Following Jem's recent introduction to MOBAs, I've finally decided to roll up my sleeves and have a crack at the beta for Dota 2. And you know what? It's exciting and utterly bewildering in equal dollops, so I'm going to document my feeble, mewling progress. If nothing else, perhaps someone can learn from my mistakes.

In this opening instalment, I attempt to learn the game's basics, pick my first Hero, and resist the urge to hide under my desk during my first match.

"Do you ever get abuse while playing?" I ask Martin, tentatively.

"Oh yeah," he replies, perhaps with the tiniest hint of glee. "All the time. In Dota 2, I get abuse from from people I know."

This is not good. I've not even started playing Dota 2 and already I'm intimidated. Usually I'm skilled at the ancient art of not giving a flying fudge, but everything I've heard about this game suggests that people take it terribly seriously.

Normally that wouldn't faze me, but this is a 5 vs 5 strategy game where a single error can screw the pooch for your entire team - sabotaging a group effort that lasts for an hour or more. As comfortable as I am in mocking people who squeal homophobic tidbits at me in Call of Duty, I don't really want to ruin someone else's 90 Minute Happy Fun Parade.

And let's face facts - I'm a bit of a gaming klutz at the best of times. Martin is far more accomplished than me in most genres, and by his own admission he's only won two of the eight games he's played so far. Even then, he concedes, it felt like he was merely "there when the other players won.".

Still, I won't be deterred. Dota 2 is set to be one of the key games of the year, and I've set my sights on learning to play properly. At the very least, I'm going to dip my toe in the proverbial bath before I run away, screaming like a spanked child. I must push on. I must be resolute! And if someone calls me naughty words as competency slips though my sweating fingers, I MUST NOT GIVE A FLYING FUDGE.


Getting Started

My first port of call, having re-read Jem's feature, is to watch a video that Martin suggested:

Now, let me tell you this with the benefit of hindsight: Trying to talk about Dota 2 succinctly is about as easy as pinning soup to the wall. This Nigma chap manages to sum up the entire game in 240 seconds, and quite frankly this is an astonishing feat. If you're thinking of following in my wary footsteps, you really should watch the clip above. Just be warned that it's a bit like playing with a toy gorilla - once you head into the jungle, you'll find that the real thing is a lot bigger. And it wants to pull off your arms.

Next up I momentarily abandon Dota 2 in favour of League of Legends - one of the other big boys in the MOBA playground. As it's still in the beta phase, Dota 2 currently has nothing in the way of an in-built tutorial. At the moment it resembles that bit at the start of The Shawshank Redemption, the scene where the new inmates show up and everyone else bets on who'll start crying first. And guess what? Everyone's going to put their money on you.

Thankfully LoL has a decent single-player trainer that introduces the basics of the genre. There are a few rough moments here: Every time I let my Champion (as they're called here) wander off on his own, the tutorial verbally clips me round the ear and tells me to hide behind my minions/creeps. Eventually the lesson sinks in, and I also learn to retreat back to base when I'm running low on health and mana. Overall, I do feel that I've gained something from the tutorial, so thank you Riot Games - although I must say, your tutorial narrator lays it on a bit thick. I kill my first enemy, and she reacts as if I've just re-painted the Sistine Chapel.

With fresh confidence, I return to YouTube. Almost immediately I encounter a video that explains "How to Outlane Noobs". I start watching, then realise that it's 45 minutes long, and that I still don't really know what I'm doing. My heart fills with fresh doubt.

Oh well. I am a noob. So I'm probably supposed to be outlaned...


Picking a Character

I suspect I'm probably getting ahead of myself with these advanced tactics, so I decide to start researching characters. Normally I take quite a while with this sort of thing, and Dota 2 has somewhere in the region of 87; every time I think I have the final number, another one comes crawling out of the woodwork.

If you're a keen player of Street Fighter IV or a game of that ilk, you probably have one or two characters that you "main". Here it seems that that everyone in the community is an expert with every hero available; that's probably not true, but it certainly seems as if most players have the knowledge and experience to keep their options open. All the same, it seems to make sense for me to pick one Hero and stick with them, at least initially.

Tidehunter  Dota 2

Luckily I soon stumble across a discussion of noob-friendly heroes, which whittles the selection down to 14. After pouring over the debates here and on various wikis, I decide that I'm going to plump for Tidemaster - a giant fishman-type chap. The consensus is that he's fairly easy to use, and as he's hard to kill (in theory) he should give me a bit more time to think on my feet.

