24 Aug 2017

Dauntless Founders Alpha Preview

Disclaimer: I bought into the Founders Alpha. As such, the usual caveats apply: wanting to avoid buyer’s remorse, wanting something to be good because you’ve sunk money into it, and so on. If you’re not comfortable with risking your investment in an Early Access beta that you might not enjoy, then don’t.

With that out of the way, why am I excited about Dauntless? If I’m honest, it’s because of something I love about MMOs: fighting big-ass monsters with a group of heroes and stealing their loot. Take that idea, put the boss on a floating island, and that’s how I look at the core concept. Simple, right?

Sure, some gamers may invoke the Monster Hunter lineage, but that’s alien to me as I never got into the series. From what I understand, however, it’s a similar deal: kill big monsters, harvest them to make better weapons and armour, use that to take on bigger monsters. Rinse and repeat.

For both camps, it seems as if there’s a lot to like. On the one hand, there’s a sense of progression and specialisation from crafting your own gear, choosing an equipment loadout, and completing quests to progress a storyline. On the other, there’s the locational hitboxes that each behemoth has, with loot tables adjusted slightly depending on which body part you smash up. Both of these hint at potentially deep gameplay, although bear in mind that this is alpha.

Even at this early stage, lore about the game world is also starting to emerge. The Shattered Isles is where these folks call home, which are literally kept floating through a mysterious substance called Aether. It’s this essence that the behemoths are after, ripping it out of an island until the rock is reminded of gravity and plummets out of the sky.

It’s why the Slayers exist – to take down these creatures. The city of Ramsgate is put in danger every time one of these flying islands is at risk of falling, leaving heroes to save the local population. The islands also offer a bounty of rare resources and ingredients, making the trip worthwhile in more ways than simple butchery.

So how does it play? Currently, Dauntless is very Alpha. Finding a group is easy enough with the automated tools, and getting to an island is straightforward. It’s the mechanics of movement and combat where things start to break down a little: controls can feel spongy, and character placement can be temperamental. Hit detection feels a little iff as well, where a monster can strike a blow seemingly from some distance, but standing next to a behemoth isn’t guaranteed to land an attack. Even so, it’s reliable enough to get the gist done, and will hopefully be polished as alpha continues.

That movement mushiness continues when getting around Ramsgate, while interacting with the various NPCs is performed through a very bulky and heavyweight UI. It’s clearly a work in progress, but it also hints towards the possibility of a console release, particularly as controller support is already baked in.

The group finder also has a significant problem, in that it doesn’t consider team composition. Currently, many players are favouring chain blades as their weapon of choice, instead of an axe, sword, or hammer. It means that I’d frequently end up in a group with three other chain blade players, limiting our overall hunt effectiveness.

Despite these faults, Dauntless has three things that have caused me to sink countless hours into it already. It’s fun, scratching that team-play boss-fight itch in a way that PvP lobby games just can’t manage. It’s challenging, with the more powerful creatures using unique abilities and throwing off attackers. And it’s mysterious, offering the hints of a world that I’d like to learn about, explore, and eventually thrive in.

As the game matures, I’m hoping that more features make their way in, such as periodic challenges and leaderboards for teams to show their hunting prowess. Guild airships would also be cool, especially if they can be upgraded with perks to bring to the hunt. I’d also like to see player trading, both for resources and crafted items, just to ensure that RNG doesn’t end up as a bottleneck for progression.

For now, though, I think that we’re about 9 months out from a strong open beta (Update: open beta is planned for later in 2017, but I still think we’re looking at mid-2018 for a polished and near-complete feature set) . In the meantime, the folks at Phoenix Labs have a hefty workload ahead of them. Not just in building and tuning the engines behind Dauntless, but in keeping the community together for the long haul. But, after seeing that glimmer, that spark of what it might become, it’s why I’ve paid up for the alpha. I’d be the first to admit that it’s not the right game or the right time for everyone, but it’s something that I personally want to see grow, develop, and eventually launch. It’s for this reason that I’m comfortable throwing money into the pot.

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