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The Game That Was A Mod
Defense Of The Ancients. To some, those four words are the title for the greatest modification to ever hit a PC game. What started in Starcraft as a simple custom map with a handful of heroes now thrives in Warcraft 3, becoming so popular that it has earned itself a music video. To others, DOTA is simply another example of how Blizzard turns the gamers of perfectly capable young men and women into oatmeal as they pursue the infinite goals of leveling up and owning opponents.
Either way, its impossible to deny that DOTA is one of the most popular mods of all time, ranking up with classics like Team Fortress. It has become so popular, in fact, that several competitive gaming organizations host DOTA tournaments in which professional gamers duke it out for various prizes, including cash. That is good company to be in. It's surprising then that Demigod, a full-fledged game directly based off DOTA, seems so shy to mention the name of its predecessor. But then, Demigod does have a lot to live up to.
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There have been many terms thrown out for the genre of game which DOTA has made popular and which Demigod inhabits. Out of them all, I think calling the term "push" games in the most descriptive. While some call Demigod a hybrid between an RPG and a RTS, this misses the point. Yes, you have a character (your Demigod) who can be leveled up and itemized in a variety of ways. And yes, you have buildings and units and a over-head view like you'd expect in an RTS. But seizing on those elements is misleading, as Demigod is a different experience then any RTS or RPG you've played before. You have no direct control over friendly units, and your main character, while capable of leveling up and gaining items, has no backstory and no future. The point of the game is not strategy, nor is the point of the game character development. Instead, the point is to help your side control the map so that your forces gradually become more powerful and "push" closer and closer to the enemy base, eventually decimating it while you cackle gleefully in the distance.
Sound abstract? It can be, but it works well. Demigod is at its best when two sides of Demigods collide head-to-head, each trying to find a way to undermine the other's forces while bringing strength to their own troops. Victory can be obtained by directly damaging your opponent, of course, but you can also win by playing smarter. You might lure your enemy into your base defenses, or force him to fight while surrounded by a mob of your own troops. Everything about Demigod, from the characters to the map design, seems focused on forcing the player make a fundamental choice; do I spend my time trying to kill the enemy hero, or do I spend it trying to enhance my strategic position? There is never an easy answer to the question, which is what makes Demigod an interesting game to play.
It is disappointing, however, that Demigod does not take steps to try and advance the genre. Demigod is not a RTS game, yet its interface seems strangely focused on RTS gameplay. Characters move clumsily and reluctantly, and the path-finding leaves much to be desired. What Demigod seems to have forgotten is that DOTA is a game based off an RTS game engine. Its characters don't move like RTS units because it is the best solution - they move that way because they have to. Demigod could have bucked this mechanic and delivered an experience more reminiscent of a true action-RPG, but instead the game plays it safe. This creates the feeling that there is a lot of un-tapped potential which could have made Demigod's gameplay feel more fluid and engaging.
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There is no single-player element to Demigod. Yes, you can play without any other human players in the game by selecting a single-player skirmish, but the experience is hollow, like trying to play a Quake 3 deathmatch with bots. At normal difficulty the AI doesn't provide much of a challenge, and at higher difficulties they challenge the player by cheating rather than becoming more intelligent. If you want to enjoy Demigod, then you really need to hop online.
And there is the rub. Demigod's launch has been a train-wreck, thanks largely to Gamestop breaking the street date and forcing the developer to turn on the game servers a few days earlier than expected. While it may seem like no big deal, the staff was planning to take off for the Easter Weekend; at the last moment, they were rushed back to work to take care of their unexpectedly released game. The result was over-loaded servers. Not all of the problems can be dumped in Gamestop's lap, however, as the game has displayed serious match-making problems which do not seem attributable to overload servers. Players often have trouble connecting to each other, and the process of connecting to a game can take several minutes. I found that I was only able to actually enter about 25% of the games which were displayed on the match-making list, which is unacceptable.
Once you're in, all is well. Demigod's focus as a multi-player game is obvious. While the game only has eight characters (a handful compared to DOTA's 90+), they are well balanced and and interact well with each other. The combination of characters you are facing, as well as the combination of characters on your team, has a major effect on how you play. This leads to a great sense of replayability, although the importance of teamplay does make Demigod sometimes frustrating to play with strangers. Get online with a few buddies, however, and you'll have a hell of a time - once you find a game you can all connect to, that is.
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Graphics And Sound
Looking at Demigod isn't hard to do. The game's maps instantly stick out as being complex and outstanding. Rather than developing a map-making utility, Demigod's maps were carefully crafted in various 3D rendering softwares before being sent to your pupils. While this restricts the possibility of custom maps (which will no doubt frustrate some gamers) it also results in some of the most interesting back-drops for combat that I've run across in years. On TheCrucible a stream of lava and heat streams underneath the charred gray battleground, while The Exile depicts a giant map struggling with a snake, and the snake's back is the ground on which you fight. I more than once than found myself sitting back at the beginning of a map and looking over it carefully for a few moments, admiring the skilled work which went into creating each masterpiece.
It is a shame, then, that the beautiful maps are marred by uninspired unit designs. The heroes themselves look good, but the individual units are ugly as can be. This is not a major knock against the game, as individual units arn't supposed to be important anyway - they don't even provide your side with line-of-sight, so you can lose entire armies of units without knowing. It would have been nice if the "dark" and "light" sides of the game were more than re-textured versions of the same models, however. After all, this is a full retail title, not a simple mod.
The sound is cheesy. The voice-acting is generally poor and the music, while exciting, is cliched. The good news, though, is that Demigod seems to have a sense of humor. Its obvious from some of the dialogue that those in charge knew they were making a multi-player games and weren't going to be able to incite any serious drama. So, instead of trying to make the game something it wasn't, they threw in one-liners that wouldn't sound out of place in the next Jason Statham flick.
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Value And Verdict
Demigod is a good game. The multi-player is buggy, sure. But the developers have made significant headway in the days since release, and the progress their efforts have yielded so far brings confidence that things will be mostly ironed out in a month or so. The fundamentals are intriguing and well balanced, constantly forcing the player to choose between a variety of viable options. Given a good team, it is a lot of fun to play.
That said, Demigod could have been more. DOTA is a mod of Warcraft 3, and as result Demigod, which sticks very closely to the formula DOTA set down, feels kind of like a mod of some non-existent RTS game (Supreme Commander could be cited, as Demigod runs on a modified SupCom engine). There was chance to add some spice by making combat more fluid, and this chance was missed. Demigod's inability to bring innovation is unfortuante, as this type of game is in its infancy, and it there is plenty of room for those with new ideas.
And then there is a price tag. $40 bucks isn't a lot for most games, but most games have a single-player campaign and a large number of multiplayer maps. Given that there is only eight heroes and a light sprinkling of maps and game types, it is hard to think why Demigod should cost as much as it does. More problematic for Demigod is DOTA, which is free for anyone who owns Warcraft 3, making Demigod's $40 dollar price even harder to accept.
It is the multiplayer glitches which finally kill any hope of a recommendation. Though I had fun with Demigod, its impossible to recommend it as long as it is priced so high. In addition, the multi-player bugs are simply to frustrating. I do have confidence that they will be fixed in time, and not all of the problems were in the developers hands. But no matter how good the gameplay fundamentals are, they didn't sooth the frustation I felt as I tried time and time again to connect to multiplayer matchs, and time and time again found myself dropped by a number of different bugs.