In the fine tradition of James Naismith and Minh Le/Jess Cliffe, some of the best and most enduring games are those that are made by repurposing existing rules or equipment. Such is the case of Dota 2, the stand-alone PC sequel to the popular Warcraft 3 mod Defense of the Ancients. Although it is currently undergoing the infamously lengthy Valve Software pre-release testing process, Newsarama nevertheless got our hands on the latest build.
Dota 2 takes the concept of ‘hero’ character from recent RTS titles and puts them front and center over all other aspects of the genre’s signifiers. In every exclusively 5 on 5 online multiplayer match, each player selects a hero from an ever-expanding roster of at least fifty characters to lead their allies and their army to destroy the base of their enemy, primarily a static structure, the titular ‘Ancient,’ that is passively guarded by rows of defense towers.
The player has total control over their hero character, directing not only their movements and attacks, but their statistical and ability development as well. Each character has a set of four powers unique to them that can be upgraded as they earn levels though combat with enemy forces or neutral ‘creeps’ that inhabit corners of the maps. These levels, and an in-match system of stat-boosting item purchases, are unique to each individual match, offering no meta-game boost experienced players as seen in popular on-line FPS franchisees like Battlefield or Call of Duty.
With the responsibilities of building construction and minor unit micromanagement taken out of players hands it becomes clear why Valve’s nigh-endless development process is well justified. At the heart of Dota 2 is its need for perfect balance. Like all the great sports or board games, the field of play is set at the beginning to offer no one side an unfair advantage over the other. As your and your opponent’s armies automatically march their way across the map and automatically engage each other on sight it is conceivable that this ‘war’ is designed to be an endless stalemate that requires the direct strategic action of the players to decide. This is a concept fleshed out by the game’s strict requirement that there be exactly ten players before any match begins, how the game admonishes players who quit out early, doesn’t allow mid-match joins and holds players spots open for them in cases of network connection loss. All are welcome changes from the often haphazard manner in which most online multiplayer games are conducted.
The uninitiated will find the game at this stage of its development very challenging, especially since tutorial modes have not yet been activated, but ‘offline’ matches against AI controlled bots help players unfamiliar with RTS style gameplay get the mechanics down and find time to discover their favorite hero character. Finding him/her/it could take a while, as each of the dozens and dozens of hero characters feature unique models, animations and voices, not to mention visually dazzling powers. They can also use this chance to explore the game’s (so far) single map, a beautiful half alive/half dead forest teeming with environmental detail.
A typical Dota 2 match will take about a half hour, making it a great casual experience, but it has enough depth that justifies the recent million-dollar tournament that Valve put on for teams of serious players. Like everything from basketball to Counter-Strike, Dota 2 has the potential to hold a significant place in competitive gaming.