I’ve had the opportunity to observe Dirty Bomb’s development from the very first alpha, and in that time the game has gone through quite a few changes. At the start of 2015 the game launched on Steam, which was an extremely wise move because Nexon’s own launcher was a right pain in the backside to use. Plus, let’s face it, it’s near essential for PC-only titles to be on Valve’s service, whether they like it or not.
Dirty Bomb is now open beta, and while we don’t make a habit of reviewing games in a beta state here at PC Invasion, we have been informed that this beta will be the same as the final release version. As such, we can post our verdict. How nice.
Shooter fans will know developers Splash Damage from classics such as Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and my favourite all-time shooter Quake Wars: Enemy Territory. That gives them quite some pedigree (especially in my eyes,) but it’s only fair to mention the rather more disastrous mark on their record: Brink. I actually didn’t mind Brink too much, but the gameplay, speed, and controls were ‘consolised’ in the worst possible sense of that word, hampering the game’s full potential. The title didn’t last long. Players abandoned it in their droves extremely quickly.
With Brink being the most recent PC shooter from Splash Damage I’ll admit that I didn’t hold out much hope for Dirty Bomb. Splash Damage appeared to have lost their way, along with the magic which made games like Quake Wars such excellent squad based shooters.
Unlike previous titles from Splash Damage, Dirty Bomb is free to play. That means it’ll cost you nothing to get started, but as with every free to play game the developer has to make cash somehow. In Dirty Bomb’s case that means paying for more characters, and items such as Loadout cards, which I’ll get to in the course of the review.
From the start there are three characters available, with more being unlocked when you spend some cash or earn game credits by playing. When I say playing I do of course mean ‘giving up your day job and just playing this instead.’ Characters can cost up to £7.99 apiece, so if you want the whole roster it will set you back quite a few pennies with the additional 9 available for purchase. Play reasonably well in a match and you’ll probably earn about 170ish credits on average per game. Games vary in time, but can last quarter of an hour. To buy a character with credits, you need 50,000. That’s an awful lot of play. About 55-60 hours, based on those numbers.
Dirty Bomb is purely multiplayer. Aside from the short training mission at the start of the game, there’s no single player aspect. Disappointingly, there are no bot matches either; so if you’re new to the game then it’s going to be harder to learn the maps and get to grips with some of the more challenging movement mechanics. You can wall jump, crouch jump and long jump, but these are not easy to execute, and it’s probably wise to revisit the key configs to map the keys a little better until it becomes second nature. Spend too much time trying to practice and perfect these jump in real games, and you’ll just be picked off.
The premise in Dirty Bomb is simple. Two teams go head to head to complete multiple objectives. One team carries out the objective, the other tries to stop them. This type of gameplay is what you’d expect from Splash Damage, all their previous shooters have followed the same premise. It’s not original, but when done well it’s extremely entertaining and history tells us that Splash Damage are more than capable of pulling it off.
Each mission has multiple objectives, one minute you’ll need to repair and escort an EV (a tank like vehicle), then, once that’s complete, you may need to set charges or carry an item to the objective. The EV also comes with a mounted gun, but it’s almost completely pointless because you make for a prime target with your head sticking out the top. It’s nothing like the MCV in Quake Wars where you were well protected from enemy fire. Actually, I’m not sure why they even added the turret to the EV other than to confuse or trap new players.
Currently the game only features a handful maps. I’ve so far experienced five in this open beta, and some maps that were playable in the closed alpha have not made an appearance. Ones like Dome are not available, which is a shame because it was one of the more open maps and it made the gameplay a little more interesting. Whether it will eventually re-enter the map roster remains to be seen.
The included maps are quite well designed, but some, such as Bridge, have really annoying choke points. If other members of your team decide to treat the game like a fragathon instead of the intended team game then there’s little chance of success. The tightness of the maps tends to favour those with superb aim; which is, perhaps, Splash Damage’s cunning way of forcing average players (like, I admit, me) to concentrate on objectives instead.
Getting constantly shot to pieces can be somewhat frustrating, but it’s nothing compared to watching players who are still having a hard time understanding what Dirty Bomb is actually about. I’ve spent hours screaming at the screen, watching my team run about shooting each other like headless chickens, as they completely ignore the objectives to win the match. It’s become slightly less of a problem as the open beta has progressed, but it’s still very much in evidence. The longer it remains, the more likely it is that better players (and people bored of just shooting each other) down their mice and move on to something else.
That’s a real problem for Dirty Bomb. It’s not that the game is lacking excitement, but how your other team members play is crucial. While this is always something of an issue in games that rely on team-play to win, the problem appears to be more prevalent here. This could be because of the maps, the choke points, and the fact that the action is really fast (tacitly encouraging everybody to treat it like regular deathmatch.) There may also be something to the fact that everyone is playing as an individual “character,” subconsciously nudging players towards more of a lone wolf type role.