For the next half hour I hoover up tips, strategies and build advice. Much of it reads like Dutch to me, but I understand enough that I formulate a very, very rough plan. The key thing about Dota 2, it would seem, is that everyone has a role to play, and that role can change depending on the Hero you pick, the Heroes picked by everyone else, and by whatever is actually going on at any given moment. Tidehunter is a Tank and an Initiator, so broadly speaking his role is to be the team whipping boy, and to use his powers to annoy the other players.

Sounds like I've picked the right guy, then.


The First Match

Utter, blind panic. That's the only way I can describe the first few seconds of my life as a Dota 2 player. I'm still not entirely sure why I'm so intimidated, but the experience is oddly exhilarating. I'm so revved up that it takes me an embarrassingly long time to work out how to use the shop at the Radiant base. I've got a shopping list of items that I cribbed from the net; not only do I not fully understand their purpose, I can't even buy the damn things. By the time I've worked it out, the match is underway.

One immediate, strange observation: the music vaguely reminds me of the theme tune to Poirot. Lord knows why, as they're really not that similar. Now, in addition to everything else, I have to block out the mental image of a fat moustachioed Belgian, waddling up and down the lanes.

Back to reality. Nobody has said anything to me, but by looking at the map I can tell where I'm supposed to go: Two of my team mates have headed for the top lane, one has gone for the middle, and one has gone for the bottom lane. I've read enough about Dota 2 etiquette to know that "going mid" would be like taking a dump in the After Eight box at a dinner party. The Hero there needs to go solo and reap the benefits, so I should head to the bottom lane and join my buddy there.

For a few minutes, everything is going okay. I follow my creeps, get in a few last hits on the enemy, and earn a few paltry coins. I even try out my first power, Gush, which I picked because a) it makes me laugh and b) because the guides told me to. Gush seems quite useful - it lets my fishman gob at enemies from afar, hurting them, slowing them down and reducing their armour in a single hit. In the right hands, Gush could be a potent weapon.

Tidehunter  Dota 2

Unfortunately, its not in the right hands - it's in my hands. And as a result of me pissing about and trying out my skills, I burn through my mana extremely quickly. Unlike LoL, there's no easy way to warp back to base here. Instead, I use a Tango, an item that lets me eat a tree to nourish myself - but then I realise that it only restores my health. Before I have time to react, one of the enemy heroes shows up and leaps on me, doing tonnes of damage and stunning me at the same time. Panicking, I attempt to waddle away, but it turns out that giant fishmen aren't particularly swift on their feet (or fins). Seconds later I'm dead, awaiting my respawn.

And so it begins. I fare slightly better on my next life, but a couple of players drop out and soon I'm left on my own. My team-mates are busy doing their thing elsewhere, leaving me alone on the bottom lane, but I feel like I should probably hold my ground. I waddle up and down the lane, helping my creeps to push up into enemy territory, where they're invariably nailed by the enemy towers or by hostile heroes. Only later do I realise that this is the wrong thing to do; I should be holding back in friendly territory, drawing creeps towards our towers so I can farm them safely. (In fact, I should really be letting an ally take the lion's share of the gold and XP, but that's a different story).

Long story short, we get destroyed. It swiftly becomes apparent that we're going to lose: two of our guys have dropped out, and one of the Dire players is cleaning up: he's using Viper, a hero who serves as a carry. In simple terms, this means that he starts out weak but gets progressively stronger, eventually reaching dangerous, game-winning levels. And in this case, Viper is doing so well that the in-game announcer is growling "Holy sh*t!" and going on about how godlike he is.

All the same, I see the match through to its inevitable conclusion. We're told that it's "safe" to quit (normally it's a big no-no to bail on a game), but I stick around. I need the practice, I figure, but aside from that... I am really, really enjoying myself.

It's not just the shock of the new, either. I can't quite say why, but there's something about Dota 2 that sinks its teeth in remarkably quickly. Yes, it's obscure and complicated and borderline incomprehensible, at least at the start. Yes, it feels like hard work at times, even when I don't understand what my work is supposed to be - and it's unbelievably easy to make a costly mistake. But there is something in this game. I may not have a clue what's going on, but even in the chaos of this first match, there's a flicker, a trace, a spectre of understanding - the promise of something wonderful.

The only question is: will I ever reach enlightenment?

Hearty thanks to Jordan Erica Webber for providing a beta key!