Dust 514 has so much going for it; unfortunately it’s all rooted in ideas and potential, not execution. After playing close to a dozen hours of the Beta, a couple of which was spent in menus, I still question whether I understand the basics. I fear that the steep learning curve and difficult barrier of entry will prevent most from giving the game a fair shot, and even then what’s left to discover might not keep them invested.
The idea behind Dust 514, CCP’s free to play MMOFPS (Massively Multiplayer Online First Person Shooter) centers around a mixture between MAG’s large scale battles, Battlefield’s versatile land and vehicular combat with the complexity and depth of CCP’s other MMO, Eve Online. For those unaware, Eve Online is the hugely popular game that pits largescale airship battles and intergalactic corporate espionage. While the premise of Eve Online sounds heavily action oriented, the gameplay really comes down to micromanagement and interpersonal relations. So, it’s with this knowledge that I jumped into Dust 514, expecting a complex game. It definitely delivers on that front.
In the attempt to be concise, I will attempt to only go over the most basic elements of the game. There are more or less two main phases of the game. The first is the preparation phase, wherein you (the mercenary) can buy skill upgrades, buy equipment, scout for battles and chat amongst other players. The second phase is the firefights, of course. Currently there are two modes: Ambush, which is Dust’s version of team deathmatch with a few twists; and Skirmish, which is a type of territories game.
Immediately the game feels less like a console game and more like a PC game upon loading. The menus are clunky and sometimes confusing to navigate. Worse, the brief tutorials give just a hint of what most of the options are. In the character tab you can purchase and upgrade your skills, which give you access to the different types of weapons and armor in the game; as well as augment your character, which is allocating temporary bonuses that have been bought. To upgrade a skill, the player must spend points they earn in battle, with each level growing in cost. One of the main issues I’ve had so far is actually earning skill points. In a bad performance, I might only earn 2 or 3 points, whereas in a winning one that I felt I did fairly well I’m surprised to get only 8-10 points. Skill points vary by how much they cost, but a level 1 upgrade to level 2 usually costs between 16-18 points – so it takes roughly three good games (which are very hard to achieve) to possibly upgrade one skill.
More troubling than even the slow crawl of experience gain is the lack of reward for winning a match. Because Dust 514 is tied to Eve Online, each match has its own reward for winning based on the real life user whose side you fought for. During a match you might earn a piece of gear, but considering the low monetary gain from matches and how expensive equipment is each game feels like a grind to squeak out a profit. This alone wouldn’t be terrible, but aside from the basic classes allotted every piece of equipment, weapon and vehicle depletes every time you die. Spending 100 Isk, the in game currency, on a fancy new gun will make you apprehensive to use it. When you die, it’s gone forever. It’s possible that I’m just awful at the game and could be raking in skill points and Isk, but if the average person is having the same experience as me it doesn’t matter. Games like Halo 4, Black Ops II and Battlefield 3 constantly give the player a sense of accomplish. Dust 514 leaves you feeling as if you’re treading water.
We come to another problem I have, the confusing terminology for your gear. CPU usage, meta level, module usage, PG, the list of terms associated with your equipment’s stats is extensive and poorly explained. The UI is far from intuitive. Overall, attempting to learn the in and out’s of the game is a hassle. I love the idea of a game with depth and strategic planning to it, but there comes a point where it crosses the line into being obtrusive. It got to a point where I quickly stopped trying to figure out what each term meant and how it fit into the scheme of my character and just tried different guns – though I wasn’t able to try out as many as I would have liked due to being broke.
One aspect that I appreciate, or at least believe I would appreciate, is the marketplace. As of the Beta, and presumably the launch, the marketplace is being tightly controlled by CCP. However, once they feel the economy of both Dust 514 and Eve Online can flourish together complete control will be given to Eve Online players to post items up for purchase. This may seem insignificant, but it’s a market driven 100% buy an MMO tied into another. To my knowledge nothing like this has ever been done, let alone attempted. It will be interesting to see the fluctuations of the economy and if subterfuge will be attempted, though right now items are set at a baseline price.
Another intriguing possibility is player created corporations. Sadly, starting a corporation is not as simple as putting together a clan other FPS games (why would it be simple?). Beginning a corporation means the player must buy a skill book and upgrade it, which actually isn’t exceedingly difficult, but then must spend 1.599.800 Isk. After realizing I had no chance of starting my own, I gave up on the notion. Luckily, in the chat lobby, you will find corporations posting invites to their own corporation – though be warned, you must undergo an application.
