We’ve spoken at great length regarding our respect for the online experience that is EVE Online. Its relentlessly hardcore and incredibly niche approach to the MMO genre has been admired by many for the player-driven nature of the game, but despite several updates the galaxy of New Eden filled with intrigue, adventure and conspiracy continues to be a rather impenetrable beast for newcomers. DUST 514 aims to rectify this problem with its FPS gameplay and free-to-play business model, but does the Playstation 3 exclusive succeed? We will of course get to that, but first let’s give a quick overview for those not yet acquainted with how it all fits together.
In EVE Online, the pilots of ships (known as Capsuleers) are immortal thanks to a technologically advanced cloning process that has remained exclusive to them – until now. Mercenary soldiers have been given access to the death-defying technology, and this is where DUST players come in by acting as guns for hire. The idea is that while the intergalactic wars of EVE rage on, and the corporations fight for control of planets and installations, DUST players are called in to fight on behalf of the Capsuleers who in turn can provide support via the donation of money or aerial bombardments. It is a grand idea that could only have come from the creators of EVE Online, and one that, on paper, is a brilliant marriage of hardcore gameplay with more casual elements.
But, as we often discover with many elaborate game designs, it is the execution that is everything, and DUST 514 only gets is half right.
A barebones character creation process comes as a disappointment compared to the redesigned avatar builder that EVE now provides, but considering DUST players spend the entirety of their life inside a dropsuit it makes sense. Gender and bloodlines decisions are purely cosmetic but are in keeping with the lore of the EVE universe, before players select their name and jump into their virtual apartment. It’s a short process that works well in allowing players to get in-game as quick as possible (which is just as well considering the gigantic patch you will need to install first) but while the lack of options may come across as disappointing, it’s important to remember that DUST players are faceless warrior in it for the money and nothing more.
Getting those riches will not be an easy (or more importantly, cheap) feat, though.
Anybody who has played Eve Online will recognise the radial menu used in DUST, with the analogue sticks allowing select loadout slots to customise, but as with most things in the game it can be somewhat daunting for newcomers to get their head around initially. Information popups do appear to try and enlighten players but these reminders occasionally only half-inform the player – something that Eve Online has been somewhat infamous for. The thing is, once players understand what each menu does, how to customise and restock loadouts, and how to allocate skills, it ends up being a system that is rather intuitive to navigate, but this illustrates the overall theme that DUST 514 is not a pick-up-and-play FPS - it is a beast that requires time and patience to tame.
Regardless to whether players are in a match or not even logged in, they will accumulate Skill Points which are spent to gain access to new equipment or improve proficiency (although participating in a match is the fastest way of gaining points.) The interface for skills is by far the most console friendly menu in the game, allowing easy navigation and clear information as to what skills need unlocking to gain access to those further into a skill tree. Much like Eve Online, it allows for an incredibly deep progression system, and all without flooding the screen with too much information.
Up until now the majority of the systems in place may seem familiar, but what separates DUST from other MMO shooters is how any equipment carried by a player is lost when they die on the battlefield. It’s a mechanic that many newcomers could find intimidating at first as it requires the player to buy weapons and armours in bulk, but the ability to restock mid-match, as well as having access to basic loadouts that are infinite, mean jumping back into the action is far less of a chore than first impressions might suggest. This is where the marketplace comes into play, providing the first true connection to Eve Online where all of the equipment being used by DUST players is virtually made.
The marketplace itself is a mostly familiar affair, with everything you could possibly need listed in the various categories, but along with regular items that cost ISK (the virtual currency that is earned whilst playing the game) certain items can be purchased using AUR microtransaction currency. The advantage to buying equipment that costs AUR is made obvious straight away – doing so allows access to items that would normally require you to learn advanced skills (and a large amount of ISK.) While it certainly allows players to utilize items ahead of being qualified for them, the fact you can lose them when you die makes it an incredibly risky (and expensive) move to make on a regular basis.
On The Battlefield
When it comes to the in-game action, DUST 514 currently provides four game modes for players to take part in. Ambush provides a team deathmatch experience where each side has a limited number lives, while Ambush OMS throws in randomly spawned installations (such as spawn points and turrets) to mix things up a little. However, the main mode that is used in DUST is the Skirmish mode, which sees both teams trying to destroy the others Mobile Command Center by capturing NULL Cannons around the map. Highly reminiscent of the Titan Assault mode from Battlefield 2142, it ends up being the most fun of the game modes available, as well as allowing for budding tacticians to plan their assaults. A variation called Domination, where only one NULL cannon is on the map, is also available, but most of the time the game put me in Skirmish mode.
Players get into the matches by accessing the Battle Finder, which allows players to choose one of the four game types in an Instant Match or, if any are available, to take part in a Mercenary match on behalf of a corporation in Eve Online. These are the matches that affect the galaxy of New Eden, causing installations on the various planets to change ownership and allow Eve players to bombard the battlefield (something I was unfortunate to see up close and personal a few times. Ugh.) Beyond joining a corporation, buying items from the marketplace, or sending messages, this is the most direct way players will interact with Eve Online, but with maps being so limited in variation, both in layout and colour palette, it rarely feels like a living, breathing universe.
