There were some who thought that this would never see the light of day. Originally announced five and a half years ago, back in February 2006, Nuclear Dawn appeared on our radar and then disappeared two years later in spectacular fashion. The term vapourware got chucked in its direction, people started quoting Queen lyrics about biting dust and we all began to move on once again with our lives. A modification of that most malleable of engine - Valve's Source engine - Nuclear Dawn was built to be a working synthesis that would cross the boundary between two hugely popular PC genres: the first person shooter and real-time strategy.
'Nuclear Dawn is a multiplayer modification for Valve’s Source engine that combines visceral and violent First Person Shooter action with fast-paced Real Time Strategy in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war,' read the initial missive all those years ago. 'You can choose the mission or lead the attack as a commander, marshalling resources and deploying weapons and equipment for your team to use. You can storm a building as an assault trooper, cling to the shadows and rely on your active camouflage as a stealth, or unleash terrible firepower from a powered suit of exo-armor. You have the responsibility and the power to decide the outcome of every engagement. If your opponents are lucky there will be enough of them left to bury.'
This is a game that PC Zone, one of the first on the scene back then, described in terms dribbling with anticipation. 'We've discovered a mod sexier than Charlize Theron wearing dungarees,' they reported. 'Nuclear Dawn, the Half-Life 2 mod of your dreams.' Only it never surfaced and, in late 2008, it almost got canned completely. In stepped the newly-built InterWave, and the originally free-to-play mod was transformed , set up witha new focus: to bring the game to market.
'The game will be as true to its concepts as ever, with our own implementations as well as the key originals,' said InterWave's Michiel Beenan, 're-applying all of the features that were lost in the final months of the product's life as a modification. As a retail product, we are not looking to extort our community, however, with financial backing the product is capable of so much more than ever before as a free mod, with all of the bells, whistles and goodies that you could dream of in a big-name title.'
We got the chance to test out that bold statement for ourselves after publisher Merge Games kindly handed us a beta key to play around with.
Hybrids often don't work, they're risky ventures at the best of times, particular in the face of a consumer audience who, for better or for worse, rather like genre distinction. There's always the danger of never quite satisfying in any area when you mash two or more genres together, being a jack of numerous trades, but a master of none. Well InterWave are ignoring all of that, and are bringing two seemingly unrelated genres together in a game that is hoping to be the first 'true' FPS/RTS hybrid.
To achieve that, Nuclear Dawn has itself a rather nice looking RTS interface. You don't see that in your average nervous flirtation with RTS-lite elements, certainly not; but, before we get into that, the bare facts: The premise is as follows: two teams - the Empire and the Consortium - of up to sixteen players square up to one another in squads of up to six and duke it out for ultimate victory across six maps, with sixty ranks through which to progress, across four different classes with a whole bunch of achievements and weapon unlocks to be had the more you play.
That all sounds pretty straightforward. But the big difference with this game is that one player from each side is chosen at random to fulfil the role of Commander. Essentially, while everybody else is running around and spitting bullets, you get to observe things from a top-down perspective, noting enemy positions, available resources, and using your unique position to construct useful buildings and fortifying your base, offer up instructions to your teammates on the ground and guide them past enemy ambushes, feeding them intel on where to go and when to strike.
Suddenly, the hybrid makes absolute sense and you wonder why the hell this didn't happen before.
The answer, having played the beta for a bit now, is that you really need the right people in there. This is a game where you live and die by communication. Contact between Soldiers at ground-level and, crucially, between Commanders and their men is absolutely imperative. You can fumble through with dead air, but in order to really get the most out of this game, you're going to need a headset and pray to god that the folks you're playing with have one too.
If, by some glorious miracle, such an event does occur, then, even at this early stage, it's clear to see that there's a huge amount of potential here. There were only two areas available to play around in - the claustrophobic, self-explanatory Metro area, and the sprawling New York-esque cityscape of Downtown - but getting to grips with things was really quite straightforward. You can choose between one of four classes: Assault, Stealth, Exo and Support. Assault, in spite of what it says on the game's site, is basically your everyman role. Middle of the road in both armour and weaponry, they do have the advantage of being able to detect stealth players with Tactical Visors. The Stealth class offers up active camouflage, with options for taking down enemies in close quarters with knives or from long range with sniper rifles, but if you're hit, you will die pretty damn quick. The Exo is the heavy of the group: built like a brick shithouse and stuffed to the eyeballs with ammunition. Finally, the Support class essentially rolls the traditional classes of engineer and medic into one. It was a little underpowered, but the latest beta update has buffed it nicely. Indeed, InterWave have been doing a cracking job of keeping people updated of beta changes and improvements over on their forums.
In a similar fashion to Battlefield's Conquest mode, the area of play has a number of capture points that the game separates into Primary, Secondary and Tertiary points, the importance of each dictating the effort required to capture it and the rewards that doing so reaps. The Commander, safe in their little bunker, takes a view of the battlefield and can build support structures or spawn points or research advanced weapons for their troops. But this, of course as any strategy veteran will tell you, requires resources. This where the capture points come in. The more capture points, the more resources. But your construction area is defined in terms of power. To extend your architectural arm, you have to have your team capture power stations to widen your boundaries of influence. When this goes perfectly, a good team working in harmony can end up creating a number of turret-infested choke points to make enemy lives an utter nightmare. The satisfaction when a good plan comes together is a very warm feeling indeed.
Initial gripes - there was a hell of a lot of no-clipping to begin with - are being fixed along the way and, indeed, even in just a couple of weeks the game has been nicely tidied up. The crashes are still too frequent, but there's time to fix those. Happily, the Mutiny feature that allows teams to overthrow their Commander, for when they're not acting in the interests of the team, is now fixed.
Communication, though, is the thing that can make or break this game. Commanders can assign waypoint objectives to swuads and there are a series of automated stock orders that the game contains to allow for simple instruction, but verbal communication makes everything so much easier. There are incentives for working together as a team, progression goes much faster if you work together and follow the Commander's instruction, but it does take some getting used to. It's almost a game that, one hopes, might well give rise to a community meritocracy - on both sides - and a certain amount of choice as well. There's room for virtual factions of players - each with command and execution specialists. For run and gun mavericks this will hold no allure whatsoever, but for those left wanting a little bit more from their shooter experiences these days, Nuclear Dawn could be the game they've been waiting for.
The game is slated for release towards the end of this month, though I wouldn't be surprised if that was pushed back a week or two. It's not the best looking game, granted, but it's running on heavily modified version of the engine that was used for Left 4 Dead 2 so it's not horrible to gaze upon by any stretch of the imagination. With the net widened, with mid-range computers able to support the game, hopefully this will open the gate to a wider community. Definitely one to watch if you're bored of the BattleCOD dick-swinging.
Nuclear Dawn is slated to launch on PC on September 30th on Steam, alongside a boxed retail version - the Nuclear Dawn: Plutonium Edition - which will include the soundtrack, signed developer pics, a concept art booklet and other goodies.