Turns out that people who play videogames are really into killing massive beasts, harvesting their organs, and wearing their hides. This is an eternal truth, stretching from the origins of D&D all the way up to Capcom’s successes with Monster Hunter.
Dauntless wishes to capitalise on that, taking this decade’s art-style-de-jour of exaggerated cartoon dimensions and combining it with a fantastical world of elemental Behemoths, great adventurers, and loot, loot, loot. It’s a good idea, possibly a billion dollar one, but it balances on a tight-rope that creators Phoenix Labs haven’t yet fully mastered.
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The concept, as with most games with this level of potential, is simple. You and three friends go on hunts for Behemoths, using a variety of spectacular abilities, magic potions, and big, heavy swords to cut them into bits. Gather the materials, take them back to hub-town Ramsgate and turn them into better gear, letting you hunt badder beasts – and repeat.
That is a strong gameplay loop, and one that obvious inspiration, Monster Hunter, has already proved successful. Dauntless isn’t fully innovative, instead banking on some mimicry, as seen in the three pillars holding it together – skill-based combat, friends to keep you coming back, and a formula that can be constantly added to, possibly forever. On paper, a world where Dauntless sits alongside any number of MMOs, MOBAs, and hero shooters as a constant presence is not a difficult one to imagine.
The ‘but’ in this appraisal doesn’t come yet as Dauntless has also got the basics right. Armours from different Behemoths sport individual looks, and are significantly different enough from each other in the stats department to give a sense of progression as you cut them from the flesh of ever-larger beasts. While the crafting systems have not yet been developed in full (at least publicly – a 10,000 strong invite-only and hush-hush alpha is constantly evolving) it’s already at a point where I can predict seeing a set of armour and knowing the person wearing it is among the Dauntless elite, spurring me to play more and being proud when I eventually get there myself.
Combat, too, is going in the right direction. This preview is already packed with more comparisons than an E3 presentation, but we’ll go for the full house – Dauntless evokes, and is moving towards, replicating the meaty swings, timing concerns, and hitbox porn of Dark Souls. Memorising the exact recovery windows, invulnerability frames, and impact points of your various attacks and combos, as well as how they interact with the particular model of Behemoth you’re trying to cut down, is the challenge. Actual execution is simple, it’s up to you to combine dodge rolling and weapon choice for success.
The problem is that it’s a little easy. Quick-to-learn, impossible-to-master games are fostered on either being devilishly difficult – WoW raids, Ornstein and Smough – or extremely competitive like League of Legends or Dota 2. While I am not as masochistic as some Riven mains or Mythic raiders out there, it is undeniable that games of Dauntless’s type have profited from an extremely long and often brutal difficulty curve.
By that measure, when I sat down to play the game for the second time ever, against enemies I hadn’t studied, with gear I was given and little knowledge of how to even play – nevermind any kind of mastery of my combos – I was expecting to be slaughtered. I wasn’t. Even with two efficient and helpful developers by my side, my lack of experience should have been punished more harshly than a single death during a full party wipe. Yes it’s a preview build (and yes, it’s designed for that largest of skill deltas: game journalists), but in a game focused on preparation, character knowledge, and challenge, I’m up for getting my butt kicked.
Even in the late game, it sounds like Phoenix Labs aren’t fully committed to kicking their players’ asses. They say they were surprised that players were happy with a 50% fail rate on some of the more difficult challenges in the alpha. For comparison, remember that one guild had a 99.8% fail rate on a WoW boss and there are people that still think that raid is being finished too quickly.
This is not simply an exercise of my ego where I say how great I am at games. The combat in Dauntless is currently not as fluid or fun as it will need to be to capture hearts for the hours, days, months, and years that make modern, service-based games brilliant. No single area is particularly poor, but none of them are excellent. Hits don’t always feel impactful and dodging isn’t very satisfying – it’s missing polish, which is fine for an alpha, but still something that needs to be fixed. For all its eventual faults, For Honor got as far as it did simply because it really let you know when you stabbed a dude.
The reason I’m not fully doom and gloom about all this comes down to a couple of very important things. First, what’s there is good. Teaming up to take down a colourful pile of scales, teeth, and lightning with three friends is a great time. Focusing on individual parts of a Behemoth’s body until it staggers, or slicing off the tail for the loot inside, feels incredible. Accomplishing that also alters the attack pattern of the beast itself, something that is further modified by various possibilities – variants and biomes will both affect the fight, and tonnes of variation will help stave off boredom.
Second, the team behind this game is beyond veteran. Not only is there an average tenure in the industry of ten years, but the half of the team that doesn’t have a long list of massive publishers in their employment history instead come from places like Riot and Blizzard. They’ve been dealing with problems like this longer than I’ve been writing about them, and I’m confident they can pull it off.
Dauntless could be the next big thing – they’ve just got to get it there.