PREVIEW: Dirty Bomb [PC]

After playing a few hours of Dirty Bomb, the latest from Enemy Territory developer Splash Damage, it comes to light that my favourite mercenary – Phoenix – is also known as “the asshole medic”. He’s a disgraced former cosmetic surgeon who now serves as a combat medic. His nickname comes from his unique self-revive ability, which means he can reanimate after being left for dead, taking neat revenge against his killer. If you want to frustrate your enemies, it’s a handy skill to have – and when it comes to Dirty Bomb, frustration is a winning tactic.

A weapon of mass disruption has been detonated in the heart of London, smothering England’s capital with radioactive clouds and poison gas and prompting mass evacuations. It’s hardly a ghost town though – the city streets are swarming with mercenaries, hired by private military companies to do two important tasks: Shoot things and make piles of money. They do both to excess, and it’s great fun to go along for the ride.

Each of the mercenaries in Dirty Bomb have their own personal skills and abilities – and their own personalities to match. We were introduced to 12 of them, nine of which will be included in the closed beta test, and Splash Damage is keeping quiet on just how many will be in the finished game. As well as the Spanish doctor, there’s a Scottish fire-support controller who can call in devastating airstrikes, an American with a deployable auto-turret, a frightening German lady brandishing a high-capacity grenade launcher, a tall Nigerian who is “good with shotguns”, and, of course, the British tank who lugs a Minigun almost as bulky as he is.

The writing team have put in long hours to ensure that there’s genuine diversity in the lineup as well, striving to avoid tokenism or stereotypes. The final mercenary lineup is 50/50 male/female, with an assortment of different races and languages represented, and don’t go assuming that all of the characters are heterosexual by default. Lead writer Ed “Bongoboy” Stern explains that there are already so many games for straight, white, middle-aged men on the market, that he wanted to help create something so that other people could see themselves represented, too.

That’s not the only thing Splash Damage has done slightly differently when it comes to mercs. There are no nice, clean-cut classes in Dirty Bomb. Certain mercs have certain skills (like Phoenix’s revive ability, or Vasili’s heartbeat sensor), but everyone can lay or disarm C4, repair or damage equipment, or perform other tasks crucial to succeed in a mission. Some might be better suited to certain objectives than others, but the developer’s attention to balance means that it’s possible to win any round with any combination of mercs (obviously things are easier with a better mix of characters…).

If, somehow, you do jump into a game that’s accidentally loaded too-heavily with one merc or another, Splash Damage has cleverly tweaked the way you select characters. Rather than choosing one and being stuck with them for the duration, you take three different mercs into battle – and you can switch between them when waiting for reinforcements. While it might be tempting to specialise in three different tanks, spending a little time getting better aquainted with a medic or a sniper will make you a more valuable asset.

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…and speaking of assets, you can customise your mercs to make them better suit your play-style, too. Dirty Bomb features load-out cards, dropped at random at the end of a round, inside a locked case. These cards can change your merc’s primary, secondary and melee weapons, as well as adding new augments and (coming soon) custom outfits. Playing around with these really illustrates how versatile the game is – if you pick the wrong one, your favourite merc can quickly fall from grace simply due to a poorly-chosen primary weapon, but it can also make the difference between a character you never play and one who becomes a new staple.

Cards come in a range of tiers, with lower-ranked/more common cards able to be combined to create single random cards of higher rarity. When upgrading, you can choose which merc you’d like a card for, but can’t choose the card itself, maintaining this level, random playing field.

These cards are also where Splash Damage neatly shows its understanding of the difference between free-to-play and pay-to-win. Rather than giving gamers the ability to buy specific loadout cards, you can pay real-world money and buy additional locked cases, which also contain random cards. You’ll get more cards than if you earn them through playing, but not necessarily better ones. This might be the first modern free-to-play game for Splash Damage, but the studio’s brought in the big guns, partnering with Nexon when it comes to publishing duties.

Dirty Bomb

Dirty Bomb

We’ve all heard the maxim “Easy to play, difficult to master”, but Splash Damage is trying something a bit different for their upcoming multiplayer shooter. Promising something that’s “difficult to play, impossible to master”, Dirty Bomb is a return to the developer’s classic FPS roots, with unforgiving, frenetic action and asymmetrical gameplay. Splash Damage started life as a mod studio around 2001, and the developer’s heart still lies with old-school FPS titles. This really does feel just like the classic Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, wrapping up familiar gameplay in a modern layer of polish – and for people who want a good, fast-paced FPS, this is a really (really) good thing.

For those too young to remember, Enemy Territory was a freeware multiplayer shooter from Splash Damage, released back in 2003, and it definitely laid a lot of the groundwork for Dirty Bomb. It was a great game, but due to the lack of in-game admin abilities the community was overrun by cheaters, and it didn’t succeed as well as it should have. History will not repeat this time, however, with Dirty Bomb taking full advantage of Steam‘s built-in DRM, and veterans Nexon bringing more than a little firepower to the party.

It might not be for everyone, but if you’ve been getting fed up with so many hand-holding “helpful” samey shooters, Dirty Bomb‘s a breath of fresh air – you won’t need the gas mask for this one.

For our special episode dedicated to Dirty Bomb and Splash Damage,
tune in to Player Attack next Friday, April 3!

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