Note: This is not intended to be a proper review, I do not have all of the time in the universe to learn this game. What it is about is the first week of DotA, which will either hook you or throw you off utterly. These are my experiences.
A mysterious stranger passes me a DOTA invite and scarpers. I do not know the motives of this person but they are presumably benign. What the hell, I’ve seen an increasing proportion of my TeamSpeak channel playing this, can’t hurt to join in. I install it.
Get shown the “very very very very… [some time passes] …very very basics” of DOTA in a match against some bots. We lose the first one, impressively, but then turn it around by cunningly reducing the difficulty of said bots to easy in the second game. Seems like what you have to do is destroy the enemy base, and to do this you stand behind your units as they do it? There’s this stream of “creeps” which are constantly being sent from base to base along three distinct pathways (imaginatively named top, middle and bottom). If you watch them kill things, you get experience, you level up and, eventually, you win. Seems simple enough.
First match against other humans, then. There’s five on each team so we apparently split 2-1-2 along the three lanes. There’s a lot of orthodoxies being spouted at me, as Mechstra guides me through what to buy from the shop. I take the top lane and watch in bewilderment as a stream of gibberish fills the chat. Ss seems to be the important one, which is short for “Hero Missing”. There’s more etiquette to learn than in My Fair Lady here. Mingmong dies and yells at me for not following him into a fight with an enemy hero. What, does he expect me to pick up telepathically that I should join him? Yes he does.
I swear I’ve seen this setup before. “Hang on”, I say, “is there only one map?” Cue about a minute of laughter from the old hands. We win, but I think I was mainly a mascot. You’re not meant to attack the creeps, apparently, unless it’s to give the final hit, which gets you money. Someone contacts me on Steam, apparently they’re spectating my match. “Spend your money!” they urge. I realise that you’re meant to go back to the shop and pick up other items as well. Cue more laughter. While I’m bumbling around as some kind of hedge wizard, all cantrips and fuzzy hat, Mingmong is striding around like a gold-plated colossus, killing enemy heroes in one hit. “How come you’re twice my level?”, I ask in my most wheedling tone of voice. “I’ve been playing this a long time” is his curt reply.
“You picked Pudge?” asks Mingmong with a more than a hint of incredulity. “Good luck!”
“His special power is to hook people towards him and then fart on them”, advises Hentzau
After an inauspicious start where I fart myself to death, I apparently pull off a game-saving play by dragging out one of our heroes from a stasis vortex in time for him to go prehistoric on our attackers’ buttocks. “Great play Jim!” enthuses the rescued gentleman in question. I haven’t the heart to say I was aiming at somebody else and it was just a lucky accident. Everyone else knows though.
Few more matches where I discover new ways to kill myself. Things that will kill you include placing a series of movement-destroying electrocogs around yourself and getting trapped by them, or using an ultimate attack that actually involves leaping onto an enemy hero who happens to be surrounded by other heroes and towers. Or just stopping for a second to eat a tree, that gets you killed. No matter how powerful you think you are, you’re about two seconds from death at any time. The enemy could be invisible behind you right now, in fact they definitely are. TURN AROUND NOW DAMMIT.
I’m talking the game over with Jaffa. “It’s a game about winning”, I opine with sincerity, “There’s so many heroes with so many attacks that I don’t know how you can possibly predict what’s going to happen. There’s so many items in the shop (and there are multiple types of shop) that I don’t know how you’re meant to know what to buy. It’s an utterly bewildering mix of unique vocabulary and knowledge-based mechanics and I have no idea what I should be doing and I think I’m just hampering the team.”
Mingmong hops onto the channel. “Quick game before bed guys?” Okay.
What the hell, where did that time go? The worrying thing is that, in the last game, I feel my first twinge of rage at an ally, as Jaffa doesn’t telepathically realise that we’re going after this guy on low health and so I die. I got very angry playing Left 4 Dead back in the day, must monitor this carefully. It’s a really playable game, though, by which I mean it makes it as easy for you to start playing as possible. It’s got that compulsive hook built into its very fabric. Because there’s one map, there’s that feeling of comfort so you’re not boldly striking out into a new direction every time you play. If you get hammered, well, it takes half an hour and then you go right back into the mincing machine that is the gamefinder. There’s no hoops at all to jump through, just join a lobby and press “find”, and that deserves commending. The whole interface is built with this slickness in mind.
First time we’ve turned a match around from the brink of defeat, though one of the other guys disconnecting probably helped a lot there. Though there’s obviously a lot of anti-disconnection measures built into the game (if you abandon, you’ll find it harder to get a game in future), it is still the case that a lot of games early on will be decided by one guy disconnecting. As we’re rollin’ deep here, it isn’t going to be from our side. I actually feel like I know what I’m doing with Lion, his attacks are very straightforward. That, plus I’m making a bit more effort to coordinate.
