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Rich McCormick

Sep 22, 2012

Dota 2

Huskar get CANCER.” I was Huskar. A small incarnation of Zeus was shouting at me in text chat. “HUSKAR NOOB UNINSTALL GAME GET CANCER DIE IN A FIRE.”

Why he was shouting these things takes some explaining. Dota 2 itself takes some explaining.

Dota 2 is a so-called MOBA. MOBA stands for 'multiplayer online battle arena', a terrible catch-all term that describes all games ever. A better term would be 'DotA-like' – referencing the originator of the genre: Warcraft III's Defence of the Ancients mod. In a world filling up with DotA-likes – League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, SMITE, Bloodline Champions– Dota 2 is the most dotingly DotA-like.

Like DotA, Dota 2 pits two teams of five players against each other. Like DotA, Dota 2is a mix of strategy and RPG, demanding skill management and tactical positioning. Like DotA, Dota 2casts you as one of a pool of more than 80 heroes – soon to be 108, once Valve have finished tweaking – each with their own distinct visual style and combat abilities. And I was Huskar.

Dota 2 review
Nooo, the Ancient! That's where we store our crisps!

Huskar is a muscular blue hunter. He wears a headdress made of bones, and carries a spear that he can hurl at Dota 2's two main types of enemy: AI 'creeps' that charge merrily down the game's three lanes, and the human-controlled heroes on the opposite team. I was playing Huskar, and I was making Zeus angry by doing it badly.

“NOT SPEAR HUSKAR dont use burn spear idoit.”

All of Dota 2's playable heroes have a range of core skills that can be increased in power by levelling up – in turn achieved by killing enemies. Most heroes have four skills – a few more complex types have more – and they're either passive bonuses, or 'actives', enabled with a button press of Q, W, E, or R.

Huskar's second skill is 'Burning Spear'. Press W and select a target, and he'll set one of his spears alight and throw it at a foe for extra damage and a short-lasting burn effect. Doing so doesn't drain any of Huskar's mana – an arbitrary pool that heroes use to power most of their active abilities – but there is a downside: each spear set alight burns away some of Huskar's own health.

Dota 2 review
Axe's dopey pun work is magnificent.

During one fight, I fell foul of this fact. I was fighting in the bottom-most of Dota 2's three lanes – 'bot', alongside 'top' and 'mid' in Dotese. I was chasing a wounded Lion past the no-man's land where the game's two tribes of AI creeps meet to fight. Not actually a lion, but a triple-chinned mage in a pointy helmet, obviously.

I lobbed spears in a desperate attempt to chew off the final portion of his life. Realising I wasn't going to score the kill, I stopped my charge short and stood for a second, before taking a large, white fireball square in the face.

I'd strayed into tower range Dota 2's towers are static defences that protect the three routes to the 'ancient', deep in your base – the pointless obelisk thing that you're doing the defending of. Early in Dota 2's 40-minute matches, towers are lethal to low-level heroes.

My health was already depleted from my scuffle with Lion and I'd gouged further chunks out through self-inflicted Burning Spear damage. The tower killed me in one shot, before I was able to react and scurry out of range. It was that mistake that set Zeus off.

Dota 2 review
He's called Tiny, but he's huge. It's a joke, see

DotA has spawned a lexicon of mad words. Of these, 'feeding' is its cardinal sin. I was, in Zeus's eyes, feeding the opposition team: dying needlessly. Die early and often at the hands of an opponent and you'll give them a distinct advantage over your entire team. In the later stages of a game, that advantage can easily become insurmountable: a new player, a player having a bad day, or even a seasoned vet making a tactical blunder, can ruin a game for four other people.

Death is punished in a range of cruel and unusual ways. First, the wait to respawn. Early on, it's a manageable 15 seconds; later, it's a full minute before you can get back into the game, enabling the opposition to gang together and run roughshod over your depleted team as you sit in the sin bin.

