XCOM: The Blogger Edition – Part 9

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25 April, 2015

7.09am

Operation Morbid Thorn

Alien abduction in progress at Alexandria, Egypt

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From right to left, Cpl. Othnieltcs, Cpl. Bhagpuss, Lt. Izlain and Lt. J3w3l disembark from the transport.

Besides the heavily armored MEC trooper, the rest of the team is equipped with the new carapace armor.

We’ve also invested in a S.C.O.P.E advanced targeting module for Cpl. Bhagpuss, which gives a +10 to Aim. (That should help change the odds of hitting the broad side of a barn to something better than a coin toss.)

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The site appears to be some kind of temporary observatory or monitoring station.

All is disturbingly quiet. Cpl. Bhagpuss opens the door of the first building and finds no one inside.

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Cpl. Othnieltcs fans out to check the left flank.

The container tanks outside look a mite worrisome, with the possibility that they might be carrying some sort of flammable gas or liquid.

Then he hears it.

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The sounds of some shifting movement, not from the XCOM squad, but from the building adjacent to the first one.

Lt. Izlain joins Cpl. Bhagpuss inside the first building, and carefully opens the adjoining door.

Inside, is a veritable nest of aliens.

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A pair of Seekers, who promptly go into stealth.

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And a duo of Thin Men, doing something nefarious to their abductee.

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They scatter for cover.

Lt. Izlain only has a 57% chance to hit the Thin Man from across the room, from where he’s using the doorway as cover, but at the moment, there’s not enough pay in the whole world that could induce someone to step in there just yet.

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It will have to do.

His aim, as usual, is spot on.

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Unfortunately, it looks like the Commander has to invest in better guns soon. Only 2 damage. Everything’s still alive in there.

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The alien duo drop into Overwatch. Goodness knows where the stealthed Seekers have gone.

This would have been a good time for Lt. J3w3l’s battle scanner, but she’s busy backing up Cpl. Othnieltcs outside.

And a good thing too, because out of nowhere, a pair of Floaters rocket up with their characteristic scream.

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Cpl. Othnieltcs’ overwatch shot misses.

Feeling a little exposed with no ability to take cover, and all these potentially flammable canisters in the way, Cpl. Othnieltcs uses his superior mobility to hustle back under the sniper’s watchful eye.

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Both drop into overwatch and lie in wait for the first alien to fly by.

(Hey, if LOS around a corner is good enough for MMOs… We can play the same trick here.)

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Meanwhile, inside the building, there’s an almost tangible sense of danger in the air. Like something bulky is standing or floating in the doorway.

(It’s kind of a dead giveaway where you hold down right click and find out that you aren’t allowed to move into the room at all.

Hmm, maybe ‘dead’ was not the best choice of words to use, eh?)

There’s nothing for it but to wait, though. Neither soldier has a frag grenade that would justify moving them out of position, and Cpl. Bhagpuss can’t move and fire his rocket launcher.

Better to just cover each other in overwatch. They’ve got more armor now, right?

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The first Floater outside screams its way around the corner, and then screams again as Cpl. Othnieltcs minigun turns it into Swiss cheese for 6 points of damage.

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Inside, we have the expected Seeker strike, strangling Lt. Izlain for 2 points of damage.

Guess it’s all on Cpl. “Broad Side” Bhagpuss now.

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84% chance to hit and 50% chance to critical at this range.

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The angle’s awkward, but it’s a hit!

Though only for 3 points of damage.

It does, however, force it to recoil off Lt. Izlain and free him to catch his breath.

The wounded Seeker jumps near to the door the squad used to enter the building.

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The Bullet Swarm ability on Heavies allows them to fire twice in a turn if their first action was firing the primary weapon.

Cpl. Bhagpuss takes aim again, with a 68% chance to hit and 50% chance to critical.

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And finishes it off for good this time.

Outside, joint overwatch fire from Cpl. Othnieltcs and Lt. J3w3l takes care of the second Floater.

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(Love the corner. All hail the mighty corner.)

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Inside, that tangible sense of foreboding is still making it impossible to enter the room.

Welp, I guess we know what’s coming again.

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Yep. Called it.

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Cpl. Bhagpuss repeats his “84% chance to hit, 50% chance to critical” shot again.

This time it criticals for 6 damage and drenches Lt. Izlain in a shower of defensive stealth smokescreen as the broken machine crashes to the ground.

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(His armor, alas, does not have the right materials and surfaces to interact with the vapor and help him go invisible like the Seeker does.)

