Returning to Dreadnought: a Re-review

Dreadnought is a free-to-play flight combat game where, instead of piloting nimble fighter planes, you’re put in the captain’s seat of enormous space ships, letting you live out your fantasies of being at the helm of the Starship Enterprise or Battlestar Galactica. I last played and reviewed Dreadnought during the Closed Beta; the game has since undergone two years of continuous development, as well as a playstation4 release, so I thought I’d share my thoughts and experiences having recently returned to it after such an extended break.

Gameplay

In terms of its core gameplay, Dreadnought is still very much the same beast, now with additional game modes, increased action through the change from 5v5 to 8v8 combat, and a larger assortment of impressively detailed maps in its reportoire.

Ship variants remain the same with the 5 distinct classes ranging from the nimble-for-a-massive-ship variety, to the driving-a-barn-with-guns types: the fairly fragile but powerful Artillery Cruisers that are basically a giant sniper rifle, nimble Corvettes to engage in guerilla warfare by attacking quickly then running away, Tactical Cruisers to heal and provide buffs, the jack-of-all-trades Destroyers which are good all-rounders, and the game’s namesake Dreadnoughts that are slow hulking masses covered in guns.

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The ships are still comprised of a fixed primary weapon, as well as customasiable secondary weapon, 4 modules ranging from nuclear missiles to armour boosters, and 4 “officer briefings” that provide buffs such as increased damage resistance. The modules and officer briefings have received some slight balancing, but are all ultimately still the same, and that’s a good thing; they can vary hugely as it is, from types of torpedos that can travel different distances, to pulses that damage, drain, or disable other ships, to warp abilities to travel large distances or directly to teammates or enemies. During combat you also have an energy meter that you can use for a shield, or to increase movement speed or weapon damage, within maps that are designed to provide varied areas of cover, all allowing for some fairly mixed gameplay across the different game modes.

As well as the original Team Deathmatch and Team Elimination, there is also now an Onslaught mode with lots of AI-controlled ships that you destroy for different amounts of points while also trying to destroy the other team, as well as a Conquest mode where you gain points based on how much of the map you control. These new maps and game modes are also an appreciated enhancement to the already strong core gameplay. But the more significant changes to the game are around the progression system towards unlocking new ships and modules, which also added complications to the way in-game currency works.

Ship Tiers and the Tech Tree

To clarify: during the Closed Beta, you would unlock more powerful ships and modules as you gained experienced and progressed through the levelling system, all while earning in-game currency which you would use to purchase them - or if you lacked the necessary in-game currency, you could use real money to purchase Greybox points to use instead if you wanted to. The main disadvantage to this was that the later ships and modules were clearly superior to the ones you had access to at lower levels, and matches regularly included max level players with the most powerful ships against low level players with weaker technologies who were still getting used to the game

Now however, the ships and modules are arranged into 5 different tiers contained within manufacturer tech trees, where each ship only has access to modules of the closest tiers. The higher tier ships only become unlockable once you’ve progressed enough through the tier below, and the most powerful modules are only available at the higher tiers. This new differentiation is then used to create Recruit (tier 1 - 2), Veteran (tier 3 - 4), and Legendary (tier 4 - 5) fleets, which are used to restrict the matches so that the weaker, lower tier ships are never paired against their stronger, higher tier counterparts with their more powerful modules.

All in all, it’s quite a good way of balancing the gameplay. And although fewer types of modules are available at the lower tiers, there’s still enough variation there to keep the gameplay varied while allowing players to get to grips with the game, and as you gain access to the higher tiers and more varied modules, it opens up the possibility for new strategies as well.

Although the newer tier differentation ensures that matches include fairly balanced ships and tech, high level experienced players can still use lower tier ships and end up playing against people who are new to the game, so this approach to balancing is only partially successful. It also highlights that, while the leveling system still exists in the game, it now serves no purpose at all, other than perhaps as an indication of a player’s experience. Though, when you view the scoreboard in a match, you can only see the icon that represents each player’s level, which new players won’t be familiar with. So arguably, the leveling system is only really useful as a way for experienced higher level players to know that they’re in a match with and/or against lower level players.

The tier system also gives the impression that there are more ships than there actually are. As you progress through the tiers, you’re just unlocking more powerful versions of the same ships, with some slight aesthetic differences, that sometimes have access to new modules. But in reality, these are all still the original 15 ships that were in the Closed Beta, with the standard, light, and heavy variants of the 5 classes. This isn’t necessarily a criticism however, the 3 variants across the 5 classes were always well balanced, where each served a distinct purpose, with clear strengths and weaknesses. The variants are just being stretched out across a new system now. There are some definite disadvantages to this new system however, but we’ll get to those shortly.

User Experience

The change to the progression system and introduction of the Tech Tree naturally adds a greater level of complexity to the User Interface (UI) and the User Experience (UX) within it.

The UI itself looks nicely polished, and interactions have a smooth, appropriate feel to them for a technologically focused game. That being said, while the Tech Tree is actually quite simple, it looks complex and intimidating, especially when you first come across them. There’s definitely a learning curve here, as there is with many games, but in this case it looks worse than it is. That’s important, because there’s a risk that new players to the game will find the apparent complexity of the Tech Tree off-putting. The UX is confusing at times as well, and it can feel like you’re getting lost within a maze of pages filled with ship and module information that all look very similar. This unfortunately means that it’s very easy to lose your place.

