Dauntless was the game I was looking forward to seeing the most at PAX South. Phoenix Labs' giant-monster battler captured my, and a lot of other people's, attention with its splashy debut at the Video Game Awards late last year, and I couldn't wait to take my turn to hunt down a giant monster and mount its head on my virtual trophy wall.
Along with three other intrepid hunters, we zoned into the lushly forested hillside and began our search for the horned and heavily armored Pangar, one of two behemoths offered at the show. “That's the tougher one,” Executive Producer Jesse Houston warned us, but we dove headfirst into the challenge anyway. “Oh, two of them spawned. That's a bug.” We were undeterred!
We were also overmatched, but not by much. We took the first beast down to the point that he burrowed and ran away, but instead of finding and finishing him, we stumbled upon the other, fresh behemoth. Valiant though we were, our efforts were for naught. The slayers became the slain, and though we dealt it several great and terrible wounds, the second Pangar made a meal of our battered and broken corpses.
Thirsty for revenge, we tried our hand at the “training wheels” behemoth, the owlbear-like Shrike that you see in the reveal video. He was quicker than Pangar, whisking around the battlefield and leaving whirlwinds in its wake. By this time, I was more skilled with combos and found it a little easier to land solid hits and combos on the behemoth. My teammates seemed to pick up their game as well, and we took down Shrike in just under 10 minutes.
You can hacky-slashy your way through behemoth fights on Dauntless, but there are some combos you can utilize with the left and right mouse buttons. You also don't have to be unerringly precise, which is probably a good thing in the heat of battle. In addition to my basic attacks had four items bound to hotkeys 1-4: a healing potion, a berserk potion, an auto-rez, and flares. I used my Q button to activate an empowering skill that gave me greater attack speed for a limited time.
And that's about it! Dauntless isn't a game where you'll have a hotbar full of exotic powers, fireballs, teleports, and all sorts of other moves. While it fits within the purview of an MMO site, it's not a traditional MMORPG, with a wide-open and seamless world, storyline to follow, and so on. It's entirely instanced-based; you'll organize your group in the city and set off after your prey, hunting it to its domain on a floating island.
Maybe that's your cup of tea, maybe it isn't. While Dauntless does have a storyline – the behemoths are consuming aether, which is making the islands fall apart – and, as mentioned, beautiful landscapes to visit, exploration and discovery aren't a major part of the game. It's not an MMO in the sense of a World of Warcraft or even TERA, with its BAMs wandering the open world for players to discover and dismember. I thought Warframe was a reasonable comparison – co-op, action-combat PvE instances in groups of four, only instead of hordes of disposable aliens to slaughter, you've got a single giant “boss fight.” There are a few crafting items to pick up along the way, but crafting – really more of a barter system – and other such things, take place in the main city of Ramsgate, separate from the game's floating-island combat areas.
As for the combat itself – which will be crucial to the game's success – I felt that there was still work to be done to make the experience more enjoyable. Dauntless is going for a minimalist UI, which really helps you focus on the action but also might need some tweaking to make things a little more readily apparent. Indeed, I had to be told when I could activate my Q ability for extra DPS. I'm not saying it needs something akin to a large icon in the middle of the screen, like Overwatch, but some better indicators would be nice – or at least some flashier moves.
Speaking of indicators, the behemoth itself has no health bar to monitor. Instead, the beast itself will howl and wounds will appear as you continue your relentless onslaught. With more experience on my characters, I'd probably have a better idea of how effective my attacks were, but as a beginner, it's tough to tell if I'm having any real effect. Repeating the same handful of attacks over and over for several minutes both got a touch repetitive and I even left my demo rubbing my sore right hand after so much frantic clicking. Later fights will be longer than the brief encounter we had available at the convention, so they'll need a little more variety to keep things interesting.
I also felt like character movement in combat was more static than I would have liked. This makes some sense, as attacks are slower in general – you're not a space ninja like in Warframe, after all – but few things were more disheartening than hitting once … hitting twice … and here comes my combo finisher, oh wait, the monster scooted away and I'm hacking at air. You can roll around a bit, to dodge attacks, but more ways to move in combat, either with gap-closing attacks or some other form of speed boosts, would really help make things feel more dynamic and faster-paced. Maybe those sort of things are planned and just weren't available in this early, pre-alpha build.
The game itself, is a work in progress, and that's to be expected, given its short gestation period. In talking with Executive Producer Jesse Houston after my demo, he told me that Dauntless has only been in development for two years. It's really amazing to see what the team has accomplished in such a short period of time, but they'll have to crank things up quickly – open beta is scheduled to start before the end of the year.
Dauntless might not be revolutionary, but it's still something to look forward to. It was an undeniable hit at PAX, with demo lines stretching on all weekend long. The MMO market is depleted, and quality free-to-play games rarer than giant owlbears. Houston indicated to me that he wants cool-looking, stat-based armor to only come from killing monsters in the game, not from a cash shop, though cosmetic options will still be available. If Phoenix Labs can stay true to that vision and continue iterating on the foundation it's established for Dauntless, it could be the best new MMO to emerge in 2017.