Dota Underlords Review – A Bold, New Genre
If you’d like to see a full match of Dota Underlords, an embed to one of mine is below.
Auto Chess appears to be the New Cool Thing (TM), and in the span of a couple of weeks, there are now three potential Auto Chess games. There’s Auto Chess (by Drodo), Teamfight Tactics (Riot), and Dota Underlords (Valve). I’ll be honest – as soon as I saw Valve’s name on the product, I immediately felt trepidation. One of the comments about it I read though was “Artifact died for this?” and that’s one of the best things I could see – Artifact was awful, and if you don’t know why, go read my article here. I’ve got you covered.
A little background: Auto Chess was a mod for Dota 2, made by a Chinese team, Drodo. But the queue times were long, a lot of calls of it being unbalanced were heard, and Valve decided to try and work with them to make their own Auto Chess. They couldn’t work together, so decided to instead be rivals, and Drodo went off to make their own Auto Chess. From what I understand, the Drodo team were brought on as advisors in some capacity for the creation of Dota Underlords.
Dota Underlords is much prettier, and the queue times are infinitely better. I’ve only waited for about ten seconds for a match, so even if I lose (about a 20 minute time sink), it’s not really that bad. However, the UI and the Tutorial both could certainly use some work. There’s so much I didn’t know about this game until I talked to people who play it much more than me, so shout-outs to Jestra and everyone else I jabbered over the course of this review. It was pretty hard to review a game that is mostly played on its own, and while I was initially leery, it turns out there is still a great deal of strategy and depth to the game – even if there is an overwhelming amount of RNG to the game. The closest I got to winning a match was second place because I simply never saw any of the units I needed to level-up, so I could have a power-squad of three-star units. But I’ll get into that here shortly.
Dota Underlords is an Auto-Chess game where eight players join a lobby and do battle against each other to see who comes out on top. Every five rounds there is a pair of NPC battles, for a chance at powerful items you can equip (or global items that affect all units), and this continues until a final winner has been declared. It plays very much like some kind of short round-robin tournament, where players battle it out with their selected teams, and as they gain exp, their potential teams grow in number. To level faster, you need to spend gold. How do you get gold? By winning, but also by losing! By Round Nine, you’ll be receiving a baseline of 5 gold, and people who are on winning and losing streaks receive extra gold. That’s one of the nicest things I’ve seen in the game, is if you’re behind you can definitely still come back. Hell, losing on purpose can be seen as a strategy to build up massive amounts of gold and build up a powerful squad. You start off with the ability to have one unit on your team, but each level will add more and more. Each of the characters will be from Dota 2, so familiarity with the various Heroes will only be a benefit to you as a player. Each hero is not as strong as the other, and the higher level you are, the rarer heroes will pop up in your list, so just be aware of that too. Their names will be colored Gray, Green, Blue, Purple, and Orange.
After you’ve purchased a Hero, you place them on the grid somewhere, but be aware that placement really matters. Why is that? Each unit class has a specific style of AI they’ll use – for example, Assassins leap/teleport to the farthest unit away and immediately start attacking them. If you put your squishiest damage dealers back there and your opponent, like me, fielded three assassins, they are dead in the water. What’s the solution? Watch the other players! You can click on their names to see what they are putting out there and deduce their likely formation. If they are running some kind of assassins, try putting your bruisers/tanks on the backline instead. This way, you stand a fighting chance. I’ve seen some incredible, wild formations, so it definitely matters who is placed where. After you have positioned your force, the battle begins! As characters deal damage, they build mana to dole out their special attacks, but again, you have zero control.
Units will fight it out until there is a winner, and after a brief intermission, gold is assigned and the unit purchases will refresh. There’s a large treasure chest button you click on to pull those up. Each round the units are refreshed, and players all pull from the same pool of units. But what if you don’t want to lose some Heroes that you can’t afford? There’s a little lock on the left you can click to prevent the Heroes from refreshing next round. Heroes start at 1 star, and cap at 3 stars. It’s imperative that you level up the ones you want to carry your squad, but how does that happen? By buying several copies of them! To level a hero up to level 2, you need three 1-stars, and for 3-star, you need 3 2-stars. Sounds expensive and tedious? You’re right, it is!
It’s also incredibly risky since you wind up holding a lot of your bench space for it. You only have so much space on your bench for heroes. So you have to really consider every gold coin you have, and whether you want to spend it on leveling up or buying heroes. In many cases, you cannot do both. Don’t spend too much time adjusting/purchasing though, or you might not have time to rebalance/adjust your squad. The more expensive Heroes will cost more, or you can spend 5 gold to increase your overall EXP to make leveling faster. Another option you have is to spend 2 gold to reset your list of purchasable heroes. This is honestly a bit of a double-edged sword, and what costs me a lot of victories. I get caught up in seeing heroes I have no use for or desire to recruit, trying to improve who I have. Ultimately, I’ve wasted my gold and still have low-tier units. If that weren’t enough stuff to consider in terms of gold spending, you can also hate-draft! Hate-drafting is a Magic/CCG term where in a draft setting, you pick cards that you know your opponent needs, just so they can’t have them. Since players pull from the same pool of heroes, don’t be shy about purchasing a hero to stunt your opponent’s growth, especially if they’re on a winning streak.
