Deep Rock Galactic’s great triumph is transforming grind into something exciting, repeatable and fun. You work for a company that cares more about small profits than your survival. You will be sent to dark caves to carve out small amounts of minerals. And your rewards are meager compared to the risk you face when you take on huge alien insects that are hungry for your flesh. But as a tough space dwarf doing what he does best, you’ll have a blast, as the game’s systems manage to turn that work into something magical.
An important reason for this is the smartly structured approach to cooperative play. Deep Rock Galactic can be played solo, with the help of an AI drone to aid you in your mining efforts, but it’s much less enjoyable. The game is at its best with a full four-person team working together, ideally with a full spread of the classes available. Fortunately, a fast and responsive backend means you can quickly join or host sessions, so grouping properly is possible even when your friends aren’t around.
The four classes are carefully balanced and play well together, complementing each other’s skills. The Scout’s speed, flare and grappling hook quickly get him where he needs to be. The Driller’s tunneling abilities accelerate any attempt or escape, and his flamethrower is a boon for crowd control. The Gunner’s weapons hold the line in every fight and his zip lines make team navigation manageable. And the creation of the engineer’s platform makes it possible to mine places that otherwise seem impossible to reach, even if his automatic turrets help hold specific control zones. All in all, each adds invaluable value to the group, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with each.
With each mining run, your space mining crew is sent into the depths of a mineral-rich behemoth of a planet, which also happens to be overrun by hostile alien insects. Sometimes you’re just there to collect a certain type of rock, but other objectives keep it interesting, from eliminating particularly vicious enemies to recovering the goods left behind by a previous mining crew that didn’t make it. Secondary objectives create an interesting risk/reward dynamic, adding time and danger in depth, but with a significant increase in your payout. And as you climb the ladder of more difficult missions, there are other secrets to uncover, from hidden cosmetics in long-lost collapsed caves to challenging ‘machine events’ that make for an extra challenging battle exchange. With a pickaxe in hand, there’s a satisfying balance in any mission between figuring out how to reach that elevated vein of gold and then switching to fend off a horde of attackers. Combat is intense and challenging and requires constant teamwork.
Either way, the procedurally generated cave systems are fascinating and expansive. The game encourages a focus on discovery and exploration – the mapping and objective markers are limited. That’s often a lot of fun, leading to moments of excitement as you break through a dirt wall to find a huge crystal clear room just beyond. Sometimes, however, the focus on free-form wandering can lead to a sense of purposelessness. Likewise, the game makes great use of light, as the dwarves emit rechargeable torches (or the scouts’ longer lasting flashes) to survey the area. But the overpowering sense of oppressive darkness can wear off over time, and the changing light sources can make it easy to get lost.
Between shifts, your time on the spacecraft offers some fun interjections, especially when sharing it with others. You upgrade a beer brewing license with newly discovered materials so you can toast each other before some crazy effects take over, like setting you on fire or changing your size. Some potions can even provide a boost for the next mission. You have a place to do a dwarf jig dance on the nearby jukebox and a button to turn off gravity in the station for a while. Or how about just kicking some barrels around? It’s all frivolous and funny.
This space station is also where you gradually upgrade your miners’ gear as they climb through the levels. Playing consistently leads to a range of benefits, but most have only a small effect on the odds of success. Each class awaits a few unlockable weapons and a series of upgrades for armor and the rest of your arsenal. However, many of the major upgrades are acquired in the early hours and the focus shifts to a very slow cosmetic unlock path. I found myself wanting some more meaningful options and customization after a while; the game requires many hours of investment to customize your look just the way you want, and more gameplay-influencing upgrades would have been welcome. You’ll eventually open “promotion,” which adds some new expanded missions and a few extra upgrade options. That said, the leveling curve is relatively flat and characters of different skill levels can generally play with each other just fine, except on the most difficult settings.
Aside from some bickering about progression or navigational frustration, Deep Rock Galactic is always a great time and highly replayable. The dwarves grumble and yell at each other, lamenting their fate, but happily tackle each new challenge with tenacious determinism. There’s a lot of satisfaction in draining your entire team into a new cave, and then immediately get to work carving away both rock and insect. Transplanted even from their popularization in Tolkien or Snow White and to a dark corner of space, the essence of the dwarf fantasy is richly realized here and makes me smile constantly. Bring some friends, a handy pickaxe, and a cranky attitude, and you’ll be smiling too.