Editor’s Note: This Dead Star review does not include the game’s alternate mode, Escape Run.
More and more these days, we’re seeing numerous types of genre blends that cannot be monogamously categorised: RPGs and first person shooters, fighting games and platformers, roguelikes and 2D action games. MOBAs, a hybrid genre in and of itself, have most recently found their rule sets contorted into an increasing amount of titles. We see some minor MOBA characteristics such as “creeps” and multiple characters in games like Evolve, and more feature-complete inclusions in others such as the upcoming new IP from Gearbox, Battleborn.
Armature, whom you may know from Batman Arkham Origins: Blackgate, and upcoming Xbox One exclusive, Recore, has found yet another way to introduce MOBAs to the gaming audience at large. Dead Star is a top-down space action game that attempts to attract players with the simplicity of a twin-stick shooter, along with the depth and complexity of a role-playing multiplayer experience.
Dead Star’s complexity runs deeper than the game is willing to explain in its tutorial, which reviews its basic functions, such as selecting and piloting ships, mining for Ores and artifacts (read: EXP), and engaging in combat. Aside from teaching the basic fundamentals of Conquest, everything taught here is the equivalent of learning how to walk. The game’s controls and surrounding concepts as a twin-stick shooter are simple enough; however the tutorial neglects to touch up on how to operate with team strategies, how to be mindful of different types of nebula and outposts, and how to react to cosmic events. Everything else will need to be studied in Dead Star’s manual, which does take a little bit of time.
Everything in Dead Star revolves around its premier mode, Conquest. Like traditional MOBAs, the goal of Conquest is for each team to destroy the other’s “tower”, or in Dead Star’s case, the Home Base. However instead of navigating the three lane structure seeing in League and DOTA, players must fly their ship through a procedurally generated assortment of sectors. Home Bases can be destroyed in one of two ways. First, they can do so by securing all surrounding outposts lying in the center of each sector which lowers the enemy bases defences. Or, players can secure, defend, and upgrade as many outposts as possible to increase the rate of accrued points until your team wins. Though it is likely this’ll be the only of the two modes in Dead Star players will ever play (the other, Escape Run, which I haven’t been able to access yet), its many in-game dynamics allow for various types of players to potentially encounter a myriad of situations. Even after 15 hours of play, I’m still finding new tactics in Conquest mode.
Without leading you through the trouble of unlocks, Dead Star gives you access to all nine ships, each of which are divided into classes and play a specific role in Conquest matches: three Scouts, three Raiders, and three Frigates. Depending on your playstyle, knowing class advantages is key, as you’re only allowed to carry three ships in a loadout. The aptly named Scouts are the fastest ships in Dead Star, and can also capture outposts at 4x the rate of other ships. Their combat abilities strike a nice balance between offence and support, however their light weight doesn’t allow them to sustain any significant amount of damage. Raiders typically play support roles in battle, but they’re best known for carrying large amounts of Ore which are used to upgrade outposts’ defences and functionalities. Frigates are the guardians in these star battles. As the slowest of all three classes, they can deal and withstand a great amount of damage, and thus are best prepared to lead the charge in defending and assaulting outposts.
Just like the separate classes, each individual ship has its own strengths and weaknesses. The Marksman Scout ship has great offensive capabilities, however it is the slowest in its class. The Raider ship, Bulldog, has a short ranged/low rate main weapon, but once you unlock its alternate abilities in-match, it’s an excellent support ship to use for crowd control. In spite of all this, Dead Star doesn’t challenge players much when it comes to selecting a Frigate. The Justicar is a well-rounded behemoth that slightly makes up for its lack in armour with a shield ability, but its short-ranged yet accurate laser cannons, and ability to heal teammates within its immediate proximity, make it an obvious choice within the Frigate class.
To be an effective presence in the cosmic battlefield, you’ll need to stick to a ship loadout, and upgrade those ships as much as possible. All of this lies under the Augmentation System, which tries to present itself as being deep and satisfying, but can sometimes feel as if it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Each Conquest match awards players with components that are used to augment your ship’s assets, and each asset requires a certain combination of components to upgrade. If you’re missing a specific type of component needed for an augmentation, you can turn to the recycling menu which allows you to mix three components together. Ultimately however, augmenting your ships means you’re betting on chance. The drop rate for components at the end of each match will eventually lead you to a plateau where you’ll be completing several matches before getting even the first of five components needed for an upgrade.
Conquest matches generally begin with Scout ships deploying into the field, capturing outposts that are immediately adjacent the team’s starting sector. From there on, the majority of the team typically moves on the offense, further advancing their campaign to the opposing team’s home base. Capturing additional outposts and killing neutral and enemy ships grants experience points that are used to upgrade your ship mid-game. I for one, however, opt to hang behind and upgrade outposts. This benefited me both as being the safest and fastest way to gain experience, and as a method to increase my team’s point accrual. These are strategies that must be established at the very beginning of every match. Any tactic that’s used and has proven effective up to the halfway point in Conquest almost guarantees victory from that point on. I’ve hardly ever seen a back and forth between teams, leading up to victory, that lasted longer than the first few minutes.
Dead Star tries to insert different variables that tilt the tide of battle one way or another. Smart players will target specific outposts that grant specific bonuses and defence options to hold off the enemy, one of which allows you to commandeer spawned AI ships from said outpost. Players should also consider surrounding nebula that inflict positive or negative buffs on ships that fly through them like fiery damage and health regeneration. What’s rare and most exciting are cosmic events – these include comet storms and, alternatively, “unitron radiation” that maximizes all ships’ abilities – all of which can effectively alter the path to victory. But these moments are, as I said, rare, and none of the other variables are significant enough to turn hopeless matches around into more competitive affairs.
As you’ve read at the very beginning, this Dead Star review does not take the game’s second mode, Escape Run, into consideration. In order for players to gain access to Escape Run, you’ll need to receive a Contract: a special reward that may or may not drop for top performers in Conquest matches. I’ve performed quite well in Conquest numerous times between being the “Top Defender” and “Top Upgrader”, though after over a dozen hours of play, I have yet to receive a single Contract. It’s a shame, because Escape Run sounds pretty damn cool, tasking players to escort a capital ship outside of the banished system in that Dead Star takes place, which aligns itself well with the game’s post-apoc-galactic lore. But if anything, you can judge the game by how difficult it is to access all of its featured content.
With games such as League of Legends and DOTA dominating the global gaming culture, there’s undeniable attention fixed on MOBAs, leaving those that neither have the hardware nor wherewithal feeling somewhat left out. Dead Star does a commendable job in bridging this gap between the popular genre and new players by applying distinct MOBA features mixed in with the mainstream mechanics of a twin-stick shooter. Conquest could use some balance tweaking, and the match rewards could be better, especially for components and Escape Run Contracts, but Dead Star is a smart little MOBA hybrid that may ignite the spark for future e-Sports players.
Cosmic Tug of War
Dead Star is an easy to pick up, difficult to master little mutliplayer games that serves well as a "My first MOBA".