DotA 2, developed by Valve, is a direct sequel to the stellar online battle arena game Defense of the Ancients, which was a mod for Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. With a free-to-play business model, it’s somewhat confusing at the moment as to exactly what DotA 2 plans on being. I mean, sure, it’s advertised as a free-to-play game, but you can buy it from the DotA 2 Store as well as other in-game items, but access is currently limited due to the beta phase.

For those interested but entirely new to the series, the idea of DotA 2 is somewhat perplexing: I mean, you’ve this lore-rich world that’s shared between three games: Heroes of Newerth, DotA, and DotA 2.  Aside minor control and balancing differences between the three, the heroes are often the same in skin as they are by name, although some have changed in both departments; something that has never changed however, is the map. DotA 2 shares one map with both HoN and DotA – and don’t think these prior games are now redundant – oh no – HoN, DotA and DotA 2 remain completely independent from one and other, despite offering the same (to an extent) mode of gameplay.

Now we’ve a basic grasp of the HoN, DotA and DotA 2 relationship (leaving League of Legends at the door for now) let’s talk about exactly what game-play entails.

DotA 2 is a top-down battle arena game, wherein 5 players from two teams pick one of 90 ‘heroes’ to play on either the Radiant or Dire teams. In a nutshell, the goal is to eliminate the enemies fortified stronghold – everything in the middle, though, is where the brilliance of the game is.

Easy to play but difficult to master

There’s no avoiding it: DotA 2 is designed as a top-tier tournament e-sports title – but with its relative simplicity and tantamount to genius incorporation of simple communication without the use of a microphone, anyone can pick up and play. When I say that anyone can pick up DotA 2 and play it, I really mean that. As with any game there’s a learning curve, but once you learn the basic strategy: when to strike, what to buy and where to head, or whom to kill, you’re half way there, and the rest is experience.

So what’s to it?

Each game starts with players picking one of the 90 heroes. You can do this either by scrolling the player-cards, or hitting ‘ctrl’ to bring up the grid, and either searching or selecting from a filter of player types: strength, agility or intel. These player types are known in the community as: Laner, Carry, Disabler, Ganker, Initiator, Jungler, Pusher, Roamer and Tank. Although you’ll not find them labelled as such in the game, who does what is learned by monitoring chat, and sort of… playing it by ear. As with any competitive title, the need for set roles – or builds of each – is integral, but not so much in a PuG match (although some communication when picking roles is useful, so you don’t end up with a set of 5 Carry’s, etc). A common problem is that many people want to play as Carry in order to get more kills, which in turn gives them more money and experience. A little negotiation goes a long way, though.

Once in the game, players will start at level 1 every time. Stats, items and levels do not carry across into the next game, and everyone begins each game even. You’ll hit shop, buy the first six recommended items, and distribute areas to patrol.

Areas are generally split into three. Top (top left of the map), Bot (bottom right of the map) and Mid (middle of the map). Top and Bot are known as ‘lanes’, which generally require two people on each to patrol, with the left-over in mid.

At this point, you’ll notice ‘creeps’ from either team heading towards eachother through Mid and each lane. Attacking these (but not focusing on) creeps will award the player money if they last-hit the kill. Money in DotA2 is essential, because you’ll need to frequently upgrade your gear and items, buying certain items as pre-requisite for more powerful items. Some of these items give you active and passive traits which are often essential in game. For instance, the hero Spirit Breaker can use the ‘Mask of Madness’ to enable an active heal on kills, which contributes to the entire team since he makes a fine tank, and keeping him alive is, of course, essential.

Death in DotA 2 isn’t anything to be ashamed about, though, since sometimes taking a risk pays off for the whole team. When you die, you can either buy-back instantly with in-game currency, or wait a short amount of time to respawn in your fortified base. The time it takes you to respawn takes longer as you level up, with later game time respawns hitting the two minute mark.

The subtlety of combat

DotA 2 is rewarding – but it doesn’t just reward you, it rewards everyone. Team play is absolutely essential, but with the ability to split into groups of 2 or 3 and cooperate in a relative microchasm of gank, it’s really no fuss at all to orchestrate victory. Simple commands in chat mixed with an alt-click on any player can kick-start some really well pulled off attacks or defenses, and these make DotA 2 shine with polish.

Each hero has four attacks, one of which is the ‘ult’. This ‘ult’ is the players main powerful attack, although it’s not always for attacking purposes. For instance, my personal favourite, Spirit Breaker, has the ability to teleport in front of a fleeing target and stun him. Doing this after a successful ‘charge’ (an attack that has him running across the map at super speed in a straight line to stun a target) as they begin to flee to get awarded with that final hit is very satisfying, and both the ‘ult’ and charge attack are integral to the party. If, say, we need to attack the enemy ganker, I can plan a charge. As I am running on my way, another member could silence or slow the market target, and by the time I get there to stun we’ll have everyone attacking. He runs away? No problem, hit the ‘ult’ and get him at 5% health. Coordination is key in DotA 2, but Valve have made it incredibly easy to coordinate with your teammates without unnecessary back-ground noise.

Likewise, the use of Sniper’s slow skill – an active AoE – can really mean the difference between the life or death of the enemy team as they flee a gank – or indeed, carry one out.

One might think that four attacks really isn’t all that much, but DotA 2 gives an advantage to players who memorize the attacks of their friends and foe’s, giving them a tactical advantage, knowing what to look out for, or when to strike. You can also give the heads up for others to attack, and which skill to use. It’s all about experience, and experience is earned through playing.

I’m making this all sound very complicated – but I’ve played seven hours total of DotA 2, and seven hours total of any e-sports title of any genre. I’m a total newbie to the concept, but DotA 2 is unique in that there’s no real way of other players knowing how much you know. This means a lot in a game like DotA 2, because with each player starting at level 1, everyone is equal. If you kite the creeps well, stick to your lane and don’t take too many risks as a new player, you’ll likely be accepted as a key player and either helped along or integral to the win. DotA 2 rewards careful play as much as it rewards aggressive playstyles, and with each hero ‘farming’ at some point throughout the game, you won’t feel too down about not getting enough team-enemy kills, since creeps reward you with xp and money, too.

I’ve only really covered the basics of combat and game-play in this review, because it’s intended for those who haven’t really played a DotA, or HoN game before. Those of you who saw that Valve grabbed the IP and were intrigued by the promise of polish and high graphical fidelity will undoubtedly be a fair amount of you, and to those people, here are my closing statements:

DotA 2 takes aspects of all other e-sports arena titles and polishes them up. There are problems here and there such as that when you, or the enemy team, are really hacking away at the base of either team, it’s pretty much GG for one of you – and I’ve heard that wasn’t so true in HoN, but from what I’ve heard of HoN in its current state, the demographic is waning due to changes in the business model, with many people looking for a happy medium.

Combat is fluid, fun and rewarding – and team-play, although essential, is easy to orchestrate even when thinking of the most complicated maneuvers. Not quite chess but certainly no brainless escapade, DotA 2 is a sort of interactive board-game that has been intelligently created without snobbery or elitism, giving everyone a chance to grow and learn. I mean, with tournament data plastered all over the front page in game, I definitely get the impression that Valve want to rival the current biggest e-sports titles, and I even get the impression they just don’t want bad players hanging around, with their poor conduct report card, etc, but who can blame them? They’ve given you the tools and means to become a good player, all it takes is a little patience and a little thought. A definite must for anyone even remotely interested.

I’m a little confused by the business model, but at no point have I been coerced into paying a single penny. I’m not sure how much that’ll change when the game is officially released, but Valve aren’t in the business of selling power; they’re in the business of selling… hats.