Hands-On: A Few Hours With Dirty Bomb

Rhino, right, can hold off a team single-handed once his Gatling gun spins up, but you can always get Arty, left, to drop an airstrike on him. Assuming Proxy, centre, doesn't slap a remotely detonated bomb on his caboodle.

I managed to get hopelessly lost on my way to last week’s Dirty Bomb [Steam page] event, squirrelled away in the trendy thicket of London’s Old Truman Brewery. Annoying? Yes. Fitting? Absolutely. Splash Damage has a multitude of demons to slay with its latest spin on Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory – the ever-controversial choice of a free-to-play model, the spectre of Brink, its previous stab at a new IP – but the most fearsome of these demons is surely London itself. London, a city that’s actually a bunch of medieval villages mashed into each other, where roads designed for horses struggle to find room for buses and Range Rovers. London, a metropolis blown half to bits during World War 2, then mutated into absurd, glittering shapes by overseas investors. London, where heading a mile downriver feels like setting foot on a different planet.

You couldn’t ask for a less elegant setting for a multiplayer FPS in the Team Fortress vein, where a single sightline askew can be the difference between enjoyment and fury, but the studio has done a bang-up job. In fact, one of this formidable, comfortable shooter’s greatest strengths is how it chisels readable warrens of coverspots, overlooks and chokepoints out of the capital’s beguiling weirdness. London is everywhere in Dirty Bomb, from its red letterboxes to the graceful arches of Waterloo Station, but unlike the reality, it’s seldom inconvenient. It never gets in your way.

Grenades aren't standard issue, so Fragger has the edge in a fight from cover. Unless he's grandstanding in front of one of Bushwhacker's turrets.

The maps aren’t modelled directly on areas from the city but flavoured by them, often to lovely effect. Leaping a tank barrier on the Bridge map, you’ll spend a half-second admiring the pale green ironwork of London Bridge Market before making a run on the crippled extraction vehicle languishing in the other side’s clutches. Having secured and repaired the prize, you’ll peek over its carapace at the misty summit of the Shard as the beast inches towards your next objective through a bombardment of grenades. Though dinky, the environments are packed with routes and vantage points, some of which hinge on skilled use of the game’s wall-jump (characters in Dirty Bomb are as agile as those of Brink, but the parkour stuff is there to discover rather than being thrust on you). For a footsore Londoner, stumbling on these inspires a special kind of satisfaction, like realising that you can just walk between two tube stations rather than diving into the smelly commuter soup that bubbles beneath the city’s tarmac.

Dirty Bomb is set a mere five years from now, in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, with London empty of life save for the odd, mysteriously radiation-proof pigeon and bands of mercenaries with exhilarating names like “Fragger”, who duke it out over bags of pharmaceutical specimens and personal data. Another of the game’s strengths is how easily and naturally you work out what the mercenary classes do. Each is built around a couple of weapons and one or two special abilities, adding up to a style that can be guessed at from the character’s name alone. You probably don’t need me to tell you, for example, that Skyhammer is your best friend when dealing with close-knit groups in the open, or that Rhino can hold a chokepoint pretty much by himself, providing somebody watches the flanks.

Escorting the Extraction Vehicle is the middle objective when playing Stopwatch on the Bridge map. It comes with a manually operated turret, but is easy to disable. Defending teams can also activate a tank trap to hold it in place while the clock runs down.

There are 12 classes of Merc at the time of writing, two freely available (along with all of the modes and maps) as part of the base download each week – the rest are bought with either real cash or in-game credits. You can also buy or unlock Equipment Cases that may contain rarer loadout cards for each Merc – the same core kit plus a buff or two such as a faster cooldown for certain abilities. On the basis of a few hours’ play the monetisation seems inoffensive, with nothing to indicate that having the best Loadout cards will win a match all by itself. “The move to free-to-play – that was actually the first thing we decided on the project, funnily enough,” executive producer Steve Gaffney told me. “It’s not like we chose to make an online game, put it in a box and sell it, then changed our minds. From the outset we wanted this game to be free.” Those who’d rather fork out as in days of yore can avail themselves of the $20 Merc Starter Pack, which piles 35,000 credits and five Mercs on top of the free offerings.

