I’m charitable enough to usually give a game a second chance if it don’t hook me the first time around. At the very least, I might have forgotten why I didn’t like it initially. When I do give it that second try, I either enjoy myself and forget all about my initial misgivings – in which case, no “third time” is needed – or I’m reminded of what I hated – in which case no “third time” is desired.
It’s rare, though, that a game leaves me with a bleh feeling twice and gets a third chance, and it’s even rarer that I feel good about the game on that third try. But that’s how things have worked out with Dauntless.
Phoenix Labs’ monster-hunting (lowercase!) title hit open beta last month. I’d previously tried it out at PAX South 2016 and briefly at the start of its Founder’s Alpha in August. As someone who’s not a diehard fan of the Monster Hunter (uppercase!) series, it intrigued me, but not so much that I was willing to overlook its flaws. I was a neutral observer, not expecting anything special except to be entertained.
At PAX, I did a pair of battles, which involved such furious clicking that my hand was sore afterward. Later, while playing the alpha at home, I managed to avoid physical pain, but the game felt hollow and too quickly repetitive. Also, having the time to analyze the game over a period of several days left me feeling like, well, there wasn’t much to analyze, especially when I could only find one weapon, the chain blades, that seemed viable. I grew bored of it very quickly.
Fast forward to the open beta and, to be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it. I played for the sake of producing something for the website … and hey, it was better! Sure, you still just go around killing Behemoths, but Phoenix Labs has made a lot of changes to the experience to make it a more enjoyable experience. You can go through the voluminous developer’s blogs on the website if you want, but here are the things that stood out the most to me.
More well-defined progression. “We completely blew up progression and refactored it toward the end of last year,” Phoenix Labs CEO Jesse Houston told me in an interview. In the earlier build of the game, I couldn’t tell if Dauntless wanted things to be freeform and expected its players to figure things out on their own or if the game was just incomplete and that stuff would be added later. To be honest, it’s not revolutionary – you get quests from NPCs, they tell you to kill stuff, you upgrade weapons and armor, and so on – but as I said, I’m not a Monster Hunter veteran, so it really helped to get even those gentle nudges. As a long-time MMO player, daily and weekly quests help me feel more “at home,” too.
It makes the game feel a little bit less “on rails,” while still offering just enough variety that I don’t feel totally lost.
More choice in hunts. That said, when you do get the chance to branch out a bit, you have three options: Patrols, Expeditions, and Pursuits. The first two send you after a random Behemoth and give you more resources for killing it, which the third lets you hunt a specific Behemoth, which you’ll usually use when a quest demands you do so. It makes the game feel a little bit less “on rails,” while still offering just enough variety that I don’t feel totally lost.
Weapon variety. For the open beta, I’ve been mostly using the hammer and love its “meatiness” when I clobber something. I was drawn to the “slower” weapons in the alpha, the hammer and axe, and they seemed altogether too slow, so I stuck mostly with chain blades, which seemed like the only viable choice. I don’t know if the hammer and axe have been sped up or the Behemoths are slower, but I do manage to unleash my combos with more regularity than before, and the few times I branch out to sample other weapons, they also feel reasonably balanced. Also, Aerial Strike rules.
Damage numbers. Another “little thing” that you don’t realize you miss until it’s gone. I get the “purity” of determining how wounded a Behemoth is by its appearance – and I don’t think a “health bar” or the like is needed – but I need to know how I’m doing, both on my own and in comparison to my allies,” to know if I’m pulling my weight or need to improve.
Taking the right approach
All in all, Dauntless does feel more “MMO-like” in general, which works for me and makes it more easily accessible to people who wouldn’t normally get into a Monster Hunter game. I’ve seen some comments from those hardcore types who lament Dauntless’ simplicity. Each weapon only has a handful of combos, but I think it’s for the best for a free-to-play title from a relatively unknown company that wants to cast a wide net. Companies that try to make their first game super-complex and appeal to a narrow, hardcore user base usually struggle unless they’re absolutely flawless in their execution *cough* Lawbreakers *cough*.
The goal isn’t just to have a ton of fights but to make those fights entertaining, to make sure players always feel entertained.
The other sticking point that a lot of people might have is the overall variety in Behemoths and islands. I brought that up with Houston and he said that the goal isn’t just to have a ton of fights but to make those fights entertaining, to make sure players always feel entertained. Admittedly, any online game is going to have its repetitive grind, and I haven’t progressed far enough to know what the “evergame” of Dauntless is like, but Phoenix Labs isn’t working with a nigh-unlimited budget like its AAA counterpart. It probably will get a little tedious, once I’m past the linear quest structure that offers lots of shiny rewards, but at least for now, I’m having fun.
That’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it? I’d make the same comparison to Dauntless as I did when I reviewed Steel Ocean. That was a F2P ship battler that was decent, but not as good, in my mind, as World of Warships. I said that if Warships was a premium game with a $50 or higher price tag, I’d be OK with playing Steel Ocean as a free alternative. Of course, Warships is also free, so that meant I didn’t have much need for Steel Ocean.
With Dauntless and Monster Hunter: World, though, the comparison is more appropriate. I’ll admit that I haven’t played MHW, only watched others play it, but it seems bigger and better overall. It’s also still going for $60. I think Dauntless can compete in that space as a free-to-play title if you don’t want to shell out that kind of money. Just don’t expect an experience exactly like MHW, with all its bells and whistles and AAA Capcom polish. The graphical style, particularly the character models with their buff bodies and sharply angular faces, is going to be hit-or-miss with folks.
Hunting for wallets
We’ve been back and forth a few times with Houston, both Magicman and I personally in interviews, on the subject of cosmetics. Primarily, we’ve been confused by the twin statements of “If you see someone in badass armor, you’ll know they’ve earned it” and “You can buy cosmetic armor in the cash shop.” Neither of us are against buying cosmetics, but it seemed incompatible with the other statements saying you’d have to earn something that looks cool.
In our interview, Houston – finally! – clarified things by explaining that the really cool stuff would only be available in game by slaying Behemoths, while lesser outfits would be in the cash shop. I suppose that’s a matter of opinion, what looks amazing and what doesn’t, but I’d say that the armor that was a part of the Founder’s Pack looks rather mundane. That’s an odd way to monetize, though. “Want so-so armor? Spend real money on it in our cash shop!” Maybe that’s why the messaging seemed so hesitant in the past.
In addition to the usual cosmetic items, like banners, flares, and emotes, you can also buy boosts on the cash shop that increase your XP gain, thus speeding up your progress. You can also purchase consumables that you can craft in game, though some, like the Airstrike Beacon, require a reagent I’ve never even heard of. Does that count as “paying to help you earn things” and therefore mean people could, at least to some degree, buy their way into cool-looking gear? I could see some people thinking that, that their availability at least brushes up against the spirit of Houston’s firm statement.
I can see Dauntless being something I stick with for a while, at least as a “side game” I play when I want something different. That’s probably its greatest strength: In the free-to-play world, there’s really nothing like it. If you consider yourself a monster Hunter (uppercase? lowercase? I split the difference), it’s worth your time to try out. That’s something I don’t know that I would have said six months ago, but the extra time in development has served it well.