Slow and steady wins in space.
With Saturn looming above me and the labyrinth of a sprawling space station below me, I can’t stop thinking about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Dreadnought’s space combat is literally worlds away from the galleons and sabers of Ubisoft’s pirate epic, but it delivers the same nautical warfare satisfaction when I pull up one of the hulking titular ships alongside another dreadnought and let the broadside cannons erupt in a blaze of glory. I miss swinging abroad and taking the vessel for myself, but Dreadnought makes up for that with some Trekkie tech like cloaking devices and warp jumps.
That’s the kind of fun Dreadnought delivers in its finest moments. It’s a free-to-play, team-based PvP-focused area shooter in the style of World of Tanks, with its biggest and most distinctive difference being that it’s set in space. It thrives on the same type of slow, cooperative play that keeps Wargaming’s WW2 shooter appealing almost in spite of itself, while at the same time adding some depth in the form of vertical play allowed by the ships’ disregard for gravity.
It’s fairly easy to get into thanks to three five-versus-five PvP modes that offer minor variations on Team Deathmatch, such Onslaught mode, which makes you protect your command ship while blasting away at everyone else. There’s also a PvE-focused Havoc mode (or horde) where three players to fight successive waves of increasingly powerful enemies. The basic gameplay in Havoc doesn’t feel much different from the main matches – after all, due to the low population on PS4 as of this writing, you often end up playing against bots in PvP anyway – but surviving demands a degree of communication and trust you often don’t get in the randomly matched PvP matches.
Dreadnought is a slow game, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying.
In no case, though, should you ever expect twitchy speed. Dreadnought is a slow game at the fastest of times, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying, particularly when you swing your massive vessel around with all the speed of a glacier melting, line up a target in your sights, and unleash all guns and missiles at once. The slower speed, in fact, adds tension and encourages thoughtful play, at least when you can get the random players you’re grouped with when you’re not in a squad to cooperate.
I keep bringing this up for a reason. Uncooperative team members are annoying in any multiplayer game, but they’re especially bad in a class-based game where each person has a role to play. Each of Dreadnought’s five ship classes closely corresponds to those you’d find in a run-of-the-mill fantasy MMORPG. The dreadnought is the tank – a powerful, lumbering beast that turns like a glacier. At the other end of the spectrum are the corvettes: fast (relatively), vulnerable fighters that can literally fly circles around their larger adversaries. In between, there’s the artillery cruiser, which is basically a flying sniper rifle, the jack-of-all-trades destroyer class, and the support-role tactical cruiser that understandably often gets targeted first because of its powerful healing abilities.
That kind of role-based design might be a big part of the reason why Dreadnought wisely doesn’t force you to stick with one class for the duration of a match. If your team’s having a hard time, switching out to another ship often makes the match go more smoothly. You can bring along a stable of five ships, switching out to one of the others after you die. Special abilities add further variety, such as the artillery cruiser’s stationary cloaking skill or the dreadnought’s ability to quickly warp ahead a short distance to ambush or escape a bad situation.
Each ship comes with at least a single level of individual weapon upgrades for the abilities maps the to action buttons, allowing you to boost the effectiveness of missiles or improve the tactical cruiser’s healing beam. Yet the real advancement in Dreadnought centers on unlocking new and better versions of each class of ship in a five-tier tech tree. Climbing a rung in that ladder is definitely something to look forward to, and if the player population ever grows to the point where you’re unlikely to find yourself in a Tier 2 ship and matched against a bunch of Tier 4s it might be a good system. Right now, though, it’s causing some balance issues. The ability to switch out ships makes this a bit more bearable, but it can still be a pain.
Many battles are set close to the surface of moons or space stations.
Dreadnought may be a spaceship game, but it sidesteps the associated danger of empty maps by setting many of the battles close to the surface of moons like Callisto, and those that take place elsewhere unfold in dense asteroid fields and around space-bound mining operations. It arguably even has more depth than a terrestrial game, as the spaceships’ disregard for gravity allows a vertical element to tactics as well. In my case, I found I performed best in the ship’s sniper class, raising my ship to peek over the nearest asteroid and then floating back down out of view after I’d killed my target. A tank isn’t quite that versatile.
The gameplay itself is largely intuitive, but one slightly awkward element is the controls, which map boosts for shields, guns, or thrusters to swipes on the DualShock 4’s touchpad. These are essential functions, and would probably be better tied to the D-pad. Even the menus can be annoying. They’re navigable enough, but their text is so tiny that trying to read them on a TV from even a few feet away becomes a chore.
Unfortunately, progress quickly declines from a satisfying pace to a chore as the quantity of XP and research time needed to unlock more ships demands more and more grinding as you move up the tiers. It’s a long process, particularly you can’t move down to a ship in a higher tier unless you’ve bought all the weapons and ability upgrades for the ship in the tier below it, and the XP and credit costs grow ever larger once you start moving into the third tier. For that matter, upgrading isn’t even all that interesting. Only in higher tiers can you choose which weapons you want to outfit your ships with, and even then these options are limited. For the most part, it’s just buying all the upgrades to your existing weapons and then moving on to the next line.
If you want to progress quickly, Dreadnought nudges you to spend cash.
But if you want to progress quickly, Dreadnought nudges you to spend cash. The idea, then, is to buy XP boosts that last from a week to a year. Obviously, it makes some sense that the developers need to make some money off of this free-to-play game, but Dreadnought is slightly obnoxious in the way it shows you how much XP you could be making as a paid player when every victory or loss screen pops up.
Alternatively, you could buy some premium ships that cost can around $40, which sounds bad but fortunately are only moderately more powerful than the free ships of their tiers. Honestly, if I’d paid for one I’d have been disappointed because you can’t customize them in the same ways as some of their regular counterparts. If you want to upgrade the premium “Trident” dreadnought’s weapons, for instance, you’re stuck with the Tier IV repeater guns and nuclear missiles that come with it. Other the other hand, the decision likely keeps them from being wildly overpowered and again, the customization options aren’t that robust anyway.
But again, the grind itself wouldn’t be quite as disagreeable if there were more people around. Dreadnought on PS4 is not a dead game, but the population is certainly erratic. Sometimes I’d hop on and get into a match immediately, while at other times I’d find myself waiting more than 20 minutes for a match. Not surprisingly, it was especially difficult to get into a Havoc match without a pre-made squad owing to the coordination involved.
It’s a great testament to the appeal of Dreadnought that I never felt like giving up during these long waits. Between five widely different types of ships, the beautiful zones, and the sense that I was actually handling myself rather well against better-equipped players for most of my early playtime, I consistently found something to look forward to. Dread it, I did not.