The aggressive tact betrays the work that went into it
Blizzard’s communication when it comes to Hearthstone Mercenaries was fairly disastrous. But the reality of how this mode actually turned out is a far cry from the marketing campaign.
Guided by a very brisk tutorial, you’re introduced to the core tenets of the Mercenaries mode: you take a party along on a quest, kill a few monsters, then repeat. It’s all very simple.
You get a party of three characters, spanning the depths of the [mostly] Warcraft lore, and queue up actions. These can range from direct damage, to melee attacks, to spells, and so on. A turn order then appears and it carries out. Units smush into each other, or ranged attacks fly without reprisal, and that’s that. And it’s actually pretty fun.
There’s a sort of triad “X beats Y, Y beats Z” system going on with “fighters, protectors, and casters,” but that isn’t quite as stringent as other games. If you level up a party member enough it can brute force its way through a situation and get out of a weakness jam.
It’s the combos and the theme that really make Hearthstone Mercenaries. I was even attached to the starting party, who have good synergy together, feeding off each other’s abilities. The tank gains power when dealing a killing blow, the caster can pick off or soften up the pack for that tank, and the caster weakens enemies to set up your combo.
I can’t tell you how many games I can describe as “fun as long as I’m not in any menus” in this modern era of monetization. We’ll get there in a second, but Mercenaries has so many things going for it, and is built for bite-sized runs that far surpass anything the core game has done with the “endless dungeon content” in the past. Challenges (which grant bonus shards or other rewards) also gently encourage players to try out different party members, so you don’t get stuck in a routine.
Between battles you can acquire treasures and level up, and after a bounty questline (which is roughly 15 minutes, with battles leading up to a boss), you can go back to camp, build up new menu/ability/party options, and acquire new skills or mercenaries. Mercenaries that are inactive members of your party can trigger abilities from treasures, too. It’s a fun way to encourage you to take people along you may not even use, but want to level up.
My view so far? Play it, but don’t pay for it. Jump in and try it for free, you might like it. If it starts to feel like progress is gated, stop. Unfortunately, despite the work of the actual development team, Hearthstone‘s Mercenaries mode is a bog of eternal stench when it comes to monetization.
The pricey pre-orders bundles were frankly, insane, and the greediness of them will turn people away from what is ostensibly a well-designed mode. Not to mention the core loop of rewards, which is akin to a gacha system. Ah yes, all roads lead back to the new lootbox that publishers can say is technically not called a loot box in court.
The rewards are sometimes geared toward FOMO. You might earn Illidan [level-up] shards/cosmetics but not actually own Illidan yet, for example. Now you can eventually earn enough shards to buy Illidan, but that might take a long, long while (some people online have opened 100 packs, only to unlock one hero).
It’s clearly bent toward weaponizing nostalgia, and I totally get it if it makes people uncomfortable enough to skip it. Frankly, any number of elements of Mercenaries’ monetization scheme could have been cut, and it would have benefited the game as a whole long term. This is not the time for Blizzard [and/or business daddy Activision] to be nickel and diming.
Blizzard did a really bad job of selling this mode with a confusing announcement and oodles of pre-order bonus splash screens. It’s far more interesting as a diversion, rather than billing it as the next big thing for Hearthstone.
[These impressions are based on the free-to-play version of the game. You can follow Destructoid’s ongoing coverage of Activision Blizzard, and the failings of Activision leadership, over here.]