Feature Article

Dirty Bomb: Pretty Setting, Routine Shooting

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As one of the globe's cultural capitals, London presents game designers with an alluring canvas. From the silhouette of its skyline down to the subterranean trains that thunder through its guts, it is a place rich in iconic design. Only last month The Order: 1886 re-imagined the UK capital's dark Victorian past, albeit with mixed results. Now, developer Splash Damage is presenting a vision of an alternate London's near future with its long-in-development shooter Dirty Bomb.

The studio has delivered a world where the titular radioactive weapon, rather than spiraling house prices, has rendered the city's centre uninhabitable. A handful of private military company's Mercs, however, are braving the ghost town, eager to loot London for all that it has left to give, be it in pursuit of cash, medicine, or valuable information.

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"We wanted to capture what makes London recognizable and identifiable as London," asserts Dirty Bomb artist Ben Garnell on developing the setting. "We wanted people to see The Shard in the distance. In the architecture and even the brickwork there's a lot of those subtle clues that this is London. You are playing in London, but it's a little bit different; it's not an absolute recreation, and we wanted to put some of our own spin on it."

The result of that effort is an engaging setting built from a blend of ageing structures and futuristic, sleek buildings. The juxtaposition of old and new is an eye-catching one, only delicately exaggerating what can be seen in the real city today, where twinkling glass towers jostle with neighbouring early Victorian textile factories. Certainly, the art team has done a worthy job, presenting environment design that favours cleanliness and vibrancy over gritty realism. Indeed, at times Dirty Bomb even hints gently at Sunset Overdrive's garish visual excess. For now, however, Splash Damage's visual effort doesn't dazzle with a showcase of technical prowess, but stylistically, it offers a well-considered vision of an imminent dystopia.

The game contained within, meanwhile, is an energetic multiplayer-only first-person shooter in the classic form. The focus in the demo, which enters closed beta on March 26, is entirely on team play; it's also free-to-play, and these two factors are likely to define Dirty Bomb indefinitely. Splash Damage has created a game that exists under its own enthusiastic momentum, and one that plays fast and slick--at least on the high-end gaming PCs provided at the preview event. It engenders shooting that's from the hip and on the run: there's rarely much strategic advantage to staying put, while the pace is delightfully relentless.

That's not to say Dirty Bomb's gameplay is erratic or shapeless, though. Far from it, in fact--the various in-game objectives demand team communication, unified behaviour and employing different character's complimentary abilities for players to be in with a hope of adding a win to their stats. Ignore your teammates or approach missions as a rogue, and you're likely to attain a somewhat shameful K/D ratio.

On the subject of kills and deaths, you can expect to tally up a fair few of both in given games. Dirty Bomb's gameplay favours the boldest players, but isn't afraid to send them back to a respawn point, resulting in K/D stats where double figures are a common sight.

At the very centre of Splash Damage's creation is its cast of Mercs--12 of which are scheduled for Beta launch availability at the time of writing. Unsurprisingly, each presents a range of unique abilities and special talents, delivering a mechanically familiar role call of player types. There are nimble medics, lumbering minigun "tanks", specialists in heavy artillery, and a bounty of all-rounders and wild cards. And there's a sniper, just for the players who refuse to comply with the run and gun template Dirty Bomb near insists upon enforcing.

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"We don't work with disparate roles throughout the company," says Garnell of conceiving the Mercs as the game's centerpiece. "We work closely together. So writers, concept designers, character artists like myself, and the gameplay designers are all involved at every stage of production. It's not a production line where people don't speak. The idea behind the mercenaries is [in place] before anybody has even put a pen to paper, so the personalities and design of each Merc is felt all through the stages of production. I think you can see that in their quality."

Players take a trio of Mercs into each fray, and can swap between them at respawn. It's a system well coupled to the evolving objectives typical of a match, where at the start you may need an engineer for a quick vehicle repair, and later a grenadier to lay down suppressive ordnance as you escort the newly fixed tank to a drop off point.

Where the Mercs really stand out is in their distinct abilities, beyond any differences in primary and secondary weaponry. Each has one or two abilities, activated by a stab at the Q or E key. They range from calling in airstrikes and dishing out health packs to placing automated gun turrets or unleashing additionally intense walls of covering machine gun fire. There's a good mix on offer, and the abilities together are the building blocks of any strategy--the "gameplay verbs" that define the action, to borrow from game design parlance.

