The Early Access Bundle will set you back £25, giving you both early access to the beta (which was previously invite only), and also netting you just shy of £15 worth of items, ranging from a giant boar courier to some fancy bracers for Juggernaut. It’s certainly not a small amount of money to be paying for something that, by Valve’s own admission, is going to be free to play when it launches some time in the future, but the difference between then and now, when it comes to Valve games, can be pretty hefty. You might be waiting a while.
So, impatient friend, is it worth your money? That all depends on what kind of impatient friend you are, friend.
To Those Who Have Played Before
Heroes of Newerth, League of Legends, Demigod, Bloodline Champions, Monday Night Combat. There are a lot of MOBAs out there, and more than a few of them can very directly trace their lineage right back to Dota, and the style of game that it pioneered. And they all, to some degree or another, prepare you for Dota 2. They give you a basis of knowledge that you can build on, which means that, during that first bewildering game, you’re not quite the rabbit in the headlights that a totally new player inevitably is. You’ve got enough sense to get out of the way of the speeding truck.
The thing is, Dota 2 is unlike most of those games. They’re a distillation of its elements, looking at that original Warcraft mod and stripping out anything that they didn’t like, or didn’t make sense to them. It means that there are elements of Dota in all of these games, but none of them has quite as much stuff going on at once. Heroes of Newerth is much faster. League of Legends is more friendly. Demigod is... Demigod.
Which means that you need to look at why you enjoy whichever game you play, and whether you’re entirely satisfied with it. If you’re playing League of Legends, you need to figure out whether you’re finding the rigid structure of each game entertaining, or whether you’d like to play something more dynamic, but far less secure. Dota 2 is a volatile, overwhelming experience that will leave you cold if you go in without the right mindset.
And that right mindset is one of acceptance that you will get overwhelmed, and you will suck for at least five games, probably more like ten or twenty. All of these games, Heroes of Newerth included (although that is probably the closest to Dota out of the bunch), are gateways, where Dota 2 is the destination. You think about ten things at once when you’re playing them, where it feels like a hundred once you’ve made it to Dota 2.
The flipside of all this negativity is that while there’s a lot to think about, all this complexity is systemic, and creates a game that’s unfettered by too many game systems. The map is huge, and that means that roaming ganks and lane pushes become much more risky and rewarding tactics, if you execute them properly. Warding, too, becomes much more of a factor, with map control through teamfight dominance and creep pushing turning into a dangerous threat.
Most importantly, Dota 2 is the most dynamic and cerebral game I’ve ever played. Matches can turn around in a second, and that initial five minutes of the game, where you’re all but skilless and weak as a placenta-covered puppy, have all the probes and feints of a fencing match. Moving in for last hits and denials is a hundred mini-risk/reward decisions, and any hesitation is going to have you coming off worse for wear. It breeds decisiveness and ruthlessness, and being rewarded for those is a heady tonic.
So do you want to lay some money down right now, when you could just wait to try it out for free? Look at your game ticker in the game you currently play. If it’s in the hundreds, then yes, you probably do. Because you’ve spent that long getting good at the derivation of Dota, and it’s going to take at least as many games to get as good at the progenitor. Getting started sooner rather than later is going to fill up your backpack with lovely items, level up your Battle Level, and sort out your ELO so you don’t get stuck with the inevitable hordes of completely fresh faces that flood the game when it officially releases. And you don’t want that.
To Those Who Haven’t Played
You’re here for Valve. It’s ok, you don’t have to be embarrassed about it. They make great games, and if they like it, there has to be something to this whole Dota madness, right? Millions and millions of people can’t be so very wrong, and so you figure you might as well try this new Valve game, because if anyone gets it right, it’s going to be them, right?
Right. Well, kind of.
Dota 2 is incredibly friendly, from its Dashboard to its UI, and it remains friendly right up until you actually join a match and start playing. And then it grows cold, turns its back on you and leaves you to have a conversation with that unpleasantly sweaty and obsequious guy that everyone’s been avoiding the whole night. Dota 2 is not a game that is going to come to you. It’s a game you’re going to have to invest in, and that £25 is by far the smallest investment you’ll make.
It feels somewhere between Everquest and Starcraft, a weird hybrid between RPG and RTS that relies on you both having the tactical nous to be in the right place at the right time, and also have the sheer APM skill to pop off your ultimate at exactly the right moment, and out-fight the fighters on the enemy team. It forces you into a dual mindset, and then ladles on a few dozen extra mechanics that you have to keep in mind otherwise they’ll end up getting you killed. And, when you get killed, you give experience and gold to the enemy team, so everyone on your team starts shouting at you.
It’s a hostile game, there’s no doubt about that. But if you’ve been paying any attention to the genre since its inception, you’ll be aware of that. And you’re still interested in playing Dota 2, so you’ve either got a thick skin or think Valve can work miracles with the community. And, to be fair, they’re doing a fair job. Reported players get put with reported players, forced to nice their way out of the cesspit of humanity that is the dredges of a Dota 2 community. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get shouted at, and it doesn’t mean you’ll feel all that welcome.
The game itself, when you’ve got the hang of it, can be so incredibly rewarding and satisfying it’s a marvel that only a few million are playing it. It’s poker with explosions instead of cards, and you’re bluffing and intimidating your way, the entire time. You’ll get bait, ambush, lure, threaten and retreat from your opponents the whole way through the game, and you’ll never be entirely sure that anything you’re doing is going to work. You’re always running on a razor’s edge, hoping that you’re not going to slip and turn yourself into many pieces of yourself. There’s no safety net in Dota 2, and that proximity to danger is thrilling.
The problem is it could leave you cold. You could spend that money, and then be left with a few gigabytes of useless data that you don’t want to go near because you have neither the time nor the inclination to actually figure out your way past its gruff exterior to the supposedly golden heart within. And when there are so many free alternatives, and with Dota 2 itself going free to play in the near future, laying down the price of a full game to get access early seems almost a little mad, Valve game or no.
If you were to lay down that money now, however, you wouldn’t be shooting yourself in the foot, so long as you ended up enjoying the game. Because, come release, it’ll be flooded by thousands, maybe millions, of players, just like you, who have never played a game like it before. And where, right now, you can join a game and the majority of the players will know how to play, and hopefully one or two will be willing to give you advice, you’re going to have matches filled with players who don’t have a clue, and you’re going to end up coming away from it bemused, unsatisfied and frustrated.
So you’re paying for the privilege of avoiding that flood of skillessness. If you really are very interested by Dota 2, like the idea of the game rather than just who is making it, then it’s worth taking the risk. Besides, risk taking is at the heart of the game, so if you’re not willing to take this one, then maybe it’s not for you.
Or, if you want to be really conservative about it, you could try one of the free alternatives to see if you like the genre. Play a few games of League of Legends, get your head around that, and if you’re still interested, then head on up to Dota 2 and lay down your money. And just hope that you don’t get overwhelmed by, well, everything.