It was a matter of time before battle royale got spun up from a top-down perspective. True, the surprisingly fun surviv.io was the first to get there – but that’s essentially a 2D port of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and nearly as shallow as that description implies. Dota 2 is the first game to tackle the genre with a little more depth: I’ve been playing its Underhollow mode, with strangers.
I do not advise playing Dota 2’s Underhollow mode with strangers.
My reasons are myriad, but first I better explain how it works. Eight teams of three players each start in a separate corner of the Underhollow, and work their way through rooms full of minions that get more powerful towards the centre of the maze-like map. You level up, discovering and buying items as you go along, until bumping into another enemy team and attempting to off each other. Last team standing wins. To play it, you’ll need to buy the 2018 Battle Pass for £7/$10. That also gives you some quests and cosmetics to pursue (along with e-sport predicting and sticker collecting), but it’s far from worth it if you’re only interested in Underhollow.
Here’s what’s at the root of much of my dissatisfaction: the outcome feels like it’s too subject to chance. That needs some unpicking, because battle royale games are random by their nature and I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, despite countless deaths from unseen assailants who happened to get the drop on me. The key difference is that while that can happen no matter how observant I am in Plunkbat, I can minimise the chances of it by moving smartly. When I die, I can still see how I might have fared better if I’d played differently.
In Underhollow, I’ve got no choice but to commit myself to fighting those rooms full of minions – despite knowing that at any point enemy heroes could come charging in and knock my team out of the running. Placing wards can help, but the vision they provide can only guard against attacks from behind. Even then, it only takes one teammate to be out of position for a second and the game is essentially over: you can revive fallen comrades, but earning the space to do that by winning a 2v3 fight is next to impossible.
The strangers I’ve played with have been almost universally terrible at not being out of position. Nearly every game I’ve played has involved ten minutes of room clearing, then dying to the first enemies who stumble across us – either because we were in the middle of fighting minions, or because a teammate has been too far away for help to reach them in time. I can guess as to what’s going on in their heads, and I can see why my teammates have been eager to forge ahead by themselves. Every second that you don’t spend accruing levels and gear is time where the other teams have a chance to get ahead, and barrelling onward is the easiest way of pressuring teammates to stop fussing with their gear and get back to farming it.
Problem is, that item fussing is important too. If I was playing with friends, it’d be a different story. We’d respect each other’s need to spend some time by the shops that sometimes spawn in a room, and maybe even buy stuff for each other – unlike in the regular game, every item can be shared. When playing with randos, it’s every man for himself.
After you defeat all the enemies in a room, a chest spawns and throws out a collection of random items. The sensible thing would be for everyone to let those items fall to the floor, then take the ones that best suited their hero. What actually happens is that everyone spams the chest with clicks in an attempt to pinch every possible item for themselves. Occasionally, if a player winds up with something they really can’t use, they might choose to share. Usually, they’ll just sell.
I haven’t even mentioned the problem I usually do when talking about Dota players, which is that an awful lot of them are dicks. You might think that the lower stakes would cool some heads, but people still seem eager to hurl insults at me at a roughly similar rate. I had one bloke swear and scream at me for not picking the level one skill that he considered the most optimal, and another that got himself killed while typing out a tirade against my item choices.
Playing a team game with uncooperative allies is an exercise in frustration, but I’m not convinced there’s much more fun to be had with friends. My criticism about being jumped on while fighting minions still applies, but that’s not the only problem. Clearing out the creeps in many rooms boils down to standing still and right-clicking, which is as dull as it sounds. There are some more interesting rooms, where you have to dodge projectiles or implement a strategy – but those rooms are the exceptions when they need to be the rule. There are a couple of fun surprises, too, which I won’t spoil – but they’re similiarly too few and far between.
When I first heard Dota 2 was trying out a battle royale mode, I imagined something closer to an excellent (though unfortunately titled) custom game called Hardcore Ninja. I wanted it to be about fighting rather than farming, and I can’t help but wonder if I’d have had more fun if Valve had done away with levelling and just let people go at each other on a map devoid of obstacles. It’s worth mentioning that I have won one game of Underhollow, and I can’t say it felt particularly satisfying.
Yeah, we stuck together. Yeah, we even made smart use of a special item that lets you blow a hole in a wall and sneak up on people. That only won us the one fight though, and chance still played a heavy role in us being the ambushers rather than the ambushees.