Why has it taken so long for you to get around to playing DotA 2?

The simple answer is “StarCraft”. Ever since dipping my toes into the original StarCraft’s online multiplayer back in the late nineties I’ve been terrified of online games. Entering a match labelled “N00BS ONLY” and being utterly decimated in the first five minutes will do that to a guy. Since then I’ve only ever been willing to play multiplayer with people I know, rather than strangers.

So, even though I installed DotA 2 years ago (mainly for the sweet Steam trading cards it came with) I was always far too nervous to actually play it, multiplayer-only game that it is. I only play multiplayer with people I know… but then someone I know asked me to play it. And that was that – a good friend needed a wingman, and I needed someone to show me the ropes. The rest is history.

Have you played any strategy games like this before? If so, how do they compare?

PCG254.feat_dota.g10The simple answer, again, is “StarCraft”. That game (strictly in singleplayer mode) is one of the defining moments of my gaming life. DotA is a very different beast – it’s almost an RPG except that it totally isn’t – but Star and WarCraft will always be the games it most resembles, since the original version grew out of a mod for those games. The obvious difference is that in those games (and most strategy games) you’re controlling an army, where here you’re only controlling one unit. In strategy games this kind of fine control is called “micro” but, the thing is, I totally suck at micro.

Eventually I got my head around it by not thinking about StarCraft – or even Diablo, which is maybe even more similar – but instead thinking of my character as a cavalry unit in Total War. You have to keep moving, striking suddenly and falling back, feinting and drawing the enemy out. Once I realised that, it all started to come together for me.

What are your ratio of win matches? Is there a specific tactic you use to win the match?

I’ve not played many matches at this point (it’s still in single figures), but I’ve actually won as many as I’ve lost. Or rather, we’ve won as many as I’ve lost – I don’t think any of the wins can be attributed to me personally, but I’m pretty certain a lot of the losses can. My only real tactic is to follow everyone else’s lead, at least in the early game, and try not to give the other team any easy kills.

Do you have a regular team you play with, or do you just jump into a game with whoever?

Other than the one friend who dragged me in the first place, no. So far I’ve just dropped into random teams and, to be honest, that might be the best idea. I feel like I’m learning a lot more and lot faster through the chaos of random selection. Without a set role within a team I’m free to experiment and try things out. Often they fail spectacularly – but it’s definitely helpful to have that freedom. I imaging playing in a team leads to a very different and much more focused game.

DotA 2 is meant to have a steep learning curve. How did you get on with the learning curve? Were there any difficulties you faced with it?

Oh gods, does it ever. The first time I played, I was playing to gain XP – we got destroyed. The second time I played, I was playing to gain territory – we got destroyed. The third time, I hung back and bided my time – we got very destroyed.

There’s a very fine balance between doing just enough to keep racking up gold and XP, but just little enough that you don’t stumble too far ahead before you’re ready. That’s hard enough, but you also have to keep the enemy from finding that exact same balance! It’s a knack I haven’t really figured out yet, as you can probably tell.

Hell, I even forget to level up a lot of the time!

“I bought eight identical pairs of clawed knuckle-dusters once, and I don’t think I’ll ever live it down.”

It seems there’s a lot of playable characters to choose from. Do you have a favourite, and if so, why?

charactersThus far I’ve played almost exclusively as “Death Prophet”, for the simple reason that I got a free item for her the first time I ran the game. It’s just a cosmetic item, so there’s no in-game benefit to it, but it made her stand out from the hundred-odd possible characters. I think that’s probably why they give these items out – to help you choose. I recently got a new item for a different character, and that’s encouraged me to give him a try next time.

Have you tried crafting anything? What did you make and was the process understandable?

Oh man, crafting. Bloody crafting. This is my absolute least favourite thing about the game. Not because there’s anything wrong with it – just because I’m really really bad at it.

As the game progresses you get money along with XP. You can spend it on items (of which there are many) and the game helpfully provides a list of suggested items for your character. Some of these items are very expensive. What I failed to understand, until very recently, is that the idea isn’t actually to save up your money for these top-tier items, but to slowly craft them out of a succession of cheaper items. Trying to buy the final item, like I was doing, just means that you get killed more easily by people who are spending their money, and you lose a chunk of the money you were saving as a penalty for death. It’s a vicious cycle!

Even after I learnt how I was supposed to do it, I still frequently get it wrong – panicking because the list of items is so long and I can’t focus on the game and my inventory at the same time. I bought eight identical pairs of clawed knuckle-dusters once, and I don’t think I’ll ever live it down.

…oh wait, did you mean crafting outside the matches themselves? I haven’t got a clue how that works!

Have you customised your character with cosmetic items? Is there a lot going on with players, or do they just want to get on and game?

Death Prophet does have the funky new skirt I got for free but, other then that, no. I’m notoriously cheap, and I don’t see much reason to pay for imaginary clothes. The promise of new free items, however, is one of the incentives to keep playing. I’m a sucker for free stuff.

Obviously there are other players who pimp their heroes, so to speak, and there’s definitely some very cool sets of items out there. But in the game itself everyone is incredibly focused, barely speaking to each other on chat except, occasionally, in what appears to be a weird ancient code.

Something that struck me, actually, is the dedication of these players. In StarCraft, when the odds are clearly against them, many players will bail before the zerglings even reach their base – leaving you with a quick “GG” and an “Opponent has left the game”. In DotA, every player keeps fighting to the bitter end, knowing full well that there’s no recovering. They’re there to play a match, and they’ll damn well play a whole match, no matter how badly it’s going. It’s an entirely different culture, and I like that sense of passion a lot more.

“My experiences with other online games had prepared me for the worst, but the DotA community were actually pretty accommodating.”

What kind of role do you usually follow?

DotA 2 Death ProphetIt turns out Death Prophet, for all my choosing her for cosmetic reasons, is fantastically powerful against towers. Provided I don’t screw up too badly in the early game (and, lets face it, I often do) she can push deep into enemy territory in the second half, shifting the battlefield and tightening the screws on the enemy base.

Now, if only I could figure out how to get her out of there without dying…

DotA 2’s community has a reputation for being noob-hostile. Did you encounter this at all?

Shockingly, no! My experiences with other online games had prepared me for the worst, but the DotA community were actually pretty accommodating. Even as the first match collapsed around our ears, and it was obvious to everyone on the map that it was all my fault, the worst I got called was a “feeder” which, I learned later, was technically true.

A big part of this is probably the pace of the games, which barely give you time to type even the shortest of messages (except when you’re dead). It might have been entirely different if my unfortunate team-mates had microphones!

Do you feel you now understand how to play the game?

Dota 2 tutorialNot even remotely. I feel like I understand how the game is played, but that’s not the same thing.

But maybe that’s enough. Certainly, knowing what I’m supposed to do, even if I’m not sure how to actually do it, makes me want to improve. I want to learn how to farm more effectively. I want to learn when to attack and when to hold back. I want to get my head around this bloody item system. I understand enough to know that I want to understand more.

Is DotA 2 something you feel you would like to come back to?

If the friend who dragged me into it had his way I’d probably be playing it every night. And, to be honest, I’d almost be ok with that. There’s something very unique about the thrill this game gives you – the tension and pressure of this shifting battlefield – and something wonderful about finding your place in it. I can very easily see how people could get addicted to this thing.

What’s amazing is that I can say that after playing only one character for only a handful of matches. But each of those matches was a very different experience and, unlike the map you play it on, the game changes every time. With over a hundred other characters to play (not to mention a million different items to try) I feel like I’ve not even scratched the surface. DotA is a very deep rabbit-hole indeed.