Dust 514 is full of ambition. The same can be said for CCP Games, the developers behind Dust 514 and its MMO cousin EVE Online. After 16 years building and evolving their core space MMO EVE Online, the Icelandic developer has expanded the EVE universe into the realm of the First Person Shooter. But, unlike most games, Dust 514 isn’t just a FPS set in the EVE universe, it interacts directly with EVE. Dust 514 battles directly affect the sovereignty of the planets that you battle for, EVE players can directly affect Dust 514 battles by bombarding the battlefield from space, and Dust 514 players can target and damage the EVE ships. This kind of cross-game, cross-genre inter-connectivity is very impressive. Having been on the receiving end of a space bombardment, the feature may sound like a gimmick but it has real effects on both games.
There are a lot of firsts at play here. Dust 514 is the first non-Sony attempt at a free-to-play FPS on PS3. If you consider its Open Beta period, Dust 514 also beat Sony’s own free-to-play Uncharted 3 and Killzone 3 multiplayer modes to the punch as well. But the most impressive first is the interaction between Dust 514 and its older cousin EVE Online. The technical wizardry at play here is truly amazing when you stop to think about it. Maybe it’s just the programmer in me, but it’s great seeing innovative ideas making it from just wacky prototypes into actual games.
On its own merits as a First Person Shooter, Dust 514 is a pretty good game. It’s not a great game, but it’s good. This is not a condemnation. In a gaming landscape where vanilla military shooters pop up left and right to try to cash in on that mythical Call of Duty dude-bro market, Dust 514 has really tried to do something different, for better or for worse. There is no single player campaign. There is no ancillary co-op mode. Dust 514 isn’t checking all of those back-of-the-case boxes that have to be checked these days to fit the mold of what it is to be a AAA First Person Shooter. Hell, they’re not charging you money for it, at least not out of the gate.
One of the biggest strengths of Dust 514 is also one of its current weaknesses. Dust is incredibly, incredibly, INCREDIBLY deep with its customization and its player loadouts compared to most other shooters. Being set in a science fiction universe with a big focus on space warfare, there is a wide variety of different types of weaponry. From traditional assault rifles and shotguns (with some sci-fi flavor) to laser rifles and mass drivers, there are a multitude of ways to blow your enemies’ faces off. But then there are multiple variants of each weapon, each with their own statistics. But before you can equip a weapon you need a dropsuit, and there are a bunch of different dropsuits to choose from, each with THEIR own statistics. Until you can wrap your head around it, Dust 514 might feel like as much like a futuristic spreadsheet as it does a game. In fact, as of the current Dust 514 build, there is not much in the way of tutorials to help you to learn how to get going. It is less traumatic as it was in the early days of the Beta, but still nowhere near as intuitive as other shooters. Of course, CCP have many years worth of development planned for Dust 514, so with luck they will refine the systems over time and make them a little more friendly to newbies.
The core of your Dust 514 soldier is their dropsuit. The dropsuit is the armor that your soldier wears, and the type of dropsuit that you choose will effect the weapons that you can choose, how well you are protected from enemy fire and the amount of equipment that you can carry. Your dropsuit has a CPU and a Power rating that determines the amount of equipment that you can carry. Every piece of equipment that you carry will have a CPU and/or Power requirement and the total CPU and Power for all of your equipment has to stay under your dropsuit’s limits. Dropsuits range from Light, Medium and Heavy, each with varying levels of CPU and Power, as well as other attributes like armor and shields, movement speed, etc. Heavy suits can equip heavy weapons like machine guns that slow you down and eat up a lot of dropsuit resources, but spew death. Besides weapons, dropsuits have the capability of equipping enhancements that boost your speed, allow you to regenerate armor, speed up the regeneration of your shields, pick up enemies better on your radar, hide better from your enemies’ radar, boost your suit’s CPU or Power capacity, etc. There are also slots available for carrying tactical equipment for repairing vehicles, reviving downed teammates, deploying mobile spawn points, etc. The more gear that you carry, the more CPU and Power your dropsuit requires and the more “expensive” the dropsuit will be. The more slots that the dropsuit has, the slower your movement speed will be. This becomes more important in game modes where mobility is important.
