Dead Star: Almost Awesome
I love twin stick / top down space shooters. They’re easy to jump in and jump out of, they tend to run well across a wide range of hardware, and they usually don’t have a steep learning curve. The downside is that they’re almost always single player. While I do love a good single player game (and most of what I play is single player) I’ve been longing for a multiplayer 2D space game, especially one that features co-op. That’s why I’ve had my eye on Dead Star for several months – I’ve been super stoked not only for a multiplayer top down space experience, but Dead Star was offering something unique with their Capital Ship Escort mode. Chris and team were kind enough to send over codes to us the week the game launched on April 5th, and I’ve been playing it since. Unfortunately and sadly, it wasn’t the experience I was hoping for.
So what is Dead Star?
One of the things I’m loathe to do at FoH is write a negative review about a game. Typically, if we think a game is bad to the point where it would require a negative review, we just don’t cover it at all. It’s also tough to give a game a negative review because, no matter what our opinion of the game, someone or lots of someones invested a LOT of time and effort to make it (I have some idea as to how much went work went into Dead Star because the devs were kind enough to grand me an interview which I’ll be posting at a later date).
That being said, I’m writing this review about Dead Star in it’s current state, and it’s not going to be as positive as I would have preferred. I’m still covering it because the guys at Armature were awesome enough to give me lots of interview Q&A, and because I think Dead Star is SO CLOSE to being really, really good game. In fact, I really wanted it to be a good game (and my go-to multiplayer staple), and have spent 2 months playing the game, emailing my thoughts and suggestions to Chris at Armature Studios. I’ve even done user testing work of my own by polling Merritt, Adam, and Brian and the rest of the crew from Space Game Junkie. The issues and opinions I outline about Dead Star in this review were shared by everyone I mentioned, so I don’t feel like I’m being unduly harsh.
In a nutshell, Dead Star is top-down multiplayer-only team based space shooter where, in teams of 5v5 or 10v10, you and your team capture, upgrade, and hold bases. The more bases you have, the more victory points your team generates, and the first team to 600 points wins the match. It’s a lot more than that, though: Dead Star features some incredibly deep customization, three types of multiplayer game modes, over a dozen unique ships with four abilities each. During each multiplayer match you gain experience (which can be acquired faster via mining) which allows you to upgrade your ships abilities during a match, making them more powerful and/or effective. After completing you’re rewarded with ship components that can be used to upgrade the base stats of the ships you select to bring with you to the next match (you choose 3 ships that you’re able to switch between during a match). Although it’s a top-down game, it’s anything but 2D: the ships are fully rendered and the backdrops are gorgeous, featuring lots of depth and rich detail. Dead Space is a game that’s obviously had a lot of effort put into it; and with some changes, I think it has the potential to be a prominent top down multiplayer shooter. The key word, however, is “changes”. I’ll go over the game’s major aspects below.
Veterans of the space gaming genre will catch the first red flag: Dead Space is multiplayer ONLY. Unfortunately, our beloved space genre isn’t the most popular niche in the world, and there are only a handful of multiplayer only games succeeding in the space genre. As it stands now, releasing an indie multiplayer-only space game is, as far as I am aware, a death knell for every title which has attempted it. To their credit, Armature Studios attempted to overcome this hurdle by providing the game for free for to the PlayStation Network (Dead Space features cross platform multiplayer and excellent voice chat, which couldn’t have been easy to implement – good for them!), which did initially provide the game an acceptable player base for matchmaking, at least as far as getting a game goes. However, Dead Space has not sold very well on any other platform (according to SteamSpy they’re at less than 5,000 copies sold on Steam) and as of today getting a 5v5 match is hit or miss, and a 10v10 just doesn’t happen. In hindsight, I feel this should have been mitigated further by creating a single player campaign or at least bots in multiplayer.
The lack of players isn’t the only thing hampering Dead Star: the game drops the ball in a few ways from a multiplayer game design perspective. For instance, there’s no penalty for leaving a match (and as I mentioned, no AI to take over). Another player can fill the slot if one is available, but this causes yet another issue: when solo queuing, you often get placed into games that are a few minutes from ending because members of the losing team are leaving (because there’s no penalty, remember?), making for a frustrating solo queue experience. To compound the above issue, If one team is down one or more players, they don’t receive any kind of advantage: no faster respawn, no faster resource gathering, no faster experience gain, no damage bonus, nothing.
There are lots of ways that these issues could have been handled (many titles have done so, and very well) which compounds my feeling that this is an inexcusably poor game design, especially for a multiplayer only title.
As I touched on earlier, Dead Star features some really interesting and deep ship customization, some of which takes place during a match, and some that carries over from game to game. There are five races (one was added last month in a patch), each with three class of ship: a fighter, a corvette, and a frigate class, and each can be customized with dozens of skins. Despite the size similarities each ship has unique weapons and abilities, and there’s a good mix of offensive, utility, and support ships. The smaller ships are fast, extremely nimble, and capture bases 4x faster, but one shot from a frigate class ship and they’re toast. The largest Frigates are extremely slow and, annoyingly, don’t use the same control scheme that the other two classes do, so it’s not easy to transition between them at first, and definitely not intuitive. Each ship has 4 abilities, and during matches you gain experience for kills, captures, and mining which lets you upgrade the various abilities during the match. Upgrading the abilities this way will either improve the ability or alter it in some way (single shot to spread fire, or fire more missiles per volley, etc). This doesn’t carry over from match to match, but there is a different upgrade path that does: you can use components to permanently modify and improve ship abilities. The component upgrades aren’t as dramatic, but they do allow you to bring your upgrades with you into matches.
