What I’ve been playing lately…

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… is StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm. That’s been the primary time-suck for me, games wise lately. I finished the Heart of the Swarm campaign a couple weeks ago, and honestly was only disappointed by how easy it seemed to be on Normal difficulty. While reviewers have complained about the typically weird and nonsensical Blizzard storyline, which is full of sci-fi tropes and sometimes cringe-worthy dialogue, it’s a fun romp and gives you a chance to take control of vast hordes of the Zerg swarm.

But since then, I’ve actually made the dreaded leap into the multiplayer ladders. Initially, as I suspected would happen, I got chewed up and spit out by just about every player I took on, but as time has passed, I’ve found myself getting better and winning games. In fact, while I was admittedly dropped into the bottom (Bronze) league, I’ve worked my way up to first place in my division since starting my foray into multiplayer.

StarCraft 2 has a huge learning curve, and I think its reputation for that puts many potential players off the idea of venturing outside the single-player campaign. There’s plenty of fun to be had there, and even when you’ve finished one or both campaigns on normal difficulty, there’s still achievement hunting to be done (some of the achievements, by the way, are rather clever and/or funny).

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Dota 2 beginner’s diary – Chapter 2

I may – may – have turned a corner the other day playing Dota 2. I’ve played a few more hours’ worth of Crystal Maiden since my last entry, and something amazing has been happening.

Crystal Maiden drops her “ultimate” ability upon the unsuspecting heads of her hapless foes!

My efforts led to only one actual team win, but my overall play record has improved drastically. Whereas before I would usually wind up with a kills/deaths/assists score of something like 1/12/7, now I’m pulling down numbers more in the vicinity of 6/8/15, or even 8/2/12. Killing more, dying less, and helping out with more kills than I had been. All that is good for your team’s and character’s economy and experience edge, often times determining the tide of the game.

I think being far more careful about choosing engagements and placement has had something to do with this. But I realize that I’m still no skill player, so I’ve decided to focus my character build on areas where I know I can help my team out in ways that don’t depend on my technical ability. One way I’ve done that is to boost points into Crystal Maiden’s passive aura, which bumps up mana regeneration rates for all friendly heroes. This means my compatriots can use their damaging abilities more times before drying up, which means more damage per second to the enemy team.

I’ve also tried focusing on getting items that can help my team out. In the screenshot above, you can see that A) it’s late-game, as all my abilities are maxed and B) one of the items I’ve built is “Mekansm.” This artifact boosts health regeneration in the immediate area passively, and then when used as an active ability, gives every friendly in the immediate area an immediate health boost. It’s incredibly handy in later-game team fights, as you can get in, do and take a lot of damage, and then get a second wind as your enemies flee.

These have both been gradual and relatively slight adjustments to how I’ve been playing Dota 2, but they’ve combined to put me around a mental corner of some kind, and it’s really great to be seeing some success after so many hours of abject failure and noobness.

Dota 2 beginner’s diary

I get a rare kill versus the Dire’s Dark Seer during the early game. This is the swamped bridge in the map’s center lane. (Also, I snapped this screenshot while watching the replay – you can see the playback controls near the top right.)

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been trying to learn the intricacies of Dota 2, the upcoming “multiplayer online battle arena” game from Valve Software. To say the learning curve on this game is “steep” is kind of like saying that giant mutant badgers with rabies are “grumpy,” but I’ve been giving it my best shot anyway.

I’ve mostly been playing as a popular newbie support hero called Crystal Maiden, whose major contributions to a team are meant to be in the form of helping teammates “farm” by using her area-of-effect slowing spell, and by increasing the mana regeneration of all teammates with another upgradeable passive ability. She also has a freezing spell that can be directed at a specific enemy player, and an “ultimate” ability that calls down a damaging ice storm that radiates out from her position.

She’s ranged, which means I can stand back from the actual fray and launch her little glowing blue missiles at enemies without being right in the fray, and as a support, it’s not as big a deal if she dies (especially if in so doing she prevents a “carry” from being killed).

My girl, the Crystal Maiden.

I’ve read the guides, watched tutorials on YouTube, and practiced with her for hours. I still suck. After an early run of luck (I went 3-0 with her when I first started out), my teams have lost every match since.

So what do I have to do to get better? Well, for one thing, I need to learn the role of Dota 2’s items. There are tons of them, and while the shop screen does give you some suggestions for early game, core, and situational items for each specific character, I’m still fuzzy on what a lot of the items actually do. For preference, I try to focus on items with passive boosts — which means I can buy them, have them, and not think about them. I also have to figure out where to find each item and component piece of the advanced items — almost all of the really great, end-game items are created by combining other items, and not all of these are available in the shop near a team’s starting position. Instead, there are two secret and side shops on the map, and it’s helpful to know how to get to each of these and when the ideal time to do so is.

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Dota 2 – The game that changed my mind about multiplayer

I’ve never been much for online multiplayer. I remember the heady old days of the original Quake, and the IRC chatrooms full of hardcore players who talked about the pros and cons of “rocket jumping” and favored arenas. First person shooter deathmatch just never rang my bell — not when Goldeneye was glued into every Nintendo 64 console, or when fellow soldiers were wearing grooves into their original Halo discs.

But Dota 2 — now in a semi-open beta state as developer Valve continues to add features and tweak gameplay — may change my mind.

Crystal Maiden (me, in blue, near the bottom of the screen), Skeleton King, and Druid’s bear take down one of the Dire’s tier one towers.

Dota 2 (itself short for “Defense of the Ancients,” but more on that later) is what is now referred to as a “MOBA,” short for Multiplayer Online Battle Area.” These games, all taking their cues from the original DotA, follow a certain format:

  • Players compete as members of teams
  • Teams defend a base while attacking their opponents’
  • Players choose from a stable of unique heroes, each with a different set of abilities
  • “Killing” enemy heroes results in experience and money bonuses for your team, which can be used to enhance hero abilities
  • The maps or arenas on which the games are played have their own hazards, including defensive “towers” that attack invading heroes automatically
  • Team bases create “waves” of “creeps” – relatively weak squads of computer-controlled monsters (or robots, in the case of Awesomenauts) that travel toward the enemy base on pre-determined tracks (or “lanes”)

If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. In Dota 2, there are currently 108 heroes available to choose from each time a game starts, and each of these heroes has a unique set of skills that can be brought to bear against the enemy or used to help out your team. Each hero also has an optimal “build,” or order in which skills should be upgraded when she’s gained enough experience. On top of that, there are also optimal “item builds” for each hero — with hundreds of items to choose from that can be purchased from in-game shops, consumed for battlefield effects, and combined to create more powerful items.

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