Therein lies the biggest downfall to me in the game. It doesn’t feel like a console FPS. It feels like a PC game. From the cluttered menus to the general chat reminiscent of my World of Warcraft days, I can’t help but feel very restricted constantly. One of the biggest draws of Dust 514 is the Eve Online driven market, but even then I assume the real life money items (purchased using Aurum, possibly insinuating there are ways to make Aurum in game) won’t go away. I will say that I do have faith that Dust 514 will not be play to win, though I do have reservations that it will be pay to compete.
I’ve gone into enough detail to give you a proper sense of the preparation phase (though remember it’s not even close to covering everything) so now I’ll get into the worse of the two phases: gameplay.
I stated before that there were two game types, a team deathmatch and a territories game. The bulk of my playtime was with Ambush, the team deathmatch, though I played a few games of Skirmish as well. Much like other console shooters today you begin by selecting your loadout, which in this case is the list of premade classes and whatever custom dropsuits you’ve made. Once you’ve picked, you are sent to the default spawn point. In Ambush it never seemed to let me change my spawn location, though the option appeared at the bottom of the screen. This proved frustrating as I frequently would spawn in the middle of a fight, often even just in the middle of the enemies. Basically it’s a spawn kill, not a fun thing to experience several times in a row.
If and when you can successfully enter the battle you find yourself in the middle of a large, monochromatic area decorated by industrial structures. It seems CCP is aiming for a very realistic atmosphere; however, the blandness of the aesthetics and awkward level design makes for an unappealing combination. I honestly couldn’t tell much of a difference from one map to the next as the blend together. A common complaint in the Battlefield series is the long run to where the action is, and Dust 514 makes it even longer.
The single most important element in a shooter (be it casual or hardcore) is the shooting mechanics. Quite frankly it’s hard to describe Dust 514’s shooting mechanics other than I hated them, though I will try. The sensitivity feels very loose and fast, with aiming assist turned off as a default. If you weren’t aware, aim assist is a mechanism that slightly alters your shot when your crosshairs move over an enemy similar to a piece of metal being pulled towards a magnet. Virtually every game has it, and as such most of us have become accustomed to it. Strangely enough after turning it on I could see absolutely no difference. Adjusting the aiming sensitivity also had little impact on how the guns felt. I found it difficult enough to shoot the players, but even when I did manage to pump a few bullets into my target I found it very tough to actually kill anyone because of how much damage it takes.
How much damage a player can soak up varies in popular shooters. Halo has always been known for taking a long time to kill (3-5 seconds roughly) while older Call of Duty games have been known to entertain quick deaths (2-3 seconds roughly). In Dust 514, if you are somehow able to keep your crosshairs fixed on a player, it will take at least 4-5 seconds – at trust me, it’s virtually impossible to consistently shoot players that accurately. So, in essence, you have a hard time hitting an enemy and it takes a surprising amount of bullets to actually kill them. Sniping is even more difficult, with the crosshair constantly swinging from side to side and no apparent way that I found to steady your aim. Sure, whenever I would get a heatshot it felt great, but they were few and far between.
Whenever I played the closed Beta I found framerate issues to be prevalent, but in the now open Beta it seems to have been addressed. It doesn’t run as smoothly as a Call of Duty game, but few do. For those who participated in the closed Beta one element they addressed that I’m gleeful about is the grenade throwing motion. Previously the player launch a grenade at a very strange 90 degree angle, after a couple second delay, which often meant the grenade would bounce off of something above you or land safely far away from the intended target that regrettably didn’t stay still. I wouldn’t call grenades viable except in close proximity, but it’s better than virtually not working.
Honestly, there’s much more to cover in Dust 514’s open Beta. I sincerely want it to improve because I love the idea of large scale battles affecting the Eve Online community and the coexistence of both games. But, there are simply too many issues for me to detail in one article for a game that’s so complex and incomplete. One might argue I simply haven’t played enough, I haven’t learned how it’s suppose to work; to them I would simply say this: If I, a person who desperately wanted to enjoy the game found it a struggle to play, will others not invested at all give it the same chances I did?