My infatuation with Splash Damage started with their first free-to-play title, Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. ET was a freeware mod for Wolfenstein, and it was awesome. Splash Damage took the existing Wolfenstein ecosystem and used it to create a really great, unique standalone game. ET was a team-based FPS with a class system that revolved around objective-based maps that could only be moved forward if each class did their job. It was similar to Team Fortress, but didn’t have the silly, cartoonish feel. Each class had unique abilities and unique responsibilities within the map. This forced groups to coordinate and play together. It came out when I was in high school, and I loved it. My friends and I created a clan, rented servers for the game, and paid for a dedicated TeamSpeak server. We played in organized matches against other clans and recruited new members. We called ourselves LPL – Los Pantalones Locos – mostly because we believed games are meant to be fun, so you shouldn’t take yourself so seriously. That was over a decade ago, and I’ve been hoping to re-create that experience ever since.
Splash Damage has grown and developed a lot of games since ET – including Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. I bought that one as soon as it came out, thinking it would be my beloved game, but set in another universe which I also loved. Alas, it sucked. It was plagued by bugs and perpetual balance issues. The maps were too big, vehicles never worked the way they were supposed to, and while the game was mostly well reviewed (because game reviewers are always honest, right?), the game never built up a loyal community.
They tried another similar game with a new mechanic – parkour! Brink brought us an FPS where you could jump all over the place and shoot people. It also had classes and objectives, except they could all do acrobatic stuff. Sounds like a winning concept, right? Wrong. Also sucked. It sold pretty well, but got average to brutal reviews, and also went nowhere. They still couldn’t get to that secret sauce that built the strong community that followed the original ET.
After that, Splash Damage developed the multiplayer portions of a few other titles until it finally launched the free-to-play subject of this article: Dirty Bomb. Set in a post-apocalyptic London – non-apocalyptic London being the location of Splash Damage’s headquarters – DB incorporates a lot of the best features of Splash Damage’s prior titles while shedding some of the failed features. There are no vehicles and while you can still do some jumps off of walls and double jumps, those moves aren’t nearly as integral to the game as they were in Brink. Dirty Bomb successfully recreates the tension, excitement, and teamwork that made Enemy Territory great, and launched Splash Damage from a startup to a legitimate game development company. As it is, Dirty Bomb is an okay game. When the stars align, it really feels like ET used to feel – it’s rewarding even when you lose. You did your best, your team played well, and even though the other team got the W, you’re still satisfied and left wanting more. Those are the times when I can’t wait to recommend Dirty Bomb to my friends.
Unfortunately, that only happens about 25% of the time. The rest of the time, the game is plagued by unbalanced matches that pit people with thousands of hours in the game (not exaggerating) against people who just started, obvious cheaters who have brand new steam profiles with less than 10 hours in the game that still somehow end up with 25/3 kill-to-death ratios, and stupid in-game economy mechanics that discourage players from playing – or paying – to get rewards.
DB employs a similar in-game economy to many modern games – as you play you earn in-game currency that can be used to unlock new mercenaries – “mercs” in the game – to play, equipment cases that contain loadouts for these mercs, or a few other superficial items. You can also spend real money to unlock mercs or buy cases, but the cost-benefit equation very rarely plays out in your favor.
Loadouts come in various grades, currently from lead to cobalt – although lead and iron loadouts are going to be phased out soon according to Splash Damage. Loadouts change which Primary, Secondary, and Melee weapons your mercenary uses, in addition to three “augments” that grant the mercenary special performance bonuses. Beyond Bronze, there are no actual gameplay enhancements in loadouts – higher level, rare loadouts merely provide superficial changes. This is one part of the economy that is completely stupid, but I’ll address that in a different article.
Splash Damage has added some other purely superficial in-game items for players to purchase in an obvious attempt to encourage more purchases with real money. One of these is a “trinket” – a piece of jewelry that hangs from your primary weapon. It serves no purpose other than to decorate your gun. They can actually be kind of fun, but for some reason Splash Damage has severely limited the availability of trinkets so that only a few are available for purchase. Again, I’ll get into their asinine economy in another article.
They recently added another decorative item to try to stir up spending – gun skins. Pretty self-explanatory – these give you the opportunity to give your gun a paint job. However, you don’t get to choose your paint job, nor which gun you get to decorate. You randomly get gun cases through gameplay or you can purchase them for various amounts, then you have to purchase a key to open them. Once you’ve done that, you are awarded a random skin for a random gun. Different cases have different overall themes, but in general you have no real control over what you get. I currently have multiple skins for guns I never use. The skins that I have for guns I like are merely mediocre. Splash Damage really hasn’t figured out this whole “monetizing” thing.
The gameplay, however, is where the game shines. Like their previous titles, Splash Damage has incorporated classes into Dirty Bomb. Medics, Engineers, Area of Effect/Ammo Distributors, Tanks, and Covert/Snipers. When each team has a balanced variety of classes who are each doing their job, Dirty Bomb is a lot of fun. Medics keep people healed and revive as much as they can, Engineers focus on building things or blowing things up, Snipers are popping heads from a distance, Tanks are thinning the enemy herd, and AOE are supporting everyone with massive explosions and “gun food” as one of them refers to ammo packs. When it works, it really, really works.
Some maps have the attacking team focused on blowing up an objective, like in Underground. Others have them repairing a vehicle and moving it through the map until it unlocks another objective. These vehicles move on a track – Splash Damage seems to have learned from Quake Wars that free moving vehicles provide too many unnecessary complications. The maps aren’t all perfect, but they’re mostly pretty well built and decorated. The textures are attractive, the lighting is good, and the layouts are clearly well thought-out. Some of the maps need improvement, but Splash Damage is very clearly invested in making this game better.
It wasn’t always that way. I won’t get into the history of Dirty Bomb’s rocky development, but the good news is that in 2017, Splash Damage was purchased by a chicken meat company (seriously) which provided them with the capital infusion they needed to buy the game’s full rights from Nexon. Since that happened, Splash Damage has maintained a consistent stream of new content in the form of in-game events, new maps, and new mercenaries. They’ve also re-worked existing maps to improve on them and fix issues reported by the Dirty Bomb community.
The future for Dirty Bomb seems bright. Splash Damage is putting out new content and they seem committed to the title, which is very encouraging. They just seem blind to very easy, obvious improvements that could make Dirty Bomb a great game, easily rivaling Overwatch. For now, it’s just another decent free-to-play FPS on Steam.
I will document some ideas for potential improvements to DB in separate posts.
Current Score: 6/10