Valve’s created many moments that will remain engraved in players’ minds for the rest of their lives. It was Gabe Newell’s company that created indisputable classics such as the Half-Life and Portal series, not to mention being at the helm of video game digital distribution platforms with Steam.
But those days are a thing of a distant past. Valve isn’t the trendsetter that it used to be and seems content with following a new trend, resorting to game designs that lack the flair that Gordon Freeman once brought us. Valve seems to be following the money, instead of striving for innovation and brilliance like it once did.
It only takes a quick glance at the studio’s latest releases to realize that despite its huge success, Dota 2 was heavily inspired by League of Legends. I’m willing to give Valve a free pass for that, but fast forward a few years to Artifact and we see Valve’s attempt to set foot in one of the latest and most profitable trends; the digital collectible card game. Hearthstone was the obvious game to beat, but Blizzard’s colossal CCG didn’t feel the blow, not even in the slightest.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Artifact’s colossal failure wasn’t entirely expected, but putting a price tag on a game in a genre filled with great free-to-play options felt arrogant. Valve’s ego was so inflated from previous successes that it was convinced players would jump in blindly, and truth be told, many did. Soon enough though, players realized that Artifact wasn’t everything it was advertised to be, especially with Hearthstone or Shadowverse ripe for the picking. Polished, brimming with content, and above all, free. What else is there to say?
Artifact isn’t dead, but it is going through a painful “process of experimentation and development.” No matter how much they change it, the harm is done and even if a business model switch is looming, it won’t make paying players happy. Artifact is in a scary place, stuck between uncertainty and cancellation. So, what’s next for Valve? Perhaps the long overdue Half-Life 3? Another insanely funny and genuinely clever Portal game? Maybe a third game in the awesome zombie co-op shooter Left 4 Dead? Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely considering Valve’s adverse relation with the number “3”. Every single one of its franchises hits a dead end with third titles, and this has naturally turned into its own meme.
But I wouldn’t lose hope. Perhaps Valve, in another one of its unprecedented outbursts of creativity, is secretly working on Team Fortress 3. You know, there’s this huge game called Overwatch and the hero shooter genre is timeless, so maybe it can borrow a significant chunk of Blizzard’s player base with a new game?
This is only speculation, but one thing that is very real and palpable is Valve’s latest game, Dota Underlords. Like a snake eating its own tail, Valve once again turns a mod into a full game. However, unlike Dota 2, where the Auto Chess craze derived from, this Auto Battler game feels bare bones and, quite frankly, deprived of any true challenge or long-lasting appeal. It’s a game where lady luck (RNG, in fact) plays a preeminent role, leaving player skill as a superfluous afterthought.
Dota Underlords doesn’t feel like a true Valve game. It feels like a student project that garnered lots of attention for some unfathomable reason, and that is noticeable in every aspect of its design, from the overly simple mechanics to the rudimentary graphics. Early Access isn’t an excuse for everything, and I always expect more from Valve in every regard.
I strongly disagree with most player claims that Dota Underlords is “fun” and “interesting”, but I do agree with those who say it’s addictive. Loot boxes are addictive as well and that doesn’t make them any more fair or fun. Watching a bunch of heroes having a go at each other is the stuff of generic mobile games, where auto battlers, commonly known as hero collectors until recently, are a dime a dozen. Dota Underlords is an evolution of the hero collector genre, with a side dish of RNG for extra… hmm… appeal?
The Future Is Uncanny
It’s not like Valve won’t release Half-Life 3 because it lacks the budget, engine or staff. No one is asking it to push the medium forward once more, as it happened with Half-Life 2’s brilliant physics-based puzzles or the exciting and brand-new Gravity Gun. I just want another trip to a world that profoundly affected me, to reunite with old friends and enemies, and to continue a story that was cut short because Valve didn’t bother to release Episode 3. There was no closure.
This abrupt cliffhanger felt like a genuine cop-out, one that could tarnish the reputation of a studio for good. It’s been over a decade and the promised third episode is now an illusion. With Arkane Studios pumping out two fantastic Dishonored games during this interval, I’m starting to wonder if Valve’s staff isn’t being pushed around for lesser, potentially more profitable projects, such as Dota Underlords.
It is rumored that Valve has other games in development, something that isn’t surprising. There is so much untapped potential in the studio’s catalogue that it would be a crime not to take advantage of it. However, I’m guessing that the next big game is going to be a “borrowed” one: In the Valley of Gods, developed by Firewatch creators Campo Santo, now a Valve subsidiary since 2018. I’m utterly convinced that this will be a remarkable adventure, but it won’t be a tangible way to gauge Valve’s current expertise.
I have such an admiration for Valve’s previous efforts that I’m reluctant to watch it transform into a bland trend follower, failing to realize its own ideas because of too much reading into charts and figures. Valve made a name for itself when it didn’t care about what was hot, setting out to create the games that its staff wanted to play. Those days appear to be behind us. Right now, Valve seems to be on autopilot, pretty much in tune with its latest release, an auto-battler.
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