slag's Dota 2 (PC) review

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The Greatest Multiplayer Game of all Time

When you make a bold claim like I have in the title of this review, you can reasonably expect push back. After all only the Sith speak in absolutes, or so Star Wars teaches us.

But when you have played as many different video games as I have (easily over 1000) for as long as I have (over thirty years) I think I can safely say I have a good idea of what good game looks like. Or in this case a special one. To me DOTA 2 is one of the very best games I’ve ever played, and the best multiplayer game hands down.

DotA is one those games, the ones that come around maybe, maybe once in a generation. One that changes everything about the way you play games and the way you look at them. Chances are you are probably familiar with this new evolving genre it has spawned called MOBAs (or ARTS depending on who you ask) and the spiritual successor to DotA , League of Legends. But it’s DotA that actually pioneered the gameplay concepts that League has brought to the mainstream, and it’s DOTA 2 that has arguably perfected them in the first actual release of a DotA game. Due to its’ convoluted development history the original DotA and DOTA2 are so similar that they are arguably the same game, to the point that DOTA 2 balance changes are pushed out to the DotA map first as they happen. In my opinion as someone who played Dota for nearly a decade they really are one and the same, so much of what I will give DOTA 2 credit for, really the old Warcraft III mod created.

What the original DotA has done, and what makes it special, is really to bring team sports gameplay to video games for the first time in a way ironically Pro Sports Sims has never achieved. DOTA 2 in some important ways is more like real Basketball than games like NBA 2k Live ever will be. Obviously the rules are very different, but what is similar how the play functions in terms of team dynamics.

Like Basketball DOTA2 is always played on the same competitive floor everytime, and like Basketball it has two opposing teams each consisting of 5 players. Like Basketball each DOTA 2 player assumes a position (e.g. Guard, Forward, Center etc) or role (Support, Carry, Ganker etc) on the team that is largely defined but fluid enough that they can role switch during games if gameflow dictates it. Like Basketball even the star players (Lebron James) need to communicate and co-operate with teammates to win the game. Somebody has to pass Lebron the ball for him to score, and even if he should acquire the ball for himself by means of a rebound or a steal he still needs their help to prevent the other team from scoring. The same is true in DOTA 2, once the game is far enough along it gets increasingly difficult even for the hardest carry to get solo kills and almost impossible to effectively gank and defend the Ancient at the same time.

DOTA 2 diverges from basketball from there when it comes to the details of the basic rules of the game. The object of the game is destroy the opposing team’s base (“Ancient”), which is defended but several layers of defensive structures, procedurally generated kamikaze enemy NPCs called Creeps and of course the players of the team. Players make progress by “killing” other players, creeps and structures, until they get to the base. Basically it’s a map control game, the player’s view is a top down perspective and field of view is obstructed by a fog of war determined by your vision of your teammates , structures and creep. As the player’s hero accomplishes tasks (kills of one sort or another) the hero gains Gold and experience which can be use to improve the character’s abilities and stats through leveling mechanics (capped at level 25) and items (capped at 6 item slots), the downside to this is that with each level gained each time the player’s Hero dies the length between respawns increases proportionately. Each hero has at least 4 unique abilities to use and has dozens of potential items to acquire and craft. Given that there are now over 100 Playable characters, that does create a high degree of variability to the matches in terms of matchups and team compositions (as well creating a pretty high learning curve to just learn what they are). A typical DOTA 2 game runs 35-55 minutes.

A team fight in DOTA 2

The result of this required competitive co-operation and the length of a match is that it creates a social experience unlike anything in games before. The team co-ordinates the best on team matchup and team movement usually wins. When you lose it can be absolutely crushing as you can feel like you let the team down, but when you win you get a exhilaration high that’s only possible in a team game. It’s a game that’s definitely best played with friends, although that’s certainly not required to have fun.

As a consequence in DOTA 2 your teammates will heavily affect your play and your enjoyment of the game, thus quality matchmaking is of critical importance. Fortunately DOTA 2 has very solid matchmaking options available including a bevy of mode modifiers (relating to hero selection methods such as All Pick, Limited, Captain’s Mode) and a couple AI options (solo/party vs bots or general vs Bots). But what really makes it work is the ease of which you can match make with your friends (even if you don’t have a full team) and be paired with an opponent appropriate your skill level. Matchmaking times can run as long as 5 minutes or so but generally you will find a match in less than two minutes or so as the game grows. Valve seems to have learned from Blizzard’s Starcraft II experience with multiplayer retention and thus has removed any visible Skill levels. While I personally am annoyed to no end that I can’t see my rank, I recognize it’s probably a necessity given how much it discourages casual players or becomes an avenue for trolling.

