Frankly, to classify Nuclear Dawn without going “it’s a bit like X” would take a paragraph. Instead, I'm going to propose a simple classification system, to do away with the frankly amazing bollocks that are the arbitrary genres we impose now, in favour of a more rational, long-winded bollocks. On the basis of my revolutionary & hubristic system, Nuclear Dawn is as follows:
That's a Science-Fiction multiplayer game that can be played as either an RTS or an FPS but not both. Y’see? Rational. Never again will we argue whether Just Dance is in the same category as Zumba Fitness; we will just have to cross-reference each one in the twelve-volume explanatory exegesis I'll be selling at a very reasonable price. I firmly believe this is the greatest advance in the rational science of video game classification since the Huey, Louey and Dewey Decimation System used in Duck Hunt.
Anyway, Nuclear Dawn. It's very similar to the old Savage series (FA*MP*((TD*ST)xor(FP*SH))) or the better known Natural Selection series (AS*SF*MP*((TD*ST)xor(FP*SH)); where AS stands for asymmetric, obviously). (Dan, stop it now - fun-spoiling Ed.) It’s also been in development hell for ever, starting as a mod for Half-Life 2 in 2006 and taking five years to metamorphise into a full game along Red Orchestra’s lines (though the vehicles were dropped at some point in development.)
Though for most players the game is a simple FPS, for one player on each side, the Commander, the game is a top-down RTS. The Commander is chosen at the beginning of the match, from any volunteers, and he/she then goes and sits in the command bunker for the rest of the game. The two factions, Empire and Consortium, are ever so slightly different, but the Commander’s role in each is simple; to build a base slowly across the map to support his team. The team’s job is to get the resources to let him do that.
The Commander uses slowly-growing resources from his team capturing certain in-game positions to build new structures: nodes, which allow him to extend his network; a variety of turrets and artillery; spawn points for the FPS players; certain buildings allowing access to more sub-classes and upgrades for the classes. He can also directly heal and damage players, using aerial drops.
Playing as the Commander would be great fun, if there was any training mode to learn before doing. As it is, you’re likely to get mutinied off the the system pretty swiftly as a new Commander, because a learning Commander is a bad Commander, and a bad Commander loses the game for his team very quickly. When I was kicked out on my first go, it was because I turtled instinctively, forgot to upgrade the troops to siege weapons and just built a line of turrets and artillery instead. My only problem playing as Commander was the range of options of where to build didn’t feel huge; I was restricted by viewpoint a little too much, so found it hard to break out of the alleys near my base.
As for the FPS players, they get to select from four class archetypes, which themselves are broken down into sub-categories, some of which can only be unlocked by the Commander building particular buildings. The massive slow Exos are the fulcrum for any attack, but are highly vulnerable to the glass cannon Stealth classes, who are themselves vulnerable to the Assault classes; the Support class does so many different things that it’s hard to fit him in.
Each class has its sub-categories; for example, the Stealth class has either a SMG and knives equipped version, or a sniper-rifle version, while the Support class can go engineer, medic or flamethrower. At the time of writing, the game is still in beta and is need of some balancing; the larger, slower Exo classes tend to dominate, especially the Consortium’s heavy anti-armour rockets which kill pretty much everything in their blast area in one shot.
Despite that, the combat is good fun. It’s not quite up to TF2’s anarchic melees, but it’s damned satisfying when you snipe someone or run through a squad back-stabbing them all. No class is redundant; the engineer’s shotgun, in particular, is hugely lethal. Ammo tends to run out very quickly, especially for the Exos, but it’s the Commander’s job to drop in supply points as you advance.
There’s a handful of maps, all based around famous cities after some dreadful apocalypse. Not that they bear much resemblance to the relevant cities, as they look like destroyed cities anywhere, save for the occasional tower housing Big Ben looming in the distance, but at least in the Source engine they look like pleasant, cluttered vignettes you might want to spend some time shooting men in. They vary from claustrophobic little structures to huge open maps perfect for snipers and stealths. It’s perfectly pleasant to explore, diving down back allies to shortcut base-defenses, and the maps are easy to learn and mostly tightly-designed.
The team sizes nicely balance the map sizes; a full squad won’t cover the map in soldiers, but will allow for regular encounters with opponents, giving the Stealth guys a chance to backstab them (counterbalanced, of course, by the standard assault class having a thermal vision especially for spotting them). There’s also a squad system, which isn’t really used effectively at the moment, but allows the Commander to direct his team of four squads around the map in different ways.
What this game needs to succeed is either a training mode with bots, or some training servers restricted to newbies. The supplied training videos are atmospheric but don’t communicate what works and what doesn’t on the battlefield. Similarly, there’s a lot of obscurity in the levelling system; I can’t tell if it’s persistent or game-by-game and there’s no documentation in-game to tell me. Possibly another good alternative, if they get bots working, would be something assymetric; one RTS player against a team of FPS players, or something similar.
If Savage and Natural Selection were your games of choice you’ll find a natural home in Nuclear Dawn. It still needs a lot of work, particularly on balancing issues, but we’ve waited five years; we can wait a couple more months. Now, back to my syntax.
[Minigame: Which games do you think I think these are? I might give prizes.]