Valve Week Day One: DotA 2 Preview

Written by PhilPhoenix
Nov 28 2011, 10:56 AM EST

alt text Although it doesn’t have a set release date yet, DotA 2 is fairly far along in its development. Valve’s full-fledged sequel to the popular WarCraft III mod is well into its Beta phase, and although a number of characters are still absent, it’s safe to say that the majority of the framework is in place. So while I can’t offer a full preview of what a complete DotA 2 metagame might look like, I can offer a peek into the basic set-up and let DotA enthusiasts know what to expect when they finally get a chance to play.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am by no means a DotA pro. I’m more of a DotA enthusiast; I’ve only been playing for a few months, but I have the basics down and know a thing or two about how to play well, though I need to work on my last hitting. So take my opinions with a grain of salt, though I’ll be avoiding any talk of balance for the time being.

Nuts and Bolts
So many options! Starting up DotA 2, the first thing you see (besides the Valve logo and loading screen) is a packed main menu flooded with options, especially compared to the custom game menu of WC3. Everything you could need is readily available: the number of matches being played in each region, your personal stats, your Steam friends list, and access to all of the game’s different modes. The menu is stylish, naturally, but it doesn’t get bogged down with unnecessary baggage, i.e., menu animations, pop-up menus, etc. StarCraft II is an example of an unnecessarily burdened menu; information is hidden away in sub menus and the animations can frequently cause slowdown and delay loading. DotA 2’s menu has no such issues; everything is simply and smoothly designed.

A well-made menu, while always welcome, isn’t usually something to get excited about when previewing a game. For die-hard DotA players, however, touches like this make all the difference. After years of relying on bots and external programs, any kind of built-in matchmaking and stat tracking would be seen as a godsend. But Valve did much more than that. DotA 2’s menu is one of the most effective in any current eSports title. The days of dealing with custom game lists are long gone.

DotA 2 is by no means an easy game to learn, and Valve is very aware of this fact. They have promised to include a coaching system for new players, but it hasn’t been implemented yet. What has been implemented, however, is an incredibly simple way to observe games. Just go to the “Watch” tab, find a game, and that’s it. If you see a friend in a game, just right-click on their name to jump in and watch them go at it. This isn’t the first time that spectating has been included in a competitive title (FPS games have been doing it for ages), but it is suspiciously absent from a number of big-name titles (again, StarCraft II is an egregious offender). The ability to jump in and observe just about any game seems like a logical addition to any competitive multiplayer title, but nowhere is it more accessible than in DotA 2.

The Main Course
A fight to the death But what about the actual gameplay? Rest assured DotA fans, you’ll feel right at home. Aside from the additions to item management (more on that later), this is the game that has been known and loved for years. I can’t say whether or not there have been any balance changes beyond the current version of DotA, but I will say that after spending time playing both games back to back, they feel incredibly similar. Once all of the characters are added and the game moves closer to release, then we can start picking things apart and discussing balance. Until then, it’s enough to see beloved heroes reborn in a fresh new art style with new unique attack animations. The art design is different enough to avoid any confusion with Blizzard’s trademarks, but of those added so far, each character’s design is thematically appropriate and familiar enough to make them easily identifiable. The map itself has likewise been given a shiny new coat of paint, but old haunts like Roshan’s lair and the secret shops are right where you left them.

As for the item management, that’s one speed bump that DotA players will have to overcome, though it’s by no means a dealbreaker. Former players are used to having as number of different merchants each selling up to nine different items, but that’s a product of the limitations inherent in modding WC3. It is by no means an efficient design for item management, but no one could expect anything more because of the inherent limitations. Valve has wisely chosen to streamline the system and relegate item shopping to a series of lists. Once the initial shock has worn off, it’s a very easy to grasp system (especially if you already know the recipes you want to build) similar to the one found in League of Legends. This will also make it much easier to add new items later in the games development should Valve choose to do so.

How Does it Play?
Plenty of choices The game itself feels exactly like someone would want a refresh of DotA to feel. It’s familiar, but also smoother and more responsive. This is to be expected in any proper sequel, but Valve has taken great pains to do justice to the gameplay that was founded on the mechanics of an entirely different title. That DotA is finally functioning in its own independent environment is the ultimate justification of the bizarre yet undeniably compelling game that became a phenomenon and inspired countless spin-offs. It’s also the ultimate payoff for almost a decade of work for IceFrog and the other developers who toiled to continue to develop this passion project and allow it to exist on its own terms outside the realm of WarCraft. Beyond the familiarity, the game’s new engine has allowed for a number of tweaks that make the game easier to play, at least visually speaking. Heroes in general stand out from the crowd (no more losing smaller heroes amidst a creep wave) and each hero now has a very distinct silhouette, making large team battles much more manageable.

The addition of voice chat is probably one of the biggest game-changers in DotA 2. Competitive teams have been using third party software to provide this feature since the beginning, but integrating a reliable push-to-talk feature into the game itself is a boon for neophytes and casual players. It's intimidating to potentially have to answer for your mistakes and listen to people criticize you, but the potential for coordinating strategies and discussing tactics far outweighs any possible negatives. It's possible that the voice chat could devolve into an easy way for players to insult one another without having to take their hands off their mice, but we won't have to worry about that for some time.

As someone who isn’t a DotA die hard, it’s hard to say much more besides the fact that DotA 2 plays like the game it always deserved to be. Coming into its own with years of refinement already under its belt means that it will be ready to entice new players without so much as a hiccup when release day arrives. The game maintains the same methodical pace, but the added smoothness of the gameplay and controls helps to keep the game from feeling sluggish or monotonous. The final test will come when all the heroes have been implemented and the game approaches its completed form, but until then we’re free to mess around and enjoy the game in its unfinished state.

Grace Notes
I alluded to this earlier, but what really makes DotA 2 so remarkable – especially considering it’s still in Beta –are the little bits of polish that the game effuses. Each hero has a delightfully distinct voice and a bevy of quotes for every in-game scenario. When shopping for items, players can refer to handy lists of recommended items that – gasp – actually recommend items that will benefit your character. Many incredibly successful titles have come and gone without small elements like this, but Valve has built its pedigree on meticulously crafting every last pixel of the games they make, and DotA 2 is thriving under this MO. What could have been a perfectly acceptable full version of DotA is instead shaping up to be the most feature-rich entry into the eSports scene, and considering the competition, that’s no mean feat.