With DUST 514, developer CCP is trying to capture lightning in a bottle on a second occasion. Taking its cues from the company’s MMO magnum opus EVE Online, DUST 514 is a sci-fi shooter that borrows the persistent character and world-control elements of MMORPGs, including equipment, skill progression, and faction warfare. The game tries to deliver an immersive, epic experience, but CCP has a long way to go. This Icelandic import is a shaky, unrefined and confusing game, but it’s also the bare-bones skeleton of a great game: the first draft of an insane intergalactic war-drama, where all of creation is yours for the taking. The price tag--free-to-play, with slower progression for non-spenders--makes this unfinished product more appealing, but doesn’t excuse its flaws.
EVE players and DUST 514 players use the same server and inhabit the same universe, able to join the same in-game corporations and chat rooms. Where EVE players are relegated to outer space, DUST 514 players take to the planets, wage war, and conquer. Under certain circumstances, DUST 514 combatants can call down orbital strikes from EVE players; these are awe-inspiring moments that remind you of just how cool CCP’s pipedream concept is, even if they’re just getting started as far as connectivity between the two titles.
Gameplay-wise, DUST 514 lands somewhere between Call of Duty and Halo--kills come more easily than they do for Master Chief, but not as quickly as in COD. It’s comparable to the balance found in the Battlefield series: You have time to react and counter when you get shot, but the margin of error is slight. Overall, it’s a good mix of tactics and twitch, where positioning yourself on the battlefield and focusing on attack angles can take you a long way--but in close quarters or surprise encounters, skilled players will always have the advantage. The combat commits only one unforgivable sin: sometimes, it takes two or three presses for the “throw grenade” command to register, which makes clutch, split-second tosses almost impossible. It’s infuriating.
You'll spend much of your time in the game’s menu systems, because there’s a lot more to this one than your standard FPS. DUST 514 has a way of making your specific loadout feel unique, and a lot of the fun comes from the depth and breadth of the items you have to tinker with. Puzzling out which loadout is best for you is challenging: You’re significantly limited in how much you can equip, so some concessions must be made. But experimenting with your gear feels fun and exploratory, not frustrating.
There’s also a gigantic marketplace for your perusal, and even if the gun and armor designs are bland, the stats attached to them aren't; trying out new gear is exciting and interesting. Additionally, a sprawling skill tree adds a rewarding path through the firefights and helps further differentiate your character from the pack. Unfortunately, all these rich, meaty features are entombed in a difficult UI that’s not easy on the eyes. What’s worse is that they’re not explained very well: DUST 514 provides some brief text tutorials, but they’ll only get you the basics. Learning the finer details--how everything really works--takes some trial and error.
The parts where the shooting gets particularly interesting is when that colossal item metagame comes creeping into it. For instance, each asset you’ve equipped, from weapons to armor, is lost when you die (you usually buy these in bulk for this very reason)--and that means you’ve lost money, one of the driving forces of progression through the game. This adds tension to each encounter, and a sick satisfaction when you take another player down. Another intriguing concept comes in the form of Planetary Conquest mode, where you can join a player-made corporation and dominate the universe’s planets--the same ones that EVE players are flying over--one by one. Carving out your piece of the starscape isn’t easy, but the feeling of victory is worth the effort.
With a heavy focus on gear and skill progression, new players face a significant disadvantage in this game. Going up against veteran players should remind you that have a long way to go to get to their level, but in DUST 514, it feels like being a lamb led to slaughter. Against their powerful equipment, new players are toast. This is excusable in the Planetary Conquest mode, since that’s CCP’s equivalent of an endgame. But in matchmaking? Better methods for sorting players by their experience level are a necessity, because these unfair fights produce nothing but rage quits and easy money for experts.
It’s also hard to forgive how sterile this game feels. It depicts a bleak, war-ravaged universe, so one doesn’t expect jokes and gags a la Borderlands. But some hints of personality--whether in humor or drama or something--would do wonders to make DUST 514 more engaging and lively. As it stands, this is a world devoid of character. In fact, the soldiers themselves are bland, with nary an appearance customization option to be found.
The game uses two currencies: ISK, which is earned in battle and used by both DUST 514 and EVE players alike, and AUR, which must be purchased with real world money. The game's best equipment can be purchased with either currency, but you’ll need a very large amount of ISK, and even more time to earn it all. Combine that with the fact that most items are perishable--you’ll have to buy more as you kill and be killed--and it’s easy to see how accruing a significant amount of top-tier gear will be much quicker for the paying customer. It’s not a full-on pay-to-win scheme, but there’s a discernible advantage for those who shell out cash.
Still, when you play DUST 514, you can’t shake the feeling that there’s something exciting afoot. You feel it when you look at that galaxy map and think, “This could be mine.” You feel it when an EVE player nukes your skirmish from orbit--maybe because they’re paying you to fight the battle--and eradicates an entire enemy platoon. You feel it when you grasp the sheer amount of possibilities granted by the game’s marketplace and skill trees.
CCP has a history of making their games better over time. But if you’re playing in the hopes that DUST 514 eventually delivers on the promise of a completely player-controlled galactic struggle, it’s likely to be a long wait--one tinged with equal parts frustration and fun. Like marching into battle in your most expensive loadout, that’s a risk/reward scenario you’ll have to weigh on your own.