If you want to play a little more strategically, Dirty Bomb won’t really help you out. There are very few places on maps to hide a sneaky gun turret or shoot from distance with a sniper rifle. Not a problem if you just like blasting everything at a billion miles per hour with lightning reflexes, but it means the game is specifically failing some of the classes they’ve provided.
Objectives are important, and the “dicks” (as Splash Damage quite literally warns people not to be in the loading screens) need to pay attention. I died 28 times in one match, and only had two kills; but still came out second on the leaderboard because I actually carried out the objectives to help win the match. That demonstrates how little the dreaded ‘kill death ratio’ should matter in this title. For Dirty Bomb to really succeed, the majority of players need to start thinking (or be further guided towards thinking) about the game objectives, and not just how many kills they have at the end.
Playing well is already incentivised, because it reaps rewards. These come in the form of cases containing “Loadout” cards for each of the game’s 15 characters. Said cards slightly change the characteristics of each of the fifteen characters, and also provide passive abilities such as more health on specific objects like turrets, better cooldowns, or even an extra jump step. How useful each one is depends on your play style, and not all cards rolled will be for a character you own. Cards that are not used can be traded up for others of a higher value that are of use to characters in your roster but you need to collect and play a lot to do this. Loadout cards are unsurprisingly available for purchase for 1000 game credits, or through the purchase of an “Elite case” for £3.99. Yep, it’s free to play so you know there’s going to be a shop lurking in that menu system.
I decided to purchase ten cases with credits to see what would be randomly generated and out of ten cards I received six cards of Lead value, three of Iron and one of Bronze. There are a further three levels above bronze which makes for a lot of collecting or buying.
All the purchasable versions of the items such as credit boosters, cards and Loadout packs feel overpriced. A Loadout Pack for one character alone will cost a whopping £15.99 which is the full price of some indie games. Considering the Loadout cards are going to add some small ability enhancements and statistial perks it all seems a bit pointless and costly. Would you really keep playing Dirty Bomb rotating through the same few maps just to earn cards? I would hope not.
The characters are varied, and they all follow quite typical shooter stereotypes. The engineer, the medic, the heavy, you get the picture. There are few twists such as Arty, who can call in artillery fire, or Kira who can call down a guidable laser from the sky. All the characters look brilliant, which is no huge surprise considering how good the game looks overall, and the audio is spot-on with quirky character comments that managed not to annoy me.
Each of the fifteen characters currently in the game are selected at the start of each match, and up to three can be taken into a match from the player’s roster (two of the twelve characters are also in constant free random rotation). Each time a player dies they can switch to any of the three they started the match with. This works well because it means a team can adapt to the changing objectives (if they’re actually pursuing them) as the mission progresses. The UI at the start of the match isn’t brilliant though, and it’s hard to spot who’s playing what so you can determine quickly if there’s a specific class of character that would be useful to the whole team for the specific mission. In fact, all of the menus are a bit annoying to some degree.
To be frank, this has been a really hard game to review. Splash Damage have been creating this type of game for such a long time now that it feels like a missed opportunity to create something super special. Instead, it’s a bit of an Enemy Territory/Brink rehash with some of the better bits missing. It’s also free to play, complete with the ‘buy this!’ on everything you might want. Though there’s no doubting that it brings in players, it is still disappointing to see Splash Damage go the F2P route with Dirty Bomb. A one-off purchase option with everything included (even if it was just an option in the wider free to play model) would have felt so much better.
If Dirty Bomb was a complete Quake Wars: ET style reboot it would probably be brilliant. Larger maps to cater for all skill levels, vehicles for some variety, and defined classes where everyone is on an equal playing field without having to mess about with tweaks via Loadout cards. That may sound a little dull for FPS players raised on fancy class systems, but it’s a tried and tested formula that’s worked to great effect for Splash Damage before.
Dirty Bomb is a solid shooter, but it’s not much more than that. The free to play shooter market has seen many titles come and go in the past few years and though the zero cost entry always guarantees a player-base, it tends to take something truly remarkable to hold that audience. That’s the Catch-22. The game’s success won’t be completely determined by the gameplay and new content additions. Players have to make it work too.
Sadly, I doubt this will happen. The small maps have made the gameplay feel extremely repetitive; so much so, that after two weeks of playing it every night for a couple of hours I have become rather bored by it. And that’s coming from someone who actually backed the game when Splash Damage were crowdfunding it prior to securing a publisher.
Whether there’s enough variety in Dirty Bomb to keep players engaged for the next twelve months is looking doubtful; but it is free, so there’s at least very little harm in giving it a go.