Team-dependent shooters can be stodgy, obstinate things, refusing to entertain till you’ve sunk a few hours into mastering and accessorising a class. Dirty Bomb, by contrast, has the punchy immediacy of a card game. You can field three Mercs per match, flipping between them when you die to suit the situation at hand. Given that a round of flagship mode Stopwatch will see you fighting over three sets of objectives against the clock – for example: capturing an Extraction Vehicle, escorting it to a bridge where it can blow up laboratory door, then nicking off with the lab’s contents – it’s important to pick Mercs with the particulars of a layout in mind, rather than a generic hand of assault-healer-support. There’s a world of clear light between a medic like Aura and a medic like Phoenix, in terms of the geography they’re best applied to: the former’s a defender without equal thanks to her deployable health station, while the latter can revive himself when the enemy’s back is turned, which means he shines as an infiltrator.

That'd be the Coca Cola London Eye in the background there. Previously known as the EDF Energy London Eye, the Merlin Entertainments London Eye, the British Airways London Eye and Dr Tony Blair's PFI Portal of Manifest Destiny. Sadly you don't get to blow it up.

Many of the game’s ingredients recall Brink – there’s the odd shortcut that must be unlocked by interacting with a secondary objective, the same fondness for storified graffiti, and the same Half-Lifey angularity to the near-future props scattered across the cobbled streets. This obviously warrants a measure of caution, especially as regards things like network performance. But then again, Brink was a severely over-stretched project, a new IP and approach to team-based shooting, created for consoles and PC by what was initially a team of 20 using an untried engine. It was also, perhaps, the right game at the wrong time: many of its more intriguing ideas, such as that of a multiplayer campaign, have found their way into other titles. “I think we did a lot of things right in Brink,” Gaffney reflects. “There were a lot of things that we could have done better, but the original concept was very close to what Destiny and Titanfall were, and it’s incredibly interesting to see those games do well now. We’re proud that we were able to do something unique.”

While retaining much of its predecessor’s hectic energy in terms of character and environment art, Dirty Bomb is a cleaner and more considered shooter. It has been playable in alpha and beta for the best part of two years, and makes use of Splash Damage’s proprietary Echo player analytics system – cue extensive, community-led tweaks to the maps, weapons and online infrastructure, and a sense of hard-won confidence, heading into public release. “Game design can be like moving atoms around,” Gaffney adds. “I’d say it’s definitely been that way with this.”

Dirty Bomb is due for release in June and playable now in beta. I played this at a London event hosted by Splash Damage and Nexon. Food and drink were provided.

22 Comments

  1. Chuckleluck says:

    Looks exciting, although I’m a bit wary seeing as this is being developed by Nexon. Remember that awful Counter Strike/zombie game they put out last year?

    • Vin_Howard says:

      Yah, I’ve had a fair amount of experience with Nexon and their games. Basically, they’re the f2p Korean version of EA :/

      On the plus side, at least it will be f2p; so you don’t have to worry about paying $60 + $60 dlc for a game that either doesn’t work and/or is a reskin

    • killmachine says:

      it’s developed by splash damage and published by nexon.

      • loldrums says:

        This… which, tbh, makes me even more apprehensive.

        • rusty5pork says:

          I’m still mad about how they killed Dungeon Fighter Online. (It’s back, though!)

      • aldo_14 says:

        I have hope they can replicate Wolfenstein:ET, but of the most cautious sort.

        • TheRealHankHill says:

          It’s a lot smaller scale than quake wars or ET, but the game style is similar. It really does taste of quake wars, Brink, TF2, and ET in the best way.

  2. b0rsuk says:

    The preview reads like written by a pod person. Spend several hours playing a game, and you don’t even know if you like it ? Is someone holding you hostage and there’s a hidden code with a cry for help ? Is it well-made ? How does it play ?

    • April March says:

      Man, there are games that I have like twenty hours played and I’m not sure I like or just have Stockholm syndrome, and I didn’t even have to go to London to play those.

    • jaytee00 says:

      You mean, “this preview reads like a preview”. He’s only played the unfinished game a little in the artificial environment of a review event.

  3. Rizlar says:

    Since they have fixed the bug that caused my character to constantly point directly up into the sky, I may be playing it this weekend!

