The Source engine has been merrily serving game developers for roughly seven years now. It’s quite impressive, and its powered plenty of hits – granted, most of them have been in-house Valve productions, but a few cult classics have been built on the once-groundbreaking framework of Half-Life 2. It’s been incredibly popular for modders, too, which is where Nuclear Dawn‘s story starts. It’s a hybrid tactical shooter/real-time strategy game, one of those ambitious crossovers that, on paper, just make sense. Of course, the action/RTS blend isn’t new, but it’s never had a breakout title – and while Nuclear Dawn is in some ways the closest we’ve ever gotten to a brilliant merging of these two genres, it’s still a little rough in spots. In other areas, it feels like genius.
The game is almost deceptively simple when a match first starts. Players choose between two teams, and then pick one of four classes (Assault, Support, Exo, and Stealth). They’re then dropped into what appears to be a normal attack-and-defend objective based shooter, complete with Battlefield 2-style quick communications and capture points. However, the base each team is defending houses a terminal for the team’s Commander, a player who can observe the action from above. The Commander gives orders to the grunt first-person players, and can also build defensive structures – like turrets – to help keep the enemy team at bay.
This already requires a little more planning than the average shooter, but it gets more complicated. Structures cost resources, which must be captured and held by players. They also require power, which must be relayed via specific structures, which cost resources, which must be acquired by players… so it goes. The RTS mechanics don’t feel hobbled by the FPS structure at all, either – standard RTS features like control grouping are present in Nuclear Dawn, and while its balance and mechanics are hardly going to rival Starcraft, it doesn’t feel dumbed down or shoehorned into working with an action game. It’s an excellent way to create a team dynamic, and its nuances really become apparent in a good team game.
Each side has slightly different styles of RTS play, too. For example, the structures that give the Consortium side power broadcast radially, through buildings, meaning their Commander can expand a base over a large area fairly swiftly. The Empire’s power structures must connect to each other via line-of-sight, which means expansion occurs very differently compared to the opposing Consortium. Given the opportunity and drive, players who experiment with the Commander position could find a lot to love here, provided their units play along.
On the ground, things are a tad less complicated. The four classes play off of one another well; the heavily armored Exo can be countered by an invisible Stealth player, Stealth players can be spotted while invisible by the rounded-out Assault class, and the Support class can heal everyone, as well as break up groups with close-range weapons. Capturing resources, protecting and destroying structures, and picking off enemy players is the order of the day in the FPS mode. Unfortunately, being on the field is where much of the game can fall apart. Nuclear Dawn isn’t much of a looker, and the combat itself feels a little lukewarm, and the shooting portion of the game doesn’t have as compelling a hook as the interesting Commander mode.
In fact, many of the minutiae surrounding the core concept feel slightly off. The robotic voice that alerts you about capture points and other important battlefield details sounds like some guy trying to do a robot voice, instead of being filtered. The overall look of the game is muddy, and the bright yellow HUD is often obscured by yellow and brown bloom in outdoor areas. The color schemes for the two sides are excellent in theory – black and blue for Consortium, red and white for Empire – but more often than not, the environment makes everyone look a bit gray. Naturally, some of the issues can be forgiven on the basis of Nuclear Dawn‘s origin. It’s not exactly a high-budget game – more like a labor of love, but there are places where it seems like the indie developers stretched themselves a bit too far while reaching for the stars. The bright side to this is the receptive development team, which has already released a large patch fixing many of the games teething glitches and advanced balance issues.
There’s also the fact that the game relies on every player being on the same page. Unfortunately, many players seem to jump into the game without watching the provided tutorials, and sometimes, nobody even assumes the role of Commander – although thanks to a recent update, there’s a way for server admins to automatically assign somebody to the position. New players can often be seen being chastised by exasperated veteran players. On the flip side, who can blame them? The included tutorial videos are helpful as primers, but Nuclear Dawn lacks any sort of actual training mode or bot play that could help out a newcomer. The community for the game is rather small – as of this writing, there are usually four or five active servers – and it’s not hard to imagine a new player being completely overwhelmed by Nuclear Dawn‘s mechanics and dedicated community.
Still, Nuclear Dawn really shines when everybody is on point. Full team games are a blast, and a good Commander can make a noticeable difference to the players in the field – likewise, a sharp ground team is vital to a Commander in need of resources or defense. The presentation is a bit drab, and stepping into the game is rather daunting – but with support throughout the future, it could catch on. It’s certainly one of the better RTS/FPS hybrids, and with any luck, it will become a little more welcoming to players interested in something other than the typical shooter fare – and for people willing to invest themselves, it’s already worth a look.