When Monster Hunter: World released last year and became Capcom's fastest-selling game at launch, it was made clearer than ever that there is a huge market for repeatedly slaying giant beasts, gathering resources, and grinding to upgrade your gear in an ever-persistent online universe. Just over a year since Monster Hunter: World launched, Phoenix Labs brings us Dauntless, a free-to-play multiplayer game that borrows from Capcom's popular franchise and doesn't try to hide the fact. In many ways, Dauntless succeeds at creating a more accessible "behemoth" slaying experience, albeit with a few bumps along the way.
For those who haven't played Monster Hunter, the premise is about as clear-cut as the name itself. You gather a group of hunters, or as Dauntless calls them 'slayers' and you take off on joint adventures to hunt down enemies. Once missions are over and you've earned your keep, you travel back to a social hub world to take care of the housework. This consists of claiming your rewards, customizing, upgrading and getting ready for the next hunt. There is a definite loop to the way these games are structured, and Dauntless is no exception, but the hunt missions are the real focus.
Dauntless' hunts are simple affairs that revolve around one long boss fight, with a heavy focus on gathering the right materials and resources for upgrades. Slashing the right part of a behemoth may grant you access to some new armour or a weapon upgrade using the resource it provides, so it's always worth trying to take down each part of your enemy to maximise your amount of gathered materials. Working as a team is the easiest way to go about this, and the game certainly promotes plugging a microphone in and working together. Having said that, we played plenty of Dauntless without communication and did well enough to survive, even if we struggled to dismantle behemoths in a methodical way. Whichever way you cut it, or indeed the behemoths, hunting in Dauntless is an enjoyable co-op experience.
Each hunt is also categorised by an element: Blaze, Frost, Shock or Terra. Neutral behemoths containing no specific element are also present but are relegated to lower level affairs. The elements determine the type of behemoth you face and the range of attacks at its disposal, but we enjoyed the visual differences the most. Each hunt's element affects the environment you fight in and the behemoth design itself. Going from Blaze's fiery deserts to the frozen tundra of a Frost hunt made for some enjoyable visual variety.
Speaking of visuals, the game's animated visual style certainly offers something different from the aforementioned Monster Hunter, but it's all quite generic. The visual style instantly reminds you of the likes of Fortnite, Realm Royale or Paladins, giving the game a distinctly "free-to-play" look. It all works well enough, but we'd of liked to have seen Dauntless try to create its own style a little more, as the visuals offer nothing different from other recent entries in the free-to-play market.
It isn't just the visual style that shouts free-to-play. Once a hunt winds down and you are flown back to the hub world, you are welcomed with a whole bunch of merchants and vendors to go and speak with. It's here where you'll see if what you gathered out on the hunt is useful for upgrades or if you need more materials. The weapons and armour upgrades follow the same elemental style as the behemoths, so you'll need to have matched your gear with the hunt element to get the most out of your missions. However, Dauntless also piles on a myriad of other currencies and material types that were confusing at times (and frustrating at others). There's your typical "gold" that you earn through play, your premium currency that bypasses the gold but costs money, materials/resources gathered, and elemental orbs found in a whole host of places. On top of this, certain menus just show icons for them, so things can get confusing when trying to focus on what you need to gather to upgrade and whether you have the right currency for that shiny new weapon.
This also begs the question of whether the game could become pay-to-win once you explore different levels of endgame content. We passed a soft level cap of sorts at slayer level 10, which introduces a bunch of new resources and materials for player upgrades. At this level there was nothing we encountered that shouted pay-to-win just yet, but abilities like limited time airstrikes and grenades could prove an issue, as you can purchase more of these with the premium currency, which could make high-level boss fights a whole load easier. These level 10 upgrades also piled onto the already confusing materials system with even more things to gather and ways to upgrade. All in all, the system could do with being simplified somewhat or at least better explained, especially for newcomers to this style of in-game economy.
Aside from the confusing economy, the hub world also suffers from some major performance dips. Having played the game on both PS4, Xbox One and Xbox One X, Microsoft's upgraded machine is the only one that seems to be able to handle the social space at anything higher than about 20FPS. The hunt areas seem better in this regard, but again the Xbox One X is undoubtedly the smoothest performer when out in the wild as well. Performance aside, server issues have been plentiful with long queues, downtime and maintenance all being present in the few days after launch, especially during peak times. The game may have been more popular than the developers anticipated, but after a year of beta on PC, we expected more of these issues to have been fixed for launch.
Overall, Dauntless provides a good amount of free-to-play fun for fans of co-operative RPGs, even though the game struggles to shake its similarity to Monster Hunter. There is certainly merit in the game's simplification of the behemoth hunts, focusing on simply gathering some friends and taking down a boss together. The hub world and resource options could have also done with being streamlined, as in their current state they are both quite confusing to navigate. We have to give credit to Phoenix labs though, as they have created an enjoyable behemoth slaying co-op experience for those looking for a free-to-play alternative to what's out there, and hopefully, any remaining server issues will be fixed in the very near future.