When a game relies on teamwork, you bring a team to review it. We put Dead Star through its paces on PlayStation 4, and here’s what we found.
Released: April 6, 2016
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Also available on: PC
Developer: Armature Studio, LLC
Publisher: Armature Studio, LLC
Dead Star is a team-based, twin-stick shooter MOBA hybrid with aspects of base management and territory control. When the time came to review it on PlayStation 4, we found that a single point of view wasn’t enough to accurately relate the experience of playing it — so we got a team together, then proceeded to play it and review it as a squad. So now, without further ado, here’s the G4@Syfygames review of Dead Star!
Grant Patterson: I think the coolest thing about the game is that it took a lot of the trappings that make MOBA games so addictive and married them with twin-stick shooter mechanics that are insanely easy to pick up and grasp. There’s a lot of metagame under the surface, sure, but Dead Star is unique in the sense that it uses a back-to-basics approach for its core control mechanics, and this makes the beginner experience a much less stressful ordeal.
While I don’t particularly enjoy the grind-a-thon method of obtaining augments —permanent ship upgrades, as opposed to the in-match, per-match upgrades done during play —I do like how the power boost gained from them is distinct and immediately noticeable. I also love the team spirit of the game, and a team working in concert has a clear and decisive advantage against any group of random teammates, every time.
Josh Barnes: Teamwork is definitely the name of the game here. I think Dead Star really thrives because it combines something simple with something complex, leaving the result somewhere in the middle. Twin-stick shooters are generally pretty easy to pick up, and the name itself tells you most of what you need to know about how to play it. MOBAs, on the other hand, are notoriously more difficult for new people to pick up. I think that the base idea is great, and it only takes a couple of matches to get an idea in your head of how things work, but I think that the augment system works against the better parts of the game.
Christian Vazquez: I love the deceptive simplicity of Dead Star. It’s simple to pick up, yet difficult to master, especially where the team dynamic is involved. Each of the nine ships compliment each other since they’re designed from the ground up to be team-based, and from a developmental perspective, that’s a major boon to the game’s longevity. The hazards also keep the players on their toes instead of wildly charging in, which gives each match more depth, especially the nebulae clouds.
That being said, Dead Star does have some minor flaws. The augment system is unnecessarily complicated, and although I understand its necessity for balancing purposes, I feel like it could’ve been streamlined. Another flaw is that the map hazards deal huge amounts of damage to where players almost instantly die. The damage could be scaled down, and it still lets the player know that they’re dangerous without such an overwhelming consequence. Lastly, players should have the option to choose their ship before the match starts, instead of forcing players to use the default ship. This can cost precious seconds for capturing bases and resources to win the match.
Matt Ferguson: As a long-time follower of MOBAs since their earliest days at a Warcraft 2: Frozen Throne mod, this is an evolution that completely took me by surprise. I completely echo the sentiments of the other staff that Dead Star was an exceptionally welcoming game, at first. Once I got past the simple tutorial and grasped the basic concept of the Conquest mode, I felt right at home. It was like someone had taken Crimsonland and Asteroids, then combined them with DotA. It was only after laughing at my “immediate mastery” of the controls that I realized my ship was dead in the atmosphere. And then again. And again. And again, until it was finally drilled into my head that there was a little more going on beneath the surface.
While Dead Star certainly has borrowed a lot of the facets that make MOBAs and twin-stick shooters what they are, there is a uniqueness and a different type of complexity that’s necessary to master if you want to become an elite pilot. Like with many other MOBAs, even an upgraded ship and a full mastery of how the augment system works will not guarantee you easy success. This requires constant and vocal teamwork to pull off, and if you happen to be matched against another handful of gamers with the same idea, you’re in for a hard-fought match.
Kevin Tucker: While there’s a lot of potential for fun in Dead Star, I can’t imagine this is a game for everyone. It’s just a bit too hardcore —the twin-stick shooting requires more precision than might be expected, the upgrade/augment system requires too much grinding even at the lower levels, and it’s just a bit too unforgiving for newcomers. Sure, the action is easy enough to understand, and the too-brief tutorial mode provides just enough information to get started, but players will soon realize that without putting in the time needed to collect augments, they will always be a few steps behind the more powerful players in any given match.