But matchmaking is only half the battle; given the way the game is played it’s your teammates that will even be your best friends or your worst enemies. Thus good teammate behavior is necessary for a fun. The Old DotA was a bit in the wild west of unregulated Mods and had no matching systems whatsoever, which ended up creating a notorious cesspit. The DotA community has a reputation for being very hostile to new players or players who experiment with unusual builds if they don’t work out. Valve has attempted to address this so far in DOTA 2with a decent report/commend system in place to encourage good behavior. I’m not convinced this will entirely solve the problem, but I can tell you DOTA 2 is light years friendlier than the old mod and that randoms are much more willing to co-operate effectively. I’ve also been impressed with how fast the reporting system has been, the very few players I’ve had to report I’ve gotten very prompt feedback from Valve in which they inform me they’ve taken action against said players. That’s almost unheard of in online gaming.

Next to the Matchmaking the single biggest improvement Valve has made to the mod is the creation of the user guide system. In the old mod the learning curve was incredibly high due to the incredible density of terminology to learn to play. By far the most complex is/was the item crafting system. The Guide system allows users to pre-plan their buys and have formulas at the click of a button instead of having to memorize them. Players have the option of using community created ones or making their own. Furthermore the guide system also allows players to have a preplanned suggestion for skill leveling, again allowing players to focus more on the actual game.

DOTA 2 has noticeably streamlined other Mod artifacts for the better while still retaining the depth of the old mod. Gone are the multitude of vendors near the spawn point to be replaced by three shops on each side of the map, one main shop at the well, one “secret shop” that has the most expensive components needed for the best items, and one auxiliary shop to assist in the laning phase of the game for outside lanes. This is a much needed change that removes a needless hindrance.

Hero Selection is one of the many improvements over DotA

The Hero selection screen also has gained some nice improvements, gone are the Taverns for a fullblown screen where you can see players selecting heroes live which adds some new wrinkles to play such as fakeout picks. New features including filters by role and a search box, which has helped noticeably create some better team compositions in matches I’ve played. The search box is also present in the item shop, as well as view changes, which also making shopping easier than ever.

Mechanically DOTA 2 is still pretty simple to play, right click to move, left click +a to attack move/deny, hot keys for abilities, Ctrl+ number to create a group, shift + actions to preplan moves. This make it feel very much like Blizzard game in its’ sensibility of easy to play/ hard to master. Which make sense given its’ origin. Hero abilities are now mappable to any hotkey the user determines, and all heroes abilities to the same hotkeys of Q,W,E,R. The game is incredibly customizable and features over ten pages of gameplay options. All of which allow you to play DOTA 2 in an incredible variety of ways.

Valve has also added in a negative rank called “abandons” to prevent leavers from ruining games (allowing 5 minutes to reconnect in case of internet trouble), unlike League there unfortunately no “surrender” option which does occasionally leave losing teams in bad situations where opposing trolling teams refuse to finish games.

Another addition is the tutorial mode which is sorely needed in a game with the depth of DOTA 2, unfortunately it leaves a lot to be desired in actually teaching the game. After explaining the basic mechanics it basically becomes play X number of matches as X to proceed. Some of the more unwritten rules, (such as the roles) which require the most explanation are not mentioned at all. More or less the tutorial teaches things that players likely need little to no help learning while not touching the stuff they do need help with. If there is anything that could be said to be “bad” in DOTA 2 it is the tutorial. But given how constantly the game is tweaked (weekly at least) that may change.

The Palette is a bit more subdued than the brightly colorful LoL

Aesthetically DOTA 2 is a definite improvement over the old mod, although given the age of Wc3 that isn’t saying much. Valve has taken a more muted color palette than Warcraft for the redesigned heroes, which makes for a slightly less pretty game than League but it’s plenty good enough to like what you’re seeing and it’s low enough the system specs are welcoming to people with older underpowered systems. The Heroes now all have hundreds of custom voice lines, a nice perk that helps flesh them out into more than repurposed Wc3 sprites. Sadly the Blizzard style of “piss” lines (joke lines prompted by repeatedly clicking a character over and over) is not carried over. Valve has a created a mythos for the game now as well character back-stories but it’s largely forgettable and superfluous.

Player communication features are largely similar to blizzards with the notable addition of voice chat. For what it is the voice quality is decent, and muting players is available should you find it annoying.

What separates DOTA 2 from its’ successors and clones is the developers' slavish devotion to balance. Most Heroes are flexible enough to be played in a couple roles and support a lot of different items builds. And the map is the same every time. All of which keeps the game fresh and highly variable. While you will see many of the same heroes as some are more popular than others, rarely will you ever see the same exact 5 together.

