Building a bridge between console and PC gamers, Dust 514 is a PlayStation 3 exclusive; a free to play first person shooter that takes place within the same universe and continuity of the popular massively multiplayer sci-fi strategy game EVE Online. As one game promises to impact the other, Dust 514 has its boots firmly on the ground, as players participate in online deathmatches on behalf of their chosen faction, with repercussions that will be felt by their PC brethren in EVE Online. It’s a concept that if executed well, could redefine the structure of online gaming and radically expand on the already bustling massively multiplayer game market.
After depleting Earth’s resources, the human race has taken to the stars in search of a new home, colonizing its way across the Milky Way. However, the corporations entrusted with this task developed bitter rivalries and competition escalated to the point of aggression in order to lay claim to the finite supplies. The discovery of a wormhole led to the discovery of New Eden, a distant galaxy that promised a new beginning for the human race. When the wormhole collapsed, the colonists who had settled in New Eden found themselves cut off from Earth and the rest of humanity. Thousands of years later, five major factions were established, ushering in an era of interstellar war as each of these new civilisations sought to claim the valuable resources of New Eden for themselves.
Players take on the role of a capsuleer, a cloned soldier that is effectively immortal thanks to the mind transference technology. Should a capsuleer perish on the battlefield, their consciousness is automatically downloaded into a new body and redeployed into action (a nod to Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica perhaps?). Capsuleers can be customised however the player sees fit, beginning with the choice of faction they wish to align themselves with. It’s not apparent at first, but this choice of faction will determine which battles you’ll be allowed to participate in and how the balance of power will shift in the great EVE Online universe. It all sounds very exciting. Sadly, the grand allure of Dust 514 becomes nothing but a broken promise the moment the capsuleer materialises on the battlefield.
There are a number of game types available in Dust 514. Ambush is a typical team deathmatch, where each team must deplete the other’s clone reserves by getting a set number of kills within the allotted time. Skirmish spices things up a bit as each team must try and destroy the other’s Mobile Command Centre (a large ship at either end of the map) by controlling turrets conveniently located at each of the map’s control points. Players must hack these control points and defend them from the enemy in order to deal damage to the opposing Mobile Command Centre. Finally, there’s Domination which is an uninspired amalgamation of the other game modes, resulting in what is essentially Dust 514’s interpretation of a King of the Hill mode.
The matches themselves take place in large, overreaching maps that consist of dust-riddled dunes and rusty industrial buildings. Some of the maps are so large that tracking down the enemy becomes a bit of a chore, particularly at the start of each game. It can take quite a bit of time finding the pockets of action on the battlefield, and generally when you finally find members of the opposing team, you’ll have a sniper trained on your position to take you out within a heartbeat. It becomes incredibly frustrating, particularly for impatient newbies who will find themselves as unwilling assuming the role of cannon fodder until they’ve mastered the game’s incredibly sluggish controls. It won’t take long before you’re yearning for the close quarters combat of Call of Duty or the drip-fed expanding maps of Battlefield.
Thankfully, there are clone facilities spread across the map that can be hacked, eventually making it easier to throw yourself straight into the heart of battle. In fact, these facilities are where games are lost and won, with teams concentrating their footfall in and around these areas in order to gain the advantage. Similarly, there are large gun turrets that can be hacked and also operated by players, making it much easier to obliterate hordes of oncoming enemies. Vehicles such as trucks and tanks (both of which bear striking resemblances to Warthogs and Scorpion tanks from Halo) can also be called in to help get around the vast wastelands of each map, but they are rather difficult to control and provide very little extra protection from enemy gunfire.
Players can choose their class before each battle, or even create a custom one in the pre-match war room. Ranging from assault classes armed with grenade and machine guns, to medics that can resuscitate fallen comrades, these can also be changed during the match, before respawning. New players will naturally use the assault class to get to grips with the game, partly because it helps ease the learning curve and partly because some of the more niche weapons such as heavy artillery and sniper rifles are damn near impossible to operate properly until players have accumulated enough skill points.
On the surface, the focus on customisation seems like Dust 514’s saving grace. After each match, players are awarded experience points which can be used to unlock new skills in order to increase their capsuleer’s effectiveness with the varieties of weapons and vehicles the game has to offer. Microtransactions via the PlayStation store also make it possible for weapons and upgrades to be purchased without the having the specified skill requirements beforehand. Aside from a few cosmetic exclusives that can be used to personalise your capsuleer however, most of the items on display in the Dust 514 store front can be unlocked throughout the course of the game, albeit with a lot of time, patience and hard graft.
The online store is cleverly integrated into the game itself, making it relatively simple to make purchases without having to leave the game at all. In fact, most of the customisation takes place in a pre-game debriefing room that shows your capsuleer from a third person perspective. From this area, you can also access your own personal stats as well as worldwide leaderboards. Oddly though, there is very little that alludes to the fact you are playing as part of a greater universe. A leaderboard demonstrating the balance of power between the five factions, or some way of interacting with EVE Online players could have helped give players more of a sense they were participating in more than just a run of the mill first person shooter, but in fact changing the course of gaming history within the EVE Online universe.
That’s just the start of the presentation problems for Dust 514 unfortunately. The battles themselves suffer from incredibly erratic frame rates and frustrating environment issues. All too often characters get stuck between parts of the scenery, while anything happening in the distance comes across rather blocky, with a lack of definition. The colour scheme is tired and dull, and in spite of all its efforts to create a meaty customisation tool, the reality is that on the battlefield, other capsuleers don’t do enough to distinguish themselves from one another.
It takes a lot more than a fancy gun and some exclusive armour to earn a reputation that will be feared across New Eden. Participating in the game’s corporation and mercenary modes is what Dust 514 is all about, but the trouble is that these modes rarely have open games. It usually takes an invite from another player or signing up as a mercenary to even get a snifter of these universe-defining battles, and the chances of either happening are minimal. The most readily available games are found in the Instant Battle mode, which have no impact whatsoever on the rest of the EVE Online universe. For a game with so many flaws, this one stings the most as presentation and gameplay issues could have been overlooked if the key novelty behind Dust 514’s uniqueness had been more prominently accessible from the very beginning.
You’d think with it being a free-to-play game, it would be easy to forgive Dust 514 for not fulfilling all of its potential or sticking to its big promises. Putting aside the dull backdrops, dusty palette and glitch riddled gameplay, the biggest disappointment lies with the cross platform functionality between it and EVE Online. Unless you’re an avid player of both games, the key selling points of Dust 514 will have virtually no impact on the game itself. However, the concepts implemented by developers CCP Games could potentially pave the way for some of gaming’s heavyweights to create an expanded universe with multiple titles impacting one another.