If you’re looking for something besides Call of Duty or Battlefield when it comes to first-person shooters, Dirty Bomb might be your next obsession. It’s a fast-action, first-person shooter game that hearkens back to games where speed and skill mattered.

The mercenary combat shooter is a big one for Splash Damage, maker of games such as Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, as well as Tokyo-based Nexon, which is trying to expand from Asia into the West with triple-A games that take advantage of its deep experience with free-to-play. It is a modern game with Western-style art. It was designed for e-sports fans with 5-vs-5 and 8-vs-8 multiplayer matches that feel a lot like sports events. If you want to thrive here, you have to hone your trigger-finger skills and play dirty.

After months of beta tests, Nexon America is publishing Dirty Bomb as a continuous service starting today. I played the multiplayer combat for a couple of hours this week at a Nexon event. It seemed quite polished to me, as it didn’t stall or crash. And it was very complex and punishing. I was able to get around 15 kills for every 15 deaths in a round, but I was consistently the worst player on my team. Everyone has to run-and-gun, but survival time is pretty low. You won’t be running long distances to get to the action.

Neil Alphonso, the lead game designer at Splash Damage, said in an interview with GamesBeat that the studio worked on Dirty Bomb for three years. The vision is to create a game that’s difficult to play and impossible to master.

“We wanted to go back to our old-school game,” Alphonso said. “We wanted to make a game our studio was founded to do: a hardcore PC shooter. It’s fast and twitchy.”

Aura is the medic in Dirty Bomb.

Above: Aura is the medic in Dirty Bomb.

Image Credit: Nexon

Story and setting

There isn’t much of a story. Don’t expect to see Hollywood scriptwriters in the credits. It’s set in London during the “hangover” after a radioactive weapon, or “dirty bomb,” was set off in the heart of the city. The people are gone, but the buildings are still there. Mercenaries go into a radioactive part of the city to retrieve nuclear weapons for their shady clients, who swear they will keep them out of the hands of the bad guys. Following orders from private military corporation bosses, you hunt for goods and rivals in the buildings and subway tunnels. As you rack up kills, you rake in more money, which buys better stuff and decorates your character.

It releases with five maps, seven initial characters, and a couple of modes. Each character fills a certain kind of class. You can counter each character or weapon in classic “rock, paper, scissors” fashion.

If you don’t care about the graphics quality, you can dial the 3D graphics back and emphasize speed of gameplay. But if you prefer outstanding shadows and lighting, you’ll see some of that with the graphics turned up. It is designed for PC gamers who play with a mouse and keyboard.

The Bushwacker has a handy auto turret he can plop down on the map.

Above: The Bushwacker has a handy auto turret he can plop down on the map.

Image Credit: Nexon

First impressions

We tried out two maps: Terminal and Bridge. In both maps, you fight to blow up some objectives and then reach a secondary goal. Each side takes a turn at offense or defense. It takes a lot of skill to win. With the assault rifle, I had to pump five or six bullets into targets. But if I stayed out in the open, chances were someone else would target me. You also have to use secondary abilities, like dropping ammo or medkits for your comrades, or setting up a turret in a high-traffic kill zone.

With the Bridge map, you have to repair an armored vehicle. Then you escort it to a point, and then break into a medical lab and steal a bunch of meds. Those meds will reportedly cure radiation sickness and help lots of people. Your client says they will keep the meds from falling into the hands of the superrich. The armored Extraction Vehicle moves at a turtle-like pace, so it’s vulnerable to grenade attacks and other tricks. Only an armed infantry escort will help it reach its destination.

In Terminal, you have to blow up a wall and then plant some charges in container cars. The containers have top-secret documents that one team wants to destroy and the other one wants to protect. In “Stopwatch” mode, you have to accomplish these tasks under a time limit. If you take your time, you’re going to lose. The rounds lasted around 10 minutes to 15 minutes, and they never got boring.

In between rounds, you can change characters by selecting the F1, F2, or F3 keys. You can rotate through these characters, depending on what your objective is and what your opponents are using. When you die, you can switch to a new character. You want to make sure that your team is balanced with different kinds of characters, such as medics, tanks, snipers, scouts, or assault rifle wielders. It debuts with seven mercenaries, and eventually it will have about 12. All of the characters have a certain swagger. Bushwacker has a light machine gun, and he carries around an automatic turret that you can drop into a hot spot. It automatically shoots enemies that come within its line of sight.

Strategy pays off. We played 5-vs-5 games with headsets where we could push a button to talk. (I definitely prefer just doing team chat without pushing the button, which means you have to take your hand off the keyboard to talk). One of the developers (with the Aussie accent) coached us. We found that you could do things like turn on nerve gas in one of the corridors, shutting off access to one of the paths to the objective. That channels the enemy into another path.

Dirty Bomb has a standard assault rifle gunner.

Above: Dirty Bomb has a standard assault rifle gunner.

Image Credit: Nexon

Free to win

As a free-to-play game, Dirty Bomb uses smart monetization tactics. You can’t pay to win. For every item that you purchase with real money, you can earn by putting time into it, grinding your way to the same bonuses. Two characters, Skyhammer and Aura, are free for all players.

If you pay $20 for the startup pack, you’ll get all seven Mercs at once. But if you don’t, you’ll have access to a rotation of three characters at any given time. You can earn goodies over time, so it isn’t a “pay to win” game. You can play the game for hundreds of hours without spending any money. Boosters will be available later this year. Your job is to master the Mercs and their abilities, not spend money.

Dirty Bomb has seven characters at the start, including a tank.

Above: Dirty Bomb has seven characters at the start, including a tank.

Image Credit: Nexon

Tips for survival

Nexon says the key to teamwork is “don’t be a dick.” And educate those who oppose you with bullets. In fact, it pays to cooperate with your teammates. I also followed the action much better because we had a commander on our team — the seasoned game developer. He shouted out commands, like “We need medkits,” or “Drop some ammo.” Each player could contribute to the outcome, and the more diverse the team’s make-up, the better. Not everybody can be the tank.

I was thrilled to plant a C4 charge that blew up one of the objectives. And I only got that chance because my teammates were watching my back. I played Skyhammer, a Merc from Scotland who provides fire support such as airstrikes. He carries a heavy-duty assault rifle, but isn’t as deadly as the tank, dubbed Rhino. I also switched to Bushwacker in between rounds. If you’re a noob (new player), then you should focus on support roles. Other players can be snipers, who have to shoot accurately and with great speed.

Dirty Bomb is a new free-to-play shooter developed by Splash Damage.

Above: Dirty Bomb is a new free-to-play shooter developed by Splash Damage.

Image Credit: Nexon

Blowing up traditional shooters

I didn’t fare well in the matches, but I felt like I was continuously learning. As you learn the maps and figure out how your opponents behave, you can adjust your tactics and get the team to focus on the task at hand. It was exciting once our team was ahead. A time clock ticked down, and our job was to prevent the enemy from succeeding in offense as the clock ticked down to zero.

Even though I wasn’t the most skilled player, I enjoyed it. The game is going to change. Dirty Bomb isn’t finished. It will have a regular cadence of new content in the weeks after launch. You’ll see new maps, new modes, new characters, and new weapons. Over time, it may turn out to be a real contender in the shooter market, which has been constrained to just a handful of triple-A titles. If it can grab a foothold, then Splash Damage and Nexon will be busy providing new content for years to come.

“I think we’re in a good spot,” Alphonso said. “But the players will tell us.”