PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2, and this is the last installment for 2014. We'll be back in January!

Dota 2 is a game about momentum. That's an often-repeated truth—it's one of the best ways to explain the drama of a competitive match without getting into the inaccessible specifics of high-level play, and it's a piece of advice that I return to over and over as I try to get better at the game. The momentum you build in the early game is important, but what wins matches is your ability to translate that momentum into a strategy that leads, step by step, to the enemy ancient. A dominant start is great, but it needs focused guidance to make good on its potential.

I am a middling Dota player at best, so it's in the midgame that most of my matches stall. Luckily, I can rely on the fact that most of the people I'm matched with are bad at closing out games too. The story of Dota, most of the time, is the story of a team with a bunch of kills and big items trying to summon enough collective will to achieve something in the here and now. It's the story of people wandering off to farm for no reason, of Roshan attempts left uncontested and teamfights lost because the carry has decided to chase Puck halfway across the map rather than pin down the soft and slow enemy supports left behind. Of a lack of focus, in short, and of the faint disbelief that comes with losing from an advantage: 'we were fifteen kills ahead! Why are they knocking over our tier four towers?'

This is also, I think, a fairly good metaphor for Dota 2 as a whole in 2014. This was the year that, after the giddy rise of the game's first two years and the triumph of its departure from beta in 2013, Dota 2 settled into its all-important midgame. And, consistently, what we saw spoke to a mellowing scene and a downward shift in momentum.

Four new heroes were released in 2014 compared to ten in 2013, and two of those arrived right at the beginning of the year—so much so that Terrorblade and Phoenix feel like part of the previous set. An equally dramatic shift occurred the previous year, of course (more than thirty heroes were added in 2012), but it nonetheless speaks to a slower rate of change. The coming engine update and addition of custom game modes will be the most significant thing to come to Dota 2 since its inception, but they arrive at the expense of the Diretide and Frostivus events—and, I suspect, at the expense of Winter Wyvern, Abyssal Underlord, and Arc Warden.

For Valve's part, they've actually got much better at talking to fans and setting expectations—but the nature of that communication has always been 'check back in 2015'. It's like struggling through your midgame and deciding that you're going to take the game late. "Just farm and we'll be fine" is often good advice, but it's hard not to feel some of the same inertia, that nagging concern about whether it's all going to be worth the wait, when so little happens for so long.

If the internal development of the game has entered a kind of passive hibernation, then the growth of the professional scene is defined by a fitful emergence into the real world. The relative simplicity of the last couple of years is over: there are dozens of tournaments now, arguably far too many, and not a single event I've attended this year has been free from technical or scheduling problems of some kind. Top-tier players feel overstretched and under rewarded, and play and audience numbers both suffer as a result. EternaLEnVy's blog on this subject has its detractors, but a lot of what he says is believable in a scene that has grown this quickly and with this little guidance.

E-sports has ever been thus, and the solution is never easy to come by. Centralised control a la StarCraft's WCS can kill momentum just as readily as a run of badly-managed individual events, and besides it's an approach that runs so counter to Valve's philosophy that we might as well write it off as a possibility right now. Valve's faith in the wisdom of crowds is rewarded when the data they gather is processed by a team that understands the limitations of that process. Ceding control of the professional scene for most of the year to a scattering of e-sports organisations doesn't constitute quite the same thing: it's chaos that can only resolve itself by passing through periods of rough adolescence. That's what this year has been, I think: the overconfident teenage Dota 2 scene stumbling into arenas that are too big for it, business deals that do not benefit it, and schedules that it cannot sustain.

That this year's International was a bit of a let-down is actually a separate problem, one that stems from Valve's own stop-and-start growth as an event showrunner. Could they have anticipated that the popularity of exclusive Secret Shop wizard hats would drain a third of the arena at any given time? Probably not. Should they factor that in next year? Absolutely, yes. Could they have guessed that the metagame would stabilise so absolutely—and in such a boring way—right before the grand finals? No. Does it require a response? Again, yes.