Outside, Cpl. Othnieltcs advances again, and picks up a Meld canister signature.

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The earlier one was lost, since there was no way in hell that Lt. Izlain and Cpl. Bhagpuss were going to dash into the second building (between being exposed to lots of  Thin Man shots and spit, and later a practical impossibility when the Seekers were physically blocking the doorway.)

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This one, though, seems clear enough.

Perhaps the Floaters were previously guarding it.

Cpl. Othnieltcs will pick it up in the next turn.

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It’s time for the pair in the building to venture into the second room.

All is quiet again, and assuming the Thin Men were in cover where we last saw them, the Commander orders Lt. Izlain to move up slightly to the full cover of the pillar on the left.

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To everyone’s surprise, a Thin Man pops up from where he was previously crouching unseen and takes a reaction shot at Lt. “Bad Luck” Izlain.

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That’s 3 damage of hot plasma pistol burns to the chest.

Okay, that’s seriously taking protectiveness testing of the new carapace armor a little too far.

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Wanting to return the favor, Lt. Izlain takes aim for a 92% chance to hit and 10% chance to critical.

This is the previously wounded Thin Man, so 1 damage is all it takes to kill it.

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The shot misses…

Cpl. Bhagpuss is somehow just out of line of sight of this sneaky little git and can’t fire.

It may have been a slight tactical misstep to dash up to the telescope in the center of the room and wait for the next turn, instead of moving up to the furthest railing and seeing if the Thin Man was in line of sight then.

(The Commander was generally nervous about moving up too far and finding more aliens lurking in wait to take advantage of a separated squad.)

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The slimy little Thin Man repositions itself…

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…flanking Cpl. Bhagpuss from behind and nails him for 4 damage.

All this, when it’s only got 1 bar of health left!

What is it? Some kind of Thin Man hero?

Heroes become martyrs though.

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Two can play at that reposition and flank game.

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91% chance to hit, 50% chance to critical…

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…and a full automatic burst from Cpl. Bhagpuss’ LMG finally puts paid to the wannabe alien legend.

Outside, Cpl. Othnieltcs has retrieved the Meld canister and the MEC trooper and sniper duo move up to enter the building from the side doors.

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One disadvantage of moving too quickly with powered mechanical limbs, it’s impossible to stop and turn on a dime.

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Cpl. Othnieltcs crashes through the first door to find the last Thin Man unexpectedly in that small room.

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It gets to take a 4 damage reaction shot as the MEC trooper rushes right past.

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By the time Cpl. Othnieltcs screeches to a stop, he’s well into the next room.

Oh well, he’s got 14 armor and health bars to work through anyway.

And the Thin Man really doesn’t have that kind of time.

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Who knows if aliens think or dream? But if they did, I imagine the last thought going through this one’s head would be “Life’s so terribly unfair.”

A sniper lying in wait outside to cut off any hopes of escape.

In the other direction, 99% chance to hit, 60% to critical, from a minigun wielded by a ten-foot tall mechanical exoskeleton suit.

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That’s all she wrote.

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Operation Morbid Thorn ends at 5.09am.

6 aliens killed.

0 XCOM operatives lost.

1 out of 2 Meld canisters recovered.

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All in a day’s work for our experienced XCOM squad.

The carapace armor seems to be working relatively well. Our only casualty is Lt. Izlain who has to take 4 days to recover from first-degree burns to the chest and some minor bruising around the neck.

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We also seem to have picked up some extra medals. Any nominations?

Hooray, with this post, we’ve finally caught up to the present day and I get to play XCOM again shortly.

I do hope the long interval hasn’t left me too out of practice…

GW2: Entanglement – First Impressions

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Going to write this post without spoilers, and I suspect I will end up echoing Bhagpuss, dancing around in generalities and going “Blimey, Charlie!

Except my phrase veers more towards “Damn, that was satisfying.”

Not because I liked what happened in this episode, mind you – some bits veered towards the dangerously melodramatic – but because from a structural and design perspective, I think Arenanet has hit upon something promisingly good here.

We go back to Guild Wars 1 yet again, where each story mission one played through meant a development of the plotline. There were ups and downs and change happened.

You remembered them because you got to play through each and every episode, at your own pacing, rather than end up with gaps in the story because you couldn’t log on for that particular week or two.

Much of GW2′s first season reminded me of a family roadtrip where the players kept stridently asking “Are we there yet?”

