Mini-Review for Spiral Knights: Operation Crimson Hammer
Spiral Knights itself is a largely Free to Play MMO whose business model relies on Energy to complete various tasks. As part of the drive for profits, Sega and Three Rings have released paid DLC in the form of Operation Crimson Hammer, a new set of levels culminating in a boss battle. Here I'm going to examine if this content is worth your money. Do note that as I am reviewing DLC, I'm simply going to assume you've already read my Spiral Knights review. I don't really want to go over all the basics again.
Let's address the company claim first, because this is a peculiar element. There is a claim that you unlock "three different versions" of the content, but the truth of that depends on how far you'd extend the definition of "different". About the only difference you do get between the different tiers for this content is a change of the enemy ranks. For example, the Tenderfoot Thwackers of Tier 1 are replaced by the Darkfang Thwackers in Tier 3. Combined with the changes to damage calculations between tiers this does allow for a noticeable difficulty scaling, as storming through the easiest doesn't mean you'll manage the same on the hardest setting. However, calling them separate versions seems like a rather underhanded way of implying that the challenges and layouts change between tiers. This, of course, is actually not the case.
So now I've finished with that complaint let's examine what we do actually get for our money. Well, we finally have a gremlin themed boss stratum to play around in that consists of 4 regular levels and a 5th smaller level that ends in the boss fight. There's a lot of interesting backstory involved as you find yourself tasked with assisting in an attack on a gremlin base, giving us a glimpse of the NPC military might of the knights that landed on Cradle (and yes, expect your group to do most of the work) and an insight into the gremlins that cause so many problem. This helps give some clarity as to why some gremlins have fled and taken refuge in Emberlight too.
Set pieces help to keep the story flowing. Unlike other boss stratums that have largely been a case of throwing your party in there and leaving you to it, these levels have the NPC knights making progress as you move on. As you progress through the levels you'll find yourself returning to older sections sometimes to move onto a new area and with this you'll see knights have advanced and set up base camps further inside the enemy territory, including bringing supplies and laser guns.
Sadly, anyone expecting puzzle style elements along the lines of Ironclaw Munitions Factory are set to be a little disappointed. There are a couple of areas with the alternate gate switching systems but these are largely used just for blocking respawning monsters off. There is one interesting room where you kill some enemies by hitting switches to open a gate and flinging something at the explosive blocks and the levels also bringing up the concept of huts that respawn monsters until you destroy them, but overall these levels are more along the lines of Royal Jelly Palace in that you're fighting off waves of enemies more often than not.
Of course, exciting action like that isn't a bad thing and OCH doesn't disappoint on that front. Gremlins have largely been left out in the cold for quite some time, generally lacking both in the variety, danger and personal levels of other monster families. Thwackers, Menders and Bombers are here by the ton to fight you, as are the newer elemental gremlins that recently popped up to fight you, intermingled with various turrets just to keep things interesting.
This action is buffed by the inclusion of two new gremlins. Stalkers come equipped with the recon item from Lockdown, in that they can turn invisible and apply the death mark on you (essentially nerfing your defences). Like recons, these will become visible if hit or when they attack, proving to be quite the challenge to take on as you don't know where they'll appear from. Mortafires are the second type of new gremlin and come equipped with large machines that both shield them from frontal attacks and allow them to launch missiles into the air to crash down from above. These can be a little more annoying as you can only hurt them from the rear (unless you fling a vial at them) and they seem to only stop moving around briefly when they fire. Of course, dodging incoming missiles adds an extra layer of challenge to fights.
So what about the setting itself? The levels are littered with all sorts of obstacles such as barb wire, explosive blocks/barrels and debris that block or hinder you, as well as the aforementioned respawner huts. At times you're quite close to these and must be careful how you attack enemies who care not about such matters. Progress through the levels is also structured pretty well, helping to split up a variety of ambush arenas and general encounters quite well. There doesn't seem to be much scope for actual exploration as you're very rarely given the chance to wander away from the linear path that leads to your next destination but at least this means it's easy enough to know where you need to be going. In keeping with SK tradition too you'll find some treasure here and there you'll have to pick up keys for.
