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Has Dota 2 been improved by its updates?

Dote call it a comeback

I try not to make a habit of internalising internet comments, but I’ll always remember one left on PC Gamer’s Dota 2 review that came in when I worked there.

“Nobody should be reviewing Dota unless they have more than 500 hours played.”

The reviewer in question, the inimitable Chris Thursten, had north of 650 hours of Dota played at the time, and we told the commenter as much via reply. A few minutes later, another response came back.

“He needs 750 hours.”

No matter how much Dota 2 you’ve played, it’s never enough. Never enough for the game itself, which is a four-dimensional version of tesseract chess where rooks can call in crashing ghost pirate ships and knights can turn into dragons and vomit acid. And never enough for its players, who will extract your most minor mistakes and drag you for them in public more effectively than even your parents at their most wine-drunk ever could.

I have just shy of 1,000 hours of Dota 2 on record. I don’t say that to show off; I haven’t played the game seriously since 2013, and I was never particularly good at it. I say to show that even though I’ve got all that time banked — an amount of time in which someone could build up an empirically large amount of practice, of knowledge, of experience in anything - on returning to the MOBA, it still only took one match before my teammates were publicly calling for my (real-world) death.

I was playing as Mars, the newest of the small group of new champions that have been added to Valve’s game over the past few years. Mars, named for the war god rather than the chocolate, is big, red, and suitably warlike, poking creeps and enemy heroes with a spear when he’s not bashing them with his shield. In Dota’s parlance, he’s an initiator: he’s tough and tanky, and can weave his way through a ruckus to start a team-fight proper with his ultimate ability. Press R and Mars can call up a decently sized gladiatorial arena, ringed with spectators, that can trap enemy champions inside. The arena forces enemies to stand and fight, or at least wait, until the spell duration ends and they’re either a) free to go about their business, or b) dead.

It’s a great start to any battle: lock a chunk of the enemy team in there, and you and yours are almost guaranteed to get a few kills. Miss entirely — call up the arena on empty ground as the opposing team skips off to safety — and your team calls for your death.

To be fair, I didn’t make the mistake again. Mars is, in Dota 2 terms at least, a fairly simple hero to use. By leaning into his tanky-ness and making judicious use of his shield (which blocks damage from the front and the side), I became comfortable wading into fights, and ensured that my next few ultimates locked two or more enemy heroes into combat, helping to swing the tide in my team’s favour.

Not so easy is Pangolier, a quick but flimsy glass cannon of a hero who can wreck an enemy in a few swipes of his rapier, but who can’t stand up to sustained punishment. Pangolier’s ultimate, the ability to roll into a magic-immune ball and smash into enemies, gives him some much-needed survivability, but the unwieldy form takes time to learn how to control. He’s nothing compared to Arc Warden, though. Introduced shortly after 2015’s Dota 2’s hefty “Reborn” update, Arc Warden comes with flimsy defense and average attacks, but complicates the situation by demanding that players split attention between two clones in order to function effectively. Like micro-intensive heroes Invoker, Chen, and Meepo, these kinds of demands put Arc Warden out of the skill ranges of new players, but allow for some serious showoff Dota if you can hack it.

That Reborn update changed much about the visual trappings of Dota 2 that I knew, adding a smoother dashboard, ways to watch games going on at the moment, and guided bot matches that expanded on the game’s previous skeleton of a tutorial system. They’re all welcome changes, but there’s still a complexity to the game’s UI that makes its hero browser, its inventory, and its store fiddly to navigate for returning players and potentially impenetrable for new people.

More significant for the game itself was Dota 2's version 7.00, hitting in late December 2016. 7.00 added a new talents system, allowing players binary skill choices at levels 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25, and also introduced health- and mana-regenerating shrines, as well as new runes that paid out in gold. More noticeable for me were the subtle redesigns to the game’s core map. Ostensibly the stage is the same as it was when I was playing it in 2013, with three lanes, four jungles, and an array of shops, but tree placement is different, optimal warding positions have shifted, and the pit housing resurrecting monster Roshan has moved slightly. Coming to a space I knew so well feels both familiar and different, like if my room had been rearranged very slightly by mischievous housemates.