With that in mind, Dead Star‘s smacking of the MOBA genre is nearly-undeniable. It’s true that each of the ships are configured in such a way as to provide specific benefits for the team, but individual units are flexible enough in their abilities to become showstoppers in the right hands. Skilled players can use ships that are vastly underpowered in relation to the opposition, provided that they’re smart enough with the ship’s abilities —and provided that they’ve stacked enough augments in the right places. The resulting sensation depends largely on which side of conflict players reside, as skillful players will be as heroes to their teammates, and as near-invincible frustrations to the opposing force.
Josh Barnes: Yeah, the game’s actual tutorial feels half-implemented in a lot of ways. It shows you only the most basic things such as how to shoot, move, and what the general goal of the game is, but the actual complexities of the game that people would likely need help with are relegated to walls of text in a help menu that you reach by pressing the touch pad while in the hangar. In regards to the ships themselves, while they’re interestingly designed and kept unique from each other, I feel like the only time you’re ever allowed to use them at their full potential is on the very rare occasions that you get the opportunity to play a match that starts all ships off at max power. Even during longer normal matches I’m not sure it’s actually possible to fully power up your ship.
Kevin Tucker: That’s a good point, Josh —didn’t some levels have maxed-out ships at Level 10? But then when you’re playing, there are five categories, each of which can be leveled up four times…
Josh Barnes: Yeah, those numbers don’t seem to match up.
Grant Patterson: While I think the augment system is cool, I don’t think that it’s handled well in matchmaking. I kept getting paired against people who were twice my level with a juggernaut of a ship, and even if you fully upgrade your own vessel mid-match, their single ship can hold down an entire base’s section single-handedly against stock fighters, and even low-level augmented destroyers.
You see the teams get balanced before the match, sure, but when one guy can blow up an entire team of people by themselves for fifteen minutes straight without even trying…well, the game ceases to be fun at that point. You’re getting schoolyard flashbacks of playing rock-paper-scissors against the kid that always tried to yell “gun” like a smartass, except in this game, “gun” actually counts. If augments were capped when the rest of the population was averaging far lower levels, that would make sense, and keep the game’s sense of fairness a bit better.
By all means, unleash the beasts when you’re in a room full of level 20+ players with 17-25 level ships in tow. But if they’re the only person with them in a room where the average level is eight or less, you might as well start calling the game Drowning Kittens: In Space.
Christian Vazquez: I feel like the developers could’ve done a better job balancing the augment mechanics’ problems by readjusting the matchmaking system. They should’ve let higher ranked players play with their own kind, since it’s assumed that they already have fully augmented ships. That way, the game remains fun for everyone, which would drastically expand the lifespan of Dead Star‘s online community.
Matt Ferguson: While it’s not the most entertaining MOBA I’ve ever played, I can see Armature Studio refining their gameplay to really find the best balance as a twin-stick shooter borrowing a lot from the team-based genre. While Dead Star spent several months in Early Access on Steam, it never received the same treatment on PlayStation 4. If there is one thing I’ve learned from playing MOBAs, they tend to release the core game and then slowly work on refining the various systems to tweak the various gameplay aspects.
Many other MOBAs entering their third, fourth and fifth years are still undergoing massive changes that sometimes completely overhaul the “meta” of the game so as to create better balance, so it tends to be one genre I give leniency to right out of the gate. Just remember what League of Legends, SMITE, and DotA played like immediately after release, and compare that to how they function now.
If you love frantic twin-stick shooters, but are looking for a deeper level of strategy not often found in shmups, chances are Dead Star is going to check a lot of your boxes. Once Armature Studio gets feedback from the wealth of people playing their game and can start to toy around with Augments, upgrading ships, and other factors that affect gameplay balance, I have a feeling we’ll be looking at a MOBA with a decently long shelf life.
