Greek Letters: Dirty Bomb Closed Beta

There’s a few classes of free-to-play first person shooter. There’s the old and the ugly, usually trying to ape Counter-Strike in some way… your BlackShots and Sudden Attacks. Above that there are the high production value splashes of yesteryear, your A.V.A.’s and Genesis A.D.’s (rest in peace).

Nowadays with things like Warface and Blacklight Retribution being free and making that whole Korean age look so quaint, there’s a whole new tier. Based on my time with the Dirty Bomb closed beta, I’m willing to bet that it will come to define that tier.

Dirty Bomb is the next FPS from MMO publisher Nexon, publishers of Combat Arms, one of the most popular free-to-play first person shooters to date. When you hear “Combat Arms”, you may think of a few things… but “polished” and “still fun in 2015” probably aren’t among them. I played it a month or two ago and it’s as stiff, disjointed and unchanging as it ever was. Dirty Bomb is a modern game in every sense of the word.

The C4 planting animation is full of creepy finger flourishes.
The C4 planting animation is full of creepy finger flourishes.

It’s a primarily, and possibly exclusively, objective-oriented game. If there were traditional deathmatch modes, I didn’t see them – the only mode available in the closed beta was literally ‘Objective’. It seemed like there were two maps, a trainyard and a sampling of London tunnels. Each map had its own objectives for one team to accomplish and the other to prevent but consistently these objectives boiled down to defending a structure, usually from the other team planting and detonating C4 on it.

All the caveats that can be expected from a purely team-based game are present. ‘E-sports veterans’ and various other faultless angels were common in the voice chat, but I never felt like it was anyone’s fault but my own for letting them down. Objective markers are easy to see and updates on what’s going on are easy to notice (some of the announcer callouts on Trainyard were getting pretty fucking annoying, actually).

When you die you get holographic displays of you, your killer, and the bullet that did it.
When you die you get holographic displays of you, your killer, and the bullet that did it.

Emergent team play was less present as communication between teammates is ultimately the traditional mix of text and voice chat. I would have actually preferred it to take some influence from Halo 5 here and include helpful bits of automated dialogue between players to smooth out the feeling of spawning and crashing into a wall. This would even be a nice thing to implement in the Casual playlist, as they do have that separated from the Competitive side.

The blooms of blood when you're shot are very pretty!
The blooms of blood when you’re shot are very pretty!

At the beginning of each game players choose three characters to bring with them into the match and once there, they can switch between them at every spawn TF2-style. Each character has a different name, personality, and special ability. The main character, Skyhammer, is a typical assault rifle class with the ability to call in an airstrike, and Aura is a shotgun-wielding healer who can plant down an AOE healing station and use a defibrillator to instantly revive downed teammates. None of the classes struck me as necessarily overpowered and when I found a nice groove of synergy between my teammates, we were able to smoothly ride the groove to a victory.

One of the very first things I noticed about Dirty Bomb, and one of the most prominent things on my mind throughout, was the way it felt. Nexon’s latest game feels unlike any other free FPS on the “market”. It combines the excessive gun wobbling of a $60 shooter with the slick, unobstructed feeling of sliding across the ground you can find in Team Fortress 2 or really any game pre-2005. It has that undefinable production value nice gun animations can provide that free shooters too often neglect, but without the weighty, sluggish movement of more premium games.

Dirty Bomb’s art style really reminds me quite a bit of Brink, but that may just be because of its setting in a disaster-ridden yet still inhabitable-looking city environments. Its aesthetic is very pleasant to look at, and performance-wise, I was able to get a solid 60 frames per second on even my subpar PC. I had to adjust it to its ‘Low’ preset, but I still thought it looked like a cut above the average free-to-play shooter, even in today’s landscape.

There's a nice little drop-down menu showing you your progress on objectives.
There’s a nice little drop-down menu showing you your progress on objectives.

Menus, another place where free shooters often falter, are very slick in Dirty Bomb. Though there were some menus I couldn’t get out of for whatever reason without resorting to going back to the home page I’d chalk those up to “it’s a beta”, because the rest of the presentation is very well thought out. It’s not nearly as cluttered as most other interfaces of this type, and keeps the number of screens at a minimum so everything you need is usually less than two clicks away.

Nearly everything about Dirty Bomb screams polish. Even playing only five or six games during a two-day closed beta, I think this game feels like something that could get away with trying to squeak by at $15. I think that Dirty Bomb has great potential to be one of the premier free-to-play first-person shooters, and if not that, then great potential to be an awesome game.

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