Steam Early Access: Deep Rock Galactic Preview (Updated)

DRG Screenshot - from DRG Press kit (https://www.deeprockgalactic.com/)

A lighthearted, fun, intense, hybrid, co-op experience – beards required.

Link: Deep Rock Galactic 
Platform: Xbox One / PC - Steam or Windows Store 
Game Type: Co-op FPS 
Format: Single / Online Multi 
Cost: ~$24.99 USD (in Early Access) 
Avg Session Time: ~35 minutes to 2 hours

[Update 6/20/2018] – Article updated to account for Update 14.  The most important part of Update 14?  Beard physics.

[Update 3/22/2018] – The developers did an AMA on Reddit.

Since its inception, Steam Early Access has been marred with abandoned games and half baked “finished” products (hello H1Z1) for a variety of reasons.  Ignoring the low tier garbage that infects Steam, I am confident that many of these cases of abandonment are not scammers looking to make a quick buck.  Instead, developers look to Early Access as a way of injecting cash into the project.  Unfortunately, many run out of steam (no pun intended) and the game is never completed.  I’ve come to view Steam Early Access as unpaid alpha testing.  If I buy a game during the development phase, I am an unpaid tester.  I have little expectation the game will ever be complete and my cash is going right into the pocket of the developer.  I can’t hold them accountable and I can’t control what the they do with it.

It’s this viewpoint that make Deep Rock Galactic (DRG) such a surprise.  I don’t feel the associated risk of the game being in forever beta mode that I have felt with other titles.  It could still disappear into development hell, but based on my experience with it thus far, I doubt that will be the case.  DRG Early Access ($25) is an entertaining, well built, unique co-op experience with a solid foundation.  Put another way: DRG doesn’t play like a hot mess of half baked ideas, glued together haphazardly, and then shoved onto Steam because the developers were running out of money.

What is Deep Rock Galactic?

Let’s start with the summary right from the Ghost Ship Games YouTube channel: “DEEP ROCK GALACTIC is a co-op-first sci-fi FPS featuring badass space Dwarves, 100% destructible environments, procedurally-generated caves, and endless hordes of alien monsters.”

That sounds great to me, where do I sign up?  The YouTube videos leave a good impression, as they should.  I decided to jump in…bug shooting

The only good alien bug is a dead alien bug.The basic gameplay loop is as follows:

  1. Each player (1-4) chooses a specialized space mining dwarf from one of four classes (scout, driller, gunner, engineer).
  2. The host chooses a game type (elimination, expedition, point extraction, search & extract, collection, salvage) and everyone boards the transport drill.
  3. The drill takes everyone deep underground (in spaaaaaace).
  4. The group (or single player) must complete the main objective (e.g. collect 200 morkite) while fending off attacks from cave bugs/aliens/monsters.
  5. After completing the main objective, the players must locate their escape pod and….escape.

The gameplay loop is relatively simple (collect/kill and escape), but what makes DRG so enjoyable is how dynamic the experience can be in a single session.  The game can go from slow paced mining simulator to shoot everything that moves in a matter of moments.  Similar to Left 4 Dead, the A.I. “director” will spawn alien bugs to attack the players while they attempt to complete the mission.  Exploration & mining is punctuated by the sudden need to survive an onslaught of angry alien bugs (in spaaaaace).

The game is especially fun in a group because each dwarf type (class) has unique skills that the rest of the group need to survive (e.g. zip lines, platforms, turrets).  The hard limits of what each class can do on their own act as a forcing function for multiplayer groups.  The team must stick together to survive.  Attempting to leave the group behind will most certainly lead to death and likely failure of the mission.  There is no perfect way to complete a mission.  The best teams must work together and flex when required.  This is the best kind of multiplayer in my opinion.  No dwarf is useless on their own but the only chance of survival is in a group.  (In solo mode, a robot gunner accompanies your lonely dwarf underground.  If you have reliable internet, I suggest playing in a group.  Solo mode is functional, but limited.  If you have kids, solo mode also provides an option for safe, offline play.)

drg teamwork
In DRG, teamwork is critical – mining is dangerous work.

In terms of graphics and presentation, DRG utilizes a unique low poly, stylized look that is punctuated by excellent lighting effects.  If I can get philosophical for a second, Deep Rock Galactic would be post-postmodernism in it’s approach to visuals.  It’s a stylized low poly look, but modern all at the same time.   The brilliant light and shadow effects go a long way in selling the experience.  Every cavern truly feels like it’s two miles under ground.  The artists and developers at Ghost Ship have outdone themselves in terms of the look and feel of DRG.  It’s simple yet elegant, practical yet creative.

