I’m far more excited about Valve’s Dota 2 Reborn than someone who doesn’t play Dota 2 should be. It may not have been the Half-Life 3 announcement we’re still hoping to hear (keep the faith, everyone!), but it could easily end up being more exciting – games as a platform, finally pushed into the mainstream limelight.
This isn’t of course a world first by any stretch. FPS games have long been the building blocks for other games, with original DOTA being a hugely popular Warcraft III mod. Blizzard itself tried to do the same with Starcraft Arcade, which which you can play things like the RTS/puzzle hybrid Starjewelled (part Starcraft, part Bejewelled, in case it’s not obvious) and battle-arena Gridfall.
It never really took off though, even with games playable using just the free Starter Edition, and it’s been a long time since anyone really talked about it. Arguably the best example of the style is Minecraft, but even then it’s a matter of many disparate mods rather than a single ecosystem. This isn’t a criticism, just a comparison. Valve’s goals are markedly different, not least because its cash comes from keeping people close to buy crates and cosmetic items and eSports tickets.
In the new Dota client, ‘Custom Games’ are available straight from the menu and ready to jump into with a click. People have already made several since it came out, including a kart racing game and the ever-popular Pudge Wars, where everyone gets to be a bloated, hook-slinging zombie with a love of flesh.
Now though, these games are an integral part of the Dota 2 experience – never out of sight, never out of mind. It’s not simply a return to its modding routes, but the magnification of their audience by a factor of, at least, ‘loads’.
The possibilities are huge, and not just for MOBA fans or the people currently screaming that I just said MOBA instead of their preferred nonsense acronym. For starters it allows for the fantastic cast of heroes to be transplanted into any game style, from simple combat to – Valve claims – a full single-player RPG.
Even sticking to the game lore (aka the stuff most people don’t read but is there because someone needed to explain why a blue woman is running around in a leotard and shooting arrows at things) provides plenty of fun stories and background ideas to build on, in addition to its cast’s swanky outfits and powersets.
Bringing the vibe
The first mod I tried was a recreation of Bomberman starring Techies. It’s a little clumsy due to using mouse input to move rather than directional controls, but there’s something endearing about seeing a familiar character in a new context. The Custom Games menu almost has an Mario Party/Kart/Tennis/Whatever vibe – dropping in on what the characters do when not fighting over Ancients. Admittedly, it’s still mostly a lot of fighting.
Wider afield, modders now have access to and publicity on one of PC gaming’s biggest communities – a far cry from simply running servers for those in the know. This puts Dota 2 in the same place as Minecraft – the perfect spawning ground for the next big thing. Today’s mods can easily become tomorrow’s games, as seen with the likes of Black Mesa Source, and of course Dota 2 itself.
Unfortunately, the big ones are increasingly precious, thanks to DLC and other concerns increasingly pushing developers to lock things down. Props of course to companies that don’t, not least Bethesda for games like Skyrim, and more recently Firaxis, which openly admits to having been inspired by what mods like The Long War did for its first XCOM game without any assistance at all to now open things up as much as possible and let player creativity run wild.
This is all the reason I need to fire it back up despite not playing its main game. Also there’s a SHODAN announcer pack coming soon, making this the closest I’m likely to get to playing System Shock 3 in a post Bioshock world. Curse the nebulous rights issues that tie up so many classic games.
A side benefit for the genre is that as much as Valve has tried to ease newcomers’ passages into it with basic modes and tutorials, with more on the way, Dota 2 still remains a Darwinian shark-tank at the best of times – long games and prized MMR rankings creating a world where ignorance is despised and the weak regularly invited to uninstall the game and kill themselves, not necessarily in that order.
Simpler games can allow for greater familiarity with the heroes, the maps and the basic mechanics, rather than sitting down to play and being shouted at for having the temerity to not know what wards are and where they go. It might seem like the danger is that these games will take over, but it seems unlikely. They haven’t in the existing communities, and in any event, it’s nothing to fear. Where would games be if we just declared them good enough?
Some killer, some filler
As with everything, there are going to be some downsides. There will be limits not mentioned in Valve’s ra-ra announcements, there will be a deluge of appalling mods that no amount of filters and curation will stem, and especially while in beta, expect issues.
The fact that Dota 2 currently has two clients (the new one is based on a new engine, with Custom Games only part of the changes) also means that things aren’t going to be in sync. For the moment at least, custom games also don’t get to play with the main game’s fancy matchmaking and long-term progress tracking tools – you jump in and out as if they were a server in the BeforeSteam.
But it’s early days, and exciting ones. The new Dota is due to come out of beta after The International, and for now, the frustrations mean it’s probably not worth downloading fresh.
When Valve is ready though, and when the community has had enough time to turn its Custom Games menu into a veritable arcade, it’ll be the best reason to install Dota 2 since mollifying that friend who just won’t shut up about the damn thing. It might even be possible to play alongside them without feeling completely useless. At least, for a little while.