Since the launch of the DOTA 2 beta shortly after the International at Gamescom in 2011, I believe I have devoted more time into this game than I have into all other games combined. Since the past two years have yielded some other incredible games (Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, Monaco, Gunpoint just to name a few), there must be something really great about DOTA 2, right? Or is it just incredibly addictive? Or do I just have some sort of mental problem? To be honest, I don’t even know.
DOTA 2, the free-to-play, Valve-made “sequel” to the incredibly popular Warcraft 3 mod, “the Defense of the Ancients,” sits around the top of the new and already annoyingly oversaturated ‘MOBA’ (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) or ‘ARTS’ (Action Real Time Strategy) genre. For the uninitiated, these game effectively revolve around two teams of five player-controlled heroes killing never ending waves of creeps (weaker, gold bearing NPC baddies), neutral creep camps, other heroes and a series of towers leading to each base to ultimately destroy the opposing team’s ‘ancient,’ which lies at the heart of their base. Movement is handled with clicks of the right mouse button, meaning that players of recent RTS games should catch on quickly, and hero abilities are usually mapped to the keys: Q, W, E and R.
After a hero gains a level (from gaining XP in combat), the player chooses to put a skill point into one of his abilities which can range, depending on the hero, from single-target stuns to summons to large AOE (area of effect) nukes to passive increases in stats. Each hero’s fourth ability is generally referred to as his “ultimate,” as he cannot access it until level six, whereas the others were always available to level. Ultimates are usually incredibly important abilities that help to define the role of their respective hero.
Most abilities help to dispose of creeps or enemy heroes, albeit by different means. Scoring the hit on a creep or hero that reduces their HP to zero (the killing blow) rewards you with gold. Gold gained is used to buy items (and there are a LOT of those), most of which offer some kind of passive stat increase, but many also offer activated abilities, such as magic immunity for a duration or the ability to turn an opponent into a harmless sheep for a few seconds. A player can also use gold to ‘buy back’ after a death, eschewing the otherwise mandatory respawn timer in exchange for your cold, hard cash. This option brings another element of strategy as knowing when to buy back, or even when to save gold for a buy back, can become incredibly important.
The game gets even more ridiculously strategic/hectic when you take into account other terms common to DOTA games like denying, runes, pushing, jungling, ganking, warding, secret shops, couriers and Roshan. If that all sounds complicated, unfortunately that’s only the beginning, as I can with confidence, say that DOTA 2 is the most deep of an already complex genre.
Don’t let that last part scare you off, though, DOTA 2 has a tutorial which helpfully explains the basics of the game, while pitting you against creeps and computer controlled opponents. Though parts of the tutorial were unclear and, as a whole, it assumed at least a basic knowledge of computer gaming (i.e. it confused my girlfriend), for the most part, it gets you ready for the next step in a new player’s quest: bot matches. Bot matches are full games played entirely against computer-controlled opponents with either AI or human allies. The AI plays with a limited amount of strategy and risk making these matches a perfect way for beginners to learn or for seasoned players to try out different heroes or hero builds.
The bread and butter of this game, though, are its matchmaking modes. The game has a variety of different “modes,” which are effectively just different ways in which players’ heroes are selected. In a standard, All-Pick match, my least favorite of the game modes, players have the entire current pool of 102 heroes to choose from. The average game lasts around 30 minutes to one hour and is a topsy-turvy roller coaster of emotions (honestly the best words I could find to describe it). The game will vary incredibly for you based on not only your hero pick, but also those of your teammates and opponents. No matter how the game starts, there are always these adrenaline-pumping moments where you’ll either just barely escape death and feel like you’d just won the lottery or do something equally ridiculous and emerge beaming with pride. Each game requires constant attention and concentration for its entirety (one of the reasons my girlfriend hates when I play), and taking advantage of another players’ unfortunate distraction will never be more satisfying. No game is ever identical and in each, you will learn something new.
Unfortunately though, when either you or your team have a bad game, and both WILL have bad games, about half the time, there will be in incredibly petty argument over who was at fault and the infamous MOBA community will rear its ugly head as you or a teammate is insulted so much and so ridiculously that you feel like whomever is doing the talking should not be allowed to ever have contact with other humans. Luckily, for these rare occasions, Valve has added a “reporting system” through which players can report these asshats for being asshats and those players will, in the future, have a much harder time finding games or even get temporary bans.
This can also be avoided by teaming up with friends instead of strangers.
Aesthetically, the game has never failed to be impressive, and still continues to improve through updates. The game’s soundtrack, while not particularly amazing, still has a few tracks that I find myself humming randomly throughout my week. In the event the soundtrack disappoints you, I can assure Valve did an amazing job on everything else audible. The characters’ voice actors are top-notch and each character has a ridiculous amount of spoken responses to different events (leading one man to prank call a magic shop as DOTA 2’s Antimage for maximum hilarity).
The graphics are nice and stylish while not being incredibly demanding of computational power. On the highest settings though, the game looks fantastic. The UI could stand a few improvements in certain areas, like the item shop screen which, though I personally don’t mind, many complain about. Through regular updates, models are constantly being updated,and visual enhancements to heroes, mostly non-standard equipment, can be won randomly after games or purchased from the in-client store. These enhancements, which do normally cost money, serve NO in-game purpose (other than making you look like a badass); DOTA 2 is not a pay-to-win type of game. Most of what’s available in the store exists for player customization, which I think is pretty awesome.
Besides all of that, the game client also serves as an incredibly capable hub for watching games either live or recorded. Constantly occurring tournaments, including this year’s International which boasts an ever-growing grand prize that currently sits at over $2.6 million, are a blast to watch and usually offer tips and playstyles for the player to try and emulate. Observing ongoing games can often be as entertaining as playing them for yourself as you pick apart strategies used by either team.
All in all, I would seriously recommend DOTA 2 to anyone with any interest. It’s difficult to pick up and play, but when things happen the way they should, it’s easily one of the best multiplayer experiences available. It offers incredible depth with a relatively simple premise (KILL THE BAD GUYS AND THEIR BASE), rarely relays any issues with lag or server splits, and is amazingly balanced considering all of its variables. DOTA 2 is updated weekly with new balance fixes and new heroes, modes and possibly even maps are in the works as well, making this a game that will truly become even better further along the line. However, with an underwhelming tutorial and a community that varies from awesome helpful people to those vitriolic asshats I mentioned earlier, the experience as a whole has just a little bit of growing to do before it can, to me at least, be perfect.
[Written by contributor Craig Morgan]