Second, and more painful in the long term, is the punishment of witnessing the gold and experience advantages conferred on your killer. Killing an enemy hero not only awards the victorious player with a chunk of experience, it also keeps the victim out of their chosen lane for a while, further limiting the XP they receive. By the time I was back in lane as Huskar, Lion was a full level above me. Were Lion to play cautiously, stay within friendly tower range and avoid over-committing when a kill was uncertain, he'd carry his advantage to the end of the game.

It's this that is Dota 2's main problem: a mistake or a misclick from any one of the five players on a team can confer a monstrous advantage on the opposition, turning matches into almost an hour of death by slow asphyxiation. For a competitive game, it can be incredibly demoralising to lose through no direct fault of your own, and the crushing sadness of a creeping, inexorable loss isn't always balanced out by the high of a win.

Dota 2 review
It's a test to see how passive aggressive you can make 'gg'.

It's less a high, more a relief. In Dota 2, the best you can ever hope to be is fully competent. When a Dota hero does his or her job right, you can't be sure they're doing anything at all. Get it wrong and to their teammates they're the worst humans to have ever lived, deserving of terminal illness or a fiery death.

“Huskar dont bay vlad get MASK fukcing NOOB.”

'vlad' was Vladimir's Offering, an item I'd bought with the gold I'd earned so far in the match. Gold trickles in at a steady rate to your personal stash, but big bucks are made by either killing human opponents, or by 'last-hitting' creeps: applying the finishing blow to get an extra cash bonus.

Vladimir's Offering is one of Dota 2's mid-game items: it costs 2,050 gold to put all the disparate parts of it together – four smaller, cheaper items with their own buffs and characteristics – and I'd been churning my way through wave after wave of AI enemies in order to afford it. Once bought, it sat in my inventory. I moused over it quickly between scraps and skimmed the pop-up text. 'Applies a lifesteal bonus.' I'd bought Vladimir's Offering in ten or more previous games, I knew how useful it was: a portion of any damage dealt on an enemy was shunted back into my health bar. It was great for high-damage, fast-attacking heroes such as Huskar seemed to be.

And now I had it, Zeus was calling me a noob. Why?

Dota 2 review
This is the bit where everyone is screaming.

“fuck noob vlad is MELEE NOT SPEARS.”

I looked down the screen, from where Huskar was bashing through a wave of creeps, back to my six-slot inventory space. I re-moused over Vladimir's Offering. 'Lifesteal bonuses only affect melee units.' Huskar's spears are hurled, making him technically a ranged hero.

Despite the fact that his 'ultimate' ability – the one situated on the R key that tends to be a hero's most potent power – launched him into kissing range of an enemy, despite the fact that his weapon was a goddamn spear, Huskar was singularly unable to benefit from my two grand purchase. A flush of embarrassment crept up my face as I played on.

“Ah,” I typed.

It was ridiculous. Dota 2 had already forced me to learn the basic abilities of more than 80 distinct characters, to be able to recognise their attack patterns and plan successful counters. I was expected to be able to play every type of role, from pure damage 'carries' who only reach their attacking potential at the end of the game, to 'lane supports' who exist to manage the flow of AI creeps down the maps, via 'initiators' and 'pushers', who respectively can start multi-man brawls with abandon and excel in knocking down static towers. I had memorised 'lane assignments': items to be bought for specific heroes with the game's starting 600 gold. I even spent one afternoon thoroughly perplexed by a donkey, trying to work out how Dota 2's arcane courier system works. (Eventually, I discovered the 'call donkey to bring your new stuff' button, and didn't fiddle any further with the furry bugger.)

Dota 2 review
Jump in to fights alone and get shouted at by your team.

But somehow, in this swirl of information – information utterly unintuitive and nearly useless outside of Dota 2, let alone outside the genre itself – I'd managed to mentally bypass one particular speck of knowledge about one of the two hundred items.

The sensible option would be to give up. Dota 2 is already populated by people weaned on DotA, people who can call up Vladimir's Offering stats while half-cut. The game is such an imposing fortress, so densely packed with information that has to be acknowledged and digested before it's possible to play, let alone have fun, that the cold, logical part of my brain should've packed-in the enterprise right there and then.

