It’s a common thing for a developer to try to combine several different elements into a single game. Dead Star is a mix of twin stick shooters and king of the hill, with a little dash of MOBA thrown in for good measure. While it may take bits and pieces from various sources, does this competitive multiplayer game have enough going for it to be worth getting into?
Dead Star doesn’t have much story to speak of. A bunch of criminals are basically dumped into what was supposed to be a solar system prison colony. When the star started to go supernova, all the guards left, and now several factions are fighting over the supplies that remain so they can escape from the solar system. While the premise sounds interesting, this is a multiplayer game at heart and the story only really serves as an excuse to shoot lasers at each other. Outside of a brief voice-over during the tutorial section, you’ll never really get much of an explanation to this game’s world. It’s a bit of a shame as this seems like the kind of thing I’d love to see explored, but it makes sense in context.
The majority of your time is going to be spent in the game’s conquest mode. This can be played either 5v5 or 10v10, with the map size adjusting depending on the amount of players. Maps in Dead Star are randomized, with players voting on the general layout of the sectors they can fly in. Maps can also have special effects on them, like shield destroying EMP nebulas or ship slowing ice storms. One favorite of mine actually saw all ships get put at the max level, allowing for an interesting game of fully capable ships.
The goal of conquest is to destroy the enemy space station, and this can be done two different ways. The first is to physically destroy it by force. To do that, you need to capture the outposts surrounding the enemy base, then you just need to waltz in with your buddies and shoot it until it blows up. In all my time playing Dead Star I’ve only ever seen a couple of games end this way. What’s more likely is fighting the enemy to a stand still until you charge up your laser that instantly destroys the enemy base. Each base you capture slowly adds energy to your laser, and when it’s fully charged it’ll destroy the enemy base. It keeps matches from dragging for too long, and provides a different way for players not interested in direct combat to contribute to the team.
There are nine available ships in Dead Star and each one feels genuinely unique. Ships have four abilities that are tied to the shoulder buttons and triggers, with each ship having a unique set. My personal favorite ship is the speedy Herald, which has a cannon that shoots lightning, a repair beam, an EMP missile, and a shield that absorbs attacks. I also spent quite a bit of time in the Vindicator, a craft that had a ton of armor, several different weapons to dish out damage and shields to make up for its slow speed. Each ship falls into one of three classes. The small but speedy ships can capture bases faster, the mid-sized ones can hold double materials to mine better, while the large ships are just juggernauts in combat. Much to my surprise, I never felt like one ship was more or less balanced to the others. In all my time in Dead Star, I saw all nine ships being used. Some more than others, some ships require more technical play to be effective while some ships are easy point and shoot, but I saw where each of the nine ships could fit in and was very pleased with how well the balance was.
In matches, the game plays like a typical twin-stick shooter. You use the left stick to fly and the right stick to aim. All abilities are tied to either cool downs or heat so you always have to be careful with how you attack enemies. Just flying in with a spray and pray strategy will almost always get you killed. Moving evasively becomes an extremely important technique to master, as does using your abilities at the right time. Deploying my close range buzzsaw too early is only going to leave me without it when I need it, but using it too late won’t save me from getting killed.
If you don’t want to fight enemies, then you can stay behind and gather ore for your team. Destroying asteroids has a chance of dropping ore, which you can use to upgrade your base. Upgraded bases collect energy faster and have stronger defenses so you can spend less time babysitting them. They also have a chance to spawn NPC fighters that can join players in combat or help protect bases. Whether you’re killing enemies or mining ore, you’ll be leveling up, with each level giving you an upgrade to one of your current ship abilities or allowing you to pick a new one. How you choose to spend your points ends up really changing how you’ll play. For example, I could dump points in homing missiles while piloting the Razor, but I’d have to neglect the ship’s short range teleport jump to do that.
Conquest is a fun mode, but Dead Star could really use a few more. I found myself wanting even some simple ones, such as Team Deathmatch or Capture The Flag. Even a bot survival horde mode would be a nice change up from the game’s events, and I don’t see it being too difficult to put in considering that most maps have neutral bots attacking the players from time to time. However, Dead Star is insistent on its Conquest mode, and that is the only playable mode in the game. How much you’ll get out of the game is almost entirely based on how much you’ll like this one game mode.
While Conquest mode is the game’s only real gametype, there is a second minor one in the form of Escape Run. As you play Conquest there’s a very rare chance you may be rewarded with a Capital Ship. If you get one you can grab up to four friends to try to make the Escape Run. To get the Capital Ship out of the system you have to make a series of short jumps. The catch? You’ll be jumping into currently active Conquest games, and both teams will want to take you down. The Capital Ship may be well armed, and some players may not be convinced it’s worth going after, but it turns the normally 10v10 Conquest games into a 10v10v5.
A Capital Ship jumping into your game can serve as an extremely impressive distraction that helps breathe life into a match. Watching former enemies form a temporary truce to bring down the behemoths is amazing, as is seeing the sheer amount of stuff flying around when a ship shows up. The only problem? It’s an extremely rare event. In all my time playing I couldn’t have seen more than a couple of Capital Ships and not once did I ever find one of my own. The game really could have used more of these types of events to break up the standard gameplay.
While you’re probably not going to be getting rewarded with Capital Ships often, you will get awarded with augmentation parts. Outside of matches you can combine these parts to provide smaller permanent upgrades to your ships. They’re not as huge as the temporary ones you can earn while playing for leveling up, but they do add up and can provide that extra oomph you may need. You can also unlock paint jobs to make your ship just a little more personal.
Dead Star seems to have its gameplay down to a science. The nine available ships are extremely well-balanced, the game’s controls are tight, and it plays well. The main Conquest game mode is even pretty fun, but if Dead Star is going to really need something else if it wants to retain its audience . More game modes, more crazy events like Capital Ships, or even something else entirely. Dead Star needs something to keep people coming after the PlayStation Plus crowd moves on, lest it becomes a white dwarf in the galaxy of multiplayer games.
Dead Star has some great ideas and plays extremely well, but the game desperately needs more content than it has right now.