Game Reviews

Review: Dota 2 (Beta) (PC)

Step Aside Notch, There’s a New Best Beta in Town

Dota, its sequel, and all of the games that spawned off of its success are truly odd games to talk about.  The games are massively popular, but I think the majority of gamers have absolutely no concept of what an ARTS/MOBA/AOS (or whichever completely valid term you use to refer to them) actually is.  So it becomes an issue of explanation vs. discussion, do you talk to your readers as if they already know everything about the game, or do you write your article specifically for those who are already fans of it?  In order to combat this, here is my answer to the questions “What is Dota 2?”, and “How is Dota 2 to play?” packed into one word:


Over the course of the last 9 years, of all the games I’ve played, I have spent the most time playing Dota, and have enjoyed every second.  The game is, in my opinion, one of the most entertaining and competitive gaming experiences currently available.  It is a game with the power to absolutely destroy your current state of mental health, both with overwhelming joy and blinding rage.

Dota 2’s interface, like it’s entire aesthetic style, is simple and to the point.

In Dota, two teams of five are pitted against each other, each team residing on opposite ends of a symmetrical map.  It is the goal of each team to destroy their opponent’s “Ancient” — a large structure deep within each base, protected by a slew of defensive towers and buildings — while simultaneously protecting their own.  Each player is put in control of one “hero”, a powerful unit with its own unique abilities, statistics, strengths, weaknesses, and roles within the meta-game.  Heroes level up over the course of the game by killing “creeps” – small, relatively weak enemies that travel down the map’s three lanes and do battle – enemy heroes, and buildings.  Experience is used to level up and increase the power of each hero’s abilities, and gold, which is earned by landing the killing blow on a creep or hero and slowly builds up over the course of the game, is used to purchase powerful items, each with their own unique abilities of varying strength.  The game is essentially a mix of RPG progression sensibilities and RTS slow burn combat ramping, and it’s really, really fun.  Valve, that development studio you may have heard of once or twice over the course of your travels on the internet, was so impressed with the game Icefrog maintained, and his development strategy while doing so, that in October of 2009 they announced plans to work with the secretive developer to begin working on a sequel to his immensely popular and beloved Dota.

Aptly named Dota 2, the game is currently in closed beta after seeing success with its million dollar tournament at this year’s GamesCon, a funny and lore-expansive series of webcomics, and a slew of patches, updates and additions.  Valve’s true challenge in the development of this game was trying to please its predecessor’s large, and notoriously resistant-to-change fan-base, while improving upon the game they love.  Dota is a pretty great game, but it isn’t without its problems.  Valve’s challenge was to do away with these problems without making it look as though they were completely and drastically changing the game, and in almost every regard they’ve succeeded.

You May Want to Think Twice About Rage-Quitting

One of Dota’s largest issues was its community.  For whatever reason, even after all these years I’m still not able to comprehend why this is the case, but Dota has a really odd knack for bringing out the most intense emotions in its players.  These emotions often manifest in some pretty awful ways.  New players are often shouted down by veterans, small mistakes are aggrandized, and generally, if you’ve got a rager on your team (which happens to be the case more often than not), the atmosphere is kind of depressing.  This was such an issue that, during the early testing of the game in Valve’s offices, testers were required to wait an hour after every game before they were allowed to offer any feedback on it, Valve being concerned (and probably rightly so) that emotions would likely get in the way of professional objectivity.  To combat this, Valve implemented the commendations system.

After a game has finished, you’re given the option of commending or reporting your teammates.  The commendations range from recognizing the players as being friendly over the microphone or in-game chat, and being a leader to the newer and less experienced players on the team.  Reports consist of chastising the player for being a jerk, intentionally “feeding” (giving kills to the enemy team in order to expedite a loss), or in some way exploiting the game and its mechanics.  The idea is that the community will police itself.  Valve hasn’t quite implemented the full system yet — currently commendations don’t really do anything — but the end goal is a system that rewards players for being people who are fun to play with, and chastises them for bringing everyone down.  If a player receives a number of reports for being a jerk over the game’s built-in voice system, he’ll have his rights to use that system temporarily revoked.  The implications of this system, if it’s correctly used, are vast.  While it certainly won’t completely thwart the negative behavior of the entire community, it’s already proven to breed a much more animosity-free gaming experience.

Character Design at Its Finest

Even old men manage to feel powerful under Valve’s design sensibilities.

Dota’s second largest problem was with graphics.  Yes, I know the game engine on which it runs is nearly 10 years old and had graphics that were pretty impressive for their time.  But one thing that’s always kept me from going back to Dota was just that: it feels old.  Well, not anymore.  There’s been a lot of in-fighting about the graphics and design style of Valve’s sequel; say what you want about them, but I’m in love.  Every hero operates like a crash-course in great character design.  They are at the same time simple and to the point, but unique in almost every single way.  One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Valve’s games is their ability to play with the uncanny valley.  Their characters are most certainly stylized, which is definitely the best approach to take when making a game like Dota 2, but no other studio is able to so consistently make stylization seem so real.

One of my largest issues with Dota’s visuals, even when it was still a new game, was the colour.  Even back when Dota’s graphics were still somewhat impressive in the RTS world, things felt off.  Everything was too bright and saturated, it made the world feel cartoony and fake.  Such is not the case with Dota 2.  Dota 2′s aesthetic could best be described as muted.  The colours are soft, almost painterly, and the environments simple and refined.  All of this functions, as it should, to make the heroes, creeps, and buildings pop out.  In Dota, I was always brought out of the world when lots of things were happening on-screen.  The spell effects and hero models all clashed with the environment, and important details were lost in the resulting mess of bright colours.  Dota 2‘s environment is simplified to the point where this isn’t the case.  The things you should be focusing on are clearly visible even when the screen is filled with several heroes and their ultimates.

The Final Verdict

The rest of the beta is riddled with these examples of Valve pinpointing a problem with the original game, and fixing, improving, or completely getting rid of it.  But what’s most impressively unchanged is the core of the game.  This is still the Dota that everyone grew to know and love, it’s just sleeker and more streamlined.  The gameplay itself, and its competitive metagame, are changed only by the fact that Dota’s original lineup of heroes have yet to be fully implemented, and to me, that’s pretty damn impressive.  As much as I dislike the gameplay mechanics in Dota that were only in the game on account of the fact that the Warcraft III engine sucked, I recognize their need to exist.  Dota wouldn’t be the same if we could see our opponent’s mana bars or deny creeps with the right-click of a mouse, and Valve’s reluctance to do away with those minor flaws speaks to their dedication to make their sequel a gaming experience true to its predecessor.  Valve’s Dota 2 knows its roots, and it’s not afraid to celebrate them.

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