I am a big proponent for high production value games on iOS. I’ve made no secret of this. I openly supported and backed the Republique Kickstarter and even interviewed the lead developer for the game on Critically Speaking. There are few topics that I’ve argued as fervently for and few (in the realm of tech) that I’d like more to see become reality.
Now, there a plenty of examples if you want great iOS games, but most of them come from small teams with small budgets (though frequently with big ideas). Typical titles from the big budget companies tend to be cash grabs (Infinity Blade being the most prominent exception, and to a lesser degree XCOM: Enemy Unknown). Many are variations upon the themes of endless runner, city builder, or match three. There are a handful (probably a large hand) of spinoff games based on popular console titles, but when it comes to complete, self-contained gaming experiences, iOS is almost all indie.
And don’t get me wrong. I’ve gushed about more than just Republique on this site—Sword and Sworcery and Bastion come to mind. However, it’s somehow refreshing to see a big, well-established gaming company with a history of quality and success stepping into the iOS space with a complete and polished product.
That company is Blizzard and that product is Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. One look at this game and you know that much has been left on the iOS gaming table in terms of sheer attention to detail. The key to a great iOS game is native interaction, and Hearthstone has it. Cards move with a fluidity that makes them feel lightweight, as though you’re a casino dealer in a Vegas movie. Flip a card here, slap a spell card down there, rifle through your unplayed cards, every move tracks directly with your fingers—just as all great iOS apps do—and so few traditional games on the platform do.
In essence Hearthstone is a Magic: the Gathering-style collectible card game, only everything happens digitally. No actual dead tree and ink items to collect. The game, made for two players, pits the various classes from World of Warcraft against each other. Each turn, players gain an additional mana point with which they can play spell or creature cards. And that’ s the gist: build a deck, execute your strategy, react to the other player’s deck, and try to bring their health to zero. This is not special. It’s standard for just about any game of this type. The brilliance of Hearthstone is in its execution.
My first memories of Blizzard games all the way back to Warcraft: Orcs and Humans are of the sound effects and music. Specifically, Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness had units with specific spoken dialogue when selected, commanded to move, attack, or stay, and of course when clicked too much. Both humans and orcs had differing sounds, and to a junior-high boy of twelve or so, they were hilarious. In addition, the musical score set the scene, building a mental visual for Azeroth when the technology for visuals was still in its early stages.
Hearthstone recalls and expands upon those memories. During loading sequences, the old soundtracks make an appearance, creature cards speak the old lines (though re-recorded for higher quality audio and consistency), and they all have that quirky and often amusingly immature Blizzard humor. I no longer laugh out loud, but I do smile and shake my head, thinking of bouts of hysterical laughter out of the past.
But it’s not all nostalgia. Hearthstone’s visuals impress across the board, from opening new packs of cards, to flipping those cards over, to the initial opening of the Hearthstone box that begins the game. The frame rate is smooth, not as one expects from a usual iOS game, but with the smoothness we expect from iOS apps in general (think, “Scrolls like butter,” and you’ve got it). Creature icons fracture and crumble, each with a satisfying crunch or explosion that only further increases the physicality of player actions. Spell effects are gorgeous, yet not overreaching. No spell takes up a full screen nor do they waste time with unnecessary flourishes.
Above all, Hearthstone is a game that constantly thinks about the user, thanks in part to extensive player testing, but also because of the experience Blizzard brings to the table after years of producing polished games to one of the most demanding audiences in the industry.
Assuming you have an iPad, there’s really no excuse to not download this game. It’s free on the App Store and will not pester you with in-app purchase options (though you can buy card packs if you feel so inclined). If nothing else, load it up and see what iOS gaming can look like when a big traditional games company focuses on players more than quick-hit profits.