A tiny bit of plot happened, a small part almost lost in a larger picture of frantic open world achievement and taking on whatever new mechanical developments there were (often in a zerg fashion), leaving players confused and perplexed by the one-liner plot, often summarized as “Something happened, and we still don’t know what’s going on,” then later, “Scarlet did it.”

Like an amateurish novel writer who thinks all the mystery would be lost if the readers actually knew what was going on, the writers played everything with cards close to their chest – hinting at something happening, but not saying much more than that. That led to plenty of unfounded speculation, some of which was much better than the simplistic linear plot actually taking place but not shown to anybody.

Some players might have wanted to know more but having to wait 2-4 weeks later (an understandable and reasonable length of time for the actual game experience and rewards earning part of temporary, seasonal content) for the -next- story snippet, generally made everybody stir-crazy in the process and having promptly forgotten what happened before by the time the next update rolled around.

For instance, some players are still trying to figure out why we’re suddenly such pals with the B-Iconics, or Destiny’s Edge 2.0 and how they’ve ended up calling our characters ‘boss.’

I drew a blank when first thinking about it too, but cudgeling the brain reminded me that I first met Marjory and Kasmeer to solve a Lion’s Arch mystery that involved an Aetherblade attack, meeting them at the Dead End Bar in Divinity’s Reach.

From there, we went on to fighting together in the Tower of Nightmares, taking on the Marionette, defending the city of Lion’s Arch from Scarlet and so on. One almost doesn’t remember it because one mostly only saw the NPCs in passing, in the open world, usually when the brain is busy focused on not-story but achieving something.

We go even further back with Rox and Braham, when they were refugees from Flame & Frost. We fought with them through the Molten Facility (some of us through several dozens of Molten Facilities, dat monocle drop! Beet soup was the best I ever got.)

I vaguely recall helping Rox with Tequatl, oddly trying to track down the beastie  with a footprint, though he usually came by on the hour every hour and has subsequently been taken apart repeatedly to the extent that everyone mostly remembers the Tequatl’s Hoard drop (or lack of it) as the most memorable incident of that update, and not the actual plot step.

We were there with the whole group through the Crown Pavilion and Queen’s Gauntlet events, preventing Queen’s Jennah’s assassination and fending off endless waves of invading Twisted Clockwork, we investigated the Fractals and the Edge of the Mists with some of them, and there were probably more things that I don’t remember offhand.

Each story step was so piecemeal and staggered, disconnected in theme and linked only tenuously by a mad sylvari, that it’s hard to absorb that it all really did happen.

In Season 2 of Guild Wars 2, I can confidently answer, “We may not be there yet, but we’re certainly -moving.-”

The sense of movement is evident in the storyline now.

Things happen. The plot is better structured and developed. There are going to be more obvious ups-and-downs akin to GW1. More “your character is important and the center of your universe” focused stuff, and not just “your character is one of a big faceless crowd in the open world.”

There’s a sense of movement with the opening up of a new part of Dry Top. Exploration is going forward.

Really digging the look of the new parts. Very canyon-like and rocky. If only I didn't explore most of it in a sandstorm.

Really digging the look of the new parts. Very canyon-like and rocky. If only I didn’t explore most of it in a sandstorm. Time to go back later.

NPCs are moving along with that – the very talkative and almost-annoying Priory NPCs have changed position and are now saying different story-and-lore related stuff.

NPCs in the town of Prosperity are reacting to the preponderance of massive vines that have suddenly grown up all around them. (That’s not a spoiler, I hope, that seems to be the most obvious part of what was going to happen in an episode titled “Entanglement.”)

Dry Top is now twice as big, with new things to do in the part we haven’t seen yet.

Presumably, we might be opening up more zones in the Maguuma jungle this way, over time, and I’m good with this.

Players will still be focused into a relatively small region at any one point in time. Folks that come later might miss some of that launch feel, but still have the option of working their way through the area by themselves at a more sedate, casual, solo pace. (Just don’t expect to unlock all of the zone’s Favor mechanic tiers by yourself. Higher tiers are definitely group content.)

The only negative I can think of is that we’re still missing a good transitional cutscene between episodes.

Between the Labyrinthine Cliffs and Episode 1: Gates of Maguuma, we know the Zephyrite ships exploded and crashed. We don’t actually see that happen in-game, but only as a teaser trailer outside the game. Our transition on entering the zone is just seeing the wreckage of the Zephyrite ships, but not what actually happened.

