Hands-on: Dauntless is a colorful and strategic monster-hunting MMO

Do you like Monster Hunter? Good, me too. How about the social and multiplayer component of MMOs? Combine those two concepts and mix in the stylized aesthetics of something like Overwatch and you’ve got Dauntless, an upcoming free-to-play MMO/action game from Phoenix Labs studios.

I know what you’re thinking, because I thought the same thing. Free to play? Doesn’t that mean draconian paywalls and limited access without spending a bunch of money? Thankfully, no. All you’re paying for (if you want to spend money on the game) is cosmetics; the entire game will be available for free when it launches on PC later this year. You can pay for a Founder’s Edition which gives you some unique day-one content, but there is nothing stopping you from playing Dauntless with no financial commitment.

I like that business model, and I’m really hoping that it works out. I’d love to see more of it.

Hunting Monsters

As you can probably tell from the trailers, Dauntless takes inspiration from Monster Hunter in a big way. There are some substantial differences, but if you’re a fan of the Capcom franchise, you’re right to be intrigued.

The foundation of Dauntless is team-based monster slaying. By working in groups of four, you and your friends enter one of many geographically varied worlds, track down a giant beast (in this game, they are called behemoths) and kill it to death.

Sounds simple enough right? Obviously it wouldn't be much fun if this was easy, so the challenge is learning the behemoth’s attack pattern, dodging aplenty, managing your items, and understanding the intricacies of your weapon. It’s a game of constant boss fights against extraordinary creatures that ooze personality and charm.

The first battle I embarked on was against a giant beaver (Phoenix Labs is Canadian after all), and the four of us spent a long time dodging its tail, watching out for its feet as it smashed the ice around it, and hacking away with our various weapons. The way the three behemoths we fought and killed resembled real creatures with creative twists is very charming, and I look forward to checking out what Phoenix Labs has in store for higher level content.

Fight On!

Combat in Dauntless reminds me a bit of Bloodborne, meaning there’s a big emphasis on dodging and attack prediction. There’s substantial variation in your weapon options as well: you can wield giant axes, swords, chain blades, and even long range weapons eventually, and each impacts the behemoth differently. As you progress you’ll be able to unlock new weapons, and every weapon you obtain affects every behemoth differently.

Weapon selection really comes into play when you start tactically damaging the behemoths. For example, in the fight against the giant mutated beaver I focused on his tail, because it kept smashing into me. We finally managed to slice it off, which left the behemoth unable to use that attack, so he naturally focused on all the other ways he could kill us. This system makes it possible to make a behemoth weaker depending on what part of its body you focus on disabling, and that has a substantial impact on how the battle progresses.

Location also comes into play. When a behemoth is on its own turf they’re substantially buffed. If they’re not in their element, they might go down a little easier.

When you do finally fell the great beasts, your reward is in-game currency you can use to start improving your character in true RPG style.

The systems at play in Dauntless are very complex; everything from special abilities to monster aggravation and gear loadouts have an impact on whether you’re successful on bringing down these hulking creatures. I didn’t get enough time with the game to fully understand the intricacies of all of these systems, but you better believe we’ll be diving into more detail when the game is released.

What I did experience was enjoyable, and left me wanting more. Fighting the behemoths is challenging, entertaining, and rewarding when you finally emerge victorious. Especially when you pull it off by the skin of your teeth with friends via coordinated attack and support.

Just expect to rez each other a lot, because Dauntless monsters are tough. 

Low-Maintenance Good Looks

Gameplay is king in an action RPG like Dauntless, but creating a compelling world can make a huge difference too. Dauntless has a distinctly cartoony art style, think World of Warcraft more than Dark Souls. It’s running on a heavily modified Unreal Engine 4, so it still looks quite lovely, but that cartoonish aesthetic sensibility also means it can run on lower-end machines. That’s critical for the F2P business model.

Fortunately, being optimized for lower-end hardware doesn’t mean Dauntless suffers artistically. The art style compliments the gameplay nicely, and the maps you explore are brimming with detail and color. The fact you can explore those maps with an older GPU is certainly not a bad thing.

Undaunted

I only saw a bit of what Dauntless has to offer at E3, but what I did see left me interested in exploring the world further. The combination of challenging combat, social coordination, gear customization, and exploration seems like a recipe for success, and the fact that it’s free is all the better.

I’m looking forward to diving back in and experiencing the narrative, the hub world, and all of the other aspects of Dauntless I haven’t seen yet. 

If you're interested in playing Dauntless you can sign up for the beta

Bring on the behemoths!

Check Out Our Full E3 2017 Coverage