Since 2003, the Warcraft III custom map known as Defense of the Ancients (DotA for short) has dominated the RTS world as one of the most popular games in this niche. In fact, according to Gamasutra, DotA is the “most popular and most-discussed free, non-supported game mod in the world”, high praise for a custom map not even packaged with the retail release of the game. However, almost a decade later, the developers at S2 games decided that the almost decade-old engine serving these DotA games could use more than a little improvement. After being in development for almost three years, this May brought with it the retail release of the unofficial sequel to DotA, known as Heroes of Newerth.
I had the opportunity to be a part of the team that beta-tested this game before its retail release, and my first impression was one of familiarity. As someone who was very comfortable with DotA, the similarities were strikingly obvious, from the doppelganger-esque heroes to the same team-based strategy. To those unfamiliar with DotA, the game is entirely a multiplayer experience pitting two sides against each other. Each player at the beginning chooses a hero that which he or she sticks with the entire match, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The object of the game is simple: to destroy the other teams’ base. What’s not so simple are the strategies involved, since each member of the team needs to pull his or her own weight to achieve this common goal. These strategies range from item builds, to ‘laning’ (pitting certain heroes against each other advantageously), and even the timing of killing the neutral units of the map (known as ‘creeps’). If that sounds confusing to you, you’re not alone. Heroes of Newerth is an extremely difficult game for a beginner to get into, firstly because of the complexity, and secondly because of the teamwork required. Even in the beginner-friendly rooms (marked clearly by NOOBS ONLY), one small slip can cost your entire team the game. As such, the HoN community is one of the most unforgiving groups I’ve ever played with. Beginners are also hampered by the fact that there is currently no single-player AI available to practice, like there currently is for DotA. Apart from the steep learning curve, Heroes of Newerth is an improvement in literally every aspect of predecessor.
Unlike its earlier twin, HoN is no longer tethered to Blizzard’s outdated engine. As a result, the immediate differences are the visual ones. The characters are extremely fluid and detailed. The special attacks and resultant particle effects are strikingly gorgeous, as well as some great background textures and shading. On a whole, HoN runs extremely smooth and efficient, a big improvement over DotA. Because of HoN‘s engine, the developers effectively unshackled the biggest restrictions of DotA and enabled it to actually feel like its own game.
In terms of gameplay, it’s also evident that much thought and planning went into Heroes of Newerth. One of the biggest changes from DotA is the full-featured stat tracking and matchmaking ability. Instead of playing casually, each gamer carries a points score, which reflects wins, losses, and even quick disconnects. Unlike DotA, Heroes of Newerth also features a disconnect-safety feature. Typically when a player disconnects, the teams become ridiculously misbalanced and the match usually ends with most of the players complaining. However, HoN solved this problem by punishing quick leavers and allowing a certain ‘grace period’ countdown, allowing a player to reconnect right away with no penalty to his team. The item system has been drastically overhauled as well. Instead of having to memorize different locations of shops and recipes, HoN gratefully provides direct links to items that require smaller components. This saves time on the battlefield and saves face for those beginners who would normally be scolded for not knowing how to make a Boots of Travel.
Heroes of Newerth also shares a huge advantage over its counterpart – the amount of time being devoted towards developing this product. Since going retail, the game has already added several new and unique heroes to the mix. Because of the active development, players can guarantee that the game will only continue to expand and improve with new features throughout the years. Instead of only one map, HoN already boasts three separate courses, with talks of expansion already on the horizon.
From beginning to end, it’s clear that S2 put much thought into the development of Heroes of Newerth. For $30, the makers guarantee lifetime access to the game from any computer, as well as full access to any updates available. Futhermore, the game is supported on almost every operating system imaginable, from Windows to Mac to even a Linux port. Despite the difficulty involved for beginners, HoN is easily one of the best RTS games to be released this year. For one of these beginners, I would highly recommend experiencing DotA‘s gameplay first before making the investment. If you then find enjoyment in this style of multiplayer tug-of-war, purchase HoN immediately. Once you’ve experienced all HoN has to offer, it’s almost impossible to go back.
Michael Walbridge, Analysis: Defense of the Ancients – An Underground Revolution. Gamasutra.com