I really enjoyed Enemy Territory back in the day. It blended the excellent teamwork gameplay of its predecessor, Return To Castle Wolfenstein, with match-specific XP progression similar to that found in modern MOBAs. Hell, I’ll even state on record that I liked Brink, which built upon ET’s foundation and added in parkour traversal. The problem with the latter was that it was an unbalanced mess at launch, and by the time developers Splash Damage fixed the flaws it was already too late. The player exodus had happened and they weren’t coming back.
Not deterred by Brink’s failure and eager to try again, Splash Damage have taken yet another stab at the team-based shooter genre with Dirty Bomb – a free-to-play title with obvious influences from both ET and Brink, yet not quite hitting the mark of either. The end result is something that is reactive, fast and certainly fun when played with friends, but it clearly needs some refining. The Open Beta tag might call for some leniency, but with it quite clearly being a ‘soft launch’ (as Splash Damage and publisher Nexon are now charging for microtransactions) it’s time to decide if Dirty Bomb is worth sticking around for.
The premise for the game is actually fairly shallow, taking place in a future post-apocalyptic London that has turned into a battleground. There’s no real context for why this is the case, or even why people are fighting in the urban wasteland. Regardless, players take control of various mercenaries as they take on the role of attackers and defenders in objective-based gameplay. That’s pretty much it, so if you want to know what actually happened to London, or why Skyhammer likes calling in airstrikes, you might want to readjust your expectations.
In fact, it’s quite clear from the first boot-up that Dirty Bomb really is about the team-based gameplay, not the narrative. The intro video the plays takes a tongue-in-cheek approach in orientating the player to the basics (even going as far as to say “Don’t be a d**k”, which is sound advice in general, really.) From there, the brief tutorial does a decent job of introducing the controls and interaction methods. It’s also here that the player is introduced to the squad mechanic, where three different mercs can be selected and then switched between when respawning. Ultimately though, players will learn by doing, finding the right mercs for their playstyle.
While each of the 12 available mercs has their own unique abilities, the four basic archetypes should be familiar to genre veterans – Assault for good all-round performance, Medic for healing duties, Support for ammo and heavy ordinance, and Objective Specialists who trade endurance for speed. Each one excels in a certain area whilst having defined weaknesses, but what is important is that everyone is capable of participating in important tasks. All players can revive downed teammates although the medic can do it instantly, and all players can interact with objectives although specialists can do it in a fraction of the time. It’s an approach I approve of, as it means the loss of one player doesn’t mean certain aspects are locked out until the next respawn wave – they’re just made harder to accomplish.
There are other tweaks to the standard formula that make the gameplay more interesting as well, such as run speed not only varying between mercs, but being affected by what type of weapon you’re holding (knives being the quickest way to travel.) Another example is the support stations, which provide area-of-effect assistance to teammates, that can be picked up and redeployed to avoid lengthy recharge times for that ability. Perhaps my favourite tweak is the cumulative interaction on objectives, meaning being interrupted during a defuse or repair doesn’t reset the progress. It provides more tension for attackers and defenders alike, raising the stakes the next time both teams clash at an objective.
It helps that the gameplay is quite solid, if a little standard. Movement is fast and responsive, with the ability to do a slight wall jump allowing players to pull off interesting manoeuvres in the heat of battle. That said, it doesn’t do much more to separate itself from the pack, and actually feels like a downgrade from the excellent traversal system that was used in Brink. As for the weaponry, the various guns feel responsive and fulfil their roles, with single-shot rifles offering slow but strong stopping power, while pistols (with the exception of the ridiculously satisfying revolver) are quick and light back-up weapons. If there is an inconsistency from what I’ve played, it’s Aura’s default shotgun. At the time of writing its effective range is unbalanced, being able to hit targets fairly accurately at unrealistic distances, and I hope that Splash Damage tweak it in the next patch (and that’s coming from someone who regularly plays as Aura.)
Another balance observation I have noticed is the spamming of airstrikes, which a defending team can effectively hide behind if they are smart enough in how they play. Why the developers didn’t implement team-wide diminishing returns to discourage air strike spamming and allow for more interesting gameplay is puzzling. Additionally, Aura’s Healing Station is certainly overpowered, making a team with two Auras hard to take down, despite the stations being destructible. It’s a shame because other these examples the abilities come across as well balanced.
The Open Beta currently contains two game modes – Objective and Stopwatch – and four maps to play them on – Chapel, Trainyard, Terminal, and Bridge. Visually, the mix of familiar London landmarks mixed with a spattering of sci-fi is fun in a way, but it isn’t as effective as you might expect. Then again it’s not necessarily about the backdrop, but how the levels are built. It’s disappointing then that, as it stands, only half of the maps feel properly balanced for both attackers and defenders. The maps that feature the EV transport ultimately make it feel like whichever (competent) team arrives at the objective first wins, with the levels not providing enough points of entry to retaliate.
