I’ve killed so many behemoths that they might as well be ants trying to reach the empty pint of Ben & Jerry's on my nightstand that I’ve been too psychically drained to trash for the last week. Dauntless is all about killing these big suckers, and so the challenge is clear: how do you make such a laborious day-job as intrinsically satisfying as possible, and how do you make that feeling last forever, if you can? How do you make behemoths feel like behemoths 100 hours in?
With the latest update to Dauntless, the developers at Phoenix Labs may not be approaching infinity, but they’re doing a damned good job pretending anyone can play a game forever. It's this giddy self-delusion that makes live games like this so much fun to play, or to at least follow. Destiny 2's endgame and progression is a mess, and the messaging even worse. World of Warcraft is a steady drum, patches and expansions marching past with perfect rhythm. We can always rely on Team Fortress 2 to drop new hats at the drop of a hat. But Dauntless is still finding its beat, having just hit beta status in early September.
Back then, our own Austin Wood said Dauntless was "too simple and slight for Monster Hunter fans," criticizing combat without a maze of combos and a crafting system that dead-ends pretty quickly. With the Sharpen Your Skills update, Dauntless isn't there yet, but I get the impression that won't be the case for too long.
New ways to die
Two new behemoths bring in new damage types in tow, layering in more stat-based considerations when putting a team together. Weapons now specialize in blunt, piercing, or cutting damage, and certain bits of behemoths are now vulnerable to specific damage types. I learned about this system the hard way.
During a fight with the Kharabak, a flying bug enemy and one of two new behemoths, we brought in nothing but hammers, which, had we even taken one second to talk about or notice what we'd done, well, we wouldn't have done it. Hammers are slow, deliberate things. Great for dealing heavy damage, but they require extreme precision and understanding of exactly how long each attack animation takes in its windup and delivery. We had none of this knowledge.
The bug is faster than any behemoth in the game so far, flitting in and out of reach, darting up and down and behind like they're trying to find the perfect angle and scenery for your imminent death. Ah yes, this will do, and then you're on your ass and back up again, waving the hammer around like a sack of potatoes. But when you do manage to find the right timing and just barely clip it as it flies over, the hammer suddenly feels like a fly-swatter sent from God, a holy instrument capable of moving mountains (and also killing bugs). That's because it does blunt damage, which is extremely effective once you get the Kharabak grounded.
Our hammers were doing enough to keep the Kharabak stunlocked and on the ground for quite some time, long enough for me to pity it, like, damn, we were really going to town on this bug's exoskeleton. But then it flared up with white hot rage and its wings literally got white and hot. In an enraged state, the Kharabak grows these glassy white wings that make it move faster and hit harder. You can knock it out of the state by shattering the fancy new wings, but with nothing but slow, clumsy hammers on our side, we got hammered. It was one of the most breathless battles I've had in Dauntless, and if Phoenix Labs can stay as wild and experimental with its behemoth design, I don't think bottomless weapon combo pools will matter so much.
The second behemoth wasn't as interesting, though the Skarn's rocky exterior encourages teams to bring a few blunt or piercing weapons to the fight. Do enough of the right damage and you can chip away at their armor much faster than normal, exposing the soft fleshy bits beneath. Stab those bits with cutting weapons for extra efficiency.
I used the new War Pike weapon against it, and I did a poor job. I'm sorry. I know I did a poor job because I only landed one good hit, and my team knew too, because now your hits spit out damage numbers, and your best hits show them to everyone. The War Pike is a snappy toothpick that doubles as a rifle. Designed for speed and precision, it couples short combos with built-in side-stepping flourishes. Build a big enough combo and you can bank that energy towards your special. Step back and aim, and with good enough timing, the moment the reticle shrinks to a fine point you fire a round of energy out of the tip of the pike. I finally managed to time one of those shots correctly and nailed the Skarn in the head. A big yellow 420 popped up on-screen, and I was more pleased than I deserved to be.
Phoenix Labs is adamant about keeping behemoth health bars invisible, which leaves the damage numbers a bit unmoored, though I suppose they're enough to differentiate good hits from bad hits and which of the new damage types are more effective. Behemoths don't show their damage well enough though. Fights can last a long time, and with only a few cuts or the occasional enraged state as indicators that you're doing damage, I still manage to get impatient, or at least curious as to why a monster isn't showing its wear more obviously in how it behaves.
New ways to try
The new region hunting matchmaking system will ideally add some much needed variety grinding for supplies. Before, armor sets required behemoth-specific items to craft, so you'd have to matchmake into the same hunts over and over in order to get what you need. Regions group multiple monsters together, meaning you can no longer choose to hunt a specific one (right away at least). Instead, you'll drop into a region and happen upon one among a group of potential behemoths. And now every behemoth in the same region shares a common pool of crafting items that can go towards any armor set. They still withhold specific components, but chances are you'll find them through natural play, or by eventually banking enough Wayfinder Tokens, which you can put towards hunting a behemoth of your choosing.
My favorite change is the cell system, which I might only love because of how easily I can compare it to Destiny 2's disappointing mod system, another feel-good live game I can't quit. They function similarly: weapons and armor have sockets you can slot mods or cells into, which grant buffs to certain stats. The difference is that with over 200 cells to choose from, Dauntless' pool of gear modifiers is much deeper and far more playful than Destiny 2's.
While some cells affect simple stats, like how much health you have, some reward much more specific behaviors, like executing perfect dodge rolls or performing long combos. Such a massive dump of variables that players can toy with as they like has the potential to break some builds, but in a game that never ends, why is that such a bad thing? If Phoenix Labs is dumping the bucket of Legos on the living room floor and letting players make what they like this early on, I look forward to seeing what kind of ridiculous customization we'll be capable of in a year or two.
Fighting behemoths will always get tiring eventually, but now the path to getting tired is more interesting than ever before. And by the time I get there, Phoenix Labs will hopefully have dropped a new update with more behemoths and ways to play. There's still plenty of work to be done, but when the basic interactions feel this good, giving players the tools to tweak the tiniest aspects of a build can be enough incentive to get back on the bike and take it around the block a few times. Except now the bike has rockets wheels and a solid gold frame because you smashed a monster into bits with it.