It’s beyond doubt that League of Legends and Dota have revolutionised video gaming. The astronomically popular MOBAs have set revenue records, rapidly accelerated the growth of esports, elevated players to the level of superstar, and transfixed millions of others worldwide. But they also performed another service that’s many times more subtle but no less important: in an age of huge budgets when mass appeal often trumps all else, these games signalled to developers that there is a huge market for unwelcoming, challenging games.

That’s why last week at a hotel in central San Francisco, British game developer Splash Damage was confident trumpeting phrases like “difficult to learn, impossible to master”, and “casual players need not apply” when describing its latest shooter, Dirty Bomb. The hardcore FPS market is a tight one though, so what makes Splash Damage think it has any right to take on the Counter-Strikes and Team Fortresses of the world when recent contenders like Titanfall and Evolve have – anecdotally, at least – struggled to retain a playerbase?

For starters, Splash Damage knows how to construct a sticky team-based competitive FPS. The London studio shot to prominence in the FPS scene back in 2002 with Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars – all well-respected titles. More crucially, following the let-down that was 2011’s Brink, Splash Damage is keen to paint Dirty Bomb as the product of a studio that went back to its roots.

Dirty Bomb hands-on
Dirty Bomb hands-on
Dirty Bomb hands-on

Dirty Bomb is certainly similar to those Splash Damage games of old; thanks to a low-lethality damage system, mastery of movement rather than simply getting in first will see players excel. The game’s fast-paced action is also sprinkled with parkour moves that are pleasingly tricky to pull off. There’s also a strong emphasis on objective- and team-based play here, with experience points awarded for much more than simply gunning down opponents.

Spawn times can be long, but getting around a map quickly is easy, with speed determined by character but also by the weapon said character is currently holding. The character system itself borrows from League of Legends: there are no classes as such, and instead characters possess strange mixes of abilities that edge away from the usual archetypes. That means there’s a lot of room to grow (and monetise) the roster, and that the genre’s rock-paper-scissors play will be expanded to include a lizard, Spock, and whatever else the dev team dreams up.

There are 20 or so “mercs” near completion so far, although only seven are available in the closed beta, with two free to use at any one time. We got a brief look at a dozen mercs in our session, and with that many on the plate there is something for all playstyles. All can perform basic tasks like defusing bombs and reviving teammates – some just do it faster than others. All also have unique abilities on cooldown timers like airstrikes, grenades, turrets, and insta-revives. For example, Proxy is your typical glass cannon; a fast agile close quarters warrior with mines, while Skyhammer doles out damage with airstrikes and his assault rifle and can drop ammo for teammates.

One thing that doesn’t vary much from merc to merc is weapon recoil, with almost all weapons shooting accurately regardless of size and the merc’s current movement speed. That makes aiming down sights unnecessary for all but the most long-range of firefights, and has closer battles somewhat resemble the jump-fests from arena shooters of old. Fortunately the low lethality of most weapons mean there is time to consider tactics.

Dirty Bomb hands-on
Dirty Bomb hands-on
Dirty Bomb hands-on
Dirty Bomb hands-on

The rounds we play are 5v5 Stop-Watch matches across two maps, wherein teams take turns attacking and defending an objective. There are also 8v8 matches and an Objective mode available in the closed beta, along with three additional maps. Unlike many other games of this ilk, only three mercs can be taken into a match to be switched between when you die.

Terminal had us explode or protect documents stored in a rail station, while Bridge saw the two teams scrap over an anti-radiation drug stockpile, with those attacking using a tank-like extraction vehicle in one segment. Each map also had secondary objectives that open up new passages (or create obstacles for the opposing team), or open up new spawn points. Both levels were a lot of fun, with many avenues both high and low, direct and circuitous, leading you to the ruckus and your goal.

Outside the battles, there are perks tied to weapon upgrades that range from small damage bonuses to things like a triple jump (all mercs can wall jump from the outset). Perks are awarded in the form of cards as you play and complete objectives, and there’s also a mechanic that lets you “craft” better cards using multiples of less useful ones. You also earn in-game credits to spend on equipment cases that contain random cards, or you can just drop cold hard real-life cash on one.

Dirty Bomb is FPS specialist Splash Damage's first foray into the world of free-to-play, but the British studio has a hefty backer in the form of Korean free-to-play giant Nexon. That name may concern those familiar with the publisher's output in the East, but Splash Damage co-founder Richard Jolly is adamant that Dirty Bomb won't be a pay-to-win title. "[Pay to win] has been far more acceptable in Asia, although that's changing now," he says. "Over here people just won't stand for it, and why should they? We want to make a competitive experience and you're gonna kill your community if you have a lot of pay-to-win elements."

The business model will be tweaked before the game sees a full launch to ensure there is a good balance, Jolly adds. "We'll be looking closely at how players react to what we have there, and we'll be refining and building on it, 'cos you're never gonna get monetisation perfect out of the door." He also sees a large upside with the reactivity afforded his studio by the free-to-play model: "You're constantly evolving, you're constantly adding new content, you're constantly redesigning systems. It's great for someone like me because I love to feature creep. It's always really depressing having to cut away features and put a game in a box, because there's things that never see the light of day that would have been brilliant if you just had that extra bit of time."

With a lack of features and polish among the main criticisms of Brink, it's hard not to view Dirty Bomb as a proper shot at the game Splash Damage tried to make back in 2011, and from a mechanical standpoint the game is looking like a success – it's fast and enjoyable, with at least two well-constructed maps and some thoughtful merc design. What matters now for Splash Damage is nailing that free-to-play model balance, while still providing enough content to keep players drawn in by the low entry barrier interested. Those aren't things it's possible to judge in a few hours, but we'll report back from the closed beta where possible.

If you want to see how the studio has fared so far, you can buy in to the closed beta for NZ$24, and unlock five mercs and a handful of credits for yourself in the process.


Matt travelled to the Dirty Bomb event in San Francisco courtesy of Nexon.