Where DOTA 2 is a little spartan right now is the more in the player profile aspect of it. There are some nice extras like being able to watch ongoing matches in client and with commentary (if available). Player Statistics are more or less non-existent and while your profile does share your win/lose record with each hero, and your overall wins/losses/abandons (which you can hide from other players if you want) everything else is largely cosmetic. You do have a level but it’s purely related to time spent in the game and you do receive a free item every time you level up.

Which brings us to the million dollar question about the value of the game, DOTA 2’s business model. It is Free to Play but unlike League heroes are not behind a paywall. Given DOTA 2’s devotion to balance fortunately nothing that affects play is behind a paywall, everything for sale is purely cosmetic (outfits for heroes, custom HUDs etc) and purely avoidable if you don’t wish to partake.

Given that it’s Free you may ask why I’m reviewing it at all. The real cost to DOTA 2 is your time and it is a game that can suck hundreds of hours of your gaming time up very quickly. Since DOTA 2 is a such a fun game the real question you’ll have to ask yourself if you get into it is whether you’re ok basically playing it and nothing else.

A job and game well done

But if you do decide to play and especially if you get four of your friends to play with you, you will have the most fun that’s available in gaming today.

Play this excellent excellent game.

9 Comments
Posted by GrantHeaslip

Valve seems to have learned from Blizzard’s Starcraft II experience with multiplayer retention and thus has removed any visible Skill levels. While I personally am annoyed to no end that I can’t see my rank, I recognize it’s probably a necessity given how much it discourages casual players or becomes an avenue for trolling.

That's pretty awesome. It sounds like they've gone out of their way to address some of the community typical of multiplayer games in some really smart ways.

That said -- and I've never played League or Dota 2 -- the way they've slavishly recreated the original turns me off. The League approach -- sanding off the rough edges, simplifying where appropriate and coming up with new characters -- just sounds more appealing to me. Why recreate stuff that's a result of the limiting engine the original was created in?

The bigger factor on my end is that I know a bunch of people who play LoL. I don't really want to get into a MOBA -- they sound too time-consuming and stressful -- but if I did, going where my friends are would be a huge factor.

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Edited by churrific

Hm, probably not the greatest multiplayer game overall. That's very subjective. Greatest features of a multiplayer competitive game? Far and away yes.

Edited by Slag

Hm, probably not the greatest multiplayer game overall. That's very subjective. Greatest features of a multiplayer competitive game? Far and away yes.

Well yes of course it is subjective, I think I laid out my case for why I feel so as well as I could. I don't expect everyone to agree with me. Hopefully whether I swayed you at all or not, I at least made a compelling case for the game

and of course I agree with you on the features. Thanks for the comment!

Posted by Slag

Valve seems to have learned from Blizzard’s Starcraft II experience with multiplayer retention and thus has removed any visible Skill levels. While I personally am annoyed to no end that I can’t see my rank, I recognize it’s probably a necessity given how much it discourages casual players or becomes an avenue for trolling.

That's pretty awesome. It sounds like they've gone out of their way to address some of the community typical of multiplayer games in some really smart ways.

That said -- and I've never played League or Dota 2 -- the way they've slavishly recreated the original turns me off. The League approach -- sanding off the rough edges, simplifying where appropriate and coming up with new characters -- just sounds more appealing to me. Why recreate stuff that's a result of the limiting engine the original was created in?

The bigger factor on my end is that I know a bunch of people who play LoL. I don't really want to get into a MOBA -- they sound too time-consuming and stressful -- but if I did, going where my friends are would be a huge factor.

Hey Grant!

Thanks for the comment and feedback man, I really appreciate it. I wasn't sure anyone was going to read this review so it's nice to people did . I felt really compelled to write one especially when I saw there were zero reviews for this amazing game.

If your friends play LoL, play that instead of DOTA 2. Bottom line in MOBAs is that your teammates are the most critical aspect of your enjoyment of the game. You're absolutely right to lean to LoL for that reason.

You mentioned that you feel MOBAs could be stressful. They really aren't at all if you play with friends ( as long as your friends aren't hyper-competitive and are good teammates), your interactions with the the other team are pretty minimal in terms of communication. 95% of bad experiences come from bad teammates, and having friends for teammates eliminates that possibility more or less.

FwiwI I laugh more and have a good time in DOTA 2, more than any other game I've played. It's because it's great way for me & buds to stay in touch across the country and we ball together.

LoL is certainly no slouch of a game,it's arguably Pepsi to DOTA 2's Coke (or vice versa). Here's why I think Lol falls just short of DOTA 2 in excellence.

Their business model. I think their business model is probably a lot more profitable than DOTA 2's, but it comes at the expense of balance. By putting heroes behind a paywall LoL has sacrificed some depth and variability for aesthetic prettiness. I actually think that League's heroes are more appealing than DOTA 2's in appearance

Other subtle things like no denies and the way league handles TPs, I think removes some depth from the gameplay as well.

