Previewed On: PC
Publisher: Grey Box
Access to closed beta along with access to special Founder’s Edition pack (retail value £34.99) provided by the publisher free of charge for preview purposes.
Most gamers have an understandable scepticism when it comes to free-to-play games, and rightfully so. The majority of them turn out to be nothing more than cynical cash-grabs where the developers blatantly try to push people towards breaking out their walleys by making earning in-game items through normal play a tedious grind, and ensuring that things which can only be bought with real money offer powerful advantages. Sometimes, though, we get something that seems to respect its audience by giving them a well designed game, relying on the fans to help support it. Such is the case with Dreadnought, a 5v5 tactical shooter about humongous capital ships clashing in a violent display of destruction. Currently in closed beta I checked the game out and came away feeling pretty hopeful for the full release.
The first thing that needs to be addressed is that Dreadnought is nothing less than pure eye candy for any science fiction fan who loves watching huge capital ships fighting. On a technical level this is a beautiful game that boasts wonderfully rendered warships and awesome looking environments, along with a host of lovely special effects. But putting the technical aside it simply looks awesome. Through the heavy feel produced by the controls and visuals cues the various ships with Dreadnought carry a sense of scale that’s impressive, a sense matched by the weaponry that they can bring to bear. It’s like watching an epic summer blockbuster, except that you get to play it. As someone who has always been enamored with the thought of huge ships trying to blow each other to pieces Dreadnought is one of the few games in which that fantasy comes to life on the screen. Given that this is a free-to-play game I’m genuinely impressed with the level of visual quality on display. It can easily match most triple-A titles that charge £50 on release.
Gushing about the pixels aside, combat within Dreadnought is slow-paced and methodical as the ships you control are lumbering behemoths that struggle to move and turn within the maps, which are littered with opportunities for flanking and taking cover. Rather than take place in the void of space where gravity has no effect, Dreadnought opts to place its combat within the atmosphere of planets. The beta has two maps; one set within ravines where the ground provides cover, and another where you battle throughout an abandoned shipyard sitting on the edge of a planet’s atmosphere. With shift and space you can raise or lower the ship while WASD covers your standard movement, but getting anywhere takes time, making careful positioning and teamwork vital. If you find yourself the victim of a focused assault then it’s not easy to get the hell out of dodge in a hurry.
The titular dreadnought class of ships is the embodiment of this, packing a tonne of armor and firepower with all the agility of a slightly dazed snail. The heaviest of the three available dreadnoughts is the Monarch. It’s not concerned with flanking the enemy, it’s concerned with being the big frontline ship that is almost literally impossible to kill without several people ganging up on it. It’s size and lack of speed make it a target for everyone, so smart positioning and supporting it are key to an effective offense. It’s a bit like trying to fly a glacier. Do it right and the dreadnought can soak up the punishment while dishing out some hefty damage of its own. Get it wrong and it’s nothing more than a very large sitting duck without the humorous quacking. While you typically see dreadnoughts sitting at medium to long-range, many of them are equipped with a warp jump, broadside attack and close-range weaponry so that they can get in close and brawl with the enemy.
Next in line is the destroyer class which acts as the sort of jack-of-all-trades, packing considerable firepower and good armor with a range of abilities and just enough speed and agility to let you take good advantage of cover. As its name suggests a destroyer tends to be all about… well, destroying, and is typically able to dole out more damage than even a dreadnought. It’s the spine of any team, and is therefore also a reasonable choice for a new player looking to learn the ropes. All ships in Dreadnought come in light, medium and heavy varieties, and the light destroyer is a surprisingly nimble beast, making it perfect for the special ramming ability that can do huge damage. With a bit of tweaking destroyers can fit into a variety of roles on the battlefield.
The tactical cruiser is the support ship that offers healing and buffs to its pals, with some light firepower and armor in case it does get into the thick of the fight. It’s reasonably fast so that it can stay hidden as much as possible to provide maximum support. Acting as a healer a tactical cruiser can significantly boost the lifespan of something like a dreadnought or a couple of destroyers, making them invaluable and skilled healers a welcome addition to any team. Helpful abilities include pods that sends out waves of healing goodness and automated healing beams that can help support multiple ships at once. Other versions of the tactical cruiser even come with bolstered firepower for players who want to offer support to things like dreadnoughts that are designed to get in close. Be warned, though, a good healer tends to be one of the enemies primary targets, and is especially a beloved victims of corvettes.
The artillery class is the sniper of the game, its elongated design best used from a good distance away. It’s a fragile beast with a good lick of speed, and is best used to target already weakened vessels, delivering killing blows to enemy ships. It can tackle ships with full health, but if they get sight of it and manage to get into range then the artillery class is screwed. Right now I’d wager it’s the ship you see the least being used, and thus it might get a buff at launch.
While you might naturally assume that the dreadnought or destroyer class would be the most deadly thing on the battlefield, the truth is it’s arguably the corvette that represents the biggest threat when put into the hands of a skilled gamer. These vessels are small, fast and nimble compared to everything else on the battlefield and come equipped with considerable close-range firepower and cloaking abilities. Their job is to sneak behind enemy lines, power up their weapons and deliver a vicious strafing run. Time it right and a corvette can massively weaken even a dreadnought, or take out an artillerly ship or tactical cruiser in a single run. Of course the downside is that if a Corvette gets caught out it’s very, very lightly armored. At this point in time it seems like the corvette might be the most likely ship to be tweaked before launch, while the artillery class might be made a bit more powerful as currently few people seem to want to use it.
