People who subscribe to a philosophy of sacrifice for eventual greater good will have a jolly old time with Nuclear Dawn. Unfortunately for those with lenient moral principles, the gameplay consists of slightly more “Sacrifice” than “Greater good”, a condition one must accept before appreciating the game.
Essentially, Nuclear Dawn is a 32-player class-based multiplayer shooter where 15 of 16 players on each team play the role of cannon fodder grunts through a Counter-Strike/Battlefield/Team Fortress 2 hybrid FPS while the remaining two people play an RTS. It’s an undeniably interesting concept, and the fact that it even remotely works is commendable.
As a commander, you place healing stations, spawn points, automated turrets and such on the map. These installations must be constructed within your power network, which is expanded by building power nodes. As an FPS-view foot soldier you pick one of four classes (stealth-guy, shoot-guys-guy, heavy-guy and repairing/healing-people guy) and set out to capture currency-generating stations on the map allowing the team more constructions, while taking out constructions – and combatants – of the enemy team. The ultimate goal is to destroy the enemy team’s main spawn bunker, usually achieved through gradual expansion of territory until one team’s rocket turrets are conducting perpetual – and if you are on the losing team, horribly annoying – spawn killings.
The FPS gunplay is surprisingly tight for something constituting only half a game, packing a level of punch and precision above many dedicated shooters. The guns have satisfying visual and audial feedback, and class and loadout is adapted for specific situations without being completely useless outside their niche; the medic’s SMG performs best in corridors but your keyboard won’t suffer your frustrated slammings if you get caught in a long-range firefight with it.
The RTS side of things works moderately well too, though my exposure to it is limited (The highest ranking players are usually selected for the commander roles, and this game boasts a small, but hardcore, community meaning newbies are seldom allowed commander roles). Your success is quite reliant on the underlings (players) obeying your orders, something which might have been a disaster on the douchebag-infested console online services, but is not a problem in the gentlemanly society of PC gaming. The commanders have a disproportionately massive influence on the battle, which is the cause of nearly all of Nuclear Dawn’s issues:
Not only is serving under an incompetent commander caps-lockingly frustrating, even a tactically efficient commander will employ tactics that make playing as a grunt a sour experience. The game is balanced to make it fair with regards to which team wins and loses, not with regards to the FPS player’s moment-to-moment experience. Oftentimes, you are supposed to continually grind your head against the enemy as part of the larger plan. Getting stuck in horrible bullet-hail bottlenecks is a mere side effect for the benefit of eventual victory. You’ll encounter situations whose effect on most FPS players would yield a furious hate-mail in the game’s developer’s inbox, but giving an individual FPS player immediate satisfaction ranks low on Nuclear Dawn’s list of priorities.
This is where the game will lose many people’s attention. Players craving quick-fix gameplay typical of the modern multiplayer FPS will struggle to enjoy it. Unless you get satisfaction from knowing you are helping achieve a longer-term goal, the majority of the time spent in Nuclear Dawn will seem a chore rather than a pleasure.
However, if you do accept these terms and are able to thrive within them, the experience of Nuclear Dawn can be thrilling. Seeing your opponents’ base riddled with explosions, decreasing health bars and soldiers getting spawn-killed is a great reward for having out-cooperated them over the course of a fifteen-minute, highly methodical tug of war. Not to mention that sweet moment when you realize a battle is turning in your favor, or conversely, the sudden panic when things are clearly going sour. The high level of tactical depth (again, on the large scale rather than the small one) ensures these moments keep coming, as there is a near-constant multitude of strategies for a team to consider, keeping things tense and unpredictable.
It’s a nice bonus that the game is up to snuff in terms of presentation, too. The battles are fought mostly in apocalyptic near-future versions of iconic cityscapes such as London, Tokyo and New York, and these settings are created with an air of believability and scale that balances out their relative genericness. Grass stretches up through cracked sidewalks, crumbling skyscrapers tower above you, and the wet floor of a subway station reflects the neon lights above it. It’s lucky the game runs on the highly scaleable Source engine, so even mediocre computers ought to be able to handle it with minimal friction.
Nuclear Dawn is a low-priced and very interesting game being played by a dedicated and friendly community, which might well be worth the high barrier to entry, reoccurring frustration and intermittent technical cock-ups you may suffer.
Pros: Cool, if slightly generic, art style, gameplay rich in depth and originality.
Cons: Moderately hard to get into, requires buckets of patience, intermittent technical issues.
3 out of 5.