  4. EhexT says:

    “You can also buy or unlock Equipment Cases that may contain rarer loadout cards for each Merc – the same core kit plus a buff or two such as a faster cooldown for certain abilities. On the basis of a few hours’ play the monetisation seems inoffensive, with nothing to indicate that having the best Loadout cards will win a match all by itself.”

    And the game’s dead. That is the definition of a bad F2P system. Genuine in-game power for real money. It doesn’t matter a bit if the power is a few percent, it’s different in-game power for non-payers (and new players) and paying players.

    • killmachine says:

      you get those cards simply by playing the game as well. i am in the beta for a long time, long before they added the character system. to me their system is more like a moba. they sell different characters and those can have different loadout cards that change little things within these characters. i haven’t seen anything pay2win yet. it’s a well balanced shooter. probably one of the best balanced shooters out there. as you can read in the article, they have used an extensive monitoring tool to balance the game. that doesn’t end with damage and reload times. they adjusted the ammo per clip, changed the maps based on “heat maps” and a lot more.

    • Evil Pancakes says:

      No it’s not. Those cases can’t even be bought with real money at the moment, only with in game credits. And credits can’t be bought as of right now, so the only way to get those cases is to play the game. Furthermore, the cases are super cheap. Playing 2-3 matches will net you enough credits to buy one, plus any that you may randomly be awarded(hell, if you’re lucky and get a daily mission in one match you can earn it in just one). I guess technically you can buy credits by buying the merc starter pack, but no one is likely to buy that in order to get the extra 35000 credits it comes with.
      I had my doubts the past week because the credits awarded by general play seemed just too little for it not to become an incredible grind in order to unlock other mercs without spending money. Today though they adjusted the match awards and i feel that issue is significantly less of one.

      • BigMistake says:

        I guess technically you can buy credits by buying the merc starter pack, but no one is likely to buy that in order to get the extra 35000 credits it comes with.

        Because in F2P games no one ever shells out large amounts to get ahead of other players. Right. I didn’t play yesterday so I don’t know how much better the payout was but that sounds good. I completely dominated an objective match, 5 or 6 medals, etc, and didn’t even get 1k credits.

        • Evil Pancakes says:

          I suppose you have a point, but then still the payout of those cases is completely random. I think I bought nearly 30 by now and never got anything higher than an iron rank card (ranks are: default-lead-iron-copper-silver-gold, for anyone unfamiliar) although you can then use the masses of cards to upgrade them slowly for better ones.
          But besides that, is it even possible to buy the mercenary pack multiple times for yourself? It’s classified as dlc on steam, if you buy it a second time I don’t think you can add it to your account.

  5. DailyFrankPeter says:

    Having spent a few hours myself, I would risk saying that it IS worth the 20EUR even now, especially if you compare it to the 59 EUR (am I reading this correctly?!) EA wants for Hardline.
    Dirty Bomb as it is 100% stable (you get an occasional error popup on matchmaking but never in the game), the game modes are fully functional. The biggest problem I saw was the high skill threshold as most of the playerbase at the moment are experienced beta testers.

  6. Orageon says:

    Watching this one closely, as a old fan of Splash damage’s objective-based multiplayer FPS games (from Wolf:ET, to ETQW, Brink.. which I still enjoyed a good bunch despite some frustrations).

    Worried too about the tuning of the F2P, but I don’t expect to have all the good stuff for free : no one should. Nor do I expect/hope it to be a money grabbing mechanism with pay2win options. Also grinding a bit is ok to me is playing is actually enjoyable, but paying for new mercs once I have explored most of the gameplay options with the free ones seems to be a good point for me.
    I’d like that the average spending on the pay content would match the standard retail price for a game.

    Anyway, nice to read, can’t wait to try, etc.

