Dota 2

Straight up: Dota 2 has one of the finest implementations of  a free-to-play model I have ever seen. A sequel to one of the most popular and engaging mods of all-time, the game's complexity could easily last you into the hundreds of hours…and you truly don't have to pay a penny for any of it. There are heaps of helms, weapons, HUD skins and other assorted gear available for real-world cash in the store menu, but none of it has any bearing on your gameplay. Everything is cosmetic, and that is a stunning feat: a free-to-play game that is both satisfying to play and truly free of any weak, pay-to-win add-ons. Some call games like Dota 2 MOBAs - "Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas" - although I prefer the term ARTS, or "Action Real-Time Strategy." Like that seminal genre, you'll view everything from a top-down perspective, controlling movement and attacks with a mouse-heavy control scheme. Instead of building bases or raising armies, though, Dota 2 is all about building a single, powerful character. You'll choose from one of the seventy-plus available before every match, and along with your comrades, you attempt to push across a large, symmetrical map, routing the opposing side and destroying their "Ancient" key structure at the very back of their base. Of course, the other team's objective is identical to yours, and so executing this militaristic sweep across the land is anything but simple.

It all starts with your hero. Again, the possibilities are immense (with still more characters are being added to the roster every so often), and it can take a while before you find a hero that fits snugly into your diplomatic sensibilities. The amount of nuance involved in a game like this could fill volumes (and I highly recommend pro player Purge's lengthy but critical guide for beginners), and so explaining more than a fraction of the characters would be futile here. But the developers have done a mostly great job dividing heroes into a variety of different filters, letting you choose by heroes who attack up close or at range, whether they excel in strength, agility, or intelligence, and by what general roles they fulfill on the battlefield. "Carries" are all-important heroes who can become near-unstoppable in power by the end of the game, but they're often weak and vulnerable without a clever loadout of gear, earned by landing killing blows on both creeps and players often. Opposing this role are "support" heroes, who often rely on mana-eating spells to survive, and so are tasked with spending their hard-earned cash on team items that could, say, regenerate health for all nearby allies, or make a target temporarily immune to magic. "Escape" characters excel at a stealthy approach and speedy exfiltration, while those "Durable" comrades can anchor a battle with incredible lasting power.

These and other filters give even the most green players an at-a-glance summary of what they're about to get into. Of course, you may occasionally make a decision off  of looks alone; there's a lot of art design in Dota 2, and while a lot of it is hidden behind sensible, functional set design, there's plenty of personality in the huge cast. Who could resist the commanding presence of moonlit sisters Luna and Mirana, or the cheeky, undead stare of the Lich? How about the Batrider, a rowdy goblin who commands a massive Chiroptera while roasting his enemies with deadly patches of fire?

The game is filled with superficial diversity, but calculated and brutal combat compose the core of Dota 2, and the game takes every opportunity to smash players who try to deviate too far from its thesis of thoughtful play. There are many things that demand your attention in a given match. For example, each team starts with six exterior towers - two per lane - that pummel any offensive units that stray too close. Approaching one solo early in a game is a quick death, and so you'll need to blend in with your slow and steady line of "creeps," lemmings that are equally spawned from both sides and attack everything in their path. It's up to players to use their utility to push the creep line toward or away from your towers, freeing you to leverage your enemies' position in different ways ("ganks" - or sneak attacks - are easier to accomplish when the enemy is closer to your towers and sphere of control, to use a simple example). Likewise, meandering too far into the "jungle" - a winding, fogged-over middle-ground between the central pathways of the battleground - can mean an embarrassing death from a big bad creep, or an unwelcome gank surprise from one or several of your assailants. That's yet to mention the many, many stun attacks that leave a hero completely defenceless for seconds on end - practically an eternity in a game like this, and a sure demise without backup.

In the early hours, balancing the second-to-second action with a greater team plan means a lot of trial-and-error and stout observation as you piece together what heroes' skills fill particular needs in a strategic makeup, along with the unique holes in survivability that come along with them. With a formidable composition of heroes and a communicative mindset behind a match, there are a darn-near limitless amount of strategic possibilities. Get into that meta-mindset early, and the pursuit of knowledge between matches almost becomes the game, in a way. There is an embarrassment of knowledge that lies within Dota 2, and thankfully, much of it is neatly compartmentalized in the menu's Library tab. Here you'll find a complete statistical catalogue of every hero and skill in the game, often with accompanying video demonstrations. If you're the kind of player who's willing to spend hours sweating this stuff, then this review is more or less over for you - go and download Dota 2, get your data on. If the idea of researching a game nearly as much as you play it sounds nightmarish to you, this game couldn't do more to push you away.

There's nothing wrong with a title catering to the hardcore, but some of the game's technical and balancing issues seem to go against that very mentality. A particularly interesting issue is that of the game's vast - perhaps overextended - reach in terms of sheer content. On one hand, it's pretty amazing that a single game can offer this many distinct characters and item loadouts to choose from. On the other, there's the ultimate truth that a game like Dota 2 could never be truly balanced; there are simply too many variables to harmonize. So while it'll be well over fifty hours before you've even played each hero once, there are perpetual holes in the way the game is played. It can be interesting and educational to observe the hundreds of changes made in each of the game's regular updates, but it doesn't make the ever-shifting over-and-underpowered skill sets less vexing, either. Immense variety is likely an irreplaceable cog of the Dota 2 machine, but part of me couldn't help but think that a smaller cast could have made for a tighter game.

Another, more pervasive blemish is the matchmaking. For a game as popular and high-profile as Dota 2, its ability to successfully bring ten players into a single match is spotty, at best. Even under optimal network conditions, it's not unusual to wait five or more minutes to even join a match, and that's not including the minutes of idle preamble while everyone loads up assets. If any one of those ten drop during this time, it's back to the search. Upon its official release, matchmaking feels slower than ever, drifting well past ten minutes to get a match going. I'm not saying the solutions to these problems are easy to ascertain. But from an outside perspective, nothing about Dota 2 suggests the need for especially unique or complex net code. Hopefully, the developers can find a permanent solution to what may be the single biggest detractor from this fine strategy game. Adding in a sorely-needed "Surrender" option would similarly smooth game progression between matches. Fracas can routinely last forty minutes or longer, and while it's mighty gratifying to overcome an early deficit and emerge victorious, some matches will inevitably be beyond your team's grasp early on. Surely it would be better for both parties - both the losing team and the one effortlessly running them - to initiate a surrender and connect to a more balanced match-up.

To many players, these sorts of persistent issues can damage their enjoyment in significant ways, but the dense tactical gameplay manages to shine through more often than not, and if you really get in deep, this may be the last game you need for months. And if you're completely unsure about the genre or heavy online teamwork, it couldn't be cheaper to give it a shot.