This Ain’t Hearthstone: A Video Game Parody
It seems that in a post-Hearthstone world, everyone is chasing that money. Bethesda has their Elder Scrolls-themed CCG (Elder Scrolls Legends) in closed beta right now, and former Lionhead Studios employees founded Flaming Fowl Games and are gearing up to unleash Fable Fortune on the world. The latter seems less like a shameless Hearthstone clone and more its own thing, but the former is absolutely an unabashed carbon copy of Blizzard’s extremely popular card game based in the Warcraft universe. It shamelessly lifts mechanics from Hearthstone in such a way that I have to wonder how much money Bethesda actually put into game design for Elder Scrolls Legends. It’s telling that a company who’s been developing hardcore computer role-playing games for more than two decades is now copying a studio whose claim to fame is “We made the MMORPG popular again”. It really is a weird and confusing time to be playing video games.
So what is it, then, that sets Star Crusade apart? It’s really difficult to not draw direct comparisons, here: The objective of Star Crusade is to reduce your opponent’s commander (hero unit) to zero life by utilizing supply (which functions identically to mana) to play tactics (spells) and troops (creatures). It even has its own variant of arena called “raid.” At first blush, it almost seems like a shameless free thing that some inexperienced money-seeking developer farted onto the iOS App Store in a weekend. But the similarities end at basic gameplay mechanics, and Star Crusade is in many ways actually deeper than Hearthstone (with maybe less of that good good Blizzard balance).
I should say up front that despite my fondness for nearly all Blizzard’s games, I sorta hate Hearthstone. Until recently, their attempts to have a paper-like trading card game in digital format felt like a desire to have their cake and eat it too, with refusing to balance cards unless they’re very overpowered (looking at you, Starving Buzzard — being able to draw multiple cards each turn for only 2 mana? And you’re a 3/2?) while still releasing new sets and bloating the existing play space with potentially imbalanced cards. This all changed when Blizzard announced that they were splitting Hearthstone into two modes earlier this year: Standard and Wild. This works much the same way Magic: The Gathering handles new set releases, with some tweaks. The base cards will always be available for play in every mode, but only the last couple of expansion sets released will be available in Standard, whereas Wild encompasses all cards ever released. These changes have improved the Ranked play experience, but the game still has a lot of randomness and luck that I’m maybe not the biggest fan of.
Star Crusade, however, is much less reliant on what’s colloquially referred to as “RNG,” or “Random Number Generator.” Players are afforded a much greater level of customization over their decks, commanders, etc. than Hearthstone, as the number of cards in your deck directly determines your life total. It’s a seemingly small change, but super interesting: Do you sacrifice deck flow and playability to have tons of health, and hope you get lucky? Or do you run a lean operation in which you get all your best cards, but you’re essentially a glass cannon? This change alone made me love Star Crusade, but add into the mix commander customization — there are equippable “nodes” which grant commanders different activated abilities — and I’m in CCG heaven. I loved spending hours upon hours building the perfect deck around one weird or absurd idea in M:TG, and I haven’t felt that feeling since I stopped playing. I felt it this past weekend with Star Crusade.
Then there’s Raid which is, again, extremely similar to Hearthstone’s Arena mode: You’re given three loses until you’re knocked out, and the goal is to win as many games as possible before that point, with currency rewards scaling appropriately. You’re unable to use your normal collection of cards and build decks, instead selecting cards from a pool draft-style until you have a certain viable number of them in your deck. This is where I tended to spend most of my time in both Hearthstone and Star Crusade, because cards that are ordinarily too expensive or otherwise don’t fit into the current balance metagame find new life in draft modes. This is also where I tended to spend most of my time in M:TG.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing that Star Crusade lifts so many mechanics whole-cloth from Hearthstone. The basics Blizzard put in place are good and solid, but could have used some further refinement and a different setting (I’m a sucker for science fiction, particularly that which evokes 80s-era sci-fi novel cover art), so I enjoyed Star Crusade quite a lot. It’s also completely free on Steam, and uses much the same business model as Hearthstone, so you know what you’re getting into monetarily. The developers have also talked about adding a co-operative mode, I believe, which I would definitely be interested to see, though I’m not even sure if that’s still in production, as Star Crusade was in Early Access for quite some time.
FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), iOS ; Publisher: ZiMAD, Inc. ; Developer: ZiMAD, Inc. ; Players: 1-2 ; Released: September 8, 2016 ; MSRP: Free-To-Play with in-game microtransactions (purchasable cards)