Many will. Dota 2 is a game for people who relish the chance to learn new – and often entirely arbitrary – systems. It can feel like you're beating your head against those fortress walls, and – thanks to the already staggeringly huge Dota 2 playerbase – that wall will occasionally beat right back.

Quietly, I sold Vladimir's Offering. I got half of my gold back. I used it to buy a Morbid Mask: an item I'd already bought and turned into the Offering earlier in the game. I hoped Zeus wouldn't notice.

“Husk noob shit”

Dota 2 review
They're called creeps, but they're nice guys really.

He did. My psychotic Zeus was an extreme example, but he's by no means the angriest man I've played with. Personal failure in Dota 2 is writ large for all to see, and writ in the form of a slow and painful public mauling where your peers berate you for your existence. That genre peculiarity, coupled with a hyper-dedicated community and the deep trench of knowledge that must be dredged, has bred spectacularly aggressive players. The default mode for most seems to be apoplectic, sometimes dialed back to needlessly snarky if you're playing acceptably. I clung to cheerful or friendly players like a child to his mother's leg. One Russian man started singing a Rihanna song down the microphone In any other game I'd have sighed and muted him; here, I decided on the spot that he was my best friend, kindred spirits some 3,000 miles apart. I'd had a rough few games.

The angriest players I'd studiously report. Abusive players can be reported to Valve, whereupon their profile is given secret black marks that ensures they play with other ne'er-do-wells. A similar punishment is meted out to early disconnecters. A friend of mine left after one frustrating game coincided with a pizza delivery. Since then, he's been placed in games with other people with disconnects marked on their profile: a purgatorial prison where no one can successfully finish a game. It's a neat punishment, but one that encourages negative behavioural reinforcement, not rehabilitation: if everyone is disconnecting, why not carry on doing it?

Getting a solid game is hard enough as it is. Having to match five versus five means Valve's matchmaking isn't close to the quality of StarCraft II. I've been on both sides of a face-rolling thanks to amazing or poor opponents, but can remember fewer balanced fights: for a madly competitive game, that's something of a problem. Better is the e-sports support: players can spectate other matches in-game, and Valve even sell tickets for pro tournaments through the item shop – a level of support for pro-gaming beyond most developers' ambitions.

Dota 2 review
Now is not the time to go paddling.

I was watching one of these tournaments when I found myself taking notes. Alongside 'Vlad – NOT RANGED!', I was scribbling an item purchasing order for Luna, a hero I'd played a few times. The first time, I'd damned her as too weak and unable to escape trouble. In full flight, at the hands of another, she was dominating, calling down rays of moonlight to shred enemies in team fights. I should have given up with her, but instead I chose her the next game I played. I finished that game with more kills than deaths, and my team won. I've now played as her more than almost any other hero.

That's Dota 2 at its greatest. It offers tangible, satisfying rewards for hard graft. Spend time learning, absorbing, and mastering a hero, and you will feel the results during your next game. It's not an easy process, poring through build guides online – especially as Valve have yet to add most of their proposed learning tools for new players – but any effort plugged in pays out doublefold.

Those promised learning tools will come soon: there's a space in the game's UI with greyed out options for 'quests', 'tutorials' and 'play with a mentor' options that could smooth out the first few steps in Dota 2's gradiated learning curve. When those tools do arrive, we'll be taking another look at Dota 2 and re-scoring it as the additions demand. But you can already spend cash in its real money shop, and have to pay for an invitation, hence this review: this is a slick, rich game, not a beta.

There's more to master here than in other action-RTS games. Just by paddling around in League of Legends, I can see how deep that game goes. After 100 hours of Dota 2, I can't even see the bottom. I'm not even sure there is one.

I won my game with Huskar, in the end. Myself and Zeus collaborated on a few kills, before he tapped out 'gg' and disappeared back into the internet. Despite his aggression, he'd taught me something. Sometimes you want to play, not learn. But when you want to study, to master something, there are few finer, slicker classrooms than Dota 2.

Dota 2

An unbelievably deep and complex game that offers the purest sequel to the original DotA. Rewarding like few others, but tough.

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