Cooperative games tend to fall under two distinct spectrums: One is the kind of game where every player is on the same level with no unique characteristics but relies on the team to play as a functioning squad. The other has progression and loadouts unique to each player but can lead to the more experienced/better equipped players just stomping through and effectively making themselves the ‘team captain’. Deep Rock Galactic falls into a healthy middle ground that, when combined with its theme and gameplay structure of grumpy dwarf miners going to a hostile planet to mine it of resources, makes for a wonderfully fun game that can leap between great action and meditative exploration within minutes of each other. Oh, there’s also a dedicated salute button to cheer at your teammates so that’s great by default.
Deep Rock Galactic is a first-person shooter where players take control of dwarven miners working for the titular company. The only storytelling (at this time) to uncover is that Deep Rock Galactic comes across as caring more about their equipment and profits than their workers, with said workers being blunt, brash and would likely swear a lot more if the game had an M rating. The game starts on a space station where upgrades and accessories can be swapped out and missions selected before being fired down to Hoxxes, the planet that’s crawling (pun not intended) with gaggles of insectoid creatures that don’t take kindly to resource exploiters. After arriving via drop pod miles underground, teams of one (if solo you’re accompanied by a handy drone) to four players begin their mining operation by way of chipping at mineral veins with their trusty pickaxe which doubles as a melee weapon. While turning mined loot into experience, money and upgrade materials later isn’t a new idea, it’s getting to said veins and getting around the caves that makes things interesting.
This is where Deep Rock Galactic starts to shine; with four classes available and each having their own weapons, movement tool and equipment, every class has their own roles to play while spelunking Hoxxes: While you could hack away at a wall to build a stairway up to a vein of gold, it’s much easier to point the spot out to the Engineer so they can use their platform gun and make steps up to easily reach the goods. You could wade through a pile of goo that drastically slows movement speed, or the Gunner can erect a zipline to easily pass over the hazard to save time. Got a long way to dig? Let the Driller wade through the rock effortlessly with their drill arms. With a good team, everyone more or less knows what they can and can’t do to nab all the goodies along the way, or at least make that relevant teammate know what’s needed of them. To maximize efficiency and save time both in and out of combat, everyone needs to pull their respective weight and it goes a long way in making you feel like you’re contributing and matter. Shuffling through the caves gathering minerals and using tools when needed can become downright peaceful and relaxing with occasional voice, text or pinged callouts from teammates signalling when assistance is needed.
All the meditative exploration and teamwork is nice and all, but Hoxxes is full of angry bugs looking to put a halt to all that. Ranging from grunts to Wardens that’ll buff others to Praetorians that have a nasty habit of wrecking everything, encounters can go from simple to challenging in a hurry. While enemies can be stumbled upon or trickle in with occasional ambushes, full-on assault waves can occur that’ll force everyone to dig in for a few minutes before getting back to mining. I mentioned earlier that saving time is a goal; the reason being that the longer the mission goes on, the worse and nastier the assault waves can get. There’s only so much ammo to go around until a supply drop needs to be ordered and nitra, the resource needed, is finite in supply. While the gunplay and its feedback can feel a bit weak with some weapons, battles are quite fun especially when each class uses their respective tools and equipment to get better angles for the ensuing skirmish and to assist the team. Much like with mining, each class has a role to play when it comes to dealing or avoiding damage and later upgrades allows players to tweak how their weapon and equipment works during missions. The options at this time aren’t terribly varied being performance modifications (accuracy, damage, etc.) for the most part with equipment and armor, but it can lead to testing how confident one is in their resource management; take damage and rate of fire upgrades in order to hit harder but need to resupply more often, or take ammo and capacity to resupply less but hit weaker.
Save for the character designs, Deep Rock Galactic doesn’t look great when stacked against other co-op shooters, though environmental and weapon effects are great to watch during battles with flashes of color in the dark. The visuals lend themselves to not end up being visual pollution in the long run to its credit, as everything looks distinct in terms of color and model shapes - Telling the difference between a grunt and an acid spitter or doing a sweep with your (mostly useless) flashlight to see if that glimmer in the wall is nitra or morkite. The jungle-esque environments don’t escape this however with vines and other foliage sometimes choking your vision in snug tunnels, making liberal use of the map necessary to avoid taking the wrong turn or stepping down a twenty foot drop. With how hectic assaults can be, being able to quickly and clearly pick out targets based on threat allows teams to avoid being absolutely overwhelmed - When there’s light available. The flashlights in Deep Rock Galactic are comically weak which means relying on flares that recharge on a cooldown or a Scout’s powerful flaregun, though things like explosions, gunfire and environmental effects can illuminate things albeit briefly.
Deep Rock Galactic would’ve been another generic shoot-bang co-op romp if it wasn’t for the mining and overall theme. Giving players something productive to do other than run from point A to B like a ballistic speedrun helps save it from being a repetitive slog. There’s been very few missions played where we’ve entered a big chamber and not picked it clean of minerals, pooling our tools together to make sure everyone (but mostly ourselves) can maximize our experience and income. Like with any online game there’ll be terrible people who try and ruin things for others (friendly fire only enabling this), but the community as far as I’ve seen are quick to get rid of unproductive players in favor of ones who’ll actually play for the sake of the team. Deep Rock Galactic gets a strong recommendation from me, especially if you’re after a new co-op experience.