Shotguns the size of a bookshelf, carried by immortal clone soldiers: PAR plays the DUST 514 beta
The last time the Report checked in with DUST 514 was almost a year ago, at CCP Fanfest in Reykjavik, Iceland. We saw a game that was promising a lot; real-time crossover game play between the PS3 and PC, and a quality first-person shooter experience that would be entirely free-to-play. However, since we were given pre-generated characters and playing around in what was clearly early code, it was difficult to get a sense of the game's quality. Now that the DUST 514 beta is live and available to all PlayStation 3 users, the Report has spent some quality time with the game, and… found it really fun, actually.
Internet spaceships are serious business
No one can question the devotion of EVE Online fans. These people run virtual corporations, manage a working economy, and even fly halfway around the globe to attend a fan festival in Iceland. Admirable as that devotion may be, it's also part of what's scared off some potential newcomers to EVE Online; this is an established world, established by players no less, and those who can't deal with the logistics of managing income and spaceship thrusters at the same time may find themselves overwhelmed. DUST 514 takes place in the same universe as EVE Online and can even connect in real-time to that game, but the feeling of being overwhelmed that is so prevalent in EVE Online is absent. DUST 514 opens with an exciting cutscene to establish the lore and feel of this universe before it shifts gears to another video, this one narrated by what sounds like a female AI, who repeats calmly, “you will die.” And for the record, yes, you will.Your first steps to getting in the game proper will be to choose your race and bloodline. You're a mercenary, and nothing about your character's ethnicity determines what you can and can't use, who you can fight for, who you can fight alongside, or even what your armor looks like. This is the first day of the beta and it's possible that will change – I'd be surprised if there weren't race-specific armors – but for now, it's flavor and that's all. The specialty you pick however, will influence your career. Your specialty affects the skills and inventory you start with, and you have four to choose from: Arbiter, Enforcer, Sentinel, and Artificer. Arbiters are equipped with recon in mind, Enforcers are built to fight on the front lines, Sentinels focus on taking out enemy vehicles, and Artificers support friendly troops by specializing in technology. I chose Artificer for my first character. It was difficult to tell when I hit an enemy during my time with the game in Iceland. Thus, I figured I would focus on hacking and supporting my teammates. DUST slows down even further once you're in the game proper. I learned that although I had chosen Artificer, I would not be locked into this path, or even this armor. I learned that a dropsuit “fitting” translated to a loadout, that I could purchase skills via the marketplace, and much more. The game will walk you through each option and menu item should you so choose. These tutorials should be much appreciated by the uninitiated. There are over half a dozen basic menu options, each with its own subcategories. Those subcategories have their own subcategories, and those have their own, and so on. You could easily spend upwards of half an hour searching for what you wanted without these tutorial walkthroughs, lost among words like “nanohive” and “aurum.” There's a difference between depth and suffocation, and DUST walks the line well thanks to an abundance of information and willingness to show players the ropes.
Mo money, mo dropsuits
That being said, there are still some complicated, spendy steps to what you might assume would be a simple process. When I wanted to upgrade my armor, I had to first make sure I met the requirements. I was lacking “Gallente Scout Dropsuit” skill, so I went to the marketplace, found said skill, and purchased it. However, purchasing it once wasn't enough – I still had to earn enough skill points to purchase a rank for the skill. The first rank of this particular skill cost nearly 50k skill points, and a single match might only net me barely more than 3,000 points if I'm doing poorly. That's the first rank in one skill. So to recap: 7,600 ISK for the suit itself, 425,000 ISK for the Gellente Scout Dropsuit skill book, and 49,760 skill points before I can use the suit. This isn't exactly top-shelf gear, either. This is level 1 armor, and it's going to take a long time to earn. My guess is the added steps help prevent pay-to-win, since you can't just throw real-world cash at a piece of armor until you can wear it. The extremely expensive cherry on top is that you don't buy the suit just once; if you die in a battle while wearing it, you've depleted it like you would any other resource, and will have to go back to the store to buy another suit. Maybe this time you'll buy… say, a baker's dozen, just to be safe. You don't have to re-purchase the skill book or skill, but you do have to pay for each copy of the suit. Thankfully, ISK earnings are in the triple-figure range for each match. DUST's marketplace is large and expansive. There are 11 categories to shop: augmentations, dropsuits, equipment, turrets, vehicles, weapons, dropsuit modules, vehicle modules, skills, installations, and militia gear. Some of these categories are currently empty, but the beta allows you to get the basics, as well as some optional items like skill point boosts. Interestingly, right now most items are listed in either Aurum or ISK, but not both. I understand not being able to purchase boosts with currency earned in-game, but if the skill point system helps prevent pay-to-win style play why are some armors, weapons, and equipment only available via one currency and not the other? I would think the ability to purchase bulk quantities of items to ensure I didn't run out of resources mid-battle would be an impulse purchase CCP would want to cash in on. You can get 4,000 Aurum for just $2, and it would be easy to mentally justify spending that low of an amount – even repeatedly. Then again, this is early beta, and as such, the pricing scheme could easily change.
