27 August 2014 - 17:00

Review of Naxxramas, the Adventure Pack for Hearthstone

YelloRambo shares his review of Naxxramas, as an Adventure Pack. Covering the A.I., release dates, gated content and boss fight designs.
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Introduction

The Curse of Naxxramas has brought many new things to table when it comes to the world of Hearthstone, our favorite card game: the most obvious is, of course, is the single-player adventure mode.

So far, the focus has been mainly on the new cards and the changes they’ve brought to the metagame at the highest levels – I have also written an article about this subject and the concerns of power creep, but let’s not forget the fact that the main attraction here is still the adventure: well, how did that pan out?

Monetization and  Basic Setup

As someone who does not intend to ever spend money on the game, I was very happy to see the relatively lax and fair pricing structure that Blizzard has brought to the table. Even if you were to buy the five wings with real money, it gave you much better value than if you opted to spend your hard-earned cash on card packs instead.

As for gold purchases, I think it was relatively affordable provided you started saving up in time – I found that playing an arena after every 300 gold earned allows you to get the required amount relatively fast.

I would like to commend Blizzard for making the first wing available for free. Not only is it a nice marketing gimmick, it is also a very fair approach to monetizing a completely new experience in the game: considering how there hasn’t been anything like it before in Hearthstone, I think that it is a very nice and customer-friendly thing to let people experience the concept of the Curse of Naxxramas and then decide if it is up their alley or not.

Kel'Thuzad

The difficult question, of course, is whether to play arenas or buy Naxx if you are a new player to the game with limited in game or real currency. I would say that the former is probably still a better bet – if nothing else, you get some refunds and it is possible to make some profits if you get good at that particular game mode. In the world of newbie F2P players, The Curse of Naxxramas still feels a bit like a luxury item.

As for the adventure’s design, I think they’ve done a good job with it. The developers managed to divide the content into enjoyable bite-sized chunks so that it would last for five weeks (apart from perhaps the last wing which I found a little bit underwhelming), and their interesting light-hearted take on the WoW lore seems to have gotten a positive reception.

The new board finally made messing around with objects interesting again, it’s a shame we don’t get to play with that in the regular game modes too. (I’d love to see that dark background when I am on 11 wins in the arena or on rank 1/top 16 Legend in Constructed, for instance.) The new soundtrack also really fits the mood.

Dire Wolf Alpha

Artificial Intelligence

The AI, though, is sadly still lacking in many areas, occasionally missing seriously obvious and very computer-like plays which surprised me (things like not putting the Dire Wolf Alpha to the side – I am no programmer but prioritizing a higher overall attack value for my whole board should be a fairly easily assessable goal for our robotic overlord). It’s a small improvement over the early days of the Innkeeper, everyone’s favorite punching bag, but it still seems like an incompetent toddler sometimes.

The developers have managed to mostly counteract this by giving some very powerful cards to the different bosses – but even though this method usually manages to maintain a level of challenge and the illusion of playing against a decent opponent, I was a little bit disappointed nonetheless. Turning the battles into what are essentially carefully designed puzzles is a nice stopgap but the problems with the artificial intelligence are still there.

Boss Design

Of course, there are only so many takes you can have on the 30 cards+hero power setup, especially with the current amount of cards, but it felt like to me that the earlier bosses had a lot more thought and effort put into them than the later ones.

Even though the first wing was also a little bit lackluster and not the best introduction the adventure could have had, I found the opponents in the second and third weeks to be the most unusual and interesting – Gothik and The Four Horsemen are probably my favorites.

Compare and contrast this with the final two wings where bosses mostly simply damaged or outright destroyed minions – not particularly unique ideas. Thaddius is, of course, a notable exception, but I wasn’t a fan of the idea of auto-casted free hero powers.

Sapphiron was probably the worst offender in that regard – not only did the animation take too long, it was just frustrating to watch as it did nothing over and over again, either because of an empty board on Heroic or because of my minions’ adjacence to the Frozen Champion.

Another slight issue I had is that the later bosses hardly ever featured any interesting dialogue, resorting to roars and groans and hisses instead – apart from, needless to say, Kel’Thuzad, the final boss of the adventure.

The difficulty level is not easy to gauge as a designer when it comes to something like this – you need to make the cards easily unlockable without making it too easy. I think they’ve veneered a bit too much on the “easy” side with the normal bosses as almost none of them took me more than a single try.

While I respect the idea of Heroic mode for those who are looking for a challenge, I think they made Normal a bit too easy and Heroic a bit too unfair. Beating some of the later bosses on Heroic involved a bit too much of the luck of the draw and I wasn’t pleased with some of the original bosses starting over 30 hit points either.

I also don’t think they’ve done a particularly good job with Kel’Thuzad: I have already voiced my dislike of 0-cost hero powers and his second-phase ability simply cost too much to be effective (the AI hardly ever used it – I also don’t understand why would its deck include Shadow Madness when that hero ability is essentially the same without limitation). Even worse, it was just plain too easy!

