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Dota 2 vs. Heroes of the Storm: Which MOBA is right for you?

The multiplayer online battle arena genre of games is tough to get into, but whether you choose a classic or modern version, the work you do learning to play it will pay off enormously.

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Multiplayer online battle arena games, aka MOBAs, are wildly popular around the world, earning some teams millions of dollars in prizes at international eSports competitions. The most common five-on-five gameplay mechanic requires teamwork to succeed, but it's the need to learn and master unique heroes and strategies that keeps players coming back for more. The only question is, what type of MOBA player are you?

Today I want to look at the classic MOBA game, Valve's Defense of the Ancients 2 (Dota 2), versus the new kid on the block, Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm (HotS). They have similar core gameplay, but they differ in key areas.

A MOBA is a multiplayer team game with a top-down view in which you play as a single character with four teammates against another group of five players. Each character has unique abilities, and working together is required for success. The object is to destroy the opposing team's base.

Before I get started, a word about me. I'm no pro at MOBA games nor an eSports player, but I have put in a lot of hours in DOTA 2, Heroes of the Storm throughout its beta, Smite, Infinite Crisis, Vainglory for mobile, and several others. In other words, I'm a big fan, but I'm no expert. There are definitely going to be people reading this who watch videos every day, watch live competitions and put in a lot more hours than I do. But I want to approach this from the standpoint of which game is right for first-timers and I think there are clear differences here that make that choice easier.

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In Dota 2, the graphics look a little dated, but the gameplay is deep. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

What is a MOBA?

As I mentioned at the top, MOBA stands for multiplayer online battle arena, but games in this genre share many similarities in structure beyond that.

The genre is focused on team play, often with five-versus-five matches that can take anywhere from 20 minutes to close to an hour. Each team has a base and the primary goal of the game is for your team to destroy your enemy's base. The playing field between the bases has defensive towers on both sides and computer-controlled foot soldiers (called creeps) that slow your progress to the goal. There are also enemy heroes (not controlled by players) to contend with that make the game much more strategic, requiring teamwork as you slowly destroy towers, kill foot soldiers and try to kill enemy heroes to push toward your goal.

With team tactics, RPG elements and arena fighting with specific goals, MOBAs are a mishmash of games from other genres, so that's part of what makes them difficult to learn for the beginner. The other part that is intimidating when you start any of these games is that it's easy to get overwhelmed by the rules, and just as easy to get put off by players who aren't forgiving of newbies. Just remember that there are tutorial levels to help you get acquainted with the gameplay and you should definitely train before playing with other people. But with some patience I think you'll start to realize why these games are so popular.

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In HotS, you'll notice the polish right away, with crisp graphics and complex animations. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The two games I'm comparing

Defense of the Ancients (Dota) is where the MOBA phenomenon all started, when people made a mod for Blizzard's Warcraft 3 using the top-down viewpoint of the original game to create a new gametype that pits heroes against each other. Game developer Valve later added its Source graphics engine and established the game as a standalone. Several other MOBA games have since turned up on both desktops and mobile to cash in on their addictive nature, most notably League of Legends (LoL), which accounts for a large amount of the eSports phenomenon. But one thing most MOBAs share is that they are both difficult to learn and even more difficult to master.

Now gaming giant Blizzard Entertainment has its own entrant into the MOBA wars. Heroes of the Storm (HotS) has been widely available for a few weeks, but Blizzard took an entirely different tack as to how MOBAs should be played. By removing a lot of the complexity of the gameplay, the company has made this difficult genre much more accessible to beginners, and by adding its own spin with different maps and objectives, it makes the argument that a MOBA doesn't need to be complex to be fun.

Dota 2's complexity can be unforgiving

Now you have the basic ingredients that go into a MOBA, but Dota 2 gives you even more to think about.

Along with leveling your heroes, taking down towers and keeping clear of enemy heroes' attacks, there are also items you can buy in Dota 2 to raise your stats in various areas. So a pair of boots might make you move faster or add to your agility score for higher attack damage. A special late-game sword can give you temporary invisibility, enabling you to sneak up and attack heroes or escape when they think they have you cornered. The point is, your Dota 2 teammates and opponents probably already have their items and upgrades all planned out, so it's something you'll need to learn to succeed.