Your ship also has pilot levels: levels go up with matches played and are loosely related to how many components you’ve earned so higher levels mean superior ships (I think – none of this is exampled very well, nor is it intuitive). But as far as Pilots themselves go (you have the option of choosing various pilots, some of which require unlocking or DLC, and some which are obtained from events, like my awesome Rachel S’Jet) shown here) but as far as I can tell, they are purely cosmetic…I think. Actually, I’m not exactly sure what they do. No, this isn’t because I haven’t played much if the game – I have. This has to do with the second major flaw of the game: it’s very confusing.
“What do I do?” is the first thing we all thought in our first game of Dead Star, and for many more games after that – and this was post-tutorial completion
“What do I do?” is what literally what everyone at FoH AND at Space Game Junkie asked when we were dropped into our first multiplayer game – and this was AFTER we completed the tutorial. the tutorial doesn’t prepare you at all for either the multiplayer matches or the complicated component upgrade process. There is a tutorial and instruction screen for the upgrade process, but all of us completely missed it, and when Chris pointed it out to us, we were just as confused as before. There are apparently several other rewards to be had from matches as well as additional upgrades and/or rewards (such as Fame, Reward Rolls, and/or Specialists), but again, we’re not exactly sure what they do.
In-match gameplay is straightforward…sort of. When your’e first dropped into a game after the tutorial it isn’t, because the minimap isn’t intuitive, you have no idea what mining and resources do, and because of the small player base you’re paired up against people with vastly superior ships than you that are 35+ levels higher, which means death in 1-2 seconds rather than 3-5 seconds. After playing for a while, you realize that mining (which you do by shooting and blowing up asteroids, grabbing the resources, and dropping them off at a base you control) upgrades the defensive capabilities of the base, and also gives you XP. But there seems to be a cap on how much XP it gives you – a max of level 5. I think. At least, that’s how it functioned for us (there’s no info on it that we’ve been able to find).
So much instagib
Another downside is the ‘throwaway’ feel of the ships in Dead Space. No matter how good you are, you’re going to die – a LOT. The ships can only survive a few hits (even the large and very slow Frigate class) and life expectancy in battle is measured in seconds. This detracted a lot from the fu of Dead Star for us – we spent far more time either waiting for respawn or flying to the location of a battle (which could take a few MINUTES in a Frigate) only to die in a few seconds, or maybe 10 seconds when one of us was playing as healer. I think the game would greatly benefit from increasing ship durability x4 across the board, or some similar sweeping change. To add to the frustration of the feeling that “you’re flying a piece of paper mache” (as Adam put it) is that the map itself tries sometimes tries to kill you: there are certain maps that fire laser beams at random and kill anything they connect with. They have a charge time to warn the player, but if you’re flying a Frigate, it doesn’t matter: it takes longer to move a Frigate than the charge time gives you. It’s an incredibly annoying, pointless addition to some of the maps.
WTB Escape Run
One gameplay mode I was looking forward to in Dead Star was Escape Run. Winning games apparently (again, I’m not 100% sure even after reading the game’s tutorial and website) provides a chance to gain an Escape Run Contract, which lets you escort an NPC capital ship as it jumps from system to system. The twist is that these systems are actually live multiplayer matches, and by jumping into them you’re suddenly under attack from two sides (although I’m not exactly sure why, the game isn’t clear on the rewards and/or other reasons for attacking a contract team or the NPC capital ship). Sadly, the lack of players makes this game mode virtually nonexistent.
Dead Star Is Definitely Pretty
Dead Space does twin stick right as far as the graphics and art go: it’s very pretty and detailed. Boasting high res (no, not the laughable 1920×1080 “high res”, I mean true high res: 4k) it looked fantastic on my 3k screen. The maps, while played in 2D, are fully 3D with several layers and asteroids, planets, stars, nebulas, and more. It’s very nice to look at – and that’s a good thing, because, unfortunately, you’re spending most of the time that you’re playing the game looking at the background while flying somewhere to fight in between respawns. The only thing that doesn’t look good is the UI at higher resolutions: Armature was awesome enough to include 4k textures, but didn’t make sure the UI scaled when a player actually selected these resolutions. So, if you want to play at 3k or above, your UI becomes so small that it’s basically useless. Dead Star is far from the only game that has made this mistake with their UI, but it’s yet another item in a long list of ‘things that need fixing’.
In my defense, I made Armature fully aware of all of the above issues about 6 weeks before I pushed this review live I was hoping for some feedback at least, and at least some changes at the most. Six weeks later, I’m still waiting and hoping. If the issues I outlined in this review were addressed, I think Dead Star would be a super fun game – I know I’d play it regularly, and I’d end up dragging multiple friends along with me. As it stands right now, I am sad to say that I can’t recommend the game in it’s current state. I do want to emphasize that I appreciate the amount of work Armature Studios has put into Dead Star, and in a way, they’ve gone above and beyond. Dead Star is a mold-breaking game that has a ton of potential and is unique to the top-down / twin stick space genre. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way it seems that core game design took a backseat to customization options, and as it stands, the game is not very fun. I haven’t given up hope, however, and I’m watching the patch notes closely. I will definitely update this review and provide more positive coverage of Dead Star if Armature begins to implement changes that positively affect gameplay. Here’s hoping!
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