players toward clear objectives, so that there's a perpetual stream of exciting clashes as both sides try to secure and maintain control.
The free-to-play factor
Like any self-respecting F2P MOBA, money can't buy power in HotS - but it will help you level up and acquire heroes way, way faster. If you don't feel like paying cash, every hero can be unlocked with in-game gold, which you earn slowly but steadily by completing daily quests (much like in Hearthstone). The inventive skins are all well-crafted and worth some real money, and are basically a three-for-one deal given the included color palettes. That said, the $20 unicorn mount microtransaction is almost insulting - but hey, you know some people are going to buy it.
As for the heroes themselves, HotS splits up its roster into four categories: warriors, assassins, support, and specialists. The first three fill the familiar tank/DPS/healer roles, with varied, fun-to-play kits consisting of some familiar abilities (get-over-here hooks, AOE frost storms, dashing strikes, and so on). But the specialists introduce some of the most unique designs I've yet seen from the genre. For instance, Zerg mastermind Abathur can contribute with buffs and creep spawns while he sits in home base, while an adept Sylvanas can single-handedly dismantle a keep through skilled use of her tower-disabling attacks. The specialists' unconventional playstyles feel invigoratingly fresh, though playing as or against them will take some adjustment out of your usual MOBA comfort zone.
If you've ever felt like you'd already lost a round LoL or Dota just because your lane was down in CS after ten uneventful minutes of last-hitting like a furiously right-clicking automaton, not having to worry about such minutiae in HotS is utterly liberating. Those kind of lulls that you're so used to in 5v5 hero battlers are simply gone. It's like that wonderful feeling when you first DVR a show and gleefully realize that you can fast-forward through all the commercials that you don't care about.
Blizzard's trademark level of pristine polish (which should hereby be known as 'Blizzlish') really shines in HotS' sound department, which cultivates a sense of playful camaraderie during the otherwise intense matches. I love the automated banter between characters: hearing my archangel warrior Tyrael bellow "Well done, healer! Keep it up!" when a support ally tops off my HP is an encouraging moment for the both of us, and does wonders to reinforce cooperation. As for the toxicity that can sometimes feel almost inherent to MOBA communities, there's no communication with the enemy team whatsoever, so taunting and bad sportsmanship simply don't happen. At worst, the occasional jerk teammate will have come and gone before they've really had time to annoy you.
That's because everything about HotS is tuned to deliver chaotic team fights, ingenious plays, and the adrenaline-amping rush of victory (or thirst for revenge) at an accelerated pace. Games clock in at around 20 minutes on average, lasting long enough to make you feel invested without ever dragging on. Neutral camps of mercenaries in the space between lanes can be recruited (primarily by punching their faces) to fight for your side, preventing stalemates while still leaving room for comebacks. And judging by my many late-night marathons, the relative brevity of each match feeds into that powerful 'just one more' mentality.
If there's any aspect of HotS that feels needlessly drawn out, it's the progression outside of matches. In some ways, it's profoundly rewarding: you can unlock alternate palettes (and even tricked-out skins) for your favorite heroes through dedicated play, giving you a visual way to show off your mastery. But some talents - buffs that take the place of items or skill-point allocation, as well as an alternate choice for your ultimate ability - are locked behind player progression. Newcomers will undoubtedly seek out recommended talent builds online, only to find that they can't access some boons because they're playing a hero for the first time. It only takes a few rounds to unlock them (and you'll have carte blanche access once your account's at a high-enough level), but these gated-off talents feel much less immediate than everything else about HotS.
Having known the breakneck speed of Heroes of the Storm, I can't ever go back to the likes of LoL and Dota 2. Those games are great, no doubt, and HotS isn't going to topple their popularity, but the way it creates a ceaselessly engaging battle in every match sets it apart in a genre that's overcrowded with copycats. By cleaving out all the downtime and putting all its focus on thrilling action, HotS makes the most of the time you're investing in it. And when you're likely to play hundreds of matches, that constant gratification is crucial.