An awful lot can happen in three seconds. Or nothing can happen, and then you get shot in the back. That’s our baptism by bullet into Dust 514’s unforgiving future – and it foreshadows a lot of what’s to come. After customising a freshly spawned clone with new armour and munitions purchased via Dust’s in-game store, we deploy on the surface of our very first planet. Once there, we just about find time to tweak our controls before a hotshot sniper treats us to our second look at the deployment screen within half a minute. It’s brutal and disorienting, but mostly just expensive. It costs us 3,064 ISK to replace all our gear.
We keep playing, of course, because Dust 514 is a fascinating, groundbreaking game. Whereas most games are released, Dust has been inserted; it’s a full free-to-play shooter that’s tied into the Eve universe on every level, from art style to servers. It’s precisely the kind of ambition wed to technical achievement that makes you forgive brusque introductions, not least because Dust shows CCP bravely abandoning its safe little corner of high-security space. Land battles for planets that already exist within Eve’s galactic sprawl slot seamlessly into the fiction, sure, but the FPS engine, map design and resulting console playerbase needed to make that vision a reality all present fresh tests for the studio.
Dust fails them. Divorced from its ambitious, cross-game context, Dust is a lacklustre shooter that provides little more than the bare-minimum framework for large, objective-based battles. The functional visuals reduce a galaxy’s worth of planets to a series of smearily textured rocky surfaces that seem to have rolled off the production line next to the one making Dust’s prefabricated industrial buildings. A lack of aesthetic charm might be forgivable, but it has repercussions for navigation, too. By replicating level furniture and a smattering of layouts across star systems, CCP has solved the tricky issue of providing maps for an entire galaxy, but the result is battlefields that feel neither distinct nor memorable. There’s no flow to these maps, no useful landmarks or obvious chokepoints, though this does at least ensure players doggedly follow markers during objective-based gametypes.
Combat has about as much personality as the bleak, dust-blown worlds. There’s none of Halo’s gently exaggerated physics, Shootmania’s relentless velocity or Call Of Duty’s immediacy. There’s just shooting people with guns, albeit while battling against some suspect hit detection and sludgy controls. Granted, some guns are more entertaining to use than others, but those you have to pay for.
Dust 514 is a pay-to-win game of breathtaking chutzpah, but also refreshing honesty. There are two currencies at play in this fledgling economy (which, in time, will link up with Eve’s own). The first, ISK, is liberally handed to players for competing in and winning matches. The second, Aurum, must be purchased via the in-game store. This is textbook free-to-play design, though CCP’s copy of said tome must be missing the chapters that suggest offering players occasional crumbs of premium currency on the house. In refusing players who don’t pay access to the game’s best weapons and equipment, the studio has erected a prohibitive quasi-paywall around its free-to-play game. It’s galling to lose an encounter because a player you got the drop on was better equipped, but it’s also inevitable when map knowledge counts for so little and combat is generic.
To be fair, Dust’s battles are meant to be won on menu screens. Adequately ‘fitting’ your character (a bit of awkwardly borrowed Eve ship jargon) is crucial for success. You can save multiple fits, which can be switched between every respawn, effectively letting you change class on the fly. And there’s a kind of mech-game pleasure in tinkering with a new build while keeping a cautious eye on the ISK price of all the precious equipment that needs to be replaced when you die. Since you need to invest skill points in order to use the vast majority of weapons, items and vehicles, this short-term build tweaking naturally spools into long-term MMOG-style character planning. It’s in stat-packed menu screens, not on the battlefield, that Dust feels most part of the universe in which it nominally takes place.
Orbital strikes – the means by which Eve players can rain lasery death on the Dust players below – connect the two games, but their effect is curiously prosaic. Sure, it’s rather dramatic to request aid from a player in a different game entirely, but from the perspective of a lowly grunt an orbital strike is just another killstreak reward, an AOE attack not particularly distinguishable from Modern Warfare’s predator drone. Join a corporation, meanwhile, and you’ll benefit from organised battles with genuine ramifications for player factions within the Eve universe. But the promise that your actions will have significance in another game entirely doesn’t make Dust an entertaining one.
With Dust, CCP promised something that had never even been attempted before, and it delivered. Dust takes place in Eve. The setting is the same, the currency is the same, and the corporations can hold players from both universes. It’s just not enough. Because without Eve, there’s no point to Dust, a bland free-to-play FPS that can’t even capture the continent-spanning scale of PlanetSide 2, despite having a whole galaxy to play with.
Dust 514 is out now on PS3.