While I have never played WoW, I’ve heard that the boss fights echoed their counterparts from the MMO very well, which sounds like a nice nod but not something I can personally comment on.

Webspinner

Class Challenges

The idea of the class challenges is a good one in my opinion – giving the player a specialized deck for a specialized reward is a very interesting idea. As for the challenges themselves, however… let’s just say “hit and miss”. Some of them were very well done, some of them were very frustrating to play.

Not all of them managed to be as gimmicky as they wanted to be – that is partially due to some of the class cards as you can’t really build a deck around them.

Looking at them now, the Druid and Rogue class challenges were not particularly interesting, but the inclusion of many Naxx cards in those decks made them very unique and interesting back then.

The Hunter challenge (with the thirty Webspinner) is based on a funny concept but I really can’t stand the random element of it – it took me a few attempts due to some very bad draws and I found it quite frustrating.

The Mage and all the secrets were sufficiently gimmicky enough to warrant a chuckle, while the Warlock ran into the issue of Voidcallerendlessly calling other Voidcallers, turning the game into a demonic telephone line.

The Warrior challenge was probably my favorite: the endless enrage options led to some very entertaining shenanigans, including a 23-attack Frothing Berserker.

The developers generally made very good choices as to which class to pair up with which boss, and the same was the case with the Priest: fighting against Thaddius with a deck full of HP-boosting cards, Inner Fireand Divine Spiritreally gave a chance for those cards to shine. However, the Paladin challenge is widely documented to be too combo-y and while I was fortunate enough to beat it on my first try, I can definitely confirm that it relied way too much on the luck of the draw.

Duplicate

The New Cards

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve already talked about some of the cards in the expansion at length in a different article – basically saying that while they are not necessarily OP, many of them could definitely be a sign of power creep. Needless to say, that’s not true for all the cards and things like the Stoneskin Gargoylemay never find any use.

The underlying philosophy was two-fold: not only was this a Deathrattle-focused expansion, Blizzard has also stated that they would like to steer the game more in the direction of minion-versus-minion fight for the board control – and while this has led to some unfortunate side effects like the Spectral Knight, they seem to have done a decent job with reducing the presence of combo kills and extremely burst-focused decks – they were everywhere shortly before the release of Naxxramas and I am personally very happy to see them on the back foot.

Releasing cards week by week seemed like a very nice attempt to make the change in the metagame sufficiently slow – it’s going to be interesting to see how they’ll approach this question with the confirmed next set which will feature at least three times as many cards as Naxx did.

I generally found that the cards with negative Deathrattle effects – which are cheaper than their textless counterparts but have some sort of drawback, like the Zombie Chow– don’t have a big enough counter-effect to make up for the cost reduction. Of course, the metagame is still adjusting – we’ve seen the new rise of Hunter so far and who knows what else is going to follow that.

Communication, Server, Release

This is just a minor point but also worth mentioning seeing how this is an area Blizzard clearly has to improve on. They have been weeks off their initially announced release date and the first wing was almost unplayable due to heavy server load after the Arachnid Quarter was released to all servers at once. They have decided to have different release dates for EU, NA and Asia, which seems like the right call.

One would think that they would have learned from Diablo 3 and many other always-online release debacles. This didn’t sour the experience but it is definitely worth a mention.

Zombie Chow

Overall Thoughts - Is This The Future?

All in all, perhaps it is futile to try to separate the purchase of the new cards from the purchase of the single-player adventure, as I don’t think there would be anyone who would be satisfied paying 25 dollars (or for just that experience alone. On the other hand, that price would also be quite excessive for merely the cards alone – so we do have to consider the validity of The Curse of Naxxramas in the end.

It’s a shame that it has a complete lack of replayability once you’ve beaten Heroic as well – again, that comes back to the not particularly beefy artificial intelligence. It’s a decent one-time experience, but not much more than that. Considering the time and effort it takes to design something like this, I’m not surprised why they have decided to release the next set of cards via booster packs.

Playing through the adventure mode was decent fun but it definitely could have been better – while most of the boss designs were interesting and flavorful, there were also many examples of way too easy opponents as well.

Again, it seems like there’s simply too much to take into account as a designer: banning a few cards is nice and all (Doomsayerand Alexstrasza comes to mind) but the only real solution to stop people from breaking the challenges is to simply set up way too strict rules – or, in order to avoid making normal mode too difficult, setting up “puzzles” that essentially only have a single solution, you could just let them stay too easy. It’s a fair point, considering the size of the casual audience, but it has soured my experience a bit.

Speaking of which, it just feels like the adventure was geared to favor casual players’ tastes a bit more than hardcore ones. Not necessarily a problem, just an observation.

Overall, I consider The Curse of Naxxramas to be a decent experiment but it has enough flaw and not enough high points to make the lack of a direct follow-up perfectly understandable – and probably the correct decision as well.

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