2014 revealed 2013's wonderful International to have been a perfect storm in many ways: a confluence of a dynamic scene, fluid metagame and intimate venue that well suited the type of event that I associate Valve with. It can be that way again, I think, but work needs to be done both on the game and on the structure that surrounds it. Meanwhile, the broader pro scene needs to find its feet again, and stabilise long enough for accessible narratives to emerge that we can watch play out on the road to TI5.

This has been a muted year for Dota 2, but it is not—to borrow one of the community's favourite phrases—a dead game. Nor is it dying. It's simply reached the point where, for the first time, growth for growth's sake isn't good enough: where momentum needs to be matched with strategy. Dota 2 just lost that big teamfight around the nineteen minute mark that tells you you're in for a fifty minute epic. Victory is on the cards, but now it's going to take work.

Happily, I think that's what is happening. Valve need the technical apparatus in place to allow them to update the game regularly and sustainably, and that's exactly what they've spent so long creating. The new engine will enhance their ability to entertain the community, and custom game modes open the door to a potentially-infinite source of new ideas. Patch 6.83, released this week, continues the work 6.82 started. Dota 2 is slowly evolving into its next form, and while that work started in 2014 I think we'll feel the result most keenly next year. Finally, the pro scene will be forced to change. MLG and JoinDota are taking an active role in restructuring and unifying fractured tournaments into something better, and player feedback (even if it comes in the form of protest) should force other showrunners to seriously consider the logistical task they're setting themselves when they go for this venue or that schedule.

You know that bit, in a Dota match, when your team loses momentum and somebody immediately taps out 'gg'? That's what I think we've seen in the last couple of weeks. 2014 was a stall, but not the end—and if anything, Dota 2 looks ready to take this one very, very late.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

TRIGGERNOMETRY

We write about FPSes each week in Triggernometry, a mixture of tips, design criticism, and a celebration of virtual marksmanship.

There isn t enough poetry being written about guns. Not literal limericks or sonnets (that would be creepy), but words that dig into and capture what makes one game s AK-47 more fun than another s.

Weapon feel continues to be the nebulous catch-all for the nuances that make guns fun. Most of the reviews of shooters I read offer the same praise: guns feel great or feel really powerful. If the writer s being generous, they ll use a word like punchy to describe an SMG. I ve been guilty of this too during my six-year term at PC Gamer.

Months of work goes into designing, animating, and balancing the things that put the S in FPS, so maybe we should take a moment to talk about what makes a good gun good.

I think the visual design of weapons matters far less than we think it does. There s a tendency, probably because they re planted right in front of our perspective at all times, to think of guns as a collection of aesthetics: firing and reload animations, SFX, screen shake, particle effects, and the death animations they produce. Those things make a gun, right? So if those things are good, surely we have an interesting and fun video game weapon, right?

No. Consider the AWP: it s olive green, it s bland, and its simple animations are more run-of-the-mill than Rambo. The only aesthetically remarkable thing about the most revered, iconic, and infamous sniper rifle in a video game is that it s a bit loud. And yet thousand-comment debates erupt when Valve tweaks the way the AWP s scope works. Why?

A gun s look and sound are part of its personality, sure. But if you ask me, great video game weapons have meaningful, interconnected relationships with other game elements. Those elements differ from game to game, of course. In CS case, the appeal of the AWP is born from the fact that CS is an FPS with body-part-specific damage modeling and no respawns. In that context, it s the only gun that grants an instant kill if you tag someone above the waist.

That feeling of possibility is fun within the strict rules of CS movement: if you can hit it, you can kill it… but you also can t be moving too much when you fire. With that power comes responsibility, too. Killed players surrender their equipped weapon in CS, and stolen AWPs not only save your team $4750 but act as a kind of trophy. This is doubly the case in CS:GO, where a player s custom AWP skin reminds all spectators which irresponsible player allowed their AWP to fall into enemy hands. Buying an AWP, then, to some extent, announces to the rest of the server: I think I m a good enough shot to protect this valuable asset from the other team.