Officer briefings are also unlocked as part of your progression within the Tech Trees, but their place within it isn’t visible from the overview; you have to go into the module view for each individual ship, to see what later ships and officer briefings are unlockable once you’ve progressed enough with that ship.

This newer UX complexity very nearly dissuaded me from continuing with the game; bearing in mind that I’m saying this as a previously experienced player who already understood the different modules and ship classes, and the variants within them.

Contrary to that however, is the UX of the actual gameplay. While the User Interface elements for ship and module information can feel domineering, the most important part is the information provided mid-match, and here I think it’s spot on. Parts of the in-match UI and UX changed fairly fundamentally between the Alpha and Closed Beta phases, but there have only been some small changes since then; a few areas are slightly more refined, especially in terms of how much damage or healing you’re doing. These aspects, and information about your ship’s health, energy, and modules, are all clearly presented, without detracting from the beauty of the maps and combat effects; and while these are all noticeable, none of these things distract from your focus on the actual combat.

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In-Game Currency

To put it bluntly, the in-game currency is unnecessarily complex. I’ll try to explain it, and its relevance to the progression system, as simply as I can:

As you use ships, you gain experience points for that particular ship (Ship XP), which is used to research modules for it, and to research other ships. Once a module is researched, you then use Credits to purchase it. Once you’ve researched and purchased enough modules for a particular ship, you can then use that Ship XP to research and “claim” (which does not consume Credits) a higher tier variant. Once every module for a particular ship has been researched and bought, any additional Ship XP you gain with it from further use can be converted to Free XP, which can be used on any ship. This conversion requires Greybox Points (GP), and while small amounts of GP can be gained through gameplay, this is typically purchased with real money. GP can also be used to purchase cosmetic items for your ships and player, to purchase additional credits, and for Hero Ships, which are pre-configured ship variants that can’t be customised.

That’s 4 different types of in-game currency: Ship XP, Free XP, Credits, and GP. And the fact that it requires a paragraph that large to detail the currency system is a bad sign!

That being said, it has its advantages too. This system encourages players to use different ships, and to subsequently vary their gameplay styles. It’s important to note here that every match earns you a small amount of Free XP, as well as the usual Credits and Ship XP, and that even if you only use one ship in a match, the other ships in your fleet also gain small amounts of Ship XP. You also gain slightly more Free XP if you use Hero Ships.

This is very different from the currency system in the Closed Beta, and there’s a lot to dislike about it. An initial nagging criticism is that it seems slightly counter-intuitive that after you’ve used a currency to research something you then have to purchase it, as presumably if you’ve spent to research something, you would have been creating it at the same time. More fundamentally on this point, the need to use two different currencies to acquire something feels unnecessary, especially as the researching aspect is also instant, so it feels like you have to purchase something twice in order to use it.

Secondly, while one aspect of this approach is encouragement to use different ships, it arguably also punishes you for having favourites; unless of course you can afford to spend more real money to convert the Ship XP to Free XP. While I’m not surprised that this system exists in this way, as it’s a free-to-play game from Yager Development and the company needs to make money from it somehow, I’m more concerned that it’s yet another aspect of the game that’s more complicated than it needs to be.

The Grind

So far, we’ve talked about the various ship tiers, which you progress through to unlock essentially the same types of ship again, with access to more powerful modules; these modules are tiered as well, which involves unlocking the same module over and over again, such as Nuclear Missile 2, then 3, then 4, then 5. We’ve also mentioned about how XP is mostly limited to individual ships, while sitting within a quad-aspect currency system. Combined, the result of this is “The Grind”!

Dreadnought seemingly attempts to conceal its long-winded progression system behind the constant unlocks. While this makes you feel like you’re progressing fairly fast at first because you gain access to new types of modules and some new ships that aren’t available at the lower tiers, that impression quickly wears off as it dawns on you that you’re repeatedly acquiring the same things.

Admittedly, the higher tier variants of modules do improve upon their lower tier counterparts, with changes such as improved damage, extra projectiles, faster cooldowns before they can be used again, etc. Unfortunately though, as you progress through the tiers, the cost also significantly increases, for very negligible gains; a module might initially cost 500 XP and 300 Credits, this increases to an average cost of about 12,500 XP and 12,000 Credits, followed by a cost of up to 55,000 XP and 40,000 Credits. I’ve not reached any modules beyond that stage yet, but I almost don’t want to!

This further differs from the system used in the Closed Beta in that when you purchase a module for a ship it’s available only for that ship, rather than for the entire class of ship. Previously for example, if you purchased the Drain Torpedo module for a Corvette, it came in that single variant, and was available for all Corvette ships. The new system is a stark contrast where, instead of purchasing a module once for the entire ship class, you might have to purchase the module up to 15 times, at increasing cost each time.

Conclusion

In summary, quite a lot has changed since the Closed Beta. At its core, Dreadnought’s main gameplay is still fun; arguably more so now that matches can be more hectic with the increased team size - admittedly that change has also meant that the likelihood of a teammate warping into the middle of the enemy team to be met with a swift death has also increased; likewise, the tier-based progression system means that that approach to teamwork is largely restricted to the lower tiers. I can clearly see the reasoning behind the changes since the Closed Beta, including the ones I’m less keen on. My main concern is that the added complexity might scare away potential players, and consequently, potential profits for Yager as well. Ultimately, while I’ve spent most of this review criticising some of the newer aspects of the game, the fundamental fact is, I’m still playing it, and I’m definitely still enjoying it.


Posted: May 27th, 2018
Categories: video games, reviews