Kerrigan. The Queen of Blades. The most feared woman in the known universe, destroyer of worlds, and murderer of millions. The greatest leader the Zerg has ever known.
Kerrigan is one of the twelve heroes recruited by the Blue and Red gods to battle in the Blizzard DOTA arena for their amusement, chosen for her ability to deal massive damage to large groups with little effort.
I make one lousy Queen of Blades.
I spent a half-hour trying to get my disturbingly attractive Zerg queen on this weekend during BlizzCon 2011, where the upgraded version of Blizzard DOTA made its debut. Originally started as a quick and dirty mod for Starcraft II, the Blizzard team working on the mod were having too much fun with the game not to expand it.
Players were having too much fun with it all weekend. According to one of the workers overseeing the area where the game was playable on the show floor, prior to the opening ceremonies the Blizzard DOTA area was only half full. After its exciting trailer ran during the ceremony he returned to find all stations filled and not one but two massive lines, one for regular congoers, another for press eager to get in on the action. Even when I arrived late Saturday to give the game a go I had to wait nearly an hour.
And why not? The newly revamped Blizzard DOTA is the Super Smash Bros. of the Blizzard universe, gathering characters from all three of its top properties to do battle in one of the most popular PC game genres going. Whether you call it MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), action real-time strategy, arena RPG, or just plain Defense of the Ancients, people are really getting a kick out of clicking their way to victory in these strategy-flavored action games.
I've played my fair share myself, mostly the ever-popular League of Legends and Demigod, the DOTA-style game Gas Powered released in stores before everybody else decided the genre should follow the free-to-play model. So I thought I knew exactly what to expect from Blizzard DOTA.
I was mostly right.
The matches being held during BlizzCon were basic five-on-five affairs, two teams fighting to control the map and take out the enemy base. I was randomly grouped with four other players, our opponents a group of five that I'm certain had been hopping from the game to the end of the line all weekend, purely for the opportunity to make us look bad.
Once grouped our team picked characters from the twelve available. Three characters are available for each of the four classes – Tank, DPS, Support, and Siege. We end up with Arthas the damage-absorbent Tank, Thrall providing support, Warfield and Vaevictis on Siege duty, and I, the Queen of the Blades, in the only DPS role.
Oh yes, this was a well-balanced group, ready to take down towers while the DPSer died again and again and again.
That's the first thing I noticed in the DPS role of Kerrigan. My role is damage. I am there to hurt people. This is not a rogue-like DPS either; I am a glass cannon, a wizard with paper-thin skin and the ability to set the mind of any creature within rage on fire.
It's a fine role to fill, but until you've got a Tank or Support class by your side you aren't going to last long. There is no tankish-DPS, just like there is no high-damage Tank or support class. If your Kerrigan wanders down the middle lane of the three lane map right into the arms of the enemy, she's going to die.
Dying (I found out quickly enough) bring the player back the team base, where a Goblin merchant doles up power upgrades, health potions, and magic items useful for turning the tide of battle in your favor, if your giant snausage fingers don't just trigger them randomly while trying to activation one of your four powers. The store is easy to understand, using World of Warcraft icons to depict stat bonuses, consumables, items, and artifacts.
After being killed (by the enemy team's Kerrigan, no less) I purchased a health potion and charged back into the fray, mind focused solely on advancing the line towards the enemy base. In other DOTA-style games this would be considered foolish. As Starcraft II senior designer Jonny Ebbert told me during an interview earlier that day, Blizzard DOTA is a slightly different animal.
"We wanted to attack certain things about the genre that really bugged us," Ebbert said. "It's not delivering on the fantasy properly. It's this fantasy of ‘Hey, I'm a hero and I'm going to get in there and just start wreaking havoc,' so you go in and start attacking minions non-stop and you get, ‘You idiot! Don't press the battle line further, stay on your tower!' And you're like, ‘Okay, I get that, but it's a little weird – I just thought I was gonna kill some things.'"
"We wanted to attack certain things about the genre that really bugged us"
Well Blizzard DOTA is about killing some things, advancing the line, and just having fun. "It really is about just getting in there and pushing the battle line forward," Ebbert said. "Early aggression is rewarded intensely now. You can take down towers really early, so it's not about last-hitting, it's not about hiding under your tower. It's all about getting in there and whipping tail."
That doesn't mean teamwork isn't rewarded, as the opposing group readily demonstrated all over our asses. While I was trying to attack them enemy with little or no support from my fellow players, the enemy were grouping up on our towers and taking them out one-by-one. This was made easier by the fact that, unlike other DOTA games, Blizzard DOTA's towers can run out of energy, requiring a moment to recharge before they can defend again. A well-organized team sends in a tank with a support character or two, lets the tower spend itself trying to take the tank down, and then whales on it while it recharges.
Rather than regrouping at our base, mounting up (each hero has their own special mount – I believe mine was a Zergling), and counter-attacking en masses, my team threw themselves against the enemy line as if they were trying to choke them under a pile of our own corpses. I slowly gained experience, unlocking new levels of the four powers my Kerrigan possessed. My chain lighting and maelstrom powers took down minions in droves, but square off against the opposing team's tanks or even their Ghost DPS unit was a losing proposition every time. It was probably just me.
On the behalf of the rest of my team, I plead ignorance. We didn't know about the tower cool down until after the fact. We didn't have a firm grasp of tactics. We didn't realize that the monsters lurking in the Jungles (the area between the map's three main paths) were guarding locations we could capture and hold to earn increased power, making the spaces between another stage of battle, rather than simply power-ups to collect and then forget. If we had had time for another round we would have been much more prepared.
"We're really trying to make it simple to learn and difficult to master," Ebbert explained. "That's always been our approach to Blizzard games. We're really trying to ease off the front-loaded complexity and putting all the complexity in the back end. You shouldn't have to learn 100 items; you shouldn't have to learn all of these weird noodle-ly things."
All I really needed to learn I learned by playing through that first match, watching what the other team was doing that we were not. If there had been time for another go I'm certain our team wouldn't have been trounced quite as soundly as they were.
In the end, my version of the Queen of the Blades was nowhere near as deadly and accomplished ass the real thing. In twenty-five minutes I had died at least a dozen times, taking only a few (if any) enemy players with me.
At least I died defending something the Blue God told me I should love.