The Merc's playgrounds, meanwhile, come in the form of the levels and modes. The environments themselves are well-considered--fairly tightly woven structures where open areas are connected with tangled networks of short cuts and back routes. Two of those were made available for preview. The first is Terminal, centered around a vast abandoned rail station and long available in the closed Beta, while the second is the newly debuted Bridge, offering tiered areas around a renamed Borough Market. Five stages are due for launch; with every chance more will be debuted if the game is a lasting success.

The core modes come in the form of Stopwatch and Objective, both available as 5v5 or 8v8 multiplayer team games. The first, available at the preview event, lets teams take turns at attacking and then defending various objectives, throwing in the likes of escort missions and moving items to safe points to foster variety. No hands-on time was provided for Objective mode, but it promises to offer a more linear focus on mission goals.

Ultimately, Splash Damage has stuck to what it knows with Dirty Bomb, and as a result built a shooter that is entertaining, exciting to play, and full of energy. But in revisiting the established, it's fair to say the studio is building something overly familiar. The dev team set out to establish an FPS in the traditional form, and one that shuns the genre's contemporary "casualization". As such, it has succeeded, but aside from the setting and tone, it's hard to find a great deal explicitly innovative.

In revisiting the established, it's fair to say the studio is building something overly familiar.

There's certainly some of the feel of Splash Damage's Enemy Territory offerings in the game, and a little of Brink, along with plenty of Team Fortress 2, even if Dirty Bomb is a little more mechanically streamlined than the latter. In fact, there's also a touch of the breathless tempo of PlayStation 2 launch title TimeSplitters in the matches, demonstrating just how customary some of the gameplay is. None of that, of course, points to anything like a bad game. The preview build of Splash Damage's latest shooter was undeniably compelling, boasting a knack for encouraging teams to whoop and cheer down the headset throughout matches.

But Dirty Bomb is set to please the traditionalist more than most. Those who thirst for something a little more distinct may have to pin their hopes on post launch evolution.

And then there's the matter of that other part of modern gaming; namely 'free-to-play'. The finer points of Dirty Bomb's monetization system are yet to be detailed, but the system does seem to support less frequent payments, and there's clearly been some effort to avoid pay-to-win or any of the more ghastly financial models seen in the mobile space. Firstly, Mercs are available to buy. Players that want to stick to not investing a penny will find two provided for free, with other playable characters due for "free rotation".

"We'll have our Mercs on rotation as free characters, so you can try out mercenaries that you might not have unlocked yet," confirms Garnell. "We hope you'll enjoy those Mercs--including their style, personality and everything else that is bundled with that mercenaries--enough to unlock them. You can do that with credits, and you can purchase a few credits to get to the mercenaries that way."

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A starter pack for $19.99 will provide those who invest with an apparent $40 offering--five permanently unlocked Mercs and 35,000 in-game currency Credits. To give an impression of how far that will go, 1,000 Credits will buy an Equipment Case, which for now will contain a random Loadout Card. There are discounts on bulk purchases, and Equipment Cases are also available as drops, and may contain other items going forward. It also looks like cards will be available for various ways without the need to invest.

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Each Mercs' various abilities and attributes can be further tailored by applying those Loadout Cards. The idea is that these offer customization rather than straight-up improvements of power, strength, and the like. Furthermore, while higher levels of Loadout Cards can be crafted by combining those at lesser levels, the most valuable are set to make but cosmetic changes. The allure of Hats, it seems, does not stop at TF2's well-trodden boundaries.

As the open Beta rolls on, plenty more yet unavailable will also be added. Boosters are due, though information remains in short supply, and the likes of weapon cards, weekly contracts, ranked seasons, drafting, parties, matchmaking and more besides are all due to appear throughout the months leading to June this year.

Ultimately, Dirty Bomb is a game with ample potential. It looks unlikely to be anything of a revolution for the online shooter genre, and while it's far too much to say it is a backwards step, Splash Damage has clearly--and proudly-- taken a design lead from the genre's past. In its current condition the game demonstrates a compelling energy and pace, and despite the focus on hip-shooting, front line-charging frenzy, there's a subtlety and thoughtfulness to the mechanics and structuring.

If the monetization model does finally emerge as one that doesn't sully the gameplay or pester the player, Splash Damage could have a success on its hands, even if it is a familiar one.

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Will Freeman

Will Freeman is a freelance video games journalist who contributes to national newspapers, games magazines and websites, and the industry press. He also covers board games and tabletop, and still clings on to arcade gaming, whether visiting the arcade regularly, tinkering with shmup PCBs at home, or talking over-enthusiastically about arcade system motherboard variants. Will also provides occasional game script editing services, speaks at industry events, stands as a talking head on radio, and contributes to academic research into the games medium and broader industry.
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