As I drifted cautiously through empty space, teammates behind me and eyes peeled for enemy ships, I knew that we had a strong chance of reaching our enemy’s nearby outpost.
From there, we would have a better vantage point for launching an all-out attack on the enemy’s main base. We drifted through space, only to end up getting ambushed by three large ships from the opposing team. These moments are when Dead Star truly shines; this team-based arcade shooter from Armature Studio is frantic, strategic, and addictive.
To begin with, Dead Star‘s gameplay may appear intimidating in that it borrows mechanics from a variety of genres. Initially, controlling your ship feels like a twin-stick shooter. Minor RPG elements appear mid-battle as you upgrade your ship with new weapons and gadgets (achieved by acquiring mine ore from space rocks and by acquiring outposts). The battlefield, laden with bases and outposts, and the objective to navigate and take control of sections of the map is very reminiscent of MOBAs. That being said, these elements mesh together in a way that makes Dead Star feel fresh and complex without being overwhelming. If this may deter you, rest assured that the tutorial provides an enjoyable and easily approachable means to learn the game’s systems and controls. The Freeplay mode allows for further practice without ever feeling necessary.
Only two game modes are featured: Conquest and Escape Run. Thankfully, both are enjoyable and worth playing. Conquest consists of 5-on-5 and 10-on-10 matches, the latter being the best way to play, hands-down. 10-on-10 matches are fast-paced and enthralling. Large-scale battles require quick reflexes and cooperation with your teammates, or you’ll quickly be overwhelmed by enemy ships. Each time an enemy got the upper-hand and defeated me, I was excited to return to the battle and exact my revenge. Teams can win matches by achieving a strategic victory – accomplished by reaching a certain amount of points by capturing and upgrading outposts – or a decisive victory by destroying the enemy team’s main base. Incorporating two possible forms of victory motivates players to adapt and change strategy as one form of victory starts to appear as a more viable strategy. In theory, players could focus solely on harvesting mine ore from space rocks to upgrade outposts and achieve a strategic victory. This flexibility allows players to be even more versatile in their play style, and it prevents matches from feeling overly repetitive. Perhaps noteworthy is that, in my experience, I found that strategic victories occurred much more often than decisive victories. This may suggest that Dead Star could benefit from some rebalancing of these two win conditions. Overall, it is hardly an issue.
Dynamic events also occur during matches, creating new temporary objectives that change the flow of the battle. These events occurred enough so that I would anticipate and look forward to them, but not so much that they felt like a nuisance in the middle of a match. In many cases, my teammates and I would be focused on taking an outpost, only to be alerted that a capital ship was travelling through a nearby sector and that we were expected to destroy it.
Playing long enough in Conquest mode will unlock Escape Run mode, where a team of four is tasked with defending a capital ship as it slowly traverses through a battlefield. Waiting in anticipation of incoming attackers is both tense and exhilarating, making Escape Run a welcome supplementary mode to Conquest. In addition, herein lies one of the most innovative design choices in Dead Star: the capital ship that you defend in Escape Run traverses through a battlefield on which other player teams are currently fighting in Conquest mode. Those in Escape Run are tasked with defending the ship against player teams from Conquest, and the capital ship serves as a dynamic event for those in Conquest. When the ship appears, the two teams in Conquest mode shift from fighting each other to fighting the capital ship. It’s an extremely unique system that forces players in Conquest mode to be adaptive as temporary objectives arise, and the complementary fusion of the game modes with one another is executed wonderfully. It’s a design choice that I have not encountered in any game in recent memory, and it kept me longing for just one more match.
Multiple winning conditions provide some opportunity for unique strategies, but the primary form of strategy comes from the wide array of unique ships. You are provided with nine ships to choose from and extra ships are available to purchase with real-world money. Never did I feel obligated to purchase these extra ships, as the free ships allowed for lots of variety and experimentation. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that there is not a way to earn these ships through in-game progression. Each ship’s weapons and abilities play differently enough to serve distinct purposes. I sped around in the quick (but fragile) Razor to explore enemy territory, only to return later on with the bulky, combat-ready Vindicator. Better yet, you can select three ships to bring into battle with you, giving you the option to switch when you respawn. Switching on-the-fly ensures that players are not stuck with a ship that does not match the current situation, and I found myself switching frequently as I noted my enemy’s progression.
Thanks to cross-play between PlayStation 4 and PC, in addition to being one of April 2016’s PlayStation Plus free games for PS4, the community remains strong, even a couple months post-release. During my time with the game, matchmaking never took more than a minute or two. However, matchmaking would occasionally dump me into the middle (or even near the end) or a match, where I would win or lose within a few minutes of joining the match. Losing meant being sent back to the lobby to wait again, while winning meant feeling unfulfilled from an undeserved victory. This aspect of the game’s matchmaking is puzzling, and can easily lead to frustration on numerous occasions.
Despite its unusual issues with matchmaking, Dead Star comes together to form a strong fusion of MOBA-like elements and twin-stick shooter mechanics. The wide array of unique ships and intense team-based combat made each match feel fresh, even when it felt as if the game encouraged me to aim for one win condition over the other. Though it could benefit from a larger selection of game modes, the modes that are included encourage enough replaying and experimentation to keep you busy for countless hours. Testing a new ship and learning the best situations to use each weapon and ability feels thoroughly satisfying, especially when playing against human opponents. All the while, Dead Star still manages to feel tense and exciting, and the strong community suggests that it will continue to be a worthy addition to your gaming library.