Performance Notes [Updated 6/20/2018]: My gaming PC has a GTX 1070 coupled with an i7-5820k.  I haven’t found any major issues running the game but recent updates have created some micro stutter and hitching issues.  Optimization is better than earlier builds but other bugs now exist.  Similarly, a friend of mine had satisfactory performance on his GTX 1060 but also ran into some hitching and network issues.  Crashing is still being reported on the forums and it occasionally occurs on map load.  I did not get a chance to play this on Xbox One but I suspect the performance is acceptable.

Deep Rock Lighting
Deep Rock Galactic lighting is top notch, especially for a game still in development.

Caution – Early Access

Now that I’ve spent the last few paragraphs talking about what DRG does well, I can talk about where it needs to improve.  (Remember, this is a game in alpha state. The developers have stated that they are busy working on new features, fixes, and content.)

As you might expect, the alpha has a few bugs: networking drops, textures, spawn issues, terrain oddities.  Fortunately, none of these are show stoppers.  They happen, but they are minor.  It’s hard to say what the worst bugs are at the moment, but one can assume networking is a top priority.

[Original Article Text] Character progression, overall, needs work.  DRG has a very basic, and limited, class progression system whereas the player simply unlocks improvements for individual tools and items.  Everything else is vanity based (e.g. black armor).  Even when I could carry more grenades, or my pick got stronger, I never felt like the class (aka space dwarf) was getting any better.  That said, I don’t think DRG needs a long slog of progression check marks.  The last thing DRG needs is some bullshit, content padding, progression system that simply extends player engagement instead of making the game more interesting.  Deep Rock Galactic could benefit from a different type of progression system.  What if the player could have stronger armor at the expense of move speed?  How about more grenades but less ammo?  I’m not trying to design the game for them but the progression system does have room to grow.  What is there now is obviously alpha state.  I am confident it will be improved.

[Update 6/20/2018] – Character progression has been overhauled in Update 14 with additional character upgrades, vanity items, and the new perk system.  This is a big improvement over the previous iteration.

[Original Article Text]  Exploration is mediocre and I expect we’ll see some changes.  The procedural system in place does an excellent job of making each adventure feel unique but there is a weakness to it:  Each cavern has one main “path” and there isn’t any reason to leave it.  Branching paths do occur in the level generation but that’s not exploration, just backtracking.  I can’t be 100% certain but there doesn’t seem to be any point in leaving the main path, destroying walls, digging around, or just blowing everything up.  Hidden caverns would add a dynamic layer to the exploration but wouldn’t harm players that just want to get in and get out.

[Update 6/20/2018] – Cave generation has been updated with additional variety, terrain, and detail.

[Original Article Text]  Lastly, the developers absolutely must tweak some of the environmental hazards.  There are some environments (aka biomes) that are much harder than others.  Depending on the generation seed, it can be near impossible to get off the transport drill.  The bog and magma biomes can be especially problematic.

[Update 6/20/2018] – Some of the biomes have been altered and balance is improved.  Unfortunately, some biomes are still clearly harder than others and groups tend to avoid the harsh environments (e.g. magma biome).

DRG Bug Face
This would be a good time to pull the trigger.

 

Final Thoughts

The developers at Ghost Ship Games have provided nearly everything they can to showcase the core gameplay:

  • variable difficulty
  • functional multiplayer (w/ server browser and auto-join)
  • functional single player
  • various game modes
  • in-game voice chat
  • functionally effective procedural generation

Deep Rock Galactic is the best type of early access: A complete and competent gameplay loop at the expense of other in-game systems.  This is exactly how alpha state games should be sold to the public, if a developer/publisher chooses to do so.  (Coffee Stain Studios is the publisher.)  Even more than being alpha ready, this is how games should be built, period.  The core loop or function within a game is the foundation upon which the rest of the game is built.  When I play DRG, I can see exactly how that core loop plays out and what iterations might be possible with further development.

One of the biggest issues in modern gaming is that core gameplay mechanics are never fully developed or finished.  I find that developers/designers will complete a basic function and then go about creating extraneous game systems around that core mechanic.  If the foundation of a game is unfinished or lacks refinement, the rest of the game will suffer.  I have to save the details for another post, but lacking a strong functional core is one of the biggest reasons certain high profile games failed to impress after launch (*cough* *cough* Destiny 2).

If you are willing to take a risk with early access, Deep Rock Galactic is a safe bet.  It might use ideas & mechanics from other popular games, but it molds them together into an impressive, unique package.  Check it out for yourself and let us know in the comments (or on Twitter) what you thought.

 

Assuming Deep Rock Galactic gets a full release version (someday), we will post an “official” review at that time (or update this article to reflect the release version).