Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Nuclear Dawn Review

Nuclear Dawn, developed and published by InterWave Studios.
The Good: Mix of shooting with light strategy, four classes with varied weaponry, neat HUD, multiplatform, balanced unlocks
The Not So Good: Very limited tactics for infantry assaulting enemy buildings, restrictive classes place you in a single role, shallow strategy component, unnecessarily drawn-out games, no AI bots (for now)
What say you? This first person shooter features a commander placing structures with a lack of flexibility and depth: 5/8

Albert Einstein famously said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but it shall be simulated in a first person shooter and real-time strategy hybrid called Nuclear Dawn.” That guy knew everything. Yes, Nuclear Dawn is another retail game born of a mod (another piece of evidence showing the importance of the mod community to PC gaming), following the path of the likes of Red Orchestra and Natural Selection. This particular title has most players shooting each other in the face, while one person on each time is the commander who can place structures to assist in destroying the enemy base. The computer gaming market is all about combining genres these days; I’m still waiting for my MMOFPSRTSRPG-adventure. Will Nuclear Dawn offer enough innovation to stand out in an ever-crowded shooter marketplace?

Nuclear Dawn features decent near-future graphics. All of the level designs are urban and maze-like, a necessity given the power-line-driven strategy model, and consist of generic metal buildings set in different climates. The characters are animated well enough but lack detail, with people encased in featureless armored suits. Both sides look identical from a distance, and I was only able to tell them apart using the game’s informative HUD. The HUD is probably the best part of the graphics, as it gives the impression of information superimposed onto your helmet’s visor, without being visually restrictive. The ammo counts are really helpful, appearing directly over your gun, and icons above friendly and spotted enemy soldiers show the interconnectivity of the future battlefield. The sound effects are commonplace: typical and forgettable weapon effects for each gun, little voice acting when units are spotted or buildings are under attack, and an annoying ear ringing when you die that gets plenty annoying. The game’s settings specifies a music volume, but I’d be hard-pressed to say when music was actually playing. Overall, Nuclear Dawn delivers a solid package for the price and indie-developer roots, highlighted by the futuristic heads-up display.

Nuclear Dawn features an eternal struggle between two factions, fighting over the urban outposts of the near future. The two sides are indistinguishable: they play the same, with the same classes and almost identical buildings, so it’s a matter of whether your favorite color is “red” or “blue.” Game modes. The “warfare” game mode involves destroying the enemy base by any means necessary (namely a rocket launcher), and there are plans to add team deathmatch in a future update. There are six maps in the game and all follow the same general pattern: a maze with resource points scattered throughout. The game supports thirty-two players online, but Nuclear Dawn currently lacks AI bots or a practice mode of any kind (there are plans to add them in a future patch). I think I would rather have terrible bots than no bots at all, so you can at least practice the game before jumping online. There are a series of tutorial videos that explain the basics, but newcomers will take some time learning the ins and outs of each class and weapon combination. Nuclear Dawn has unlocks in the form of gizmos: they provide more advanced ammunition, which is a small enough bonus not to impact the game, but still something for veteran players to enjoy. None of the advanced ammunition types are required to succeed, and you get access to all of the weapons and classes from the start. Finally, Nuclear Dawn works on both Windows and Macintosh thanks to its use of the Source engine.

Nuclear Dawn has four classes with ten loadouts total, so there are options for any type of player here. Weapons are tied to a specific loadout in each class, so there is no Brink-level flexibility here. The stealth class can cloak (for a fairly lengthy period of time) and comes in assassin (with a submachine gun) and sniper flavors. The assault class can spot cloaked enemies and can bring an assault rifle, grenade launcher, or sniper rifle. The support class has medics, engineers, and flamethrowers. Finally, the exo class has a chaingun or rocket launcher. The classes are very restrictive, and usually you are given a terrible secondary weapon to accentuate your primary role: medics get a machine pistol, engineers get a lowly shotgun, and the rocket launcher comes with a pistol. This lack of flexibility really forces you to work with your teammates, so there are definitely no lone wolves to be seen in Nuclear Dawn.

One commander per side can place buildings using resources collected from captured points. The most interesting aspect of the strategy half of Nuclear Dawn is the use of power: it is required for all buildings to function, and it must be distributed from your main base or remote power generators using power lines that obey line of sight (meaning they must “see” another pole to transfer energy). This means you can cut off a forward base by attacking the intermediate power lines: a fascinating option. The rest of the strategy game is disappointing, though: the commander can place forward spawn points, turrets, a research building that enables more advanced classes, and resupply depots, but that’s it. The basic strategy is to slowly expand towards the enemy base and cover chokepoints and spawn points with overly powerful turrets that have high health and high lethality (an annoying combination!). Buildings play such an important role in the game, especially defensive structures, but there are only two specific units (an exo equipped with a rocket launcher, or an assault with a grenade launcher) that can deal significant damage to them. This leads to a mid-game grind as neither side can dispose of the enemy structures in a timely manner, and the buildings are cheap and easy for the commander to construct. In addition, it takes too many shots to destroy a building, so it takes a considerable amount of time to slowly advance through the enemy structures, significantly and unnecessarily increasing the length of the game well past the point at which the victor is determined. Respawn times are also quick, so as long as you have the forward spawn base protected, reinforcements will always be ready to add to the deadlock. Soldier movement and health is varied according to their class, but death for any class except the slow-moving heavy exo is pretty quick. The use of forward spawn bases reduces the amount of running necessary to traverse the map and tends to concentrate the action more, at the expense of taking much longer to determine a winner. The maze-like, multi-story map layouts also keep you on your toes, and caution is suggested when nearing the next corner. Overall, Nuclear Dawn has a definite lack of balance because of the high building health and uselessness of the classes that can destroy structures in any other role. A tank has a machine gun to deal with infantry, but the exo in Nuclear Dawn gets a pistol? I realize why this decision was made: to make people work together. But that doesn’t make it a good decision.

There are two main issues I have with Nuclear Dawn: the lack of depth in the strategic game, and the narrow class restrictions. First, the commander has really limited options at his disposal: just expand outward using power lines to connect turrets, forward spawns, and research buildings that unlock a single new weapon per class. I wasn’t expecting an extremely detailed experience, but there are simply no interesting decisions for the commander to make, other than which of the maze-like paths to follow towards the enemy base. Nuclear Dawn has good variety of options in the game’s four classes, as each class has three weapon loadouts that perform a very specific role on the battlefield, from the siege exo that takes down enemy buildings to the assault medic that throws out health packs. That said, the role restrictions are severe, overemphasizing teamwork in the game. For example, the aforementioned siege exo (the best/only solution for enemy turrets and structures) equipped with a rocket launcher has a pistol as their other weapon. Hooray. Heck, the engineer in Battlefield 3 gets a carbine rifle to compliment their rocket launcher so they can at least do something if enemy units come near. Nuclear Dawn is all about placing buildings while removing the enemy’s, so it’s shocking that only two of the game’s ten loadouts can do any type of significant damage to enemy structures. This really kills the pace of the game and leads to a lot of stalemates in the center of the map until one side can break through. Even when one side has tipped the scale, there are so many buildings with so much health that it can take ten or twenty minutes of “clean up” to advance and destroy the enemy base: tedious. I will, however, compliment the game’s engrossing and informative heads-up display, the ability to play on both Macintosh and Windows machines thanks to the Source engine, and the low importance of gaining unlocks. Still, only coordinated teams will be able to conquer the world of Nuclear Dawn, and the strategy elements will leave tacticians wanting a lot more.