For those unfamiliar with the Dota Underlords story, I’ll provide a quick recap here. The game and genre originates from a Dota 2 mod called ‘Auto-Chess’. The mod was insanely popular, and still is today. You bought Dota units, upgraded them, battled against other line-ups all inside the Dota 2 client. The mod was so popular that Valve attempted to bring the creators of the Dota Auto-Chess on board to create an official release of the game as a stand-alone product.
This is where things take a turn, because, for whatever reason, Valve and the creators of the original mod couldn’t come to an accord and the plans flopped. Now, the original creators of the mod have their own full release in Auto-Chess, and Vale went in-house for their own version. Valve called it Dota Underlords, and thus our review is born.
So, where does Underlords sit in 2021. The game was hugely popular and showed a lot of promise when it came out, but then shortly after the player-base dropped off dramatically. So, is it still worth playing in 2021? What happened with the playerbase? Is the game good despite the dramatics revolving around it’s production and release? Is Valve still supporting the game, or has it been abandoned? Well, stick with me because we’re going to delve into this hot mess and see if there’s any fun to be had.
As usual our MGN Impressions are broken down into four separate but equal parts:
Moving from the limited tools of Dota 2 mods to a fully-fledged Steam release allows for a lot less restriction, and a lot more potential. Yes, the reason that Auto-Chess was successful is for the gameplay, but that doesn’t mean Valve didn’t have the opportunity to include a story and a context for the multi-player combat. So, did they? If not, why not? Is the game better for having some context, or is it worse for not having a story? We’ll find out.
Do any of the characters in the game have voice acting? If so, how is it? If not, does the game feel dead without it? How are the sound effects in combat – can you recognise them, or do they get lost in the crazy confusion that is the auto-chess battle arena? How is the soundtrack, is it done well, does it match the game, does it hit the ear right? Well, that’s sound.
How does the game feel to play. You want to know whether the mechanics for getting into Dota Underlords at this point are easy to understand, and genuinely enjoyable to employ, well we’re going to check it out. We’re going to look at the depth of the gameplay, how long it can keep your interest with what’s there, how have Valve patched and changed up the gameplay. All things things and more.
X-Factor – Support
Our X-Factor for the MGN Impression reviews changes from game to game, and review to review, and for Underlords we’ve decided to go with Support. Does Valve Support Underlords enough? Simple as that. Valve’s mismanagement and lack of support was disastrous for Artifact. The game had a lot of potential, and could have done well, Valve just screwed the pooch. So, is Underlords another Artifact and will it undergo the same fate? Find out when we get to X-Factor.
Story – 1/10
Valve wants you to think there is a story and purpose to the button-clicking in Underlords. They’ve created the concept of the Underlords themselves, and they’ve tacked on a single player experience to the game. The issue is that there is just so little story-telling and lore, it makes you curious as to why they tried at all.
The Underlords themselves are quite different, and they each have a branching avenue of the single-player content. There absolutely is the opportunity for some personality there, and some story-telling, but it’s really just empty. It’s a shell and I’m not sure why. If you’re going to have interesting characters aesthetically, and add in a single player experience where the player controls those Underlords through various scenarios, why half ass it like this?
If you’re going to add some flavor, do it well, or don’t do it at all. The game would be fine as a strictly gameplay experience, but dangling the whole ‘underworld vibe comes to Dota’ theme, and then doing nothing with it is pretty baffling. The Dota Underlords website goes so far as to boast that there is a story in their game. Trust me, there is not.
Sound – 3/10
The voice lines for heroes in Dota 2 are iconic, and fans of the game will instantly recognize that their favorite hero in Dota 2 sounds completely different in this spin-off game. Why? Well, that’s a good question. It feels like another half-assing. Yes, it is not always easy to get so many voice actors to be available for one project – I get that. But Valve aren’t an indie developer, they’re not a small company. Dota 2 is one of the largest games in history. Getting heroes to have the same voice actor, or at least copy their lines from Dota 2 for those who are unavailable , should have been a priority. But, it wasn’t. And it makes the voice-lines in Underlords hit the ear all wrong.
The only reason that sound hasn’t recieved the same score as story, is that the OST is actually really awesome. Which is a shame because, as you can grasp, the game fails to live up to how epic the soundtrack feels. It’s worth a listen to, there isn’t a lot of variety or many tracks, but the main theme carries the sound hard enough to pull the score from a one up to a three. So, kudos to the composers there.
Gameplay – 6/10
Good, not great. It doesn’t really feel like Underlords improves on the original mod. Valve has added things, sure, but the stand-alone mod is still the more popular product for a reason. That doesn’t mean the gameplay is bad. It’s good, and there is a lot of fun to be had, but that’s only the case because of the game being so similar to the original mod. Valve’s hand in development hasn’t improved upon the formula.
What Valve has done quite cleverly is having the gaming available on both PC and mobile, with your progress and profile transferring seamlessly between the two. So, credit where credit is due there. The game feels quite cramped on mobile, but if you’re in a pinch it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever played. PC is better, but that’s always true anyway.
Aside from that, the game is quite addicting. You’re always striving for the perfect board, sometimes a strategy works, sometimes it doesn’t. The issue is that the game isn’t really well balanced. There are heroes and strategies that are simply better than 99% of the other options. Once you know this, it’s pretty use to abuse. And everyone does. Once you get enough wins to start seeing Savage + 3* Slark comboes, well, I hope you’re prepared to see a lot of them.
The meta just isn’t really in a great place right now. It punishes creativity, and rewards a very strict style of play, which isn’t terribly fun. In fact, it’s quite boring. So I’ve given the gameplay a six because it is still Dota Auto-Chess reskinned, but there are a lot of factors to detract points. Most of these could be solved with patches and frequent updates, but…
X-Factor: Support -3/10
That’s right. Negative three out of ten. The time between patches is ridiculous, to the point where it is difficult to question each time a patch is released, if there will every be another one. Underlords didn’t get any support when Artifact was shut down, and that is quite the writing on the wall isn’t it.
The frustrating part is that there is so much potential wasted, and it is clear that Valve has no interest in making the game would it could be, or providing something for whatever loyal audience is left. But, they’re still happy to take your money for the battle pass.
The battle pass has gone on forever, and has no expiration in sight. Where the money from that battle pass is going to? I have no idea. It isn’t Underlords. So, what’s left? Well, pointless single player that can be played through repeatedly. A stale meta that players have figured out and abused to a letter. A disappointing fan-base and an ever dwindling player count. Negative three out of ten Valve. Negative three.