Deep Rock Galactic Review
In search of buried treasure
Strictly cooperative multiplayer titles are not as common as those that focus on competition, and even fewer focus on gameplay mechanics that are traditionally reserved for solo play. Such is the case for Deep Rock Galactic, a 4-player co-op multiplayer game where the main goal is going on mining adventures to collect materials and escape in one piece from the local alien threat. While the procedurally generated levels are initially engaging and the different character classes work well together, the gameplay loop begins to grow stale long before you reach the end-game and prestige ranks. Though it has a solid foundation, this lower priced game will largely appeal to a very specific type of player.
The title doesn't have much of a story. The basic setup is that you're a dwarf miner who works for the Deep Rock Galactic company, and your only task is to visit various locations and mine for minerals. There's a sort of boss character that occasionally communicates with you over the radio, mostly to provide instructions or congratulate you on success. But for the most part, you're just living the life of a resource gatherer without much flair and narrative, going on mission after mission.
Players have a small Space Rig central hub that they can walk around in, play a basic minigame, order a drink at the bar, or dance to a jukebox. But more importantly, there are also computer stations from which you can access your character upgrades, perks, visual customization options, and other menus. When ready, you enter the drilling rig and its sent down to the planetary surface. As the level begins, players emerge into a randomly generated series of caverns where they explore, mine, and complete objectives.
The procedurally generated levels are one of the highlights of Deep Rock Galactic. You could find yourself in one of different biomes – sand, rock, volcanic, and so on – which offer differing visual styles, and occasional gameplay differences such as radiation crystals, flame pits, and wind tunnels. Despite taking place underground, the game still has wind storms and rain, which goes unexplained. Another key aspect is that all these caverns are devoid of light, so players carry unlimited but short-lifespan glowsticks to help illuminate the world. One of the most memorable moments, that occurs over and over, is throwing light in front of you to reveal the surrounding area, a deep pit, or some precious minerals. These small sorts of reveals continue to be engaging throughout.
To explore these caves, players have a pickaxe that lets them destroy anything in sight. Much like Minecraft or Terraria, you spend a lot of time with your face in rock textures, hitting them. It takes between one and three hits to break anything, and you can carve tunnels in any direction. Your goal depends on the mission type, but generally there's lots of mining involved to get materials or create pathways to the ceiling or into steep drops. Players have limited inventory, so they bring along a mobile robot that stores the team's materials for the mission, called a MULE. While repetitive, the mining aspect doesn't grow frustrating, especially depending on what type of class you're playing and if you have other players alongside who can work together to greatly expand traversal options. To help with navigation, there is a 3D topographical map of your immediate surroundings, but it does not show where you've already explored.
Before each mission, players get to choose one of four classes, each with their own unique tool with limited uses; and yes, players can have more than one of the same class per mission. The Driller has a reinforced power drill, which lets him get through anything much faster than using a pickaxe. The Engineer has a tool that lets him create makeshift platforms, so you can mine that distant mineral near the ceiling comfortably. The Gunner is able to create ziplines between two locations, and the Scout has a grappling hook for quick traversal in any direction, as well as helpful Flare Gun that shoots bright and long lasting light sources. Each of these tools are sufficient for personal use, but when combined they make exploration faster – as one dwarf zips up to a platform to mine something, another drills his way up a cliff and a zipline is placed for the team to use, as the flare gun lights up the ceiling.
The rest of each class's arsenal is used for combat purposes. The caves you visit are infested with alien creatures, and to keep the players engaged there are occasional swarm attacks that need fending off. The Driller has a flame or ice cannon for crowd control, as well as satchel charges and grenades. The Engineer has luring grenades to keep enemy distracted, while he builds automated turrets and shoots the enemy with a shotgun. The Gunner packs a large minigun, a cluster grenade, and a temporary shield generator that enemies can't enter. Lastly, the Scout has a couple of assault rifles and a grenade that slows enemies down.
Despite all these available tools, the combat of Deep Rock Galactic is messy and unsatisfying. The game balances the enemy size based on how many players are in a mission, and also on the selected difficulty. On lower levels, the enemies don't possess much of a threat – all players have a rechargeable shield that depletes before your health. To restore health, you need to find and mine red crystals. Interestingly, despite so many gadgets and weapons for combat, there is no healer class, so you will be doing a lot of running in circles from enemies that spawn from the ground everywhere. But on higher difficulties, the amount of enemies becomes overwhelming, so players resort to cheaper tricks like riding a zip line back and forth, as most foes are melee and lack ranged options.
It's not a lot of fun to be faced with a huge swarm of bugs, having to constantly revive each other and run around desperately, firing into the blob of enemies. Dead foes leave a flopping body behind for a few moments, adding to the mess. They will follow you everywhere, and larger foes have no problem fitting into any passages, physics be damned. There's also little enemy variety between the biomes, as you'll be facing against the same bugs over and over, and so the combat doesn't change, just their health and attack strength. Players will also often run out of ammo, especially on higher difficulties. To resupply, you must mine a certain mineral and then call in supply pods. Large enemy encounters on higher difficulties require so much ammo that you might need a few resupplies during a single battle.
