The Smell of Plutonium in the Morning
The first-person shooter genre is one that is all too often wanting for inspiration, as cookie-cutter modern-day military shooters with simplistic mechanics have come to dominate the scene. However, newcomers Interwave have taken the dependable Source engine that has powered such convention-flouting classics as Portal, Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead to bring a fresh spin to online shooters with a dash of real-time strategy with their new title, Nuclear Dawn. The multiplayer-only game allows you to choose one of two factions, the Western capitalist Consortium or the neo-Soviet Empire, each with their own set of weapons, tech trees, and visual style. The Consortium has a more streamlined and futuristic style, while the Empire has a more industrial look and feel.
The part of the game you’ll probably be playing the most (as there are plenty of slots for soldiers but only one for Commander) is the first-person shooter portion. As a soldier, you have several objectives – capturing resources, stemming enemy advances, and taking the enemy base while defending your own. There are several classes: the standard Assault troop with an image enhancer, the power-suited Exo who can wield miniguns and siege weapons, the Support who can provide medical, engineering, or fire support, and the Stealth who can cloak and perform sneak attacks. Each class has several different loadouts that can be chosen. Some require the Commander to research a tech upgrade, so you can’t use the Siege kit right away. Each class has a specific class-based ability as well as being able to uze Gizmos you earn as you gain experience. The gameplay itself isn’t difficult to get into; if you’ve played any FPS in the past ten years you’ll be able to jump right in (although you’ll probably have to get used to a few things – battles are about a half hour in length and death can come swiftly to the unprepared).
The role of Commander should be instantly familiar to RTS players, and it feels and operates quite similarly to the first Dawn of War game (this is definitely a good thing). You can command your units to capture points or attack locations, and they receive experience points for following orders. The captured resources will then gradually tick into your supply, and you can use them to purchase new structures and technologies. You can easily make a tight, compact base with a mess of turrets to catch incoming infantry, or a base that meanders all over the battlefield to provide forward spawn points and offensive defensive turrets (a tactic we used to call “spider bases” in Command & Conquer). The striking thing is that the RTS segment is just as well-implemented and interesting as the shooter segments (in some cases even more so), but be warned: a slow or wasteful command style can easily get a mutiny going against you.
Maps are large, and quite varied, ranging from the very open streets of New York City to an almost claustrophobic-by-comparison Tokyo. Levels are pretty well layered, with several floors and often quite a few shortcuts. The maps are speckled with resource points to capture, as well as plenty of neutron-bombed buildings to take cover in. Sometimes they can seem overwhelmingly big, and it can take a long time to run to the front after spawning (and spawns take quite a while themselves). This can be something of a pain if you’re getting sniped as soon as you hit the battlefield. This can be remedied by the Commander placing a forward spawn, but you do have to let him know.
The online community is rather small, and Nuclear Dawn has had the rotten luck of being a small studio effort with little advertising released in the midst of the industry’s carpetbombing of AAA titles. The servers can be rather barren at times, usually with only one or two servers getting all the action (with 32 players to a game). This can be a pain if you’re bored of a particular map and that’s the one being played. However, the servers themselves are good, and for the most part the community is a pleasant one. Perhaps things will pick up for it when gamers tire of Modern Warfare (although considering MW has sold the same game three times, that may be unlikely). There are a few bugs of note, as well, but the Source engine makes these things fairly minor. It’s become a highly polished engine over the years. My biggest complaint remains the lengthy spawn times, as you’re usually itching to get back into the action after some jerk caps you.
I also want to point out that I appreciate the Interwave team’s particular approach to a post-apocalyptic future, particularly the fact that they’re not following the cookie-cutter Fallout/Mad Max style that Borderlands and Rage were so eager to replicate. It works well – it’s the future, but it’s not so far in the future that things are significantly changed. I appreciated it, feeling some kinship between it and the cyberpunk future of Crusader: No Remorse. I imagine, if there were nighttime missions, they’d look something like the opening of the Terminator movies (expansion? Pretty please?).
The Final Verdict
Nuclear Dawn is a game that definitely deserves more love than it’s getting – if you’re tired of modern-day conflicts and want to jump into an intense future war, or if you have a flair for the strategic and want to try your hand at commanding troops that can actually think and operate on their own, then by all means give Nuclear Dawn a shot. It’s one of the more unique multiplayer experiences, and is available for both Mac and PC on Steam.