Enemy Territory: Quake Wars – now there was a fantastic team based shooter. Then came Brink, a Splash Damage game that never caught on and died a death very quickly. After Quake Wars I had high hopes for Brink, but it lacked the team-play magic that made their prior title so much fun; plus, it was a bit of a buggy mess. A real shame.
It’s now 2015, and for the past year or so Splash Damage have been developing their next shooter project: Dirty Bomb (formerly Extraction and before that, err, also Dirty Bomb.) This time, the game is said to have been designed with the PC gamer firmly in mind.
When Dirty Bomb was first announced Splash Damage sent out a call for crowd-funding via paid alpha and beta access, but eventually decided to partner with Nexon. At the end of last year, they made a move from Nexon’s own launcher and onto Steam. A very good move if they want this game to at least have a chance.
PC gamers who have enjoyed Splash Damage titles in the past will be familiar with Dirty Bomb’s mechanics and concept, because the developers are sticking to a similar formula that made Enemy Territory and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars so popular. Two teams, and a few maps featuring multiple objectives which need to be carried out by each opposing force. It’s playing it pretty safe. Perhaps a little too safe.
The game is set in a futuristic looking London and Splash Damage went to great pains last year to show how that they were incorporating real locations and landmarks. Dirty Bomb could arguably be set anywhere and it wouldn’t really matter; but I will say as a Scot that it’s great to hear some British accents in a game for once and they do help set the scene, even if some of the character comments are super clichéd.
Dirty Bomb features a class system, but instead of offering a stock medic, engineer, soldier or technician set-up, the class abilities are attached to pre-defined characters. Each of these unique mercenaries has their own stylised look; one that’s quite close to Brink’s vibrant designs. This is obviously a look and feel that Splash Damage wanted to carry over from their last game.
With abilities now tied to characters, however, it does makes things a little trickier when trying to put together a decent team.
In older Splash Damage games it was easy to identify which class each player had chosen, making it easy to select the right team combo at the start of each game. Seeing how many medics there were in your team (for example) was a simple matter, which was important if you wanted to give your team a fighting chance. In Dirty Bomb you have to know exactly what each character’s main ability does on the map start screen lobby to make sure the team has a combination that will work effectively together. It’s a little more convoluted and is nowhere near as effective when trying to get organised. The characters do become more familiar over time (especially as there are currently only 15,) but that roster will surely increase at some point since the game uses the ‘free to play’ business model.
Players can bring three characters into each match, and switch to one of those three before having to respawn after death. This is important as the objectives change as the team progresses through a level, and a character you started with may be useful to complete the first objective but be far less so once your team reaches the second. It’s essential to select three characters that can offer the correct support or attack skills to keep your team effective in a given mission. Of course not all players are willing (or capable) of playing their class, which can cause a frustrating imbalance.
Maps contain multiple objectives such as blowing a barricade with C4, escorting an EV, capturing a datacore (“Get the data brain!”) or destroying a terminal. One team will then try to stop the other team from achieving their objective. It’s a simple, tried and tested Splash Damage formula.
Based on previous games like Quake Wars, we know these types of objectives can be incredibly fun and rewarding but so far Dirty Bomb is failing to deliver the same excitement as the Enemy Territory games, and it’s a problem I’ve been trying to figure out for a few days.
I’m convinced It’s the level design. In the past, Splash Damage had the ability to create maps that are not only interesting but cater for all kinds of skill levels. For Dirty Bomb they seem to have ignored this and instead created maps that feel small, cramped and have quite a lot of choke points. What this does is create a pretty standard shooter experience where only the really skillful can truly succeed with their pinpoint aim which boosts their character XP quicker. Average players like myself feel they are contributing little; even though they may actually be playing a massive part in making the mission a success by carrying out objectives while the others are blasting each other to bits.
This never felt like too much of an issue in Quake Wars. Even if you weren’t brilliant you always had an important role to play. While support roles are present for the less skillful, whether it be dropping ammo or reviving team mate, they feel less meaningful here.
Another reason the game can feel a little less rewarding is that all characters can carry out all objective actions. Any character can plant C4 or repair a damaged EV, which places less importance on the character you choose and their abilities. Enemy Territory players might have expected engineers to be the only ones who can enact repairs, or soldiers to the ones who can plant C4. But that’s not the case. With anybody being able to do anything, there’s a lot less importance placed on character roles, which makes each match feel less of a team based experience.
The Dirty Bomb characters all look fantastic, but some of their abilities could do with some work. Bushwhack, for example, has the ability to drop small auto turrets but these are not as effective as they probably should be and can be easily destroyed. Abilities like ammo stations, healing stations and the aforementioned turrets are a lot less effective than, say, the engineer’s turrets in Quake Wars – which were often essential to helping your team succeed.
This is the main problem with some of the special abilities; they don’t play enough of a role, which in turn removes an element of strategy from a supposedly team-based game. It was these strategic elements which made previous Splash Damage games so fun to play. In Dirty Bomb, it sometimes feels as if they’re only there as a method to differentiate each character. This means there’s more of a focus on traditional, frantic gun play, placing the onus back on players who have terrific aim to help a team win.
Dirty Bomb will be free-to-play before it’s released. That term probably makes a lot of PC gamers immediately switch off, but this game at least doesn’t seem to be a pay-to-win affair. Splash Damage are employing a card system where players can select different loadouts from acquired (in-game) cards for each character. Each of these offer different character perks. Players are awarded crates after matches, with keys used to unlock them. Similar to the Valve system for Team Fortress 2. Of course, the nuances of this system could also change as development continues.
Having sunk hundreds of hours into Quake Wars, I know that Splash Damage can deliver a superb team based shooter. On the other hand there is Brink, which seemed conceptually sound and looked great but suffered from terrible post-launch support and was much slower paced. Dirty Bomb currently feels like a mix of both Brink and Enemy Territory, but if I compare the enjoyment I’ve had from Quake Wars over the years to the early alpha/beta months of Dirty Bomb, then so far it’s falling short.
Some Enemy Territory players probably hated vehicles in Quake Wars but an additional massive gripe for me is the lack of any vehicles in Dirty Bomb. I find it disheartening to see a developer shy away from vehicles when they were so successful at opening up different ways to approach levels in Quake Wars. Vehicles also really encouraged strong team-play. Why Splash Damage moved away from using them when they worked so well is a little perplexing; though may be tied to time or budgetary restraints.
Dirty Bomb’s closed beta has just finished, but there’s still further development to be done with additional maps and game modes to be added before release. Right now, fans of Enemy Territory who were hoping for a return of the classic will probably be a little disappointed; but those looking for another team-based shooter might just get a kick out of this when it releases.
It’s a great looking game, a rapid PC shooter, and there are certain elements carried over from the Enemy Territory series which should appeal (even if you aren’t familiar with those older games.) For now though I have concerns that perhaps this may not be different or compelling enough to maintain an audience, which is something Splash Damage will need if they’re to keep cash coming in.
Still, Splash Damage might just have something up their sleeves we don’t yet know about. The game’s beta has been fun, but maybe not quite as rewarding as I was hoping for when it was first announced. I’ll be keeping a close eye on Dirty Bomb as it heads towards launch.