These changes may seem minor but they've already forced me to alter my playstyle: bounty runes and their early gold boosts can help heroes get the advantage in their lane, while shrine coordination is key for mid-game pushes and recovery after teamfights. These new mechanics come on top of a teetering pile of things to remember: the management of a hero’s active skills, the purchase of their ideal items for each given match, their progression through their skill tree, the last-hitting and denying of creeps, and the perfect times to jungle, ward, and kill Roshan. Does it make a better game? I’m not sure, but there’s certainly more to the process of playing Dota 2.

Fortunately, updates have streamlined at least some of this process. Where I used to have a build guide open in another window an alt-tab away, Valve’s game now folds guides into the UI itself, highlighting skills and items in the order players should prioritise their acquisition, and providing description text to explain the writer’s reasoning. New modes, too, offer something other than the standard All Pick or Captain’s Mode variants, including a fun Ability Draft option that lets players choose individual skills rather than heroes, allowing for some powerful — or powerfully weak — combinations.

Of these new gametypes, I gravitated towards Turbo Mode. The new variant was introduced in 2017’s Dueling Fates update, and is a version of All Pick mode where gold and xp is earned faster, towers are weaker, and respawn times are lower: a bid to speed up Dota 2’s typical 40-minute-plus match times. It certainly achieves that goal — I found that even my team’s most glacial games tended to run to less than half an hour — but it doesn’t work in its other stated aims.

Valve sold Turbo Mode at release as a “more forgiving environment” for trying out new heroes and strategies, but most of my experiences in the mode ended up just as nasty as those in more established game types, as teammates berated each other for mistakes, crowed about their kills, or exhorted others to catch a disease and die. Even playing All Random mode, where players are assigned one of the hundred-plus heroes by chance, my matches were punctuated with insults and threats, as well as people conceding games early with global “gg” calls

So much of Dota 2 enables this kind of reactionary aggressiveness (supporter only), from its heavily data-driven front-end, which clearly shows when players have played their chosen hero “worse” than the average based on their final kills, deaths, and assists tally, to the game’s five-on-five team constitution itself, which demands that each member visibly pull their weight. Even the game’s ping system, built to enable quick communication without voice chat, has been weaponised. Where Apex Legends’ ping system is a frictionless way of nonverbal illumination, Dota 2’s ping is regularly used by bad actors to bombard imperfect or uncooperative teammates with obnoxious audio and visual feedback.

It’s horrible when you’re the target of this ire, but even just being around it as it was aimed at teammates or opponents set my teeth on edge. Valve has made some attempts to curb this behaviour in multiple updates, but in practice these measures are lacking: in one of my matches the starting text advising people to be patient with newer players hadn’t even faded away before my teammates were already at each other’s throats, declaring each other idiots, noobs, or idiot noobs.

And that’s a problem that undercuts all the quality-of-life changes that Valve has brought to the game through their rigorous update schedule. Thanks to resources like in-built guides, like a well-featured trial mode for new heroes, like the “Watch” tab included in the client that highlights high-level play, and like detailed descriptions of heroes’ traits, strengths, and weaknesses, Dota 2 should be a smoother game than ever to play.

But it’s not an easy game to play, and a lot of that is due to the people who play it. The community — already spiky and unforgiving when I gave up on it five years ago — only feels more calcified and aggressive nowadays, the half-decade in between serving to cement both expected knowledge and expected attitudes. That attitude helps explain why I quit Dota 2 when I did: when I lost, I felt dejected, drained, and worse about humanity as a conglomerate. When I won, I felt… nothing, bar the relief that I likely hadn’t been surrounded by quite as much vitriol over the past hour of my life as I would have done had we lost.

That’s not to say that Valve’s game isn’t good. Dota 2 is a fascinating and endlessly challenging game, and if you’ve got a group of like-minded friends available to fill out two, three, or four slots in your team, then it becomes a thrilling edifice to scale, its reward the satisfaction of feeling yourself learning and growing as an increasingly skilled player. But even with 1,000 hours to point at, I still feel disheartened about the idea of booting up another match. Coming fresh to Dota 2 now as a solo player, I don’t even know where I’d begin. I’m not sure I’d want to.

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Rich McCormick