These levels deliver both a boss at the end and a sub boss partway through. The sub boss is a Battle Pod you've likely already seen during the missions, although with a hint of fire element to make things interesting. The fight more or less goes the same as usual, as you have to deal with respawning enemies while avoiding the attacks of the machine and attacking it when the shield goes down. It's a nice challenge and serves as a good change of pace.
Seerus fights you for the main boss battle and this delivers an interesting take on things. During the battle you'll have respawning gremlins to worry about and attacks from the three Battle Pods such as missiles, bombs and lasers. The goal is generally to destroy the middle pod to force Seerus out, although dealing with the other pods and the enemies is something to consider too. When Seerus comes out you then have him dashing around dropping bombs, swinging a hammer that can smash off most of your health in a single strike and causing hammer induced explosions. You end up with about three phases to the fight, increasing in difficulty, like the respawning enemies cease during the first time Seerus is out but they will continue to respawn all the time thereafter.
It's a great challenge to take on. Generally you don't need an exact specific strategy as you do with Vanaduke so you don't get people yelling at others for breaking the ice but there are common approaches that any knights would get familiar with, such as not getting smashed by the hammer. As a result, I find this battle more interesting even if the group does happen to mess up a little. It's challenging but still fairly accessible in terms of approach.
So then, time for those special items you get for completing the mission. Two are once only rewards handed out for completing the mission and have different star versions depending on which tier mission you take on (and yes, you can collect all three versions of both). The "sword" is a hammer that is the game's first fully elemental weapon. While technically marked as a slow heavy sword, it possesses a three hit combo that is fairly quick and includes a dash in the second strike to keep up the pain. The charge attack for it, while powerful, leaves you wide open to counters if just one enemy dodges as you're then stuck in performing two smashes straight ahead. The other weapon is a shadow damage bomb, where the initial blast is akin to the blast of Dark Briar Barrage, but also causes two orbs to circle around for a few seconds, damaging any enemy that makes contact. Combined with a very short charge time this can cause quite a lot of damage. The other item is something you craft by collecting three mask fragments from the appropriate tier mission and is basically the perfect helm for gunners, giving them useful defences stats, status resists and bonuses for Charge Time Reduction and Gun Damage.
In fact, the only real problem with these items is that they are hilariously overpowered. The weapon generally outdamage anything else in the game, like the shadow bomb can be spammed faster for more damage than any other damage bomb and the sword has the same power as the Divine Avenger but is fully elemental and has a faster 3 strike combo instead of the slower 2 strike one. Of course, no other helm works as well for gunners than the Mask of Seerus either.
This brings us onto the main problem the content has: splitting the community. This is content that you generally need to pay money to experience. Now Steam users have the benefit of using Steam Trade to acquire it off another user, but anyone playing the game through any other type of client (including the game's official standalone client) don't have any such option at all. For a Free to Play game to segregate the player base like this seems like a very unwise move when it could have used the game's purchaseable currency Crystal Energy to "unlock" the missions like they had done with every buyable content previously (excluding unimportant promo items).
The effect seems to be already visible at the moment. I had no luck jumping into a random party for Tier 1 or Tier 2 for example. I don't doubt that people are playing those tier missions but it seems a lot less than those in the Clockworks in general. Tier 3 seems to have more luck but even this has proved hit and miss. I spent one mission in a duo because we couldn't seem to get anyone else to join and another party started as a duo for the same reason (thankfully upgrading to a full party partway through only because a few friends logged on at the time).
So should you get Operation Crimson Hammer? If you're someone who likes to invest some actual money into Spiral Knights then this seems like a fine purchase to make, especially as you'd be gaining some powerful equipment in addition to new content. If you're on the fence about whether you want to lay down some cash for Spiral Knights then it depends on how much you like the base game to begin with. OCH is certainly a fresh and satisfying experience but it essentially amounts to 5 levels worth of actual content (roughly 30-60 minutes for your first Tier 3 runthrough, depending on skill level). You'll probably find some good replay value in it much like any regular boss stratum so it's at least worth considering. It's just worrying that they've moved around from the crystal energy model that has worked well up to this point. If Spiral Knights is to succeed, this content (especially the items) need to be made available in some manner to those who do not want to pay money or use Steam.