Between Episode 1: Gates of Maguuma and Episode 2: Entanglement, vines have suddenly grown up in a lot of places. If you follow developments on Reddit, or just paid attention to what was gradually changing around you, you might have caught sight of vines starting to tap on waypoints like they’re Mordremoth’s new snack to nom. But it still feels a tide abrupt to suddenly walk into Prosperity and go “WTF, when did this happen?”

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An introductory cutscene on a clickable button in the Story Journal, or that plays on zone load just like in the Tower of Nightmares update, might mitigate some of that weird feeling of instantaneous change.

In general, the layered content feels just right.

For the casual, what they want is -story-. That’s best conveyed in a small instance, solo or grouping at one’s choice, with plenty of conversation.

For those interested in achievements, re-use the same content and get them to do more complicated things. Players who like meta stuff like achievements generally won’t mind a repeated grind of the same content (as long as they can skip the long-talky stuff) just to get their shiny gold star for doing whatever teacher wants.

The open world opens up further, creating a feeling of progress – and folks can choose at will to casually wander through, with GW2′s organic grouping design naturally creating allies out of the players near you, or take on the zone’s content at a higher, more organized level for faster shiny but non-essential rewards.

(If only we didn’t have to taxi in people one at a time – but perhaps that is part of the intent, to force -some- player interaction and self-organization . Though it mostly feels like a workaround.)

And boy, are the rewards shinier in this episode.

The skins are here. Tons of weapon skins.

Tier 4 and Tier 5 are where they unlock, and I’m hoping this gives more impetus for more players to work on the zone’s Favor mechanic.

I’m personally digging the look of the Ambrite weapons, something that hasn’t happened in a while since the Dreamthistle lot, and I suspect it’s going to take quite a long time to work one’s way through all the geodes.

I hope this means that Dry Top is going to be a well-traversed area, something like the next Frostgorge Sound champion train, regularly frequented by a group of level 80s who enjoy a slightly more sophisticated champion bag farm.

Time will tell, I guess. I’ll see how many I can unlock before the place loses critical mass. I’ll be happy with one or two, which I’m sure is doable within these two weeks, but collecting them all eventually would be cool!

The Gem Shop Ley Line weapons are also rather appealing visually. I like the idea of carrying a symbolic reminder of a very beautiful locale that got opened up this episode. They’ve got that blue fire guardian look to them. I might end up branching out some time for Black Lion Key farming, hoping to get lucky.

Of course, beyond actually obtaining one, another problem I face is an unwillingness to change weapon or theme on my main characters. My charr guardian is red and fire. My charr warrior is yellow and metal. My asura guardian is green/blue and holograms. My sylvari necro is green/black/white/gold and gothic. My norn thief is brown and natural leather.

I have no idea who I can put it on, even if I do get one. Will figure that out later, I suppose.

In the meantime, lots of stuff to do in this episode.

Of Spectator Sports and Trinities

My television watching habits are supremely irregular.

That is, I don’t watch much TV at all.

All those crucial 45 minute blocks of time are spent gaming, rather than passively experiencing a story that goes absolutely nowhere except into yet-another-episodic-arc-designed-to-keep-you-glued-to-the-screen.

Nor am I a big sports fan.

Competition and me are not pals, having been bitten once too many times by an obsessive personality that would fixate too much on winning at all costs, if I gave it free reign. I’m mellower when I tell myself winning is not the goal, but having moment-to-moment fun is.

Still, there was a time when I was enraptured by the NFL and American football. It just seemed so much more complex and intricate than the football the rest of the world plays – lots more clear cut roles, different strategies every pass designed to get the ball the next 10 yards and beyond.

Until I took note of how many hours a night I was spending watching one game (3-4 easily) and how much gaming time I was losing out on as a result. Fell out of the habit shortly after.

It’s funny then that even I can get caught up in the zeitgeist of the moment. I just spent the last couple of midnights staying up till 3am to watch the semi-finals and finals of the FIFA World Cup.

Not as a rabid soccer or football fan, staunchly loyal to one team, but out of a pigheaded determination to discover an appreciation of a game that I mostly always viewed as “kicking a ball around a grass patch for 90 minutes and falling down with an agonized look on one’s face the moment the faintest contact is made, hoping for a favorable referee call.”

The internet helped.

Googled up “soccer strategies” and “why do people like football so much” and devoted some time to reading other people’s thoughts.

Apparently, it’s the continuous flow of action rather than the typical start and stop of American football that some find compelling, a constant adrenaline high for one and a half hours punctuated with more extreme buzzes whenever the ball gets close to the goal posts.

