I’ve always preferred co-op over meaningless adversarial modes. Ever since Left 4 Dead 2 in 2009, there hasn’t been a truly great cooperative FPS to scratch that teamwork-with-guns itch -- unfortunately, in a world full of battle royales and PvP, a good cooperative game has become a valuable commodity. However, some smart developers still recognise the value of a true cooperative experience, and the most promising newcomer in the genre, hands down, is the dwarf-centric shooter Deep Rock Galactic.
At gamescom 2017, I had the chance to play the game alongside Mikkel Martin Pedersen and Søren Lundgaard, two of Ghost Ship Games’ founders. A four-player cooperative shooter about space dwarves mining rocks in a dangerous alien planet, Deep Rock Galactic requires a lot of teamwork and communication in order to succeed. Therefore, I was given a rundown of the basics before boarding the mining pod and dropping into the surface.
Spawning inside the crew quarters of a mining ship, players are able to use a computer to change between the four available classes: engineer, gunner, driller, or scout. Each one has a different loadout and set of skills, along with a unique piece of gear. The engineer can create footholds with a platform gun, gunners can place a zipline to reach those, drillers can drill through rock and create tunnels (and stairs!) at ridiculously fast rates, and scouts can lead the way with their very own grappling hook. Overall, missing anyone but a scout creates a sizeable handicap on the team.
The mining ship acts as a sort of a hub area, like a bigger and more interesting version of Vermintide’s pub. While it was clearly a work-in-progress, some nice touches like a jukebox that causes players to dance to the music were already implemented -- during the demo, the team assembled around it to rock their heads to some sweet hard rock music while the dwarfs taunted the game’s motto, “Rock and Stone!”. Once PR contact Natalie Bahbout joined us and took over the fourth slot, we all strapped into the drop pod and launched towards the planet.
The drop serves as a loading screen, and the gameplay resumes once the drop pod is already embedded on the surface and digging down. During the descent, computer screens indicate how deep the pod is currently digging, and as the destination is reached with a bang, the doors open to allow the dwarves to leave before the pod climbs its way back to the surface.
However, Deep Rock Galactic is a shooter, so it needs things to shoot. Those things are gigantic arachnid-like aliens that come out of nowhere in swarms, beelining towards the team and hoping to kill all who dare set foot inside the caves. There are several variations of enemies, from small dog-sized crabs to giant truck-wide spiders, and when they come, they come with a passion.
To fight them, each class is equipped with different weapons, including assault rifles, shotguns, and miniguns. Every team member also has grenades and a pickaxe to get them off rough spots, but teamwork is absolutely essential if the team intends to survive. In case someone doesn’t survive, they get incapacitated and must be revived, crying for help on the ground until a teammate picks them up. That is considerably harder than it sounds, as the incapacitated dwarf lies completely useless on the ground as his team must take out enemies and navigate the environment in order to help him out.
Levels take place in giant caves deep within the planet’s crust, filled with several types of valuable ores. The maps themselves are procedurally generated and feature a lot of verticality, often requiring careful interplay of each of the classes’ skills to effectively navigate the environment and reach the mining nodes. The caves are also very dark, requiring the use of flares to light up the way.
The game’s main objective revolves around the mining of a dark mineral called Morkite, strewn about in caves walls and ceilings. Other minerals, like red crystal Nitra or plain-old gold, can also be found, and allow you to respectively call in mission gear like automated turrets or upgrade your equipment after the mission.
To help you carry all that, a very cute little M.U.L.E. robot named Molly follows the team and can be ordered to move around the cave for better positioning. Once you mine something with your trusty pickaxe, you just deposit the minerals on the M.U.L.E. and go back to mining. Once enough Morkite is mined, a mining pod is automatically sent down from the surface and a five-minute countdown begins, urging the team to scramble like mad towards the extraction point.
These are often the most heart-pounding portions of a mission, as the team must either find their way back through the labyrinthine caves or make their own path by mining rock and stone (Rock and Stone!). This is usually when insects start to come out of the walls in an endless swarm, adding an extra degree of panic -- as if the automatic mission failure was already not pressing enough.
During my hands-on session, we were stuck in the bottom of a chasm for over three minutes after the extraction triggered, and couldn’t find a way up. With the drop pod a mere 120 meters away from us, I turned to Bahbout and asked her if she could use her drills to make us a path. Pedersen and Lundgaard acknowledged, and she touched the rock and disappeared against the wall.
We made our way through the improvised tunnel, following behind Bahbout as she pressed relentlessly upwards. The path behind us started to crawl with enemies, xenos hot on our heels as we dug closer and closer to the pod. About 60 meters away, the drill ran out of fuel. I rushed forward and started to bash at the wall with my pickaxe, joined by the driller a split second later as the scout and gunner held the oncoming swarm -- but it was for naught. 10 seconds later, the drop pod departed with the M.U.L.E. on board, and all dwarves were declared MIA.
While disappointing, this outcome perfectly encapsulates what the game’s lore is all about -- Deep Rock Galactic is a mining company worried about profits first and foremost, sparing little thought for their employees once the cargo hold is full of minerals. Luckily, the game does reward you with all minerals that were successfully extracted, though the bonus payout substantially decreases with each dwarf that fails to make it to the pod.
Truly, I was extremely impressed by Deep Rock Galactic. A true co-op is a rare thing nowadays, and a good co-op is ever rarer. While clearly far from finished, the team at Ghost Ship already put together an amazing and satisfying experience that stands shoulder to shoulder with the best co-op titles out there. All that remains to be seen now is if they’ll manage to keep that momentum going.
Deep Rock Galactic is out on 2018, on Steam.