Deep Rock Galactic is a mining game starring dwarves in astronaut suits

March 14, 2017 by Laura Michet

I have very warm and fuzzy memories of the first year or so after Minecraft's Survival Multiplayer came out. At the time, I was living in a very large old house with fifteen or eighteen other people, and a good third of us would grab our laptops and gather in the living room every night to play together. Minecraft is open-world, but for a year we treated it almost like a mission-based co-op game. Every night, we'd each pack different supplies and head into a cave as a group, sticking close together, tackling every creeper and spider-nest tactically as a team. It's honestly surprising that Ghost Ship's Deep Rock Galactic is the first game I've seen that focuses precisely on this potent co-op mining experience.

Set in outer space, and starring a crew of four bearded fantasy dwarves in space suits, Deep Rock Galactic is a class-based, co-op FPS which precisely snips out and preserves the experience I had when I went cave-diving in Minecraft with my friends. It also has the advantage of being set in space, and of starring fantasy dwarves-- which is the kind of bonkers pitch that draws my attention immediately. I played the game at GDC this year with a team of one developer and two other press folks, and even though three out of the four of us had no idea what we were doing, I honestly had a pretty excellent time.

At the start of every mission, Deep Rock Galactic assigns the players a certain amount of rare mineral to hunt down. When the mission begins, a drop-ship drill delivers them straight from outer space to the interior of a subterranean cave system. Then they'll start exploring-- a process which requires each of the four dwarves' unique combat, mining, and traversal skills. When the dwarves have enough of the resource they're after, they'll have a limited amount of time to run back to the drill-ship and escape. (Back to their dwarven spaceship, I guess?) Gold mined from the cave walls will let them purchase supply drops; 'red sugar' crystals will replenish their health. Where Minecraft's zillion systems focused on letting player do a zillion different things, DRG focuses on and hones the very specific experience of searching for loot in a cave with a team of buddies.

Every mission takes place in a procedurally-generated cave system, with diggable and deformable dirt in every direction. The press kit I got bragged about "next-level exploration," and while I don't know if I would call it "next-level," the stuff I saw in my preview demo certainly seemed pretty darn good. It preserves the threat of Minecraft's spookily unlit, winding tunnels: I felt a familiar kind of daring as we scurried ahead, hurling glowing flares down the sloping passageways and tracking each other in the dark. At one point, I rushed out into an open chamber to find springy aliens hanging from the ceiling and swinging their snapping teeth in my direction; in another, we stumbled across a gigantic misshapen alien spawner lurking at the edge of our field of light.

My character was a Driller-- a class which digs full-height tunnels much faster than the other dwarves. He came with a gigantic drill (of course) and a flamethrower, which I frequently used to hold off alien waves in tunnel chokepoints. The game also includes a Navigator class, which acts like a scout; a Gunner class, which has a pretty obvious role in the team's composition; and an Engineer, which can deploy automatic gun turrets.

The aliens we saw were almost all blobby spider-type enemies, though I also caught a glimpse of those ceiling-hangers. The spider aliens could climb on any surface, and when we held off a wave of them in a chokepoint, they came at us on the walls and the ceiling as often as they did on the floor. The mining team has a storage robot which can climb on walls and ceilings, too; it follows along behind the team and acts as a 'bank' for the players' collected resources. When the players have banked enough gold or minerals in the bot, it will allow them to purchase supply drops or call the dropship to end the mission. It encourages players to stick around the bot and maintain some kind of group cohesion rather than scrambling off alone into the dark, and helps prevent this game from turning into four simultaneous single-player experiences.

Deep Rock's diggable cave terrain veers away from Minecraft-style blocks. Like Astroneer, No Man's Sky, and a lot of the other games-with-digging-in-them that I've seen over the last few years, its cave geometry is smoother and more detailed, which allows the caves to take on more convincingly-cavelike shapes. The game has an appealing low-poly artstyle that flatters this random cave generation, and it uses glowing mushrooms and neon cave grass to break up the darkness. Some chambers were very tall, with many exits at varying heights; at least three of the four classes have traversal tools, so we used zip lines, platforms, and stairs I crudely drilled into the walls to get around rooms like these. This makes communication quite important even for basic environment traversal. To make things a little simpler, each dwarf gets a laser pointer that they can use to click on things in the environment and alert the team.

Ghost Ship, the game's Danish developers, are making Deep Rock Galactic via an open development process. The game is currently in a closed alpha that players can apply to on their website, and it will come out on Steam Early Access later this year. The kind of games which tend to do well on Early Access are uniquely interesting even at early stages, and from what I saw at GDC, Deep Rock Galactic is probably already at that point. I'm looking forward to seeing what they add next!