All of this makes the AWP a weapon with abundant meaning. Even its shortcomings (slow rate of fire, difficult to use in close quarters) are a source of fun: the noscope is a revered skillshot.

In Tribes case, its weapons shake hands with its player movement really well, arguably the quality that defines it as an FPS. Again, like the AWP, the Spinfusor isn't visually extraordinary: it fires discs at a medium speed, and its animations and SFX are pretty modest. But the Spinfusor is the perfect fit, the perfect baseline weapon in a game where your targets are typically skiing along the ground at high speed. Its splash damage leaves room for error and its relatively slow travel time creates an exciting feeling of uncertainty as you admire your shot. Like throwing up a three-pointer in basketball, you get to experience that arc of Will it go in? It might not go in. It went in! as the disc travels toward its target.

The Fusion Mortar creates the same sort of feeling while operating as a parabolic siege weapon. The design of the weapons actually encourages you to spend as much time as possible in the air: the threat they pose encourages you to master movement to have the best chance of staying alive. In each of these examples, the weapons strengthen the meaning and significance of core systems like movement, damage modeling, or weapon purchasing.

PC Gamer

Valve gave classic Counter-Strike map de_train a makeover in this week's update (and thank goodness—it needed it). The overhaul to the map's layout and look has mostly been well-received—the new Train has a high-contrast look and a less complicated A bombsite. 

But one new map element that Valve snuck in has already been removed: vile, map-unbalancing birds.

Not long after Train updated, players discovered that they could jump atop the pigeons that were placed along the long route to A from Terrorist spawn (aka "ivy") and pigeon-piggyback into the heavens, blissfully escaping the horrors of combat. Or, as the video below shows, players could use the pigeons as a flapping platform to glitch into the rooftops overlooking bombsite A, giving them a huge advantage over the CTs.

Valve has hotfixed the foul fowl play, but the current version of Train pays homage to this "bird boost," as it came to be known, with a new sign along the way to where it was once possible.

I've used Word Lens on my phone to translate this cryptic glyph:

Immortal words that should inspire us all.

PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2.

I've written a lot about the importance of attitude in Dota 2. 'How you act' is as interesting and important a subject to me as 'how you play'—or, at the very least, it's the subject that I feel I'm more qualified to talk about. I've got two and a half years of Dota experience, but significantly more experience of being a human who has to interact with other humans in order to achieve things and be happy. Dota is no different to a vast number of other difficult things you might try to do with other people in that regard, and there are patterns of thought and behaviour that, once you learn them, are a general help. You will be a better player, I've always argued, if you spend some time learning how to avoid being a dick.

I've come at this idea from a couple of different angles over the last six months. Recently, though, I've had another run of unhappy encounters with the game. You might have picked up half a paragraph ago that there's a 'but' coming—something that complicates my typically unquestioning approach to The Importance Of Being Nice. There is a 'but' coming, I'm afraid. Specifically, a 'butt'. I am the butt. I have been a butt, lately. That was a pun. I am really sorry.

I've realised, the hard way, that keeping your shit together during a stressful game isn't something that you learn once and take for granted. Even writing essays about this stuff isn't enough, it turns out, to prevent a backslide into being a backside to your friends. I experience this feeling of having broken my own rules with sufficient regularity that it has become a recognisable psychological scenario in my life: lying in bed about 1am, wishing that I could have closed out that last game of Dota without being a dick in this way or that, feeling generally and pervasively unhappy about the type of person I can become under pressure.