But all of these issues are nothing compared to my biggest complaint – the progression and unlock systems. Before I dive into this, let me state that the XP gain system is well thought out, rewarding players for actually playing as a team. In particular, Support classes get extra XP for throwing med/ammo packs directly at players, which I found an excellent way of encouraging players to play their role instead of going full-on Rambo. No, my issue is more to do with progression outside of matches.
Let’s begin with the MOBA-style rotation of free characters. With Skyhammer and Aura being the only characters permanently free, it means that player must either go with the flow and hope the mercs that match their playstyle are among the three made available that week, or purchase them using either in-game currency called credits or paying with actual money. However, with credits taking a fair while to earn the 50,000 necessary to buy a new character, it requires a serious investment of time with the alternative being a £6.99 purchase. Admittedly, there are ways to gain credits faster, such as the missions that are refreshed every few hours or the purchasable boosters, but let’s put it this way – I only managed to earn around 35k credits by the time I had hit rank 5 which, as I’ll soon explain, isn’t enough to be ready for the ranked competitive play that unlocks at that point.
The grind to unlock additional mercs wouldn’t be so bad were it not the same process for Loadout Cards, which provide new weapons and perks for specific mercs. These are attained in two ways – equipment cases, which much like Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer will randomly assign rewards, or you can buy specific ones directly from the store for cash or credits. Thankfully, anything above the Bronze tier is purely cosmetic, coming off as bragging rights for those who are lucky enough to get one (or happen to purchase them through the store.) However, the issue here is that you can’t mix and match the abilities and weapons on these cards, or even guarantee that you’ll even get the merc you want. You can trade three of them for a random next tier card for specific merc, which is a welcome way of getting rid of spare cards, but again the perks and weapons are random.
So, with a fully-loaded Bronze card costing 17,500 credits, combined with how the cases and upgrades are utterly random, it’s as if the system is actively encouraging you to spend money instead of encouraging you to have fun. To me, that isn’t right for a game that wants to encourage competitive play. Charging for cosmetic choices is fine to a point, and I can even just about accept charging to unlock extras mercs to play as, but asking players to play for tens of hours to only make a bit of progress towards a new character and loadout cards, or pay to avoid the grind, is not the way to do it. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were one or the other, or if we could build our own loadouts, but both things together push it too far. Additionally, certain Mercs are fairly big game-changers, such as Kira with her directional orbital strike and Arty being an amazing objective specialist, making certain unlocks more necessary than others.
What I’m trying to say is that if there was a fair price to unlock everything – effectively ‘buying the game’ – I’d probably do it.
What winds me up most of all is that if you remove all of the monetisation out of the way you actually have a fun and frantic team-based shooter. Even venturing onto servers on my own wasn’t as catastrophic as I thought it might be thanks to the server browser, which is a helpful and informative tool. While it’s a shame that players can’t join up here to jump on the same server together, that functionality is available in the ranked Competitive mode, although I will admit that I haven’t yet tried it. Once I have, I’ll be sure to update.
Despite the balancing issues that are there at present, I was able to enjoy myself even when I was losing, but that enjoyment is deflated every time I look at my progress on the main menu. Ultimately, I’m torn – the essence of what made Enemy Territory and Brink fun is there without fully realising it, while the potential for it to be a strong competitive shooter is overshadowed by its unlock system. It certainly does play better than a few of its competitors, and it’s good to know that there are new mercs, maps and gamemodes on the way, but its sense of personality isn’t strong enough to stand out, relying more on its gameplay than anything else.
There is another issue as well – there are other heavyweight newcomers on the horizon (such as a certain Blizzard title.) Whether Dirty Bomb will be still standing in the face of such fierce competition is uncertain, and that’s not a promising sign at this stage.
- XP system rewards players who play their role effectively and stay on objective.
- Fantastic tweaks to established mechanics that allow more fluid gameplay
- Solid gunplay and objectives that are capable of challenging gamers…
- … but there’s still some guns (and maps) to rebalance before it is perfect.
- While the gameplay is fun, it doesn’t do much else to differentiate from other team-based shooters.
- Game encourages spending to avoid random rewards and excessive grind.
The Short Version:
Dirty Bomb is fun, fast, and frantic when the fight gets going, and you can see the pedigree from Splash Damage’s previous titles there, but it’s quite clear from the Open Beta tag that there is still plenty of work to be done. Once the balancing had been fixed it could be a great team-based shooter, but its monetisation and unlock system will no doubt rub a lot of players to wrong way. That said, it’s free and a fairly small download, so it’s certainly worth a look, but time is running out to get things right with new competitors almost ready to steal the spotlight.