It doesn’t help that, outside of missions, players are either stuck in a very small apartment (from where they prepare their gear) or in a mission control room prior to a match, where they briefly see their teammates and can join squads but little else. The problem is that to truly feel a part of this huge galaxy of turmoil, DUST players must go outside of the game and onto forums to join or affiliate with existing corporations, and to me this comes across as a rather large failure in making it a connected experience.
Of course, some people won’t really care about that, especially those who just want to boot up their PS3 to play a Free To Play First Person Shooter for a while, so how does it handle when the action gets going? In short - clunky as hell.
The controller layout is familiar as can be, but the reaction time felt so slow that I was forced to turn to sensitivity to maximum just so the game came across as responsive (and even then it only just felt fit for purpose.) More often than not, any player that got managed to flank me would end up killing me due to the slow turn rate, and while this also worked in my favour as well it ultimately made the action feel much slower than that found in other console shooters. That said, at least the FPS controls make sense, unlike the horrendous controls use for vehicles which see all axis of movement allocated to the left analogue stick. To this day I have not seen anybody drive anything in that game and not look drunk which, in a game that takes everything else so seriously, is somewhat jarring. Even aiming at anything with a turret came off as pointless, and don’t get me started on the ridiculous nature of how a player needs to be in a precise location to revive a team mate…
It should have been a saving grace that Mouse & Keyboard support is included, not only does it end up being somehow worse, but it is almost impossible to use when out of a match thanks to the on screen prompts referring to controller inputs and no mouse pointer being on-screen.
The user interface is something of a missed bag, with all relevant data being displayed on the screen in an informative manner, only for it to get too busy to understand anything when the bullets start flying. Although health bars above players and vehicles easily designate if they are friend or foe, at a distance everybody looks the same, so it can often be too late when you finally realise it’s time to open fire. That said, the announcer reliably informs the player when capture points are being hacked and when your MCC is taking too much damage, showing that CCP are capable of providing an intuitive experience, but some fine tuning is definitely needed.
Part of the issue is probably down to the colour palette of the game though, with greys and browns making up much of the screen, and while the overall art design is very much in keeping with the Eve Online universe, the overall resolution coming off as rather pixelated in comparison to other available shooters. As previously stated, this is most likely due to the various loadouts players can deploy on the battlefield and to accommodate for Eve players bombarding everything, but the lack of shine could put off potential players if they are looking for an FPS to just sit down and enjoy for an hour or two.
Balancing The War Economy
This is perhaps the biggest issue for DUST 514 – it’s just not as instantly accessible, visually and interactively, as it should be for a console shooter. What DUST requires is a large commitment of time and patience to overcome the initial learning curve… but even if players do get over this hurdle, even find the combat fun, even if they can find a role to their liking, there is one other issue that threatens to unravel it, and that is the previously mentioned AUR-bought equipment. Allowing access to better weapons, even when your proficiency is low, provides huge leaps in terms of damage and protection compared to anything newcomers can initially get with their ISK. Yes, you can argue that you can eventually gain access to the same weapons without spending any real money, but when you consider the amount of time to get to that point (on top of the fact you’ll be losing most matches along the way due to the disadvantage) the fun factor is ultimately lost. It’s not quite “pay to win,” but damn, it’s pretty close.
It’s a crying shame really, because the components for a great connected experience are there, but for every good thing DUST manages to do there are problems waiting to be found. Its unique selling point, a connective to EVE Online, feels undercooked, which leaves its designation as the PS3’s only Free To Play FPS as its main draw… but during my time playing the game for this review, it was announced that PlanetSide 2 will be making its way to PlayStation 4. I had purposefully tried to distance myself from comparing the two because of their different platforms, but the announcement prior to E3 meant I could no longer do so, and this ultimately is a huge problem for DUST 514. PS2 manages to make the player feel a part of a community while DUST does not, and PS2 manages to make its mircotransaction store more about fine tuning your playing style while DUST comes across almost as “pay to win.” In short, DUST 514’s place as a F2P FPS is already threatened by a product that does everything better.
In a way, it’s to be expected that DUST 514 would be a difficult beast to tame during its launch window, as it truly is the FPS equivalent to Eve Online, but when you consider how its survival will hinge on players putting in the time over other shooters available on the system, I’m not entirely sure it will be the go-to online experience, even with the free price tag. Still, with it not costing a penny, PS3 owners can always give it a try. Who knows, you might even like it, but as for me, you’re more likely to find me on the battlefields of Auraxis…
- Intuitive and deep skill progression system.
- Varied customisation of loadouts available.
- When facing similarly armed foes, it can be fun…
- … but the pressure to buy AUR-bought equipment is worrying.
- Slugglish controls, horrendous Mouse & Keyboard support.
- The social connection to Eve Online needs serious improvement.
The Short version: The ambitious spin-off to Eve Online comes across as a unique yet flawed shooter for the PlayStation 3 that definitely needs more refinement over the coming months. Its demand of time and patience won’t be to everybody’s liking, its lack of social connection to Eve is disappointing, and the pressure to spend real money on microtransaction AUR is too high for newcomers, but those that can circumvent these issues could find a deep experience in this Free To Play console experience that is certainly worth investigating.