If you’d asked the general gaming populace a year ago which genre would be heading the transmedia revolution (premature, perhaps – but if it works it may well become one), most people wouldn’t have guessed that shooters would be at the forefront of such innovation. But Trion Worlds’ Defiance is currently leading the charge with its successful TV show crossover, and now CCP have thrust Dust 514 into the fray, an FPS built to run concurrently with the events of PC-only sci-fi MMO, EVE Online.
Running for ten years so far and half a million subscribers strong at present, EVE’s universe is deep, rich and complex – perhaps not the ideal set-up for a balls-out shooter, but one that lends itself well to large-scale battles and inventive weaponry. There are four races to choose from (all of which originated from humanity, a long-forgotten civilisation in the EVE Universe), alongside various sub-groups, and the unending cycle of conflict, resolution, betrayal, and revolution is what forms the motivation for all the frantic gunplay in Dust 514.
The actual cut and thrust is fairly straightforward despite its high sci-fi leanings: you’re a cloned soldier bred for war, outfitted in a specialised Dropsuit whose “consciousness” is constantly backed up in a kind of futuristic cloud-save, so that every time you die you can be cloned instantly and redeployed with all your marbles still intact. While you wage war on the ground, PC gamers inside the EVE Online infrastructure wage war among the stars, and often the twain shall meet in a meta-game crossover that’s quite unlike anything that has come before.
You begin by selecting an avatar from the races available, before being transported to a hub zone not entirely dissimilar to Shepard’s quarters in Mass Effect (only with a hefty percentage of personality removed) where you can outfit yourself, alter your weapon and vehicle loadout, browse the online store, or jump into a match. It’s nice to have it all in one place, but it’s not so nice to have to navigate a bland and badly-designed living space by means of the slowest saunter ever. A menu would have been quicker and easier.
Most people will be tempted to jump straight into the fighting, and indeed you can do that, but unfortunately there aren’t a great many modes available at present. If you’re not embarking on missions and battles that tie in to EVE Online, all you can do is enter the Skirmishes, a selection of games including deathmatches, team deathmatches and a couple of Domination / Hardpoint-style contests. Playing alone in the Skirmishes can get fairly repetitive quickly, but thankfully it’s not your only option.
You can also join or form Corporations – collectives that pass for guilds in the EVE Universe – to fight together and die together in pre-arranged matches, or indulge in campaigns together. If you have friends who play – and as it’s free, most people will – it becomes a much more tactical and, more importantly, enjoyable experience. You can also chat and interact with PC gamers if they’re in your Corporation, increasing the impact of the meta-game and hinting at the future potential in CCP’s fledgling project.
It’s a shame, then, that the actual shooting is so basic. Much of Dust 514 is graphically barren, a fact that doesn’t help the bland and unimaginative gameplay. Weapons – particularly at the beginning – lack any real impact, and lifeless environments combine with dull objectives to create an immediate sense of “been there, done that”. That said, the Orbital Bombardment feature is incredibly cool despite feeling as though it’s very much in its infancy. Utilising this (available once certain in-battle criteria are satisfied), you’re able to call in an orbital strike from an actual PC gamer who’s orbiting the planet while playing EVE Online. It’s a nice touch that adds a sense of definite meaning to the meta universe created by the marriage of EVE and Dust.
On the ground, the actual character development is fairly deep, and loadout customisation is complex enough to have first-timers going in circles until they’ve cracked it. You’re given a limited number of slots in your character’s Dropsuit in which to fit armour, weapons, utilities, explosives, summonable vehicles, and stat bonuses. With the right combinations you can create a generalised soldier or a specialised medic, sniper, scout or walking man-tank. You can even save loadouts to enable quick switching before matches or during respawns. It’s a hardy system that works well, and adds a tactical sheen to proceedings while taking some of the sting out of death – as you will die with an expected level of regularity, and not always because you’re rubbish.
Being online only and free to play, you might expect and forgive a little lag, but Dust 514 is terribly buggy at times. Respawning is fast and the tactical map makes getting back to the action pretty painless, but it’s incredibly infuriating to die because of a dipped connection or, worse, one of the game’s many visual glitches. There’s a lot about Dust 514 that feels unfinished, and crucially the shooting is one of them. Undoubtedly, it will improve with patches, but at the time of writing CCP have a long way to go.
As with many free-to-play games (and indeed modern MMOs in general), Dust 514′s business model leans heavily on microtransactions, so much so that without them, the whole affair threatens to become a tedious exercise in grinding if you want the best gear and equipment. There are two currencies, Aurum (real money) and ISK (in-game credits), and both are used for buying gear and single-use items like medikits and boosters, and levelling up your character or upgrading your equipment. ISK itself isn’t too hard to come by, but the best gadgets require Aurum, of course. In fact, character progression relies so much on it that, although it’s not a case of having to pay to win, you will certainly see the difference between those who pay and those who don’t. If you want to advance at a satisfactory pace, real money is the only way to do it without repetitious grinding.
Aesthetically-speaking, there isn’t much to get excited about in Dust 514. Sure, the Dropsuit designs are quite detailed and the world has its own sense of style already established by EVE, but beyond that the arenas are a little light on personality and atmosphere, vehicles are of the stock sci-fi variety and nothing really catches the eye or stirs the imagination. The sound suffers similar issues: during gunfights it’s great, as weapons pop, bang and zing with aplomb, vehicles growl and screech and skid, and ambient sound effects do their best to aid immersion, but when the fighting stops it all falls flat once again, and boredom begins to creep in like a tiny beige parasite to suck the fun out of running around with laser guns.
Dust 514 is ambitious, of that there is no doubt. It’s large, deep and integrates wonderfully with EVE Online, but if you take all that away and examine it for what it is, which is a dressed-up FPS, it’s actually very pedestrian and, quite honestly, mundane. Neither particularly good-looking or well-crafted, the shooting aspect that accounts for around 80% of what Dust 514 offers is sub-par and, despite an arsenal of interesting weapons and gadgets unlocked at higher levels, it brings nothing new to the genre besides the Eve Universe itself.
VERDICT: Ultimately, Dust will appeal to two classes of player. Firstly, those who are into EVE Online and want to deepen their own experience will find it a wonderful way to broaden their horizons inside a gaming universe they already love, able to influence the events of EVE by dint of their actions in Dust. And secondly, those who just want a new online shooter without forking out 40 quid for the latest Halo or Call of Duty will be attracted by the free-to-play tag – but should be wary of the micro-transactions. For everyone else, it’s fair to say that there are much better shooters available in bargain bins everywhere, and just because something is free doesn’t mean you must own it. By all means try Dust 514, but if you expect it to totally revolutionise how you look at first person shooters or massively multiplayer online gaming, you may be disappointed.
AVERAGE. The epitome of a 50/50 game, this title will be unspectacular but inoffensive, charmless but amiable. We aren’t condemning a game by scoring it a 5, but we certainly aren’t championing it, either.