It’s been awhile since I wrote about Dirty Bomb’s closed beta. Not only have I had more time to get acquainted with the game but it too has had time to find itself. This process is a bit slower than I would like but, then again, fixing bugs and fine tuning free-to-play systems while simultaneously balancing a competitive game isn’t something that happens overnight. Still, there is a lot to improve with this title, which I’m sure is why it is still in beta. Currently, playing the game feels like a rollercoaster ride, constantly fluctuating from euphoric highs to abysmal lows. Splash Damage has some obvious strengths, such as great asymmetric gameplay, that are overshadowed by some glaring flaws.
One of these issues is apparent as soon as you boot the game up. The UI is horrid, utilizing tabbed sections across the top, information overload, and huge frames dedicated to displaying the “item of the week.” Technically the tabs across the top aren’t an eyesore but they lack function. Hovering over them should produce a drop-down menu. The drop down menu for “Play” should have items such as “Server Browser”, “Play With Friends”, and “Solo Queue” — this would reduce the infuriatingly large number of menus I have to go through just to get in a match, something I will touch on later. The settings menu is a slide out menu that comes from the right of the screen. There isn’t anything wrong with this, I just don’t like that it feels a bit like Windows 8/10. Just a personal thing. The Mercs menu is confusing and in desperate need of an overhaul. Clicking on a character brings up their bio page. You will then need to hit another button to see your loadout cards for that character. You can’t, however, select a loadout from this screen. You will need to go back to the original Mercs menu to do so, though this screen only shows the icons for each loadout, not what they actually do.Speaking of the loadout cards, even the detailed versions of them found in the bio pages lack crucial information. Each loadout card details what weapons and perks will be available for a specific character. The cards tell which weapons will be usable but doesn’t provide any stats making it impossible to compare the loadouts. I mostly play a medic named Aura who uses shotguns. I have two different loadouts for her each with a different shotgun on them, but I can’t tell the difference between them. Another character I sometimes use is Fragger and he typically has automatic rifles in his loadouts. I received a new loadout, which had better perks, and immediately equipped. I went into battle, held down the fire button and….a three shot burst. I of course died and was upset. Not because I died, but because I could have avoided it if the game had given me the bare minimum information about a new weapon I was bringing into the battlefield. It isn’t just primary weapons either. There are dozens of pistols and melee weapons, all of which I can only assume have different stats that I don’t have access to.
Getting through those menus is tough but worth it, because next you actually get into a match. Splash Damage has a history of top notch team based shooters and Dirty Bomb continues the trend. The gunplay is tight and the different classes all feel unique and complement the others well. The maps are well built with multiple paths, multiple objectives, and strategic choke points. Every map is designed with teamwork in mind and matches can feel one-sided if only one team is cooperating. A concern I see on the forums often is about the weapons feeling weak. Dirty Bomb eschews the modern FPS one or two hit kills in favor of an old school aesthetic where weapons deal a set amount of damage and HP is a numerical value visible to the player. Another throwback is the speed and acrobatics in movement. The game is the fastest Splash Damage has ever made, so much so that even Brink feels slow in comparison. The wall jump returns from Brink but, much to my disappointment, the rest of the SMART system was abandoned, including my favorite maneuver — the slide. Outside of combat there are the usual objectives of plant C4 and deliver an object. The maps are similar sizes to Brink’s maps and I don’t see them getting much bigger. I would love to see larger maps that introduced vehicles, much like the Quake Wars maps, but I just don’t see it in Dirty Bomb’s future. Adding in vehicles would open up the need for an Engineer type class and making any class necessary would require a reconstruction of the current monetization system.
Currently, the game splits mercs into two sections: owning a merc and owning a loadout. I have several loadout cards for mercs I don’t own, and which the game will not let me use. You must buy a merc before you can play as them. The mercs are $5 or $10 a piece — there doesn’t seem to be any reason behind the difference — and there are 8 currently playable mercs(19 can be found on the wikia), 2 of which are unlocked after completing the tutorial. That is $40 off of the bat just to use each merc with a plain loadout card. You will still need to buy loadout cards, which of course are distributed randomly in crates. Each crate costs 1000 in game currency and I average around 100 per ~10 minute match. (I will add that the in game currency can be used to unlock a merc but that cost is either 30,000 or 50,000. Those are some asinine prices.) It is easy to see that the monetization method isn’t exactly gear towards the player. I don’t feel like I can blame Splash Damage too much here though. The publisher just happened to be Nexon and they are notorious for anti-consumer F2P practices that usually devolve into a pay to win system, just look at Combat Arms. Simply put, I don’t see how an average player could afford anything competitive without paying.
This, I’m sure, will be the bane of the game. Enemy Territory and Quake Wars worked because they focused on balanced player rules and classes competing on asymmetric battlefields with varying goals. All players had access to the same tools and it was the map and objectives that dictated what resources each team required at any given time. The random loadout cards and inaccessible classes restrict what each player can bring to a scenario. These restrictions are also seen in the character selection process. Each player builds a “team” of three mercs and selects which loadout they will use for each, all of this happens before the match. During the match you can only switch between these 3 mercs with no chance of adapting on the fly. Unfortunately, none of this suggests that the game will have the competitive balance of its spiritual predecessors.
The worst aspect of Dirty Bomb is its complete lack of respect for my time. I consider myself to be an average adult gamer. Between my other hobbies, being a dad, and spending time with my friends and family I can usually find an hour a day to play video games. I mentioned previously that I can earn about 100 credits per match. If I played for an entire hour I would have 60% of the required credits to buy a case OR .3% towards unlocking a cheap merc. The monetization systems hold my time hostage and demands money for its release. I wish I could say it stopped there but XP accrues just as slow. Leveling from five to six requires ~90,000 xp and I average about 2,000 a match. 45 matches for a level up is ridiculous. It never mattered to me until today, though. Previously, leveling up didn’t actually unlock anything. I’m not even really sure why the XP is in place to begin with. Today I noticed that Ranked Matches and creating parties were locked behind Level 7. You read that right. For some reason it is expected that the player have played well over 100 matches before they gain the ability to play with their friends. This is a feature that should be unlocked from the very beginning. Not to mention that it would take me about a month to reach Level 7 if I devoted every minute I could to this game alone.
Dirty Bomb has a lot going for it inside of the game itself. It has a strong foundation, built upon lessons from their previous games, which could lead to it being a hit in the competitive circles. It is currently plagued with issues though. Some of these, like the UI, can be fixed rather easily. Most of the monetization issues will be difficult to overcome simply because Nexon is behind them. Only time will tell of Dirty Bomb rises to the task of having a fair free to play model or if it sinks due to its continued support of consumer unfriendly tactics.