There's 58 minutes on the clock and I'm waiting to respawn. I was foolish, I entered into a fight without support and fell in battle right on the door step of my base. It was stupid, I won't do it again. As I patiently serve my time I pan the camera around the base, not liking what I see. The enemies have breached it and there's nobody there to stop them. I check the life bar on our ancient; it's decreasing steadily. After nearly an hour of playtime is it going to come down to this? Watching as we fail, powerless to do anything.
There are a number of enemy heroes in our base, too many. It won't take long. I glance at the minimap and see that a single fellow hero is situated in the enemy stronghold, a final desperate strike. Too little, too late. I decide not to watch doom and instead move my camera in the direction of hope. I pan across the battlefield, making my way to the lone hero to watch her final stand. What I see surprises me. She's surrounded by friendly creeps and she's devastating the enemy Ancient.
There are 4 seconds until I respawn. We're going to win this, I want to be alive when we win this.
There are 3 seconds left until I respawn. The Ancient's lifebar is really low now, much lower than the bar of our own. We're going to win this, I want to be alive when we win this.
There are 2 seconds left until I respawn... The Ancient crumbles. We've won. I forget that I'm dead, suddenly all that matters is that we won. After an hour of turbulent tug of war - the battle seeming lost moments before we make a huge comeback, later to be thrown back into the same cycle - we've won. It's all over. My first online match of DOTA 2 is over, and I absolutely loved it.
Until a few short days ago, I hadn't played DOTA 2. Well not properly anyway. Just before it came out for real I dived into the Beta (thanks to a friend inviting me) and I gave it a go, purely to see what the fuss was all about. I played the then limited tutorial and just didn't see where the game was fun. It seemed pretty boring, and a practice match against the AI confirmed this. People told me that if I put 50-100 hours into it I would start to love it, but that sounded like Stockholm syndrome to me. I was unimpressed.
Another person may have just left it there. I tried it, didn't like it. I admittedly didn't give it a fair shot, but I have limited time and am the kind of person who likes to play a lot of games. If a game is going to take up all my time just for me to get a handle on it, it's not quite for me. However something kept niggling at the back of my mind. People love this game, people I know really well love this game. A varied bunch love this game, many of whom have similar tastes to myself. What am I missing? I needed to understand.
This is what prompted this quest, not a desire to learn DOTA or to enjoy it. This is merely a desire to understand DOTA. To get a glimpse of what was in this game that makes it so compelling to so many. My initial play time hadn't revealed it and I just needed to know why. After all, DOTA 2 has replaced Skyrim as the game that there is always somebody playing on my Steam friends list. Close friends of mine have put hundreds of hours into it and show no signs of stopping there. My mind was made up, I had to understand why people flocked to this game. I had to reinstall DOTA 2.
Soon the game was ready to play. I booted it up and jumped straight into the tutorial. This mode was already far more impressive, featuring a number of scenarios and trials which taught you the very basics. I played through everything and left with a basic understanding of what I needed to do. I wouldn't say I particularly enjoyed the process, but I felt like I got the game a bit more. I didn't get why it was so popular, but I was in a better position to work this mystery out. I then jumped into an AI match and had a decent time. There was still so much about the experience that I found overbearing - I still didn't know if I was playing it right - but my team won. I enjoyed the match, mostly because we won, but I didn't find it that compelling. It wasn't bad but it didn't seem that great.
I then found myself in the position of finding AI matches a bit boring, but feeling totally unprepared for online. I knew the basics and the rules, but I had no idea how to really play. When to do things, what items I should get, what role I should be playing, when different phases of the game began and ended. I knew nothing. I'd hit a wall already and still felt unsatisfied.
I wasn't about to give up here, instead I sought professional help. I found one of my DOTA-fanatic friends and enlisted his services. Letting him teach me and coach me, so that one day I would feel ready to take on the world. This worked really well, the game's in-built coaching system (where a friend can watch your screen while you play a match and communicate with you to aid you) is really excellent. From playing this way I learnt so much and expert advice really made me start to see how the game could be interesting. Of course I was still really bad. My coach commented that everybody starts this way, but that I was especially difficult to teach (in fairness I could have listened to him more). I left feeling better about the game and I was given homework to do. Several YouTube videos that I needed to watch in order to understand and enjoy DOTA.
I still felt scared by the idea of playing online. I felt that I was bad at the game and I knew the player base had a reputation for being very unforgiving. I was sure playing online would be a terrible time, and acutely aware that I still didn't know quite what I should be doing at all times. I was also still dreadfully overwhelmed by the game's hero roster. There was just so much to choose from and I didn't know how to work out which one was right for me, or even if there was one that was right for me. I needed to do some research. I thought about the way I liked to play games and the role I can see myself playing in DOTA 2. I thought about what I would like to do, what would annoy me and what kind of skills I needed. After trying several characters out, and putting some good research time in, I found a character I liked. This really impressed me, the fact that I could think this way and find a character that suited the role I had made for myself showed a versatility to the game, and a variety and balance to the roster.
My DOTA homework would have to wait. It was getting late, I should at least try an online match.
Online was not as intimidating as I feared. No way near. Due to my coaching I actually felt confident in my role. I knew what I wanted to do now, and I had an idea of how to achieve it. I still wasn't sure what items I should be using, but I played it situationally. I thought about what I was lacking, what would compliment my play style and what would my hero benefit from. I was able to craft things that fitted in with my (possibly wholly misguided) view of how I should be playing and this felt great.
Playing against other people was also so different from skirmishing AI. My companions were so much less dependable and the enemy was so much less predictable. Things weren't as static as they seemed in the AI matches, there was a brilliant fluidity to the match. I was really enjoying myself. I also felt I played pretty well, understanding what my hero could do and getting an idea of what my foes were up to. I was beginning to understand and after a while I realised I was loving my time with DOTA. I was still finding it intimidating, but I was able to enjoy myself whilst feeling overwhelmed. I love the pace of a game, the sporadic nature of everything. It felt like a sport, where the rules and pitch remain the same (even the common tactics are known) but every match is different and has the capacity to be incredibly exciting. It started to click with me. I understood why people loved this so much.
What hammered this home is that all I thought about today was playing another game of DOTA. Going back in and trying out new things. I was able to work things out in my mind, where things could have gone better and what tactics I could employ to be a better player. Once again, being able to do this just impressed me. There's a really awesome game here and it's one that I'm actively considering getting very invested in. This could all change, but I will keep you guys updated. For now though, I can safely say that I understand why people are so compelled by this game and that's the position I wanted so desperately to be in. However, I never thought I would enjoy it as much as I did.
Time to press play again.
Images Courtesy of: PCGamer