I’m somehow not wired that way. I don’t get adrenaline deliveries on cue, which may suggest a reason why competition isn’t that exciting for me. Instead, I enjoy watching the interlocked intricacies of each team member in American football performing their specialized role well, with the result that the football either gets passed or gets stopped, depending on which team outsmarted or outplayed the other.

Still…

…Surely, soccer has -some- strategies of this ilk? Just less obvious, perhaps?

More reading. More eye-glazing over various “formations” with hypenated player numbers. More beginner tips on how to appreciate soccer via watching how one player may outsmart another by looking in one direction while kicking in another, or using their body to block an opponent’s view of the ball, or players that criss-cross and cut in at various locations to become open for the ball and so on.

I guess there were -some- things that I could find vaguely interesting, after all.

So I watched the World Cup and admired Germany’s efficient teamwork and appreciated on a distant theoretical level why defensive football is so important by observing Brazil’s total defensive meltdown.

Still didn’t like the extreme boring nature of a super-defensive football game with zero goals scored in two hours (with extra time) – effective, I’ll grant you, but boring as heck to watch – and repeatedly rolled one’s eyes at the more unspoken sides of football – ie. sneakily damage your opponent as much as you can get away with, dramatically telegraph all contact in the hopes of a free kick or yellow/red cards, and apparently biased referees.

Seriously, if things are going to get that physical, then put on some padding and go to town like the Americans do.

It’s with some irony though that I find a parallel with MMOs and that I’m on the opposite side when it comes to computer gaming.

American football reminds me of the holy trinity.

Everyone has a specialized role, everyone works in unison and it’s beautiful when everything synchronizes.

Rest-of-the-world football is a non-holy trinity game. Perhaps, dare I say it,  even like GW2.

There’s one primary role everyone performs, do damage or get the ball as close you can to the goal/stop ball getting close to yours, while still paying attention to the team and working in sync with them and supporting them as needed. There may be different “classes” or “soccer positions” with some variants in playstyle. There’s probably more going on under the hood than is obvious to the casual observer.

Soccer is said to be one of the most unpredictable sports. A weaker team has a good chance of upsetting a stronger team because the scores are so low. If opportunities fall their way, and are capitalized on, that may be it for the more unlucky team.

Some find this a reason why soccer is so exciting to watch.

Me, I personally find it about as thrilling as trying to predict heads or tails on a coin toss, and just as pointless. I guess I prefer to watch a good team demonstrate -why- they’re a good team.

Strangely enough, I find unpredictability a bonus if you’re the one actually participating in the moment.

Because it’s suddenly you that can become the hero with a well-placed rez, or good dodging or even indulge in a star solo moment, by catching the right opportunities.

To me, soccer or GW2 is a tide more individualistic, whereas American football or a holy trinity game seems a bit more skewed towards subsuming the self to make a team work like clockwork.

Not really sure where I’m going with this, but I guess the moral of the story is that people like different things, which may differ again if they’re spectating or doing.

And that we can all learn to appreciate (if only at a theoretical distance) stuff we thought we didn’t like before, if we try to look for its redeeming features.

After the World Cup, I’ll be going on one more spectator sports binge.

The International is slated from July 18-21.

DOTA 2 and I have a curious relationship.

I was super-thrilled to win a beta key in one of Steam’s sales contests when it was in development. I installed it gleefully, remembering my very amateur DOTA games-with-real-life-friends, and tinkered around with a few bot games.

Then never quite got back to it again.

Every now and then, I log in, admiring its whole elaborate free-to-play structure of level unlocks, vanity costume skins that cost money, numerous beginner tutorials/build guidance/encyclopedias that are linked to community knowledgebases, on and on through an intricate ladder of intermediate to expert commitment.

Then I back out without having gained a single experience point.

Sorta like LOL, except LOL did seem a little simpler and I did get to around level 4 or so.

I want desperately to play them and learn how deep both rabbit holes go, but the truth is, I just can’t envision investing all that time into MOBAs.

A single match takes like 30-45 minutes or more. You have to play a lot of them to get familiar with the game. You have to play a number of heroes to get familiar with the heroes and gain some flexibility in what you can play. Getting skillful takes even longer.

It’s easier to just watch a couple hours’ worth of professional teams go at it, for a couple of days, and get the entertainment experience without having to personally grind your way up.

Maybe some day, I’ll give them another go, but not today.