As you can tell from the title, this is going to be a positive review in a sort of resigned way, because I know how much time I’m going to be spending on this game in the future. I can’t really believe how much I like it. This isn’t even the kind of game I usually play. My experience with RTS is fairly limited. I was into Warcraft III and Age of Empires, but generally speaking RTS as a genre doesn’t appeal to me too much. I like things to happen fast in games and a lot of the time there’s all this painful (at least for me) base-building to get through before you can even begin to think about attacking the enemy. You can’t just stroll on over and shoot someone and be done with it or rather you could try, but you’d probably die a quick death. There’s nothing wrong with RTS of course, that’s just my personal preference and my lack of patience for and experience at it. However, Dota 2 is a major exception to this. It’s an RTS game that doesn’t feel like pulling teeth to me. It’s fast and action-packed and has zero base-building. The only character you control is your own hero and it’s all about upgrading your skills and buying the right equipment and of course strategising. The best thing though about this action-RTS game? It’s free-to-play. That’s right, this incredibly involved, dynamic and addictive game is totally free (unless you want to pay for some completely optional and purely cosmetic items). For $0 you immediately get the full range of over 90 heroes, all with their own unique appearances and combination of skills and over 60 items. I can tell you now, this is possibly the best free-to-play game I have ever played. How they can sustain this, I have no idea, but I’m not complaining.
Dota 2 is described as a “multiplayer online battle arena”, which doesn’t even begin to describe it really. As mentioned, it’s traditionally RTS in many ways with a good ol’ top-down perspective, but with some RPG elements relating to leveling and items. The overall objective and strategy required is deceptively simple. There two teams of five player-controlled heroes each that are bolstered by waves of AI units called “creeps”. The map (and there is only one map) is divided into three lanes and the aim of the game is to get to the other team’s “Ancient”, essentially their base and destroy it. Almost all of the heroes have just four main skills that you can upgrade by gaining experience from killing creeps or better yet, other heroes. Skills are either passive or active (ie you activate them by pressing a button and use up mana) . Gold is also accumulated from killing enemies and you can in turn use that to buy awesome new weapons and items that will boost your attributes and possibly grant you special passive or active powers. Seems easy right? Yeah, not so much.
Dota 2 is at once cerebral and fast-paced. You can’t just rush into the lanes and hope to take down a hero, but neither can you just hang back and build up your strength. Every session (which should last anywhere between half an hour to an hour) is a protracted process of pushing and pulling and you have to correctly gauge when it’s time to push forward, when it’s time to stand your ground and when to withdraw to regain HP/mana and regroup with the next wave of creeps coming up behind you. A mis-timed attack or pursuing an enemy too far into their territory, especially if you come into contact with an enemy tower (defences that both sides have that can kill you quite easily when you’re still fairly weak) and you’re pretty much doomed. Sure, you’ll be back into the game after a waiting period that increases as the game progresses, but those precious seconds that you lost means that not only has the hero who killed you gained valuable experience points and gold, but they’ve also been farming your creeps and may even have advanced into your base. The last thing you want is for your enemies to start leveling up much faster than you at the start of the game, because that will come back to bite you in the ass later and there may be nothing you can do to catch up.
For me, personally, this game has got that perfect blend of strategy and RPG. It’s actually not that different in a lot of ways to some of your more strategic shooters. It’s all about managing the flow of the battle, effectively spec-ing your character and having good situational awareness. I love the fact it doesn’t try to over-complicate things and keeps the controls and mechanics fairly simple, so that you can focus your attention on the things that really matter – delving into the immense wealth of knowledge out there about the various weapons and equipment and heroes. Each session allows you to focus on maximising your hero’s full potential, by utilising the tricks you learned from the last match and from scouring builds online. I’ve been slowly building up my skills in this way and I have to say, it’s an incredible feeling seeing your hard work come to fruition and believe me, it will if you stick with it. It’s also by no means only fun for people who have played the original Defence of the Ancients mod for Warcraft III or for experience RTS players, I’m still a newbie and I’m massively enjoying myself, despite hiccups here and there. I’m still only playing co-op against bots and not against other players, but I will be venturing out into that more competitive world soon. I know what I’ve experienced of Dota 2 so far is just the tip of the iceberg as it’s a rich game with a ridiculous number of possibilities and options to fit your playstyle.
There’s more I could say about this game. It’s certainly visually pleasing with a traditional fantasy art style and the character dialogue is hilariously funny at times, but to be honest, there’s else little I can actually say about why Dota 2 is so good, because it’s the sort of game you really have to try to understand why it’s so addictive.
I only have a couple of criticisms. The first one is that there’s lot of info to absorb, which can be confusing for newcomers and I imagine it’s even more so for people with no RTS experience. The mechanics of the game are not meant to be intuitive and there will inevitably be a lot of muddling around for a bit and some frustration before you even get your first kill. However, once you get used to navigating the menus and learn what all the buttons do, it’ll start feeling like second nature. Trust me, it looks a lot more complicated than it is. Sure, this game requires more research than your average game, but I’m not too bothered about that. Then again, I do play Minecraft. When you finally do start getting a couple of kills in a session, it’s an awesome feeling and makes it all worth it. And although the learning curve is steep, I would suggest jumping right in (with bots) and just going for it and until you make it. After the initial hump, it gets much easier and every time you play, you get a lot better. The game rewards you for the time you’ve put into this game in a really satisfying way.
My second criticism won’t really apply if you have a full team of player-controlled heroes. At the moment, I supplement our ranks with bots, because I’m not that keen on playing with randoms yet. If you’re the same, then you should probably know that the bots behave in fairly ridiculous and sometimes game-changing ways. They’ll disappear when you most need them and run around aimlessly when all you need them to do is attack the enemy. That’s pretty much the same for all games, but in a game like Dota 2 where every move matters, you’ll really feel it. However, if you feel like jumping into the deep end and just playing with real people, be my guest, but I prefer to practice with bots and friends. It’s a team thing after all and I don’t like to let my team down, because I didn’t know how to summon the courier (a donkey) or how to activate an active power and bots and friends are much more forgiving than internet people.
Basically, this is an incredible game and it’s FREE, so why not, right? I’ll be sporadically putting up some Dota 2 matches that I’ll be playing with friends and I’ll give you an update on this game once I’ve started playing online more and against real players. I can’t guarantee the matches will be any good, as I’m not an RTS guru, but hopefully I’ll be able to show you at least a few tips and tricks and bring you on my journey of getting better at RTS in general. It’s all about the practice and I’ve got a feeling I’m in for the long haul.