Trees are the best things! I will always be a tree! His special move is to lock every enemy within a few feet into place for a few crucial seconds, and this plays into my favoured heroic charge tactic. He also can go invisible near trees, and the highlight of my evening is using this just as a bloodseeker charges, walking away whistling as he frantically slashes at the air. Beginning to get a feel for counters and I’ve now played at least ooh 10% of the possible classes, so I have a vague inkling of what’s coming up. The problem is that I panic massively whenever we get attacked, and the game seems to have advanced from “terrible players attacking piecemeal” to “slightly less terrible players wandering around in a huge blob”. I swear this is the exact same tactical progression as Company of Heroes multiplayer. We’ll get someone spamming artillery next.
I dreamed about playing DOTA last night (I don’t mean I was playing it in my dream and something more interesting happened, I mean my dream was just me playing a normal game of DOTA) and Jaffa remarks that he didn’t go to watch a movie because that would be encroaching into his DOTA-playing time. That’s got to be a sign that we’re approaching the point of no return here. We win one, lose one, and we’re beginning to bump against the game’s various community cohesion mechanics. Mechstra’s occasionally flatulent computer has disconnected him from enough game that he’s put into a “low-priority queue” for matchmaking, which seems a little bit harsh given there’s nothing he can do about it. We play against a new-ish guy who is, well, a bit terrible but he’s cheerful and chatty in the game so we give him a commendation for friendliness. I’m not sure what those commendations are necessarily meant to achieve but it’s nice to mark someone positively for a change.
David has just picked up the game so we’re back to the practice match against bots, and I’m in the bottom lane with him, giving the full benefit of my six days’ advice. The music is a bit loud, so I’m having to repeat myself a lot, and he doesn’t like taking advice. I’m trying to ignore the minutiae and hammer in one rule: When we say “run away”, run the hell away. For maximum teaching effect, say this every time he dies. It’s strange how primitive David’s play seems, he’s expelling all his magic on creeps, poor fellow. He’s using vast reserves of mana to basically scratch the veneer off a hero who then runs away to heal. Mingmong berates him for NOT EVEN BUYING SOME BOOTS. I wonder if I was like that once, perhaps, some time ago. We go on to fight our first actual organized team (as in they all know each other) and get our faces stoved right in. No matter what powers heroes might have, I would say nothing in this game is as powerful as teamwork
Smarting from the defeat, we jump straight back into the gamefinder…and draw the same team again. After the initial swearing, DOTA game faces go right on, with everyone picking their most competent hero and communicating in clipped DOTA diction, all abbreviations and yelling. After initial skirmishes, we’re a little behind but through the use of blob tactics we actually begin to take the lead, wiping them out as they try to kill a neutral boss. We’re hammering on the gates of their base when we get cocky, running into a series of ambushes as they claw their way back into the game. There’s a lot more swearing as incompetents charge in without thinking for GOD’S SAKE and eventually we lose. Despite the loss, it’s the closest, tensest game I’ve played and great fun to play. The problem is, all you can think of is mistakes. DOTA forces this constant improvement and if you just want to have fun and no struggle, say, this isn’t the game for you. So I pop off and shoot rockets at a giant ghost wizard on TF2 for the night, which is much more soothing.
The best and the worst of DOTA in the space of a few hours. We get hammered, roll another match and get hammered again. Mistakes that you normally wouldn’t think about get amplified in the echo chamber of a frustrated TeamSpeak channel. “Overpowered!” comes the cry as the other team always seems to be fielding a centaur. “For God’s sake!” chimes the chorus as we get wiped out again. People get more abrasive, somewhat shorter of patience, even angry and it isn’t a pleasant environment to play in. Three of us stay on to play another game, and this is a far closer, tenser experience. It takes forty minutes for the cracks to show until we eventually smash through the tiring defenders, wiping them all out in one beautiful strike and pushing into the base decisively.
It’s easy to like the game when you’re winning, and easy to hate it when you’re losing. It’s such a finely-balanced collection of rules and mechanics that the slightest push will unbalance the scales. If you have someone crap on the team, they will be targeted, and the enemy will be right to target them because it offers the greatest chance of success, long-term. If you’re going to play this, if you’re going to enjoy this, you’ve got to keep that in perspective. You have to give your best, yes, keep the team organised, yes, but you can’t get wound up by others not doing something that clearly they should have done. It’s a game, yes? A heavily competitive, deep, borderline opaque game, but a game nonetheless. It isn’t life and death. Bear that in mind, ask questions, and you might just like DOTA.
4 stars, 20 hours and counting played.