First, take the standard features of a multiplayer FPS game: multiple classes to choose from, a variety of weapons with different advantages and disadvantages, a few game modes and an in-game economy. Second, set this game in a fascinating sci-fi universe filled with corporate intrigue, rich lore and perhaps the most player-driven storyline in the entire MMO arena. Third, intricately link the game’s economy and playerbase with the thriving but very niche-popular MMO EVE-Online – introducing the potential for cross-game ramifications between a free-to-play PS3 MMOFPS and a subscription-based action-RTS third person ship-piloting and deep crafting MMO. The first step is entirely standard. The second step is a definite bonus. But step number three? That’s not just original, that’s gutsy bordering on crazy. And it’s that taste of the truly unique that makes Dust 514 such a fascinating game, and a must-play experience for any PS3 owner who’s ever been intrigued by CCP’s flagship title.
Before talking about what really sets Dust 514 apart, it’s worth talking about the familiar ground the game covers. At the end of the day, this is a game about team versus team FPS combat on large maps – large enough to justify the presence of vehicles, reminiscent of the Battlefield series. Unlike the open-world perpetual conflict of games like Planetside 2 (or, for that matter, EVE-Online), Dust 514 is strictly match-based – combat has a definite beginning and end, and the lines between the winners and losers are starkly drawn. There’s a hefty amount of character customization as well: your soldier can be equipped to fill a variety of roles, from a fast-moving scout to a sniper to a slow-moving, heavily armed and armored sort, and more. Various pieces of equipment can be bought and outfitted on your character, mixed and matched to your heart’s content – so long as you have the necessary skills to use them, and the space available on your armor/dropsuit. The takeaway point here is that if you’re looking for a team-based competitive FPS game with a whole lot of customization options to suit your style of gameplay, Dust 514 should be catching your eye right away. It’s free to play – so if you have a PS3 and are into this genre, you should either be downloading it right now or already have it installed on your console.
Now, what I just listed could reasonably be called the bare minimum features of any FPS shooters – though the customizability goes a step beyond what many similar games tend to offer. That said, graphically Dust 514 is also very impressive. Artistically, Dust 514 draws a lot on EVE-Online’s bulky, imposing sci-fi look, with armored soldiers duking it out in rocky, barren worlds spiked with hi-tech installations. A little bland for some people, but others will probably enjoy the very ‘martian + hi tech’ feel that the maps currently have. The overall look is very polished – and the little home/HQ you start out in when you first login to the game is a nice touch, letting you admire your character’s armor and have a sense of immersion in the world before you march off to join in the battles. For those of you who hail from a primarily PC gaming background, I also have some good news on the controls front – Dust 514 supports keyboard and mouse use. It’s going to be a bit more sluggish in response compared to what you’re used to with PC FPS games – otherwise this would be a game that controller-using players would quickly find themselves outgunned in – but still, it was a great touch on CCP’s part to include this, with whatever handicaps were built in.
I’m glossing over the core gameplay aspects of Dust 514 right now, for a couple reasons. The straight-up in-the-field experience is fundamentally solid and fun, but in a lot of ways not too surprising. You have four different gameplay modes, including what amounts to Dust 514 iterations of team deathmatch and conquest mode – perennial favorites. The run-and-gun / teamwork style of playis a blast, but nothing truly new for most people – anyone into multiplayer FPS games has been behind a sniper scope, an assault rifle or even manned a tank turret before. The real innovations this game offers aren’t as apparent out on the gameplay field itself, or at least not yet. Instead, the real interesting parts comes with the deep intertwining of Dust 514 with its ‘mother’ game, EVE-Online in terms of economy, lore, and general character-development. As someone who played EVE-Online for literally years before taking a very long break from the game, let me tell you – if you’ve been waiting for a game that combined EVE’s style of character advancement and theorycrafting with an FPS setting, this is literally the perfect game for you. Those of you who really don’t care about min-maxing your performance on the battlefield – or who prefer to simply play a game that’s entirely straightforward in its design, similar to Team Fortress 2 or the Call of Duty series – well, it’s an open question whether Dust 514′s peculiar traits are going to be of interest to you.
The fundamental point of interest is Dust 514′s interaction with EVE-Online. For those of you who have never played it, EVE-Online is a very singular game – a PVP-heavy sci-fi space-combat simulator with one of the richest game economies and virtual industrial aspects in existence. Despite being in a radically different genre, Dust 514 is not some mere spinoff title that is only related to EVE-Online in terms of story. Instead, these titles are literally linked – actions that take place in EVE-Online can potentially affect the world of Dust 514, and vice versa. You can communicate with players in both games by playing either title, and even the money (ISK) made in one game can be used and spent in the other. Now, having some benefit to playing one game carry over to another game isn’t totally revolutionary itself – you see this kind of thing in Team Fortress 2 unlocks being available in the Poker Night at the Inventory series of games. But the sheer depth of the link between the two titles is very aggressive, and in a way bewildering. It’s a little like Warcraft 4 coming out, and having the battles that take place in those player-versus-player matchups potentially affect the storyline and economy of World of Warcraft. That CCP would even inch in this direction is bold, to put it mildly. As of right now, despite the links in communication and economy, the actual interaction between these two sides is more basic than anything else – corporations in EVE can hire on groups in Dust 514 to fight battles for them at specific times, with the victor determining some economic rights in the EVE MMO – but all signs point to this being an area the two games will continue to build on as time goes on.