    • TheRealHankHill says:

      All the things I don’t like about it will probably be changed by the time it’s fully released anyways. In terms of F2P it plays like a Moba would, gives you a few cards for mercs, no one merc is too terribly op. Where the main problem lies is people death matching instead of playing the objective. Unless your team coordinates or AT LEAST all plays the objective, you can be assured you will lose. This is why CSGO comp is a great thing, you don’t join a comp match to dick around. Maybe they’ll have something similar. I still miss Brink though, RIP :(

  7. OmNomNom says:

    Just played a few hours.. .it’s not BAD but it really doesn’t have any depth as a game and the novelty wears of quite quick. I wouldn’t bother with this unless you plan to play casually and really like Team Fortress style games. (although even TF2 has more depth than this)

  8. El_Emmental says:

    “You can field three Mercs per match, flipping between them when you die to suit the situation at hand.”

    Oh god Splash Damage, not again please. The whole freaking Brink forums was filled, literally filled with threads about the limitation to 2 classes per character and how it plainly killed teamwork. Splash Damage truly never learns.

    “…it’s important to pick Mercs with the particulars of a layout in mind, rather than a generic hand of assault-healer-support. There’s a world of clear light between a medic like Aura and a medic like Phoenix, in terms of the geography they’re best applied to: the former’s a defender without equal thanks to her deployable health station, while the latter can revive himself when the enemy’s back is turned, which means he shines as an infiltrator.”

    Plot twist: a map, with its several stages and choke points, requires these two types of Medic. Roll the dice! If your team doesn’t have at least 1 experienced player with each type of Medic, you’ll hit a wall and nothing you’ll do will fix this. You can be the MVP of the server, making 5 to 10 kills per life, reviving 5 times more teammates than anyone else, a teamplay wall is a titanium wall.

    “Many of the game’s ingredients recall Brink – there’s the odd shortcut that must be unlocked by interacting with a secondary objective,”
    3 classes per player. 12 classes in the game. Odds of ending up with a team lacking a competent player with the right class for the vital secondary objectives: extremely high.

    “and makes use of Splash Damage’s proprietary Echo player analytics system – cue extensive, community-led tweaks to the maps, weapons and online infrastructure, and a sense of hard-won confidence, heading into public release. “Game design can be like moving atoms around,” Gaffney adds. “I’d say it’s definitely been that way with this.”

    Wow. I’m sorry for my language but I’ve only got one word for this: bollocks. Or alternatively, poppycock. SD devs never played on public servers, never checked their forums, blogs or email inbox, never fixed or tweaked maps, weapons or abilities. Moving atoms? Brink was at – 273.15 °C from start to finish.

    Realizing how bad they screwed up, they shut themselves even more from the playerbase and decided to rely on automated performance indicators? What a brilliant idea. We all know how that works out so well in the other sectors: screw causation, correlation is where it’s at. Oh lawd.

    Rather than finding out people are stuck at a choke point because there isn’t enough Medics, or because the lack of ammo supply makes people much less likely to suppress the enemy (stalling the attack), or because the players who would provide ammo/health are busy being Medic/Supply (and can’t be two classes simultaneously), or maybe a combination of all that, their tool will only show that “60% of time the attacking team is stuck at this point, the other 40% the attackers clear it seamlessly”.

    Let’s send that to the level designers, right? It’s a map problem: the problem only shows up at that choke point. So they add two bushes and a ramp, stats go to 50% steamrolling, 50% stuck until map change, and voila choke point fixed.

    Fixing the core of the game design once it’s played by actual people and not QA people doing that as their job 8 hours a day? Nah, that’s not necessary, people just need to “get” the design. And we totally tested it with players during the “Beta” [read: veterans from notorious Wolf:ET/ET:QW clans, the 1% of players using private voice comm, holding practice sessions every week and with more than 500 hours under their belt]. See? We are close to their community, we’re totally understanding what’s going on.

    Bunch of bollocks. I’ll believe Splash Damage left their Arkoral [Founders’] Tower when I’ll see it. So far it’s an incredible disappointment, and the complete flop of the new project (Dirty Bomb) proves it. Errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum.

    Get your shit together Splash Damage, get in the trenches for once.

    • Prematureeradicator says:

      Have you actually played the game yet? If you haven’t, I’d urge you to give it a chance on release, every single character can find a way to be useful in completing any objective so three characters is two more than necessary for team-play or anything else. Also the secondary objectives really are optional – some help more than others but anyone can complete them. High-level competitive play could be an entirely different story, but that can’t exist yet, it’s in beta. Essentially the game’s fun and all of your concerns are so far unfounded.