If you've got to this point in the article and thought "chill out, man, it's just a game" then, well, yes, that's the goal. But games make you have all kinds of thoughts and feelings—that's why you play them. You probably play Dota 2 because of the feelings it makes you have, and those feelings make you do things. Controlling what the game makes you do is important. There's no 'just a game' here because games are powerful, and no 'chill out, man' because chilling out is, paradoxically, hard and requires work. Besides: I've been going deep on Dota 2 for long enough now that I might as well keep going. I'm pretty far up the Mekong at this point. The horror, the horror, and so on.

I've realised that setting yourself rules doesn't work if you struggle to provide yourself with an environment where following the rules comes naturally. An analogy for this problem would be the difference between a practice game and a streamed competitive match: the strats you plan, the high-concept drafts you consider can crumble quickly when the parameters of the game change. The same is true for a rule like "never start a sentence with 'why'"—it makes tremendous sense on paper, but Christ! Why did she/he/we try to contest a Roshan attempt that she/he/we knew they were ready to defend? This stuff is rhetorical comfort food. It's bad for you, but it makes you feel better and it's hard to resist unless you are specifically ready to resist it.

One of my new rules, appropriately enough, comes from preparing for competitive matches: treat every game like somebody else is watching. I realised that my outlook is generally more positive when I'm streaming or playing with strangers. If I treat Dota 2 like a performance then I find it less stressful and my behaviour is better. There are obvious concerns raised here about how authentic I'm being—but honestly, I'm authentically an asshole. I'd rather be a pretend person who is fun to play with.

The second point is related, but almost the thematic opposite: watch how other people play for your benefit, not theirs. I'm terrible at this, because I'm bossy and habitually micromanage unless I make myself stop. The key thing I've realised is that in the vast majority of cases the small inefficiencies I might perceive in someone else's play are either entirely in my head or totally insignificant to the match as a whole. The urge to educate is more accurately an urge to replicate my own behaviour in somebody else. And I suck! I'm far more likely to learn something about what I'm doing wrong by watching somebody than find something to correct in them—and its even less likely that what I attempt to correct will be so significant that it's worth sundering the mood of the game to do so.

There's one exception to this, and it's when someone has actively and clearly asked you to comment on what they're doing. It's nice to be micromanaged by a better player—useful, fun, energising. You should try it. But doing so unbidden, deliberately or not, is pointless. You might as well walk up to somebody in the street, look at their outfit, and advise them to wear all of your clothes because they're your clothes, and they fit you, so they must be the right clothes.

The key here, I think, is recognising the benefits of actively cohabiting rather than passively coexisting. That sounds pseudish and awful but there's truth there. Being actively engaged is key, because you can't ever trust your passive urges to lead you in the right direction. I might really want to chew somebody out for a mistake, and it might make me feel better, but I know from repeated experience that it'll make me feel bad later. I'd be dumb to fall into that trap again.

Finally: quit while you're ahead. There's another thing you should never do even if you really want to, and that's play another game of Dota 2 when you just lost one and you're already tired but you really want to win. This is the error, for me. It is the fun-killer, the little death that brings total obliteration. You've got to Bene Gesserit up in the face of that 'just one more' urge. It won't be fine next time. You won't learn, because you're already tilting. Nobody ever turned a tilt around by tilting harder in the same direction. Tilts do not work that way. They are not cyclical.

The ultimate way to create a scenario where you don't lose your temper with your friends is to go the fuck to sleep. You can't stare at the ceiling at 1am regretting your decisions if you're happily unconscious by then. This is the nuclear option, I guess, but honestly? The community as a whole would be much more positive place if Valve tried an event where players earned Arcanas by taking a lovely nap every time they lost a game.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

Beloved classic Counter-Strike map Train has been rebuilt from the ground up for Global Offensive. In addition to a graphical upgrade, the new Train map ushers in some "intuitive layout changes" and is available in the Operation Vanguard map group across a variety of game modes.

But what of these "intuitive layout changes"? The details can be perused over on this rather thorough blogpost, but whole sections of the map have been removed (such as the middle tunnel in the yard) while the bomb site has been shifted to another corner of the map.

