Lifeless save for a few unconvincing pigeons and a bunch of rats that look suspiciously like someone round the corner is pulling them along on a bit of string. In a strange twist, Dirty Bomb the game feels like a preserved snapshot from the recent past. A class based multiplayer shooter rooted in the early 00s, only breaking from it’s old-school template to shoehorn in modern free to play mechanics.
After the likes of Titanfall and Destiny, Dirty Bomb is initially jarring. The lack of advanced movement abilities, coupled with the historic PC shooter twitch feel, can make it seem like you’re steering a block of polystyrene around. There is a wall jump but don‘t expect it to be much use without hours of practice. Where Titanfall set out to close the gap between player intent and execution, Dirty Bomb deliberately widens it. Gunplay is purely a matter of headshots and reaction times making face to face encounters feel dry, but amping up the satisfaction of outmanoeuvring an enemy before plugging them in the back of the cranium.
Developers Splash Damage have focused on objective based gameplay to the exclusion of everything else. Maps are asymmetrical defender vs. attacker affairs offering linear progressions through a handful of main objectives with side objectives opening or closing advantageous shortcuts. One highlight is the Underground map, playfully flipping the concept of high-ground advantage on its head with perilous runs down banks of escalators. Another prototype Millennium Dome themed map showcases a less constrained take on the formula, hinting at more variety in future updates.
Sadly the Mercs, Dirty Bomb’s MOBA influenced take on character classes, lack personality, amounting to a collection of accents pinned to drab character models. Aesthetics aside, they’re mechanically solid with the beta showcasing multiple takes on some classes. For example, one medic can drop a health station suitable for defence while another can throw down a stock of med packs to support teammates pushing forward. Mercs are monetised with two unlocked as default with another two temporary unlocks on weekly rotation. They come in two price points, which at £4.79 and £6.99 are a little steep although pack deals are available. There’s always the option to unlock them with in game currency and after 7 hours of play I’d grubbed enough credits through level-up bonuses to unlock a third but a fourth would take serious grinding.
There’s no option to customise loadouts either. Instead you get a handful of loadout cards detailing fixed sets of equipment and perks. Random cards can be bought with real or in-game currency and unwanted loadouts crafted into better cards. It’s an act of streamlining that presents newcomers with the familiar irritations of the free to play model but none of the fun bits. There’s no setting your sights on a coveted weapon or perk or splurging on an impulse buy. Progression, even with an investment of real money, is rooted in random chance.
As an online experience Dirty Bomb is stable and largely lag free. Visually the slightly cartoony depiction of London holds up well with liberal splashes of colour and the game ran smoothly on my ageing machine. The free to play aspects are transparent from the start and centred around unlocking options instead of crippling new players with pay to win dynamics.
There’s a good chance Dirty Bomb will find a loyal fan base, hungering for a pre-hat Team Fortress experience despite the excess free to play baggage. Crucially for me I enjoyed my time with it despite my ambivalence to that bygone era. I suffered my fair share of crushing defeats at the hands of far more experienced players, the old-school take on the genre being unforgiving but unscrupulously fair. I also fought through heroic last stands, steamrolling victories and tense cat and mouse encounters and, if you can judge an FPS by it’s moments, then Dirty Bomb delivers.