I think it really helps to view DOTA 2 as a sport. You're not constantly reinventing Baseball or Ice Hockey every year, but they are tweaked. e.g. I think it was bout 6 years ago the NHL widened the Nets because they felt scoring got too low in games. There isn't much about DOTA in my opinion that needed a wholesale change, and what did DOTA 2 covered.

Really they did a good job of taking the best parts of the old Mod and leaving the worst. And DOTA 2 is the best balanced game I've ever played. It should be because this game has been constantly rebalanced for a decade. No other game has this kind of care given to it for so long with the exception of maybe WoW.

Lastly don't be completely scared off because of the potential time sink. Yes you can get sucked in, but the great thing about MOBAs is that once you learn the game it's real easy to pick it back up later and be reasonably competent. One thing that I enjoy about DOTA 2 is that it feels like a game to me that I can play for life, kind of like golf. Again very much like a sport.

It's also socially lot different than getting sucked into a MMORPG. It's easier to limit your time played and it's socially easier to not be able to make every game. It's much easier to play in heavy doses in a healthier way if that makes sense.

Posted by GrantHeaslip

@slag: Thanks for the big reply! I should also have said that I'm generally not big into multiplayer -- especially competitive multiplayer -- which is the bigger factor contributing to my disinterest here. Dota 2 seems neat and I enjoyed watching the International in much the same way I enjoy checking in on competitive SC2, but I can't imagine getting big into it myself.

I recently bought a cheap arcade stick, but it remains to be seen how much I get into fighting games aside from my desire to play P4A and get some sense of what Street Fighter's all about.

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Posted by Slag

@grantheaslip:

No thank you man, I spent a lot of time on this review an your comment made my day.

Sure that makes total sense. You like what you like, and you shoul play what appeals to you.

re: fighting games- If you like story in games consider checking out Mortal Kombat. Very few fighting games have any meaningful story/single player (although P4A does in spades) and MK is drenched in lore.

It's a like a Bad B Kung Fu movie in a fantastic way. I also think it's far far more new player friendly than the Capcom fighters (Street Fighter, Darkstalkers, MvC etc) or P4A. And has an extreme amount of depth/content for single player that's very atypical for the genre.

The problem with Fighting games I think is that even doing the basics is very difficult for most players. Street Fighter is lots of fun, but also very frustratingly punishing.

Posted by GrantHeaslip

@slag: Hey, no problem! I can totally empathize with spending a bunch of time writing something then being weirdly surprised when someone actually reads it :).

Mortal Kombat has always -- even as a kid -- turned me off. It's pretty rare that the aesthetics of a game bug me so much, but the character designs, goriness, finishers, and general atmosphere just don't agree with me. I'm not against it on a moral level, it's just not for me. I associate it with the slasher movie aesthetic, which I also don't like.

Basically, I grew up with an NES (during the SNES era), then jumped immediately to the N64, then the GameCube. I completely missed fighting games, and want to see what they're all about. Street Figher is the fighting game series. There was never any doubt in my mind that its the game I'd play if I wanted to play a fighting game. I've spent a bit of time with SSFIV, and yeah, it's pretty impenetrable. Even navigating the arcade stick is a new experience to me. I queued up some YouTube videos explaining the basics a little while ago, but got into other games and dropped it. I'm completely aware that Mortal Kombat would be a much smoother ramp into fighting games.

My interest in P4A is fuelled completely by the P4 aspect of it, but since it's got P3 stuff in it as well, I'm not going to touch it until I've played through P3. I watched some of it at Evo, and it looked nuts in that "what the hell is even happening?" MvC sense.

Man, I really derailed this thread!

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Posted by Slag

@grantheaslip:

I can totally understand that. That's probably where our age gap kicks in a bit. Really badly dubbed ridiculous kung fu movies (and super dumb super low budget horror flicks) are beloved by guys my age and a bit older as they used to be on late night air waves all the time in the early dark days of cable when options were scarce, so many of us love us some MK.

But yeah if you're not into that aesthetic, then MK will probably be a bad time for you.

tell ya another Fighting series I think is badly underrated and easy to get into with a often semi-decent single player campaign is Soul Calibur. If SF IV is impenetrable to you, I think you'll SC to be much friendlier. It plays crisp and smooth and the look is bright. I personally enjoy the heck out of those games (although to be fair I like most fighting games). Plus at least to me Namco games often have an almost Nintendo level of polish.

Don't get me wrong, I grew up on Capcom fighters in the actual Arcade when that was still a thing so I love them to death, but I do think they are really rough introduction for new players.

Posted by Slag

@grantheaslip: oh and fwiw I still suck at SF after twenty years of laying it on and off so don't feel bad if you're having a tough time with it. That just means you're a normal human being.

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