For starters, ND sports a very impressive backstory and timeline that manages to successfully deliver a fresh and intriguing premise on the destruction of civilization. It’s such a shame, then, that none of this backstory actually appears within the game itself. I know, I know – it’s a multiplayer game, but still, it’s pretty disappointing that they didn’t take advantage of all this rich lore. Perhaps through an in-game intro movie, or an unlockable journal, or unlockable video series, and so on. Apart from that, we never get to take a look at the real world out there, beyond the empty battlefields of the devastated cities of the old world. We don’t get to see what life is really like for the survivors of the Nuclear Dawn. Nor do we really know what each faction is fighting for. Again, perhaps some in-game unlockables would have helped reveal more about ND’s world to the player.
But what is it that really matters in a multiplayer game? The levels, of course. Yes, the backdrops to all of Nuclear Dawn’s splendid action are actually quite impressive. They’re detailed, they play well, and they’re quite well optimized. In addition, they are all based on real-life cities: New York, Tokyo and London are just a few of the cities you’ll be fighting in. Although there was some weird stuff in these maps – like ancient telescreens showing news reports of post-apocalyptic battles going on right now, or a bizarre lack of large-scale destruction. However, I enjoyed the excellent use of vegetation – where it’s realistic (yeah, turns out plants don’t give a fuck about radiation), but simultaneously has a post-apocalyptic style to it. There’s not that many maps, but hopefully InterWave will be releasing some more through post-release updates.
But it’s the gameplay we all really care about. After all, ND is a multiplayer game. Well, the best way to describe Nuclear Dawn’s multiplayer is… a cross between the large-scale battle royales you might have seen in games like Battlefield and Tribes, and smaller infantry-based skirmishes you might see in games like Insurgency and Team Fortress, with a pinch of real-time-strategy thrown in. In fact, this strategy-FPS hybrid mechanic is similar to those in Natural Selection and Battlefield 2. The maps are quite huge, but there’s no vehicles. It’s a bit of a shame, as giving players the ability to carry large squads onto the battlefield using machines of war like APC’s or helicopters would have been really great. Of course, adding these features would then necessitate adding other features as well, so I’m cool with putting these on the laundry list for a possible Nuclear Dawn 2. For now, in terms of navigation, players will have to make do with… well, jogging around.
The FPS gameplay, on the ground, so to speak, is pretty damn well-done. You have 4 classes to choose from, and each has about 3 individual loadout kits to choose from. The kits make each class quite versatile (although they are not available from the start of a match and must be unlocked by the Commander), and in general, the classes are all a blast to play with. There’s a low skill barrier, but a high skill ceiling, so they are lovely to play, and they all leave room for you to master them. In fact, each class is important in its own way. You’ll always need a few folks to play Support, and enemy structures are going to be tough to take out without a few Exos. While navigation can be a pain at times (the sprint function does nothing to speed you up in a meaningful way), combat and shooting are pretty great. There’s nothing like taking part in a huge all-out assault on an enemy base. It’s not just about adrenaline or teamwork – it’s simply a lot of fun, and it’s exceptionally well balanced.
Newbies might have had a tough time getting started on the front when the game first launched, but since then, InterWave have introduced a few really great features to help new players get their bearings, like an in-depth training mode for both FPS gameplay and Commander mode, a solo-play mode featuring bot support, as well as a Career overview in the main menu so you know what you have or haven’t unlocked. And they did so quite fast! InterWave has definitely proven that they are committed to supporting ND, and they’ve done so with regularly released, substantial game updates that take care of both bugs, as well as balancing issues.
On the marketing front, they did alright: there were no substantial pre-order bonuses, aside from beta access and a Veteran Medal that was initially restricted to players who only pre-purchased the game prior to or within a specific week, but has since been given to all players who owned the game prior to its release. No TF2 cross-promotion, and the Veteran Medal thing was… well, I honestly didn’t find out about it until I’d actually gotten my copy. Don’t get me wrong, they did quite well (I love my medal!), but there is plenty of room for future improvement in getting more people to buy the game. Also – no special edition! Not even a digital one! What a shame.
So far we’ve only touched on the FPS mode, but any team in Nuclear Dawn would be nothing without a good Commander. While you do have training and solo-play, it can still be a bit tough to get started as a Commander. Don’t be surprised if you get kicked off the hot seat after an intense mutiny vote from the rest of your team. Just hang in there, persevere, and keep playing! A good Commander will always make the difference in any Nuclear Dawn match, and that’s because of how competitive the game is, for both infantry and Commanders. Playing “Comm”, as some players say, can be a very demanding and challenging task. You always have to keep building, whether it’s defensive turrets, power relays, or infantry spawn points. But the rewards outweigh the risks, if you ask me!
Sound design is pretty well-done. The guns, ambient sounds and everything? They all sound pretty awesome, but the voice acting is a bit lacking and the music is… well, a tad mundane. Just stereotypical FPS orchestral music, nothing with a style of its own, or anything new and fresh. For a possible Nuclear Dawn 2, I’d suggest giving the game its own musical tone and feel. Don’t get me wrong – the music doesn’t sound bad, but it’s just a bit uninteresting. There are a few tracks that are REALLY, really cool – such as one main menu track that had this great industrial sound to it, but the rest of the soundtrack is just dull orchestra stuff.
And, lastly? The graphics! They are pretty well done – the game looks quite good, and it is certainly up-to-date in terms of 2011 graphical horsepower, but the art style comes off as a bit lacking in certain areas. In terms of graphical style, it just looks a bit… ugly, and drab. No way to tweak color settings, as other games like Serious Sam 3 and PAYDAY allow you to do, so you’ll be stuck with the same monotone colors like brown and gray.
So, in conclusion? Nuclear Dawn is… pretty damn awesome. I’d say its multiplayer component definitely rivals that of almost every online shooter currently on the market. And for a low price to boot! While it started out a bit slow, it’s since received some substantial DLC support that’s turned it into a much-improved experience. Not only that, but it’s one of the few games to successfully fuse the FPS and RTS genres without diluting or damaging either paradigm. So look beyond meager multiplayer offerings from overpriced modern war shooters. If you’re looking for a great multiplayer title that’ll give you lots of replay value, lots of action and lots of fun, as well as some new and innovative gameplay mechanics, then by all means, go buy Nuclear Dawn now. I’m serious.
And if you’re looking for more info on the game, check out my interview with the game’s producers and designers, at Podcast 17.