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.
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.
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.
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.
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.