Halo of Battlefield Duty
The game is fun to play. First, you'll choose what kind of battle you'd like to participate in: Ambush or Skirmish. Ambush is deathmatch, only in reverse. Your task is not to reach a certain number of kills, but to deplete the opposing force's clone soldier reserves. In Skirmish, you hack different points on the map to make the local turrets fire on the enemy's mobile command center; the more turrets you have hacked, the faster the enemy's shields go down, and the first one to reach zero loses. CCP has infused logical game lore into stale, conventional game modes, which means that even if in reality you're basically playing a game of Deathmatch or Domination, it feels much more important. You're not just counting numbers until yours reaches an arbitrary goal, you're firing on an enemy spaceship, defending – or capturing – a territory. It's an absorbing approach, and helps the world feel like a place that exists rather than a game for amusement.Game play itself feels like a blend of Halo thanks to sci-fi weaponry and force fields, Battlefield due to the abundance of vehicles on the map, and Call of Duty thanks to iron sights and custom loadouts. It takes some getting used to since you'll want to balance using iron sights for accuracy with shooting from the hip for mobility. Each shot fired feels powerful, and the visual effect of bullets hitting an opponent's shield is satisfying. As mentioned earlier, when I played the game last year, it was difficult to tell when I'd hit someone. No longer is that the case. You can choose from more standard weapons such as assault rifles, SMGs, and sniper rifles, or you can go exotic with laser pistols, plasma knives, or the mass driver – a semi-automatic, multi-shot grenade launcher. My personal favorite was DUST's version of a shotgun. One up-close hit from that sucker and my enemies were toast. The thing is huge, bigger and longer than my soldier's forearm, with an opening almost as big as a human head. It was bulky and intimidating. You can call in vehicles at any time, and a dropship will arrive on the battlefield with cargo in tow shortly after the request is made. I drove both a tank and Warthog-like vehicle, and while both are powerful tools in DUST's universe, the handling on both is terrible. You use the left thumbstick for just about everything when driving a DUST vehicle; forward to make it go, back to make it reverse, left and right to make it turn. These vehicles are also easily countered with the right weapon or class, so don't assume you're getting an easy win by hopping into one of them. One well-placed shot from an anti-vehicle infantry unit can turn a tank into scrap. You'll also have to purchase the ability to call in anything heavier than the Warthog-like vehicle, just like purchasing armor. An interesting twist is that vehicles are keyed to whichever team calls them in, as are most assets on a map. In order to use an enemy vehicle, supply depot, or spawn point, you have to hack it first. This is a cool system of risk vs. reward since you could choose to turn the enemy's toys against them if you took the time, but my fellow players almost always just opted to blow things up. Sigh. I think I might have picked the wrong specialty. Each map can support up to 32 players, and everything moves along smoothly, without any hiccups or lag problems. The client isn't connected to EVE Online yet, so it's impossible to say with certainty if that stability will continue once the PS3 tries to connect with the 400,000 plus players on the PC. Right now though, things are looking good. Edit: Correction, the DUST 514 beta is currently connected to EVE Online. Actually, things are looking rather terrible. DUST's biggest weakness thus far is that textures can take a long time to load, and even when they do they're muddied and blurry. EVE is more than four years old and it still looks spectacular due to constant updates, so it's a little surprising DUST can't seem to pull off the same feat. If I had to guess, I'd say CCP is sacrificing quality for performance, and that's a fair trade; the sub-par graphics don't ruin the game.
Aiming for the stars
DUST 514 is ambitious in its goals, but judging from this beta, the free-to-play PS3 shooter has a solid foundation under its feet. The game is already fun to play, and the leveling system combined with the the sheer breadth of available armor, weaponry, and equipment will inspire hours of play for gamers looking to build the ultimate soldier. This already seems like a game that will reward the hardcore. It's EVE Online's community that drives the game forward. It will be exciting to see if EVE Online fans embrace their foot soldier brethren and DUST players allow themselves to get invested in the universe, contacting EVE players as though they were real mercenaries carrying out real corporate-sponsored wars. I foresee many orbital strikes if that happens. Beautiful, deadly orbital strikes. The Dust 514 open beta is available now.