To be able to use all of this different gear, Dust 514 also has a Skill system. Skill Points earned by completing battles are used to rank up new skills. Skills allow you access to new types of equipment, and improve your ability to use the equipment as you gain levels in that skill. Since the latest update, the Skills are arranged in a tree system with more advanced skills requiring other entry level skills to be unlocked or upgraded to a certain level before you are able to unlock certain skills. If you want to be able to use the big heavy machine guns or call in heavy assault vehicles you will have to devote points to their prerequisite skills and spend some time grinding to gain Skill Points and the ISK you will need to purchase those more rare armaments.
ISK is the basic currency for Dust 514, earned for completing battles like Skill Points. You of course get paid more for a job well done, so the better you do personally and the better your team fares overall versus your enemy’s, the more you will be rewarded with cold, hard cash. As in the real world, everything costs money. You will need to use ISK unlock skills to gain you access to better weapons, dropsuits and equipment. You will need ISK to keep your reserves of gear stocked. While you can also purchase some gear with the premium currency AUR, paid for with real world money via the PSN, you will find that gear earned with ISK tends to be better in terms of CPU and Power requirements. When you are starting out and you don’t yet have the skills unlocked to use the more exotic gear, you can purchase some gear from the marketplace that has no skill requirement, or lower skill requirement. It’s a good way to experiment to find the gear you want to invest your precious Skill Points in.
Speaking of investments, as you start to experiment with different loadouts beyond the basic starting options, you will spend a lot of time and virtual money managing your virtual arsenal. Unlike most games, every time you spawn a new clone to put yourself into a battle, you are eating up some of the gear that you have purchased. If you die, not only are you affecting the potential amount of money and skill points you are going to earn for that match, you are losing hard earned ISK that you bought the equipment for that clone with. When you are earning anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 ISK per match, and an enemy demolishes the 1 million ISK Heavy Assault Vehicle you paid good money for, profitability for that match is pretty much off the table. It gives extra weight to your choices and your performance in battle. While you have to rush headlong into battle to win and work with your team to succeed, you also need to be thinking about your own personal bottom line. The role of the logistics soldier who can revive teammates, feed them health and keep the team alive becomes critical. This is even more true when you’re using gear you bought with real money via AUR. Those 10 clones worth of gear you just lost may have cost you actual money if you were using premium gear.
To do well in Dust, you will find it is essential to surround yourself with quality teammates. Going lone wolf is always an option, but when success hinges on the ability of your team to stay alive or to keep control of Null Cannon installations, you will do better with a team that complements each other and works well together. As with many other games, Dust 514 has systems for gathering into groups to play together with your friends and into larger groups. Dust 514’s corporations allow you to band together with other players. A dedicated Corporation chat channel allows you to communicate with other corporation members even if you’re not in the same battle, or even the same game. Yeah, you can communicate directly with your EVE Online corporation members while you are in the middle of a battle in Dust 514.
The scope of Dust 514 may be impressive, but it’s not without its problems. The game may have been in beta for several months, but it’s still not as solid as it should be. If you are used to games where a couple of well placed shots will take down an enemy, the basic Assault Rifle will annoy the hell out of you. Not only is hit detection a problem at the moment, but it will take a good portion of your expansive clip to bring down a well armored enemy. This can be frustrating for new players. For a game where the goal is to shoot other dudes, it’s unfortunate that the shooting doesn’t always work right. The level of customization is massive, but it’s also not at all easy to understand for new players. The latest update has added some tutorials to help ease the steep learning curve, but there is a ways to go before the game is really easy to just pick up and go without spending quite a bit of time learning the mechanics of it all. Also, when a lot of the better gear is locked behind the skill tree and the best way of allocating your points isn’t immediately obvious, it is incredibly easy to screw yourself hard by spending your points the wrong way. Yeah, I spent hundreds of thousands of skill points on rubbish I will never use, and there is no way for me to say “oh man I’m an idiot, let me try that again”. At this point there is no way to start over aside from starting a new character. If you tied some of your premium gear to that other character… oops.
Vehicles on the whole are pretty fun to use, but the physics aren’t quite right. Granted, we’re talking about planets in a fictional universe, but I wouldn’t imagine that big, heavy assault vehicles would bounce around going over small hills and roll over quite as easily as they do. The default vehicle controls are terrible. It is easy enough to change the controls for the light vehicles to something more sensible.
Dust 514 may have some hurdles to overcome to go from being an average game to being a great game, but it is still well worth the price of admission. That is, it’s free. For a game that costs exactly zero dollars to pickup and start playing, the only cost is the time to wait for the download. If you enjoy the game there are some ways for you to spend a little bit of money, probably less than you would spend on any other game, to enjoy it even more.