When I first learned about Nuclear Dawn, the concept struck as both ambitious and exciting. Interwave was putting together a game that aligned FPS and RTS elements for parallel play experiences that would ultimately yield a revolutionary approach to multiplayer shooters. While most players would experience a standard class-based shooter, two individuals (one from each team) would be tapped to take on the role of Commander, executing their functions using an RTS interface.
I had the opportunity to interview Robbert van der Lee with Interwave (LINK) and try out the game in Beta. With the game’s recent release on PC and Mac via Steam, many things have grown and improved since my initial impressions (LINK), but the final product still doesn’t feel ready for its retail debut. One of the things that struck me about the game after revisiting my conversation with van der Lee, is that the game only has one mode: Warfare. A second mode, a more standard Deathmatch option, was planned for release with two more modes coming in free DLC.
The game’s story is merely incidental, with two different factions a Consortium of Western countries and the Empire of Eastern nations lead by China, vying for scarce resources. Both sides have access to the same four classes: Assault, the standard soldier archetype; Exo, the heavy soldier; Support, the medics and engineers; and Stealth, the assassins. Each of the four classes has a number of specializations. For example, Stealths can either specialize as speedy assassins or long-range snipers. Supports can choose whether to heal teammates or structures or simply strap on a flamethrower and charbroil the enemy with the BBQ kit.
The four classes also have unique special abilities. Stealths have a time-limited cloak, Assaults can switch on a visor that detects cloaked enemies and Supports can use their Blowtorch or drop Med kits, depending on the loadout. The only ability that I have a complaint with is the Exo. In the lockdown mode, the Exo becomes a fortified, living turret. However, the player cannot capture resource points in that mode. Clearly, this was done to balance the game, but it didn’t feel right to me or any of the other players I was chatting with during my time in-game.
I had very little time with the Commander interface as the one game I was tapped for the role in, my predecessor had sold the automated defenses around our bunker. Within moments of sitting in the chair, which you need to walk to when you are selected, someone decided to say “hello” with bullets. Of course, when I did have a moment, the game decided to throw a bunch of text at me explaining the different functions of the Commander interface. It was not the right time to learn, especially as I kept finding myself on the wrong end of an assassination. Even starting a private game was futile, as a minimum of four players are required before the game will assign someone to the hot seat. It was an exercise in frustration, and I feel this review is unavoidably incomplete due to the structure of the game and the Commander selection mechanic.
Interwave has done a fantastic job in balancing the roles of Commander and soldier. Without the Commander, soldiers don’t have the support structures necessary to capture and hold resource points. Turrets, forward spawn points and supply stations help hold the line against advancing enemy forces. Commanders can’t build any of these without resources, though. The best games I played, even when we lost, involved a steady flow of information between the two roles. Good commanders can spot openings in enemy defensive lines and guide forces to them. They also listen to troop requests for support structures.
Those structures come at a price: resources must be spent and power must be available. The two sides are different in more than aesthetics. They have different building styles, handling power of remote structures in ways that require specific strategies for each side. The Consortium uses wireless power relays that amplify power stations, but not as far as the Empire’s relays. The relays, though, require line of sight. There are also different weapons for some of the class specializations. Exos with the Siege loadout get rail guns on the Empire side, but rocket launchers on the Consortium side. Playing a Siege Exo is very different depending on which team you are on.
There is a lot to like about Nuclear Dawn, but it’s got a long way to go before it can compete with the biggest name in multiplayer shooters. Right now, as I mentioned, there is only one game mode and only six maps. Sure, this isn’t a full-priced retail game, but for $25, a lot of people expect more, especially since we were told that there would be a second mode at launch. Currently, there is no offline play and the tutorials are only four brief videos. Nothing is explained well and “gizmos,” which function like perks in other multiplayer shooters, aren’t even touched upon.
Most importantly, if you want to tool around with the Commander interface, you need to create your own game, look up the console commands to lock others out of your game and then wait for the game’s absurdly long load times. While some of the players I chatted with didn’t seem to have any problem with this, I find it to be a major oversight, especially given the complexities of the Commander role. Using this workaround to ensure access to the hot seat doesn’t give you the kind of experience you want a Commander to have before taking charge in the middle of a heated match, especially since someone who makes a few beginner mistakes will likely find themselves on the receiving end of a mutiny.
The game is built on the Left 4 Dead 2 version of the Source engine. This is a double-edged sword, as some of the textures look dated, even at the highest setting. The best part of this decision is that the Source engine is accessible to those that aren’t running the newest and most updated systems. I was pleased that I was able to jump into a match quickly. The game makes the most of the engine and does a good job of displaying information, and now includes an indicator to show from where you are getting damaged (something I noted that the game needed in my preview).
There is no music to speak of in-game, but the sound effects are solid and the status messages are clear and relate directly to what’s going on in the minimap. Voice chat was clear, though there is no option to leave your microphone open. You have to use the push-to-talk button. Muting players is more difficult than it should be. You need to back all the way out to the menu to select the player to silence. I also had an audio glitch pop up in which a repeating gunshot effect continued after the match had ended. The volume of the effect was also boosted significantly, making for a very annoying few minutes.
Finally, the game has the tendency to end abruptly without crowning a winning team. This happened in multiple games I played, leading to a lot of head scratching and dissatisfaction. After putting 20 minutes into a multiplayer match, you want to know who won, even if it was based on something other than complete annihilation of one side’s bunker.
One of the things that’s challenging about reviewing a game like Nuclear Dawn is that I can see the potential, but have to base my assessment on the product delivered to retail. If the game had some of the trappings of contemporary games like an offline mode, or even a functioning tutorial, it would be so much easier to call this a great start. Instead, what’s here is a game that could have been, and still might be, great but simply fails to deliver a complete experience. Worse yet, playing the game in during the prime evening gaming hours yielded no more than three US servers with players. At capacity, this indicated less than 100 people playing the game in this country. There were about as many EU servers running, also.
Multiplayer-focused games must build a community quickly and then sustain that player base with new content and improvements. Team Fortress 2, Monday Night Combat and other great multiplayer shooters are perfect examples. Interwave needs to deliver the promised modes, improved tutorials and an offline option quickly if it hopes to survive beyond the release of this fall’s marquee titles like Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3. There’s a lot to like in the concept, but I don’t think Interwave has earned your money yet.
Review copy provided by publisher.