One of the more interesting games I've played of late is Dead Star. The creation of Armature, an Austin-based software studio that was founded by key members of the Metroid Prime development team, it's a top-down, twin-stick multiplayer shooter that reminds me of the very early online game, SubSpace, with a dash of the classic PvP shooter, Star Control. I spoke with Lead Designer Tom Ivey about the game, and got the chance to play it at a recent preview event.
How would you describe Dead Star?
"It's a 10 versus 10 multiplayer arcade shooter that's viewed from a top-down perspective that plays similarly to a team MOBA game. The ultimate goal is to destroy the opponent's home base, and you do that by capturing different important points on the map, which let you control the game's different zones and eventually destroy the opponent's base."
What's the game's setting?
"The game is set in a prison in space. A long time ago there were massive conflicts with these huge types of giant capital ships, and almost everyone in this region was destroyed. The surviving people got together and decided to never allow this to happen again. Anybody who tries to use these weapons again would be banished to this prison wasteland in space, and they're watched over by a guardian AI."
"In the center of this region of space, a star is going to go supernova, and so all the guards flee, and the criminals take control of the prison. The AI is present, and doesn't let you out, but the criminals are able to take control of ships and take control of outposts – and it's this fight over control of the different bases that is the basis of the game."
How does the gameplay work?
"The game's map is made of sectors, and there are two bases on either side of the map. You can win a match in two ways. It's always about blowing up the opponent's base, but you can do that by either capturing every sector adjacent to their home base, which brings down the shields protecting their base so you can attack it and blow it up. The other way to win is to hack into a super weapon that patrols the prison, and use it to blow up the opponent's base. You do that by capturing outposts that are dotted around the map, which generate resources that fill a bar. When the bar is full, the opponent's base is obliterated."
"The idea is that you're flying out from your home base into these procedurally-generated regions of space that have different layouts and outposts, and capturing the neutral bases to gain control of them, and then upgrading them by collecting ore to make them more defensible, and increase the speed of your bar's progress."
"Each time you play, you can bring three ships out of an inventory of 12 that are available. There are three different classes of ships, and you can switch between them at any time by going to a base you control. There are scout class ships, raiders, and frigates – each has a class bonus. So, for example, scout ships can capture a base quickest, raiders can carry more ore to upgrade bases, and frigates can do the most damage, but they're really slow. Within that, there are four different races, and each one of those races has different types of scouts and raiders, for example. Every one of the ships also has five different powers, which are upgradable as you earn experience for killing enemies, or collecting ore and destroying AI opponents, and also for hitting team goals and for assists. We want to encourage team play, and that helps."
So there are basically four races, each of which have three ships each?
"Yes. The four different species of alien ships are divided into different classes like an RPG. There's a fighter race that does more damage, and has good defenses, but they're slower than other ships. There's a rogue race that has stealth and teleportation powers, and things like EMPs to disable other ships. There's also a priest race that has healing powers, and they have defensive domes they can set up. Lastly, there's an engineering race that can build things like turrets, and respawn points."
"Every ship can play a support role, or they can play a main combat role depending on how you spec out your ship as you play and upgrade it. So, for example, you can upgrade your missiles to play more offensively – or you can choose to focus on support powers to play a more team role. This gives a lot of variety in terms of choices."
"Collecting ore is important. You can harvest it from any asteroid that has green ore in it, and sometimes you get it from the wreckage of ships that leak ore. When you drop it off at one of your occupied bases, it upgrades it and makes it harder to attack – and you get xp for doing that too. So you can go out and fight by attacking bases, or you can collect ore. We already have players who just do that, and it's a totally viable way to play – it levels up your ship and helps you win the game."
Does the game have any modes beyond the 10 vs 10 combat?
"Conquest is the 10 vs 10 main mode of the game, but we also have a raid or a meta-game mode where you can discover one of the capital ships I talked about. Someone will basically hire you as an escort, protecting their ship as they try to use their warp drive to escape the prison once and for all. What happens is that you get together with a group of friends and you basically join live ongoing player matches. In the middle of the map, a giant ship will warp into a live game, and it takes five minutes for the warp engines to recharge. During that time, both teams that were previously fighting one another can attack the capital ship, which the third team has to defend. The two teams don't have to do this, and they can keep on playing the game normally, but if they do, and they successfully attack the capital ship, they get special rare rewards."
At this point, Tom stopped demoing the game, and handed the controls over to me so I could start playing. I chose a fast-moving, but weak scout ship to start with, and accompanied my teammates as we flew across the expansive map to capture the closest outpost to our base. Dead Star plays like a typical twin-stick shooter, although to start with you have a very weak selection of weapons. As I destroyed the outpost's guns and AI defenses, I garnered experience that enabled me to start upgrading my scout ship, and I took missiles and upgraded them to give me more effective offensive powers.
As the rest of the team moved on to the next base, I stuck around destroying asteroids that were floating nearby and collected the ore that was left behind, which I was able to drop off at our newly-captured outpost to upgrade its defenses and make it more difficult for the opposing team to capture. As I did, I earned more experience that let me continue to upgrade my ship – which turned out to be very useful when I encountered a couple of enemies that were in the area. Thanks to my upgrades, I destroyed them fairly quickly, and then joined the rest of my teammates who were capturing another outpost.
It soon became clear that my team had the momentum, so I switched ships to a much larger, slower-moving, but higher-damage frigate and started attacking one of the outposts adjacent to the enemy's base. However, because the outpost had been upgraded by the enemy, I was destroyed in short order by its powerful defenses. Fortunately, by the time I returned to the scene after respawning at a nearby outpost we controlled, some of my teammates had also arrived, and together we dispatched the enemies that had flown in to defend it, and captured the outpost – which started to generate enough resources for us to hack into the super-weapon and win the round.
Although it was short, I really enjoyed my session with Dead Star: It's easy enough to pick up and play, but offers a surprising amount of depth in terms of roles and tactics. From supporting your team by upgrading your captured outposts with ore, playing as a frontline attacker destroying enemy ships, or even helping frontline attackers as a support ship, the game offers a dynamic, and constantly-changing environment where you really have to think about how you can best support your allies.
I'm definitely excited to play more of the game, and feel I'll probably end up investing a lot of time into it when it's released on PS4 and PC at the end of April. By the way, a rather interesting aspect of the PC and PS4 versions is that they'll be cross-play, meaning that players from both formats will be able to play alongside one another!