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There are tons of items in Dota 2 and you always have to think about upgrading to succeed. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

So, when you're playing Dota 2, the heroes and creeps in your lane are what you're focused on, but you're also thinking about how much money you've earned, which of your four abilities to upgrade when you level and what items are next on your shopping list -- all while you watch the map to make sure an enemy doesn't sneak up from the shadows. Efficiency is key because your enemies are thinking all the same things, and whoever can get the edge on the enemy is much more likely to push through and win the game.

What does HotS do differently?

Most MOBAs use similar gameplay elements to Dota 2: leveling heroes, buying items and managing your resources. But Blizzard decided to do something entirely different to make the learning curve easier while keeping the same core gameplay.

In Heroes of the Storm, you don't level individually. As the team gains experience, the whole team levels at the same time. There is no item shop or building of items. Your team gains levels together as you play the game and every few levels you can pick skills that let you play your hero the way you want.

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HotS is a new game, so at this point you can only pick from 40 different heroes, and many are locked if they're not featured that week. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

This system makes it so you're not worried about upgrading items or needing to go back to base as often. Instead, you can focus on the fight at hand and choose your upgrade path through the skills offered.

But the simplified game mechanics made it initially feel much more arcade-like to me -- in other words, with no items and no real punishment for dying, my decisions simply didn't carry the same weight.

To make up for the loss of complexity, Heroes of the Storm gives you a few different maps that affect how the game will play out. These maps force you to change your strategy with interactive elements that can mean victory for the team that takes advantage.

For example, on the Blackheart's Bay map, you're still trying to destroy the enemy base, but there are additional objectives that can help your team. By finding and killing NPC pirates on the map and looting their chests, you can collect doubloons. Once your team has 10, you can pay a pirate in the middle of the map, and he will direct his giant pirate ship to fire on your opponent's base. It's a strong attack and can push the game in your favor, so every player tries to get involved with paying the pirate.

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On the brand-new Eternal Conflict map in HotS, you'll be able to unleash an angel from Diablo on your enemies. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

In other words, while Heroes of the Storm lacks some of the traditional elements of the classic MOBA, it adds a new twist with maps that give advantages your team can work for. In this way, each map has its own unique divergence from the regular gameplay, giving you something to do when item building and upgrading are no longer on your mind.

The last factor to weigh in your decision: Money

For how polished and simplified the gameplay is in HotS, it's modern in another way that might be less savory to some gamers. It's a free-to-play game just like Dota 2, but uses in-app purchases for unlocking characters and costume customizations. Just like the other popular MOBA I mentioned, League of Legends, HotS has a rotation of heroes you can play each week, but leaves the rest locked up unless you pay with in-game currency or real money. Currently, in real-money terms, you would need to spend $9.99 to permanently unlock a hero that's not featured on a given week. There are bundles and deals you can get in the in-game store, but the point is, a lot of heroes are unavailable when you start playing.

Dota 2 does it differently by letting you play any of over 100 different heroes with no pay walls. The way Dota makes its money is from the players who want to differentiate themselves from the pack: any cash purchases you make are only for costumes and other customizations. So, when it comes to your wallet, Dota 2 is probably the better choice because you get the full game and only pay for the costumes.

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In Dota 2 over 100 heroes are available to play in every game. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Which one is right for you?

When entering any new game genre, there is going to be a learning curve. MOBAs -- as team games -- especially demand that you learn quickly because other people are counting on you to play your role in order to win.

The classic MOBA games like Dota 2 require more practice because you need to learn not only the basic strategies, but also how and when to buy items, how to level your hero to maximize your role on the team and how to be efficient with these choices throughout the match to succeed.

HotS is much easier from the outset. You'll still have to learn the basics, but you can go out there and start fighting, then wait for your first opportunity to gain a level and pick your path of character advancement. It's the interactive maps that serve to add variety to the gameplay.

So which one you choose is all about your level of commitment. Those who don't mind doing the research and nerding out on the details will appreciate how deep Dota 2 is. But those who don't want to think about all that and just want to jump right in and fight will have a much easier time with HotS.