Check out the video below for all the gory details. The map arrives as part of a new patch which is detailed here.

PC Gamer

Holy. Shit.

I've watched a lot of Source Filmmaker stuff over the years. I've seen the trailer for End of the Line about a hundred times. But now the full thing is out, and it's good. It's really good.

The community film was directed by James McVinnie, and releases alongside an End of the Line themed TF2 community update—containing hats, a new weapon and some new unusual effects.

I'd give a summary of the film, but why ruin the surprise? It's got a train in it, if that helps. It's also got a very distinct tone. The zanier edges of the TF2 roster have been sanded away, leaving a relatively dramatic piece that nevertheless contains more than its fair share of comedy.

Set aside 15 minutes and enjoy one of the best SFM films we'll likely see for a while.

PC Gamer

Half-Life 3 it ain't, but if it's a new Half-Life game you crave then maybe Lambda Wars will do the trick. An RTS spin on the Half-Life universe, Lambda Wars has been kicking around the modding community for a while as HL2: Wars, but now it's absolutely standalone and most winningly, free. The beta has been available since the weekend. 

The game uses the Alien Swarm engine, but as a newly standalone offering you won't need a copy of that nor any Source Engine game to run this. As either the Combine or Resistance you can play online with up to eight human or AI players.

Check out the trailer below:

PC Gamer

The last CS:GO major of the year, DreamHack Winter 2014, turned out to be an exciting tournament despite a significant amount of it being played on Overpass, one of the weakest maps in CS:GO's competitive pool. With a critical round from DreamHack Winter as an example, I took a moment to talk about why Overpass needs to be cut from competitive play next season.

PC Gamer

In today's bit of good news/bad news, Valve's Dota team says a "major improvement" to the Dota 2 engine is in the works and will be released sometime during the first half of 2015, enabling the ability to quickly create entirely new game modes. Unfortunately, that means Frostivus won't be happening this year.

Frostivus is a seasonal Dota 2 in-game event that first took place in 2012, offering new maps, game modes, unique items, and even bits of holiday-themed lore. It was actually canceled last year, as you may recall, to make room for the resurrection of the Wraith King, and the year before, for "the Greeviling." And now it's been canceled for 2014 as well, but this time for more pragmatic (and, unfortunately, less entertaining) considerations: The amount of work required to build the updated game modes for Frostivus was prohibitive, especially since it would all need to be completely rebuilt once the engine update is released.

"With [the annual Halloween event] Diretide this year, we decided that it didn t make sense to build another one of those resource-intensive game modes," the developers wrote in an update. "Now that Frostivus is on the horizon, we find ourselves facing a similar choice and, after some thought, we believe that once again the right choice is to not develop a Frostivus game mode."

"We will continue to avoid building new game modes until the engine improvements come along," it added, but that doesn't mean there will be a complete absence of fun stuff between now and then: The developers are already working on the New Bloom Festival, scheduled for February.

PC Gamer

MLG and joinDOTA have announced plans to team up next year to create what may be the largest Dota 2 league in the world. The planned league will span three separate seasons, each leading to a LAN playoff and then a World Championship final slated to take place near the end of 2015. All joinDOTA Division 1 teams from last year's season will be invited to compete for a spot in the finals, and other top teams from around the world are being invited to join as well.

The new system will also be open to other players: The two leagues are working to incorporate MLG Pro Points into the joinDOTA League, which will allow players "from across the board" to compete for a qualifying position in the finals. A total prize pool of more than $565,000—a minimum of $475,000 in prizes and $90,000 in travel support—is up for grabs.

We have always wanted to create something big with MLG and it doesn t get much bigger than this, joinDOTA Project Manager Jacob Toft-Andersen said in a statement. By linking the joinDOTA League together with MLG we can create consistent LAN finals with a big grand event the scene can be proud of.

Details about qualifying tournaments for the new MLG-joinDOTA League system and the incorporation of MLG Pro Points will be revealed soon.

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