Available on PlayStation 3. Reviewed on PlayStation 3.
Dust 514 is an experiment in first person shooters, MMORPGs, and free-to-play gaming. It’s the type of game that attracts a number of different people and brings in a bunch of questions as well: how is it as a shooter? What’s it like being connected to an MMORPG? It doesn’t cost anything to play, so is it any good? And is it just pay-to-win? I approached Dust 514 with the background of having played a great number of shooters over the years. I also set forth with the steadfast conviction that I wasn’t going to spend a dime on the game; I wanted to see if this one could really be enjoyed for free—as the developer, CCP, promised and advertised.
Dust 514 is actively connected to the massive Tranquility server for the popular, though somewhat exclusive, Eve Online. What does that mean exactly? Essentially the warzones being fought by the clones in Dust are actually occurring on the planets in the Eve universe. Those playing the mmorpg can affect the troops on the ground by use of orbital strikes and Dust 514 players can be hired by those in Eve to help fight for control over a planet. If anyone is familiar with the size of the Eve universe or the Tranquility server itself, this should sound massive.
The setup of Dust 514 is very similar to Eve. You pick your political alignment, race, and name. You won’t be just playing as your PSN account name; you’ll be building your own character as if you were playing an RPG.
Dust 514 holds up well as a first person shooter. It’s good, but not necessarily great. It functions; you aim weapons and you fire them. You get into vehicles and you drive them. There isn’t any significant aspect that makes it stand out among others, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad by any means. It’s utilitarian if anything else. Dust’s focus is more on character building and the massive universe it’s connected with. In terms of its genetic makeup as a shooter, this truly is a game about tactics and teamwork. And unless you’re just playing “Ambush,” Dust’s version of team deathmatch, games will be very frustrating and virtually pointless if you just want to run around shooting and racking up killing sprees. It’s not that kind of game. In fact, my most frustrating experiences with Dust were more with lethargic teamwork than with any aspect of the game on its own. Try to play this with the goal of making friends and starting clans—and make sure you have a mic.
The aiming is pinpoint—you either hit or you don’t and it takes a little while to get adjusted to Dust’s high demand for accuracy. While this can be frustrating in the beginning, your marksmanship will improve over time. It will also improve as you level up your character’s skills and invest in dropsuit upgrades, weaponry, and vehicles.
This is the aspect of the game that may turn off most shooter fans. In many ways, Dust 514 truly is an RPG in FPS clothing. Even more so than a title like Borderlands. Statistics are just as important as performance on the battlefield. Skill points, SP, are awarded after every match (and can even be set up to accumulate while not playing the game). These are spent on weapon specializations, vehicles, dropsuits, and upgrades. There’s a lot of depth and flexibility to build a very well designed soldier. It’s is not a game where everyone plays the same faceless avatar and is expected to rely mostly upon their wits and reflexes. The gamer that plans ahead, knows what direction he wants to take his character, equips him with the right gear and spends skill points in the right areas, is the one who will cut ahead. You can create as many dropsuit outfits as you’d like, so you can switch between a more tank style character or a scout/sniper, and anywhere in between. It takes time and passion to craft the soldier you want, but the options are there.
Like many RPGs, you can lose your equipment as well. Respawning your cloned soldier sees the loss of whatever equipment you died with. This means you’ll be purchasing at least 50 times the gear you have in order to not run out of battle-ready clones at your disposal. The same is true for vehicles. You can request whatever amount you purchased to be deployed and when they’re used up, you’ll have to buy more. Truth be told, this never feels like a complete chore in the game. Dust 514’s in game currency, ISK, is awarded generously after each fight and you also have an infinite amount of your starter dropsuit outfits. It’s only the major vehicles, dropships and tanks, and the more advanced weapons that bite a bit more into your digital wallet. The best strategy is to spend many battles in your starter dropsuit while getting used to the controls and aiming before investing any ISK or skill points.
ISK is not the only form of currency in Dust 514. There is also Aurum. Aurum is the one that costs actual money and works similarly to Microsoft Points for Xbox Live. Using Aurum allows you to purchase various augmentations, vehicles, and weapons that aren’t available by using ISK. Additionally, these weapons and advancements don’t require any investment of skill points to use—unlike their ISK equivalents. What Aurum essentially does is provides you a way of completely cutting out the need to spend time acquiring and spending skill points to build your various skill trees; you buy the gun and you use to gun. While there may be “free” analogs to such options via ISK, you’ll need to have the skill proficiency before you can use them. Aurum is pretty much like those passes that let you skip ahead in the line for theme park rides; everyone will get a similar experience in the end, but some get to cut ahead. It should be added that after matches are finished, you might acquire loot—some of which may be weapons or dropsuits that only Aurum can purchase, allowing you to experience what you’re missing should you decide not to invest any of your actual money.
This system ends up working out quite well. In my experience of the game, it never seemed like those who were using Aurum were unfairly winning. Advancing my character in skills points and honing my own personal skills as a gamer were all that was needed to enjoy the game. As CCP had promised, the only purchase you need to make to enjoy Dust 514 is a PlayStation 3 system.
Graphically speaking, the game has its moments. Overall it looks well—though not as attractive, consistently, as some of the official screenshots for the game. You will often come across some particularly ugly textures. Buildings and character models are well done and the sky during some of the night maps can be quite mesmerizing. There is however, quite a bit that can be found lacking in the aesthetic department of Dust 514, particularly in level design.
For a game like Dust, having specific maps like most shooters doesn’t work out for the simple fact that it’s connected to Eve; each place that a battle is going on has to be unique since it’s all in the same universe and all occurring in real-time. The problem is that it seems like the same architectural planning and geographic formations happen to be quite popular in the Eve universe. You will see the same, apparently nameless, structures and maps just with a different coat of paint on them and at different times of the day. It seems like it’s up to us to pretend we’re on a different planet and it takes away from the feeling of being a in a dynamic and living world. While it would be an expectedly unfair and enormous amount of work for CCP to create a distinct set up for every single planet in Eve’s starmap, it still feels a little too repetitive. Add to that the limited game modes available, Dust 514 can quickly feel mundane.
Despite Dust’s connection with the Eve universe, my experience tells me that many players won’t really feel the impact of this unique aspect of the game. It’s not until you get to join a corporation that things get more intense and involved with those playing Eve Online. For most players however, it becomes hard to believe that those orbital strikes are from people actually playing in a different game. The feeling of being in a vast science fiction world is lost until advancing far into the game, or unless your head is already in the Eve universe. For the most part, this game just feels like an online FPS with RPG mechanics.
There’s really nothing to lose by playing Dust 514 since it’s a free game. For those who enjoy the game’s deep level of customization and emphasis on teamwork, Dust ought to provide a very unique and engaging experience. For most who are used to the average console shooter, it’ll be hit or miss. The average gameplay is certainly made better by the fact that the game is just as much an RPG in design as it is a shooter; playing with stats adds to the fun of the experience. And with a decent sized community of players and a developer who is actively working to update and add to the game, Dust 514 is going to hopefully be around for quite sometime.