Kevin Tucker: Ultimately, Dead Star is a mixed bag. The idea of mashing twin-stick shooters together with MOBAs is inspired —the game itself does offer plenty of polish and surprising depth —but in its split lineage Dead Star manages to combine the less favorable aspects of its parents into its own unique issues. Primarily, the depth of the upgrade system is at odds with the simplified play style. It’s difficult to imagine pumping hours into a twin-stick shooter only to earn incremental upgrades, and especially so considering the game’s particularly dubious way of presenting those upgrades.
Still, Dead Star manages to be a rarity regardless of which of its genre inspirations is given the most weight. It’s a MOBA that’s considerably less hardcore than its brethren, it’s a team-based strategy title where even weak players can find their own utility, and it’s a top-down twin-stick shooter that rewards patience and consideration. It’s a remarkable achievement, but far from what I would consider a must-play experience.
Christian Vazquez:Dead Star certainly deserves credit for its valiant attempt to shake up the MOBA genre. However, while they succeeded on that notion, the final product feels slightly misguided in execution. By utilizing top-down twin-stick shooting mechanics, the title is easy to pick up, but the team-based components make them difficult to master. It’s clear that Dead Star values the teamwork approach, and that’s something the gameplay expresses extremely well. The map layouts are well-designed, and the natural hazards help keep players on their toes. Upgrading captured bases and ship components are simple tasks that don’t take a lot of time. This is a good thing, since this allows players to focus on the fight and support their teammates rather than being stuck in menus.
Unfortunately, the augment mechanics favor individual progress far too much, which contradicts the game’s overall purpose. If the player manages to achieve a high rank, they can receive a plethora of necessary components to bolster their ships to a nigh-impregnable degree. This is a boon for high-level players, but bad luck for neophytes. The disparity leads to one-sided stomps, which could turn off many new players from the first match alone. This could’ve been resolved by revamping the matchmaking system to where high level players battle their respective brethren, or at the very least, making it an optional filter.
That being said, Dead Star is still loads of fun for those who favor a collective effort. Shooting down enemy ships and defending bases against tactically planned invasions is nothing short of an exhilarating experience.
Josh Barnes: Dead Star is a cool concept, and it’s one that mixes so many things together that I can see it appealing to a number of different types of gamers. It’s a twin-stick shooter, but it’s got base management, MOBA elements, and an emphasis on teamwork. That said, it stumbles a bit in its execution. With how reliant the upgrade system is on RNG and grinding, how limited the game types are, and how iffy the matchmaking can be, the end result is a game that can have you going back and forth between having an enjoyable time and wondering why you’re bothering at all.
You rarely get to use your ships at their full potential and you can end up against people who have blatant advantages over you. In the end, it’s certainly an interesting mish-mash of ideas, and when it works it can be quite a fun time. Charging up a big shot with your Stalker and leading it just right to watch it decimate a smaller ship can be extremely satisfying, but not satisfying enough to balance out the issues.
Grant Patterson: I have very mixed emotions about Dead Star. It’s got loads of potential, and even through all of its problems in matchmaking and strange damn-the-balance augment systems, it’s still so f’n fun that I keep diving back into it with wild abandon. It’s a game that shines brightest when you’ve got a squad at your back, but the way the deck is so heavily stacked against new players when matched up against veterans makes getting new blood into the game an incredibly difficult feat. Still, I won’t say I had a blast with it, because I’m still having a blast with it in spite of its faults. I just fire up Spotify, crank up my New Retro Wave playlist, and turn my enemies into Space Trash.
Dead Star is still free on PlayStation Plus at the time of this writing, so if you haven’t picked it up for the low, low cost of flat-rate zero, you’re messing up at life. It may be a far cry from perfect, but it’s so much damn fun that you might not care. I know I don’t.
This game’s review copy was a digital download code provided by the publisher…but we didn’t need to use it, since the game made its PlayStation 4 debut as a PlayStation Plus offering for April 2016.
It may not be your cup of tea, but it still manages to be greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes.