Dreadnought hands-on: a multiplayer slugfest with really big spaceships
Dreadnought is about spaceships—emphasis on 'ships,' timid ensign voice on 'space.' Not X-Wings or Vipers: think Galaxy-class vessels, trading missiles and laser fire across vast battlefields—in space, eventually, but I didn't see a space map during Yager's demonstration. Instead, I fought over a rocky red desert, commanding a hovering battleship with enough room for the population of San Francisco and the maneuverability of a Spanish galleon. Maybe a little slower than a galleon.
Rather than giving us the scrappy little fighters we usually pilot in space sims, Dreadnought takes inspiration from the giant ship battles of classic sci-fi stuff: Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, and Star Wars, namely. It'll be free-to-play when it releases, with 5v5 (maybe more) multiplayer and an episodic single-player campaign. Right now, Yager is only showing team deathmatch, but it also has a team elimination mode and more in the works. Because of some network problems (the ISP, not the game), we played 2v2 locally instead of 5v5.
The pace reminds me of MechWarrior Online. Even Dreadnought's smaller, sleeker corvette class ships—which the devs compared to the Millennium Falcon—are a bit cumbersome. Unlike MechWarrior, however, I got a few kills (true, they were going easy). Dreadnought is easier to pick up—much less sim-ey—but I can already see a lot of tactical possibilities.
As a low-profile support ship, for instance, I hid in the shadow of a massive dreadnought class ally, using healing rays to keep my cover alive and popping out to harass bigger ships with my phaser-like beam. This isn't a flight sim, clearly. The ships hover. You can raise and lower altitude, but you're not so much flying as you are steering a boat with an extra dimension.
Each ship has four customizable special abilities and a primary and secondary weapon. My favorite abilities are the warp jumps, which can zap a lumbering battleship feet away from the enemy, Picard Maneuver-style. It looks awesome. There are also missiles and torpedoes—the latter requires getting in close and looks like a photon torpedo barrage—the repair abilities I mentioned, a cloak, a nuke that does a ton of AOE damage near the ground and makes everyone punch into the sky to get away, passive abilities—one will launch little fighter ships—and more. If it's been in a sci-fi movie or TV show, Yager is probably designing it. The team has around 50 abilities so far.
The most interesting thing about the main weapons is their reliance on positioning. On a big ship, for instance, my top mounted turrets turn slowly to catch up with the reticle. On a long-range artillery ship I tried, the gun kept up with my aim, but I had a much more limited firing angle so I had to turn—oh so slowly—to face my enemy.
With some weapons, I also noticed a slight delay between my click and the response. I asked if that was a bit of fidelity: the crew responding to my order. The answer was unclear, but there is a little crew in there—conceptually, at least. You even get to pick your officers, and they can earn perks (i.e. a weapons officer could give a reload speed bonus), and relay important tactical information. I love that touch—it's a little thing that makes a big difference. You don't see inside your ship, but having officers talk to you creates the illusion that it's really this big living city of people. Who will definitely get blown up.
The main thing that's missing for me right now is damage modeling. Ships take uniform damage, and that just doesn't make sense to me in a game about slow, careful positioning. I expected ships to have weak bellies, or for some ships to have extra broadside armor, or for the ability to target weapons or engines. Dreadnought isn't completely designed, so that's still on the table. I also felt a little let down by the simple energy management. Clicking the scroll wheel opens a three-pronged radial menu. You can raise shields, increase speed, or increase weapon power, all of which deplete an energy bar. There's not much nuance there. Increase speed at the start of a match to hunt the enemy, raise shields when attacked, boost weapons when attacking. Try not to run out of energy when you need it.
As for the episodic single-player mode, there wasn't much to see. Writer Dan Abnett, best known for his work with Marvel, is onboard for the story, and that's the gist for now. I suspect that Dreadnought's appeal will largely be its multiplayer, which will be in open beta early next year. We also don't know much about how Yager will apply the free-to-play model, but I have positive feelings about the hints I got, and the game in general. I like big spaceships, with lots of guns on them, and Dreadnought has lots of that already.