Another area where EVE-Online’s influence is apparent is in character progression and equipment acquisition areas. In order to increase your performance in various roles in Dust 514, you’ll need to put points into skills – with each skill having a maximum of 5 levels of mastery, each more expensive than the last. These skills usually give you both a passive bonus (say, reducing the amount of dropsuit energy needed to equip a particular class of weapon) while also unlocking new skills you can invest in, or allowing you to equip better and better types of equipment. For instance, using an Amarrian Heavy Dropsuit is going to require the Amarr Heavy Dropsuit skill – with rank 1 of the skill unlocking standard dropsuits of this type for use, while advanced and prototype dropsuits require ranks 4 and 5 respectively. But to learn any amount of this skill, you’ll need at least three points in the more basic Dropsuit Command skill. Skill points are gained both actively and passively: you can pick up thousands of skillpoints just by taking part in online battles, but you also gain a certain amount of points over time regardless of whether or not you’re logged in. This is similar to the EVE-Online skill system, where learning a particularly high-level skill may literally take weeks of RL time. Dust 514 allows for some more options here than EVE, principally via cash-shop boosters that increase the rate of skill points earned – but for people who are impatient when it comes to character advancement, this is going to seem like one hell of a grind. EVE veterans will have an advantage here, since the game frankly teaches you to be patient (there’s no ‘active’ way to gain skill points in that game.)
Equipment is another area where Dust 514 turns out to be a little niche compared to the alternatives. While there’s a wide variety of weapons, dropsuits, and generally combat-enhancing gear available, this equipment comes in two varieties: single-use, and blueprints. Single-use is exactly what it sounds like – you can bring your equipment with you into a match, but if you die, that piece of gear is no longer able to be used. You’ll have to keep a supplied inventory of your favorite equipment topped off to avoid being caught unarmed (or at least, busted down to ‘standard’ equipment) in a match – or, you’ll have to spend money to buy blueprints rather than the single-use equipment. Blueprints give you an unlimited supply of a particular piece of equipment – basically, this is a more expensive option to guarantee permanent access to a given piece of gear. On top of all of this, Dust 514 has cash-shop options to purchase various boosts and gear that can be used in the game – which is no doubt going to stir up some pay-to-win concerns. I won’t touch that particular hornet’s nest, but my experience is that actual human skill, along with in-game point-based skill, matters more than anything in Dust 514. This equipment can give an edge, but it doesn’t provide an “I Win” button to otherwise low-skill players.
Finally, there’s the actual implementation of equipment and skills themselves. Once again, Dust 514 takes after EVE-Online in that your character doesn’t really advance with shockingly new and amazing abilities most of the time. Instead, as you arrange new bits of equipment and train up new skills, you pick up very marginal increases in power. Percentage increases in armor here or energy there ultimately add up to a more effective equipment loadout that will improve your odds of surviving and thriving on the battlefield – but this is a pretty stark departure from the standard in the multiplayer FPS genre, where ‘new abilities’ tend to come in the form of deploying small-scale nuclear weapons on the map. To be frank, you’re going to enjoy the character advancement in Dust 514 more if you’re into the detail-oriented, spreadsheet-consulting aspect of MMOs – theorycrafting, in other words. This isn’t necessary to have fun with the game, but really, CCP has long attracted gamers who really enjoy this kind of data-in-the-margins style of planning out their equipment loadouts. Realize what you’re getting into if you plan on making this a game you want to truly excel in.
That said, I happen to enjoy the change of pace Dust 514 offers. Really, as an ex-EVE player, I’m pretty excited at the prospect of being able to jump into the EVE-Online universe again in a radically different way than I was used to with the MMO. I like the thought that even when I take breaks from the game, I’m still picking up skill points that I can spend once I jump back into the world. The expendable nature of equipment (aside from blueprints) is different from the standard FPS way of doing things, and once again something I was used to in EVE-Online’s ‘if it blows up, it’s mostly gone’ style of gameplay. But at the end of the day, the real selling point is this: CCP is one of the few MMO companies out there who have been running a very unique, very successful MMO that has managed to stay updated and different for quite a few years now. The fact that they’re the ones behind Dust 514 – and that they’re willing to integrate so much of the title with EVE-Online itself – tells me that this is a game that has serious potential to grow into something amazing, while being fresh and fun enough right at this moment. For the price of ‘free’, I’m willing to not just give it a shot, by keep my eye on it over the long haul. If you’re a fan of competitive FPS games, especially ones based in a rich sci-fi world, consider doing the same.