Ever get the feeling a game just isn’t intended for you? As a member of the ruling elite, that most respected and exclusive breed of truth-seeker, the freelance game journalist, I get it all the time. You sit there, in your thirties, playing the latest two-bit Fortnite clone, listening to Russian children laughing at you on voice chat, wondering where it all went wrong in your life.
I’m surprised to feel at such a distance from Dauntless though. On paper, I should be ravenous for a co-op Monster Hunter/MMO hybrid with meaty character-building and an endless world of ever more fearsome Behemoths to vanquish. But as I’ve already signalled quite clearly, I’m not.
The problem is that Dauntless’s gameplay loop is too clipped. This is action-roleplaying at its most reductive, the usual world building and incidental detail stripped right away. And in their place? Well, just the same few minutes of any given MMO, really. You sprint towards a quest-dispensing NPC in Ramsgate, Dauntless’s safe zone, pick up the latest mission – spoilers: it’s always ‘hunt a big monster for me please, thanks’ – then teleport to one of a handful of different biomes, either solo or in an online quartet, and hunt the big monster for them please, thanks. After that you return victorious to cash in your rewards, craft marginally better bobbins, rinse and repeat.
That could describe any number of game loops, of course – Monster Hunter doesn’t do too badly for itself with similar ingredients. But Dauntless isn’t basically the above, it is the above. Oh alright, yes: there are Lady Luck Trials where you run timed gauntlets and get your name on a big public leaderboard if you do exceptionally well, but they’re very much a diversion from the core game. Beyond that, it’s a simple concoction of combat and harvesting rewards from NPCs.
The game isn’t without its merits, however. There’s quite a bit of depth to combat, highlights of which include pulling off timed combos with LMB and RMB, dodging attacks at the right moment to stun enemies, and deploying the correct elemental effects against enemies for damage bonuses. But at times it feels a bit like chasing a rugby scrum around. And it’s an extraordinary decision on Phoenix Labs’ part to drag out what is often a 20+ minute fight by having the Behemoths occasionally flee arbitrarily and then ask you to slog mirthlessly over the map to find them again.
While in range, though, you can be making yourself useful in several ways at any given moment: firing off a Lantern ability (timed buffs for yourself and others) or a special attack, luring the Behemoth away from a teammate on lower health or a downed comrade, or doing a lovely dodge roll just in time to stagger your foe and let the others dogpile on.
A firm foundation for a game, then. But as with everything else in Dauntless, the combat consists of the same fight, more or less, ad infinitum. Behemoths might feature Frost, Blaze, Shock, Terra, Radiant, Umbral, and Terra elements, and shed valuable parts of that variety when felled, but there’s not much else to differentiate them. Very rarely a Boreus Behemoth will summon bat-like minions to spice up a fight, but generally combat’s about dodging one lumbering beast’s telegraphed attacks and then laying down the hurt.
Galvanising my personal sense of alienation with all these proceedings is the F2P model. It’s no more egregious than any other, but it does serve to amplify any existing bewilderment. Bewilderment at what Platinum is, and why you might need it. And at how, in a game that seems so scarcely supplied with playable content, the devs found time to create so many outfits and weapon skins.
And yet, despite all of this, I’m still playing it. Without putting in a real-world dime, the sense of progression is still compelling to the chimp brain which lurks deep within you. Items burst forth from loot boxes (or Cores, as they’re known here), numbers go up in your character loadout, and you feel an irrepressible sense of satisfaction as they do.
Then you head off on another hunt and end up fighting the same Behemoth type you’ve beaten many times before, in a fight that takes a third of an hour without even a boss health bar to contextualise your progress. Dauntless really is a Skinner box laid bare, and if you can make your peace with that the combat alone is ample reward. But it’s missing so much of what I’d consider crucial in a game like this: atmosphere, lore, pacing.
Which leads me right back to the start: I simply don’t feel like Dauntless was made with me in mind. Given how quickly I’ve been able to find teammates for every single fight, there’s obviously a type of player out there who does engage with this brutally pared-back, single-minded breed of quasi-MMO questing. Every single one of them is wrong, of course, and I’ll fight them all individually.
I’m joking, obviously. Let’s not fight. But Dauntless certainly carves a line in the sand with this 1.0 release: on one side stand those who only care about combat and view world-building as pointless confetti, on the other those who cherish it. Deciding where you stand in this face off will give you a good idea of whether Dauntless 1.0 can do enough to scratch your particular itch.
A game with unapologetically singular focus, its distillation of deeper MMOs' elements nevertheless results in an experience that all too often feels barren.