To help players be better prepared for the combat, you can upgrade the equipment of your characters. These upgrades require materials and certain experience level – which is why you're doing all this mining. The upgrades largely focus on expanding the available ammo and stopping power of your gear. There's also a perk system, for which you earn points by completing certain milestones, like completing certain number of missions, eliminating specific amount of enemies, and so on. The perks need to be equipped, and you'll have more perks available than can be used at one time, thus promoting the idea of various loadouts instead of one all-powerful character. The perks can be active, such as gravity boots or being able to delay your death for a few seconds, and passive, like faster movement and dealing damage back to enemies. One of the perks is being able to turn an enemy bug into a friendly – an odd choice given the messy nature of combat, and amount of friendly fire even between dwarves, let alone something that looks the same as the enemy.
All this action and mining takes place within one of five mission types. All missions indicate their approximate length and complexity, so you know roughly the sort of cave you'll be exploring. They also have a secondary objective, which simply means collecting some rare mineral. Mining Expeditions are straightforward, and just ask players to collect a certain amount of specific material. Egg Hunts are somewhat similar, as they require players to extract a certain number of eggs hidden throughout the caves.
With Salvage Operation, players locate and fix two mini-MULES, who lead them to a crashed drop pod, which then needs to be repaired and defended as enemy waves attack. In Point Extraction, players have just one large cavern, where they must extract special glowing gems and bring them back to the central mining platform. The gems emit their locations via a blue light, so you know where to dig. After the gems are extracted, you must again defend the mining platform from enemy waves. Lastly, Elimination missions simply have you take out up to three large and strong Dreadnought bosses. Helpfully, your map shows the location of the targets in Egg Hunt, Salvage Operation, and Elimination, so you're not wandering around the caves for long. At the end of each mission, you must also make it to a randomly placed escape pod within five minutes. You can make your own way, or try to follow your MULE who leaves markers behind – but because it can travel up walls and ignore gravity, it may not always be feasible.
Traversing and mining is best done with other players, as the game markets itself as a co-op first experience. To that end, the seamless drop-in co-op works very well, as you can choose to make your mission deployment private or public. You can also join other miners, via a server browser or quick join; filtering helps sort through difficulty and mission types. To succeed, just one miner needs to make it to the escape pod at the end. Players tend to generally work together, even when nobody uses the available voice or text chat. Loading times are very quick.
While the game does support solo play, it turns out to be fairly wearisome. With just one dwarf, your traversal and gathering speed are much more limited, so it can turn basic missions such as Mining Expeditions into 40+ minute dull affairs. You do get a floating AI companion who can mine stuff high on the walls and shoot at some enemies, but things still take much longer. It can also only revive you a few times, whereas players have no such limit. The larger enemies also all have a weak spot on their behind, which is obviously more annoying to hit when no other players can distract them.
Despite a solid foundation, the gameplay loop of Deep Rock Galactic grows old fairly quickly. It's the sort of game where you've seen all it has to offer within the first ten hours, and even as you're joined by players who have extremely high profile levels and have obviously poured over a hundred hours into the game, their experience is very much the same as yours.
To give players just a bit more drive, there is an assignment board which gives you some objectives or reasons to keep playing through the same five missions over and over. At first, the game guides you toward leveling up each of the four character classes so that you can unlock their alterative primary and secondary weapons and more grenade options. It also provides a goal of leveling up your overall account level, and eventually just giving you a weekly set of missions to do, all in the name of resources.
The long range goals include conquering higher difficulties and participating in tough Deep Dives, which are three missions stringed together and are randomly generated only once; meaning if you fail and try again, the layout will stay the same. After earning enough XP for each character class, you can promote them (prestige system) which grants you a visual icon and an extra perk slot, access to Deep Dives, and resets you back to level 1.
But the loop still remains dull. Sure, there are sometimes random events that occur – such as stumbling across a coordinates that lead to a new weapon skin, or encountering a powerful hostile robot – but these are minor diversions. Missions can also get random modifiers, making them more difficult by changing up enemy abilities, or more worthwhile by offering extra gold or XP. Yet, at the end of the day, you're doing the same things over and over – facing off against a higher difficulty of enemies doesn’t change moment to moment experience very much.
The game has a pleasing art style. The crystals and materials glow enticingly in the dark, and visual effects are serviceable. The triangular surfaces which can be deformed, and that you'll be staring at a lot, are fairly low resolution, but it makes the game run without any hiccups. The dwarven character designs and textures are also not overly detailed, but they work okay for this type of game. As mentioned, you earn new skins for weapons and armor, and can buy visual customizations such as beards, hats, and so on. Audio design is sufficient, offering some ambient noises during general exploration, and kicking up a song during combat. The characters can also yell out randomly generated calls to each other, for a bit of personality.
Deep Rock Galactic offers initial promise, with diverse characters and abilities, dark and mysterious caves that are randomly generated, and unique traversal and exploration mechanics to keep players engaged. But soon enough, you realize that the long-term goals are not very enticing, and the missions begin to grow quite repetitive. You will get to see most of the core gameplay loop within the opening few hours, and while it can be fun to mine with others, there's just not enough of a hook here to keep playing for very long term, which is what most games in this genre strive for. Still, thanks to its lower asking price, Deep Rock Galactic is perhaps worth a look for fans of Minecraft and other similar games that are focused on mining – rather than crafting or creating, as there is none of that here.