Hands on with Heroes of Newerth

Noob! Despite calling our first hosted game ‘Just learning. Absolute beginners only’ it ends with one of our teammates hurling the ‘N’ word at us. In our second session, a comrade puts up with our bungling for five minutes before rage-quitting in disgust. We’re starting to wonder whether the beta for this arena RTS is played exclusively by douchebags when we encounter SavesPandas, a bamboo-staff-wielding sensei with doleful eyes, a big furry head and a heart of gold.

The makers of Heroes of Newerth – and, it seems, a fair few of its already one-million-strong player community – don’t seem to understand that some of us aren’t intimately familiar with Warcraft III mod Defence of the Ancients. If you’re a DotA virgin you’ll need to find a helpful stranger like SavesPandas, or spend time studying one of the better fan-made guides to compensate for the disappointing lack of in-game tutorials and bots. Even then, playing HoN can be an intimidating experience.

On paper it all looks so simple. Strip the base-building and resource-gathering elements from a traditional RTS and give players just one unit to control. The catch – and the source of much of the game’s undeniable magic – is that a single unit is no ordinary RTS grunt. He/she/it is one of 60 fantasy heroes each with their own unique strengths, weaknesses, and customisable upgrade paths. There are leafy treemen, armoured owls, acrobatic pandas, sorcerous newts, demonic puppeteers… Add in an Aladdin’s Cave of purchasable magical items, and you have a recipe for infinitely subtle, improbably replayable multiplayer team duelling.

There are bases in HoN, and roving armies, but they’re all outside your control. Every 30 seconds a new knot of friendly forces will spawn at your barracks and set off down one of a map’s two or three ‘lanes’ (all maps share a similar layout) towards the enemy base. Your job is to assist these autonomous raiding parties while dealing with their counterparts and the hostile heroes that watch over them.

Knowledge is power in Heroes of Newerth. The player who knows their chosen charge inside out, understands how to use them in combination with comrades, and which items complement them best, will find themselves perishing less frequently than less knowledgeable rivals. They’ll probably generate experience points and gold faster too. To snatch a lead in the crucial levelling-up race that’s at the heart of every contest, it’s also essential you master two important and, initially at least, unintuitive skills: denying and last-hitting.

In this dog-gank-dog world only greenhorns let their heroes auto-attack. The old hands hang back ready to manually trigger the killing blows that garner the most XP and cash. And those blows aren’t always rained on enemies. Slaying your own severely wounded creeps – thus denying an opponent – is a core strategy. It’s a weird, almost ritualistic way of waging war.

It’s also very close to the tried-and-tested Defence of the Ancients template. Of the three major projects (Demigod and League of Legends being the other two) that have sprouted from strategy gaming’s most popular mod, HoN is the most loyal. S2 aim to attract the millions of DotA faithful not with dramatic departures or bold restyling, but with a swarm of refinements impossible within the aged Warcraft 3 engine. Robust server-client networking, meticulous stat tracking, in-game voice comms, friends lists, clan support, full replays... all the paraphernalia of the modern multiplayer specialist comes as standard.

One of the few planned features not implemented yet is an automatic matchmaking system. At present you’re forced to set up games yourself or pick tentatively from a huge list (40,000 players online at any one time isn’t unusual). We say ‘tentatively’ because there’s a fair chance, early on at least, that a host will take one look at your PSR – a rough performance-based skill rating – and instantly kick you. Did we mention HoN players can be intolerant of inexperience?

Some of that intolerance must stem from the fact that the game itself is pretty unforgiving. By design, mistakes aid opponents as well as punishing the mistake maker. If you’re dying frequently at the hands of an enemy hero, you’re ‘feeding’ the opposing team valuable XP and gold – a hanging offence in the eyes of some. Once you grasp harsh basics like this, Heroes of Newerth starts shedding its spiky skin, the insults arrive less often, and you start to see why so many people are so very fond of the formula.

It’s pretty obvious S2 have built a better DotA. What remains to be seen is whether they’ll put in the necessary effort to ensure this is also a friendlier DotA. For the sake of delicate noobs everywhere, we hope they do.

Apr 22, 2010