Strategy games are going through a big adjustment right now. As Blizzard's fans salivate over the upcoming release of Starcraft 2 and play Relic's latest, Dawn of War 2 into the night, we're starting to see a split in the real-time strategy genre. On the one hand, you have the traditional style, which Dune 2 really put into motion many years back and the Starcraft and Command & Conquer series have built upon. But there's also a new style of game where you spend less time building bases and managing resources, so we've seen Dawn of War, Company of Heroes, and even the Total War series be embraced by gamers who want to spend more time controlling a fight than building units.
But there's at least one other kind out there gaining popularity, and it started as a little user-made map for Warcraft III. It's called Defense of the Ancients, and it's slowly built a huge fanbase in the Blizzard RTS community. In it, the player controls a much smaller number of units than in RTS titles, and most importantly, you control one central character that levels up and gains loot like an RPG protagonist would. While DotA itself never really gained any kind of mainstream appeal - some of the developers and community leaders have moved onto making their own game, League of Legends - the guys at Gas Powered Games (developers of Supreme Commander) and publisher Stardock have just unleashed their own take on this style in Demigod.
Eight powerful characters are available in Demigod, and with some interesting tactical options and some AI-controlled armies at your back, you'll be the brains behind one Demigod to take on your opponents and try to ascend to godhood. The battles take place in fantasy-themed arenas with flags to capture and control, fortresses and towers to attack and defend, and up to five Demigods on each side battling it out. Controlling portals means that NPC troops will also assist you, and while you can't direct them specifically, four of the game's unique Demigods, called Generals, have their own personal troops they can summon and directly control. The other four Demigods are called Assassins, and they wield powerful abilities but do not come with any units of their own.
For a fan of Supreme Commander or other traditional RTS titles, Demigod's a pretty big difference. As an Assassin character, you only actually control your one unit, fighting off enemy troops, trying to take out their Demigods, leveling up, increasing your attributes, gaining new abilities with a large tree of interesting choices, and using the money you gain from several sources (including getting kills) to buy and equip items to increase your powers. And much of the game's depth isn't just in winning battles, it's in building specific characters that perform specific roles. For example, as the Unclean Beast you can become a marauding single-target killer that moves fast and just wails on enemies, slowing them as they try to back out to safety. Or you can build him like a tough tank, just getting in and trying to survive while his Ooze does massive area damage to anything that surrounds him. Or you can build him as a disabler, slowing and crippling his enemies so that your buddies can finish them off. All of these are valid builds, even if some are more useful than others, and each of the game's eight Demigods has at least a few solid builds if not many more. And that's not even including the tweaks you can make to the builds with the gear you buy.
The overall experience of a Demigod game really depends on the parameters you set. If you want a slower-paced match, have everyone start at level 1 with slow or normal leveling and the usual gold rate. If you want something closer to a ten-minute match, have all players start with some extra cash, a few levels already under their belt, and speed up the pace. Many DotA fans have complained about how slow Demigod's matches are, but it turns out that with just a few tweaks under the Game Options for a Skirmish or online match, that can be adjusted and fixed easily.
The other issue for DotA players is that Demigod only has eight heroes, which is a fraction of what they're used to. While I've never gotten into DotA, I have to say that I find eight to be plenty of Demigods overall, and that each has an interesting and unique style with plenty of charm and some great visuals to go along with it. The game's also got eight well-thought-out maps, each with an original theme, that have interesting placement of healing crystals, gold mines to capture, portals to keep control of so more of your team's units can pour out of them, and other strategic areas and choke points. Finally, each map can be played in one of four gameplay modes: Conquest (destroy enemy Citadel), Dominate (capture and hold flags), Slaughter (kill enemy Demigods), and Fortress (destroy enemy fortresses scattered around the map).
While Demigod is a hell of a game with plenty of interesting strategies and just few enough directly-controlled units that micromanaging them is plenty doable for "normal" players (rather than the superhuman-seeming pro players that juggle 50+ units like it was only two), there's still a pretty steep learning curve for anyone who hasn't played a bunch of RPG or strategy games before. And it seems that Stardock and GPG are specifically targeting the people who have a lot of RTS experience; for them it might actually be a nice thing to not have to click through some boring tutorial, but the game does very little to teach you how to actually play. I'm an experienced RTS player with no DotA experience and I had the basics figured out in my first game against Easy-difficulty opponents, but others might not appreciate the lack of a tutorial showing you your hero's abilities, what the item stores do, the leveling system, or flag capturing. The funny part is that Stardock did actually put together a couple of informative videos promoting the game that do a good job of teaching someone how to play, but they're nowhere to be found in the retail box.
The other complaint many would have is that while there's a single player Tournament mode, it's really just a new framework from which to play the exact same game you'd be playing in LAN, online, or Skirmish modes, and the AI doesn't really get better as you crank up the difficulty - it just gains unfair advantages by leveling faster and getting more gold with which to buy powerful items. There's no real story to speak of here, and while there's a little bit of text describing the history of each of the Demigods, don't expect any kind of driving narrative. It's not so much that I'm upset about the lack of this stuff - most RTS games have horrible stories and a single player mode that's not half as fun as playing Skirmish over and over - but for some it's going to be a deal-breaker.
Finally, the game's had a rocky start. GameStop started selling the game four days before the official release date, so the Stardock guys had to hobble together a network made seemingly made out of cans and string, causing most players to see delays when joining games or having the game give up after a few minutes. That has been some people's experience so far, but I haven't been as unlucky overall. Still, those issues are getting worked out, and Stardock has spent all last week making adjustments to the game and their servers and developing new ways for more gamers to get into sessions with all the firewalls and routers between most home PCs.
The $40 price tag for Demigod, an online game with no demo out currently, does seem a lot to ask for some gamers. Many of them will certainly take advantage of Stardock's policy of including no DRM or copy protection and pirate the game to play it in single player or LAN modes, but I will try and remind people here that GPG is still an independent developer, and Stardock is still an independent publisher that's trying to make the experience better for the consumer by not including DRM. While Take Two did handle the retail distribution of the game, that's not quite the same as publishing it. If you really need to play a demo first then by all means wait it out, but if you're still on the fence, I think most gamers will find Demigod to be a blast - especially when more multiplayer issues are ironed out over the next week or two.