A lot of the strategy is in how you balance your team and how you spend your gold. I would avoid just picking Heroes you like from Dota 2 though, and don’t be afraid to swap out those common heroes for the rarer ones late game, especially if you have some 1/2 stars that just aren’t contributing. Each Hero has at least two “Alliances” they are a part of also. Each Alliance conveys buffs or debuffs, depending on how many of that faction you have fielded. There are 23 Alliances, so I’m not going to go over each one here – that would take all day! But if you click on the Lore/Info tab, it shows all of the Alliances, who are in them, and what benefits you gain for having X amount of them on the board. As I said before, some Heroes are definitely better than others. Some have powerful passives, in addition to their mana-procced abilities – like Puck! Puck has a damage ability and Phase Shift, which lets him become invulnerable for .5 seconds, before taking damage – but they only have access to that through the Dragon Alliance. One of the biggest things about Dota Underlords is knowing what heroes do what together. It’s going to take time and losses, but it can be learned.
If it sounds like I’m talking more about the strategy and details of the game, rather than the actual gameplay, that’s because it takes up far more of the time than the actual gameplay. Rounds take less than a minute, and then you go into a waiting/planning phase before heading back into battle. The actual gameplay is very quick, and all of the real fun of the game is figuring out the meta, and working out how to build a team to smash the other teams. From what I’ve seen, Stuns/CC is the king right now. Something a friend pointed out to me that seems fascinating is that in the early game, you want assassins to melt people’s damage dealers, but when the game gets a little later, you want to start transitioning those out for mages (Mages/Warlocks Alliances probably). There is only one Assassin above Tier 3 and that’s Templar Assassin at Tier 4. How you play is all up to you of course, and you’ll find Alliances that work together, and that’s the joy of Dota Underlords – it’s mostly about strategy, tactics and planning. RNG also plays very heavily into it though, and I’m not going to lie. There are plenty of matches that I lost simply by not having anything useful to purchase.
From what I’ve seen, you gain LP (League Points) as you get closer to first place (fourth and above), and the higher rank you are, the cooler your title will be, and it will show an I-V on your banner. The game does not make it clear at all if this affects anything about the gameplay though. One of the things that fascinate me about Dota Underlords right now is that there are zero ways to invest money into it. You can’t buy cosmetics, you can’t buy rerolls, anything. I’m positive there will be some kind of cosmetics to buy at some point, but as long as it doesn’t stray into the greedy, p2w category, I’ll have zero complaints. Dota Underlords is a very intense strategy game, and there is just so much to learn. The UI is not all that friendly, but one thing I recommend is you look at the three tabs on the right side of the screen during a match. The top one will show what Alliances represent your faction, the second will be a DPS meter (you vs. enemy), and the third is your list of items. Also, don’t be afraid to watch your opponents matches while yours are going on – it’s key to strategy to see what they’re doing and prepare for it.
Lich Gonna Have Yo’ Mana: 3.5/5 (Good)
Honestly, I’m not crazy about Auto Chess. It’s not a time sink I enjoy delving into, but I’m not going to say it’s bad because of that. I see why people enjoy it, but it’s personally just not for me. Dota Underlords still has some balancing to do, but at the end of the day, you want those Tier 5 units to feel worthwhile, same with the items. The RNG is brutal and unforgiving, and in every match, I always see one person that goes undefeated the entire time – but at least it’s not something I spent money on and feel like I can’t win. It’s a free to play game, from VALVE, that is still very much free-to-play. It’s not a game you’re going to master in a match or two, but it still stands tall as a solid Auto Chess game. It’s very visually appealing, and fans of the original Auto Chess mod now have an official Auto Chess that has the same abilities and gameplay they were already used to. But now it has Valve’s support, with a declared intent on user feedback. The queue times are more than generous, and I certainly see why people dive deep into this and spend hours playing Auto Chess. The worst part of the game definitely feels like it’s the RNG though. Even despite that, Dota Underlords is all about learning while you go and being able to adapt and react to situations. If you can’t do that, you’ll never climb. Or dive, since this is an Underworld thing. I still recommend if you’re remotely interested in tactical gameplay to give it a shot. There is an incredible amount of possibility in the various team comps and gameplay styles. And for this price point (free!), it is worth at least trying a few matches. I don’t know if this is going to be the genre to overthrow the Battle Royale, but it’s nice to see something new.
Dota Underlords Screenshots
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