There was a time before Doom when the term “shooter” meant something entirely different: scrolling spaceship games where blasting everything in sight was the only goal. It’s an ideal format for cooperative multiplayer games, yet seldom actually used. Dead Star, however, jumps headlong into old-school space combat to create a multiplayer-focused game that works amazingly well.
After warring factions decimate most life in the universe, a new era of peace emerges. Dead Star focuses on the prison system, where those who dare to defy this peace are thrown without hope of reprieve. Underneath the burning red light of a dying star and policed by an AI warden who destroys any ships that try to leave, this barren landscape is filled with resources, old ship carcasses, and asteroids.
Dead Star controls much like a twin-stick shooter, but with a lot more limitations. Unlike most pure arcade-style shooters, weapon range heavily impacts strategy. You’ll start off in a weak, underpowered ship with incredibly limited firing range, which keeps you focused on close-quarters combat. It’s a wise move, especially during crowded battles, when rampant cross-fire can lead to mass frustration.
Between the limited range and power consumption of the many weapon system options, Dead Star manages to become much more tactical in nature than a similar single-player game might be. Wild, desperate shooting usually leads to a quick death, forcing you to learn the ins and outs of your ship and load out during the game's early stages.
The variety of weapons is a big draw. There's the standard array of quick firing lasers, missiles, and other familiar sci-fi shooter mainstays, but as things progress, newer ships and options offer impressively strategic and creative slower firing weapons: huge energy balls that roll forward through space surrounded by clouds of destructive power and other big risk/big reward weapons of mass destruction.
There are AI drones that will follow and orbit your ship to provide extra support as well, and each ship offers myriad upgrade options. Dead Star features three different development tracks for ships (with a fourth on the way), each focused on a specific alien race. Within each track are three ship types offering distinctly different play experiences. The Scouts are fast and maneuverable, but light on firepower. Raiders are slower, but offer great attack potential. For tank-lovers, the frigate-class vessels offer size and potentially immense destructive power, but their large size and slow speed means they need a lot of support.
Each line of ships has a distinct look and weapon style, but, as expected in multiplayer games, don’t differ enough from their alien counterparts to create gameplay imbalances. In addition to pure ship-on-ship action, the landscapes sport their own set of dangers and opportunities. The Dead Star system is a battlefield graveyard, full of dead ships and the burnt leftovers of destroyed planets. Giant tunneled-out rocks float through space, allowing players to hide and discover ore deposits. Smaller obstacles need to be avoided, which can be challenging in the heat of combat.
Mine ore is traded at home bases for currency that allows for ship upgrades and players also earn upgrades through level progression. This gives Dead Star a solid sense of continuity without being a completely persistent world, and this sense of forward momentum is vital to the experience.
In the standard Conquest mode, two teams fight to take over specific AI-controlled base stations. When one team conquers the whole sector, they win. Its simple to get into and allows for a wide range of play styles. Players who just want to fly around and blow things up will be just as at home as those who prefer to tactically take over real estate and provide support.
Get far enough in Conquest mode and the Escape Run mode will unlock, which plays directly into Dead Star's overall plot. It seems that the system’s sun is about to literally die—it could go supernova any time, destroying everything in its path. So, the inmates are in a fervor to find a leftover capital ship from the old war and warp out of there. Escape Run lets a team of four commandeer a capital ship and attempt to make it through multiple sectors to reach a jump point (thus winning the match). The gimmick is that those sectors are actually other Conquest games in progress.
When a capital ship enters a Conquest match, the focus suddenly turns from the two teams killing each other to both teams aligning to destroy the capital ship as it slowly moves through the sector. The four-person team onboard the big ship must exit the ship and defend it against the Conquest teams. This three-way fight is one of the most interesting and creative multiplayer modes we’ve seen in a long time, and makes the overall game far more involving as a result.
Completing an Escape Run successfully also leads to rare items and rewards unavailable in the standard Conquest mode. Unfortunately, Dead Star only features these two modes, and feels a bit light as a result. There were also some noticeable issues with in-game lag, resulting in ships suddenly jumping around. It was a fairly minor issue overall, but enough to be annoying.
Dead Star, overall, is a fun change of pace from other multiplayer-only games. It comes with a decent tutorial and bot match options as well, but the fast and fun 10-on-10 matches are the obvious draw. The Escape Run mode is an intense and creative twist that keeps things lively. For fans of old school shooters, this is especially worth checking out.