It seems like it was only yesterday that I was sending messages on AOL instant messenger (AIM) to friends such as Shawty722 and Life Toasty on a school night, asking them if they wanted to play Defense of the Ancients (DotA). DotA, a wildly popular online multiplayer mod created for Blizzard’s Warcraft III, consumed our high school lives. Had an hour to spare? Play a game of DotA. Wanted to procrastinate on a homework assignment? Sign into Warcraft III to play DotA. Years later, having just graduated from college, only some things have changed. I use Facebook and Skype instead of AIM. And I now play DotA 2, Valve’s standalone sequel to DotA.

DotA 2, while currently in a beta (testing) phase, has already achieved international recognition. Since 2011, Valve has hosted The International, an annual DotA 2 tournament with a grand prize of $1 million. As many gaming competitions have begun to transition from the original mod, DotA 2 has become one of the highest paying e-sports. It is currently behind only League of Legends and StarCraft 2 in total prize money awarded. In 2012, it won the People’s Choice Award on IGN, beating such heavyweights as Battlefield 3, Diablo III, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Guild Wars 2. And what's more, it's free to play.

The gameplay and mechanics of DotA 2 have not changed much from the original. It is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) that blends the real-time strategy genre with role-playing elements. Teams of five players are placed on two separate factions: The Radiant and The Dire. Each faction has a stronghold of barracks and towers that protect a sacred building called the Ancient. The Radiant’s stronghold is located in the Southwest, while The Dire’s base is situated in the Northeast. Each faction’s barracks send out troops called creeps that travel along three lanes that lead to the enemy’s base. These creeps attack anything in its path, regardless of whether they are enemy soldiers or towers.

Each player picks one hero to help their faction achieve destruction of the opposing team’s Ancient. Heroes can gain experience and levels by killing creeps and enemy heroes. There are also powerful creatures in the forests that surround the lanes called neutrals that can be killed for experience. Heroes gain gold at a constant rate and receive a bonus by killing enemy creeps, neutrals, heroes and buildings. Dying removes a portion of their gold. Players can then use this gold to buy items that help their heroes fight.

Like the original, the appeal of DotA 2 lies in the high level of teamwork and strategy necessary to achieve victory. Players must coordinate their heroes together to exploit weaknesses in the enemy team’s defenses. It is a constant game of chess, and one that begins when players pick their heroes. There are over 90 heroes, each with four unique abilities and spells. Some heroes have many damaging magic skills. Others attack very quickly. No hero is perfect though. For example, Phantom Assassin (Mortred) is a powerful damage dealer late in the game when she has many items. While Mortred is very powerful late in the fight, she is very easy to kill in the beginning. Killing Mortred early prevents her from purchasing items and becoming too powerful. Thus, players must make sure the hero composition of their respective teams can counter the opposing faction’s strengths, while also attacking its weaknesses.

During the game, players attempt to swing the advantage to their side at all times. Teams routinely try to catch the enemy off guard and coordinate unfair battles where they outnumber enemy heroes in a maneuver called “ganking”. There is nothing more fulfilling than pulling off a successful gank, knowing that you have outsmarted your opponent. On the other hand, there is nothing but despair when three heroes come out of nowhere to surround and kill you.

Every match is exciting due to the variety of heroes and the different strategies that come with the varying team compositions. Just yesterday, I played a game where my team had no business winning. In a fair 5v5 fight, there was no doubt in my mind that we would have lost. We won because we never let it come to that. Late in the game, we managed to catch one of the enemy team’s damage dealers, Dragon Knight, alone. Since it took him over one minute to re-spawn at that stage of the game, we were able to push into their base, picking off enemy heroes one by one, and destroy their Ancient. The game was especially exciting and nerve-wrecking because my team could make few mistakes in order to win. I could still feel the adrenaline after I exited the game.

It has been six years since I started playing DotA. Little has changed in the sequel as Valve has kept the gameplay of Dota 2 similar to the original. I still feel the joy of assassinating enemy heroes from halfway across the map as Sniper or the frustrations of dying within a few steps of the healing fountain by Zeus’s full map lightning spell. At the same time, Valve has been able to keep the cartoony aesthetic of the original game’s heroes and landscape even with Dota 2’s updated graphics. The colors are more vibrant, the background environment has more detail and I no longer have to stare at pixelated buildings and heroes.

Valve has also attempted to foster a better online community. One of the problems with the original game was the lack of punishment for "leavers." I can still remember the agony of wasted time in games where someone leaves halfway through. In DotA 2, leaving games causes the player to be separated from the normal matchmaking pool into a low priority one for over 24 hours. Players put in this pool have longer waiting times for matches and are forced to play in matches with other "leavers." The system is not perfect though, as players whose internet disconnects can also be placed in this pool.

DotA 2 is not without flaws though. DotA 2 is best enjoyed by players who are accustomed to playing the game, because it has a very steep learning curve for beginners due to the sheer number of heroes and the complexity of the strategy. While only ten heroes are played in each game, players need to understand all of their unique abilities have to be understood. New players must also develop basic timing skills, such as last hitting a creep before it dies to obtain gold or knowing when to retreat in order to avoid a gank. It takes a lot of time and patience to hone these skills, but for players who get past these initial obstacles, DotA 2 is one of the most enjoyable games out there.

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