Every vessel comes equipped with a primary weapon that cannot be changed, and a secondary that can be swapped out for something that suits your playstyle a tad more, thus a healing ship could theoretically take some light machine guns to help deal with corvettes or some such. Furthermore every ship also boasts four interchangeable modules that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. These range from broadside attacks for dreadnought class ships to nuclear missiles to heavy-hitting torpedoes to anti-missile lasers, healing pods, afterburners, special maneuvers, cloaks and loads more that will be unlocked through the fifty currently available levels of progression. Naturally the modules that can be equipped are limited based on ship class in order to stop a destroyer rocking a corvette’s cloak. There’s no way of picking what you want and thus you might find yourself in possession of a few modules designed for dreadnoughts despite the fact that you favor the destroyer class. It’s further encouragement to change ships as needed, though, since a lot of the strategy within the 5v5 warfare comes from team composition. Those who stick to one or two classes will quickly find themselves derided by their teammates for refusing to adjust tactics as needed. These various modules bring a pretty reasonable level of customisation to the game, letting you tailor ships to specific roles. You might want to take a heavily armored dreadnought and give it more long-range options in order to create a floating tank that can soak up damage and wage war from across the map, or maybe you’d rather stick a special broadside on it along with a heavy flak turret, warp straight into the enemy and unleash beautiful hell.
You can also equip different officer briefings that are essentially perks, adding either passive or active bonuses to a ship such as damage reduction at the cost of movement speed or getting an energy boost when attacked from behind. Right now they perhaps don’t make as much of an impact on a ship’s performance as I’d like, but a little extra customization is always welcome.
Of course the progression system raises the biggest question about Dreadnought; with its free-to-play structure how are the developers going to balance the game? Currently in the beta there’s fifty levels of progression available and it can be a real slog. Everything you can purchase with real money can also be gained via simply playing the game, but whether we’ll see some horrible grind times implemented to encourage people to cough up remains to be seen. As for myself I was given the Founder’s Edition which comes with a pile of bonus currency and some so-called Hero ships, which are essentially non-customisable versions of regular ships you unlock later on. They don’t have access to any special modules or anything else. Cynically predicting that the Hero ships would be over-powered to encourage people to buy them (hero ships aren’t unlocked through regular play, as far as I know) I was genuinely pleased to see that none of them offered me an advantage. That leaves me feeling reasonably confident that both the publisher and the developers behind Dreadnought are going to keep the game balanced and trust that players will want to support the title by choice rather than a desire to remain competitive. Fingers crossed, eh?
All ships come with an energy meter that can be spent to either bolster weapons, increase speed and agility or raise shields. Again, we see Dreadnought’s theme of careful, measured play coming to the fore as knowing when to divert power to these three abilities is important. Shields should be raised for a deadly barrage of missiles or to hastily fend off a corvette attack rather than wasted on a destroyer that’s barely grazing your dreadnought’s hull, for example. A boost to weapons is always welcome, but there’s little reason to use it if the enemy has their shields up. You might do some extra damage, certainly, but it’s better saved until that opportune moment when you can finish them off before they have a chance to get behind cover, make it to a healer or raise shields again.
All of it comes together to create something unique. I’ve not played anything quite like Dreadnought, keeping in mind that titles like Elite Dangerous and Eve have never made it onto my hard-drive. The slow pace might be a turn-off for a lot of people, but for me it’s a refreshing change from the hyperactive nature of most modern games that favor twitch-shooting or a movement style that resembles a squirrel on strong coffee. With this slow nature comes a big emphasis on really thinking about where you’re positioning yourself, and how to best work with the four other people on your team. It’s not the deepest or most complex shooter on the market, yet there’s still a lot more thinking involved than most. Plus, it has giant ships that feel like giant ships shooting at each other. What’s not to like about that?
Well, to answer my own question it’s not got a lot of variety. The beta currently provides access to just three maps and three modes; team deathmatch, team elimination deathmatch and a training mode where you can battle the A.I. in order to test out different loadouts. Outside of just killing everybody there are no objective based modes which feels like a missed opportunity to further push teamwork and tactical play. This dearth of content makes repetition a problem. The style of gameplay means one match does feel quite a bit like another, and we can only hope the full release will be more fleshed out or that the developers have plans to introduce more maps and modes as time goes on.
Dreadnought has eaten up a surprisingly large amount of my time, and the closed beta has left me feeling confident about the full release. At this stage it feels polished and ready to go with only some balancing tweaks needed. Indeed, at this point this preview is practically a proper review as it doesn’t seem anything major will be changed. It’s slow nature and tactical combat won’t appeal to everyone, but I’m sure it’ll find a dedicated audience of which I will most likely be a member. Repetition will ultimately prove to be its biggest enemy, as each match can feel quite similiar to the last. But hey, every match in Call of Duty feels the same, so clearly it’s not that big an issue. Since its free-to-play anyway I can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t give Dreadnought a whirl when it launches.