January 22, 2013
The promise of a first person shooter set in the EVE universe intrigued the hell out of me when I first heard hints of it being developed. While the EVE story is currently told through the adventures and shenanigans of its players, there is always the backdrop of the universe the game is set. Players now have a way to walk around in that backdrop, and do what EVE players do best: find some like minded folks, and go kick over the sand castles built by others.
Important Notes: This writeup is about my own experiences in the beta period of DUST 514. Also, I don’t have a capture rig for my console, but luckily my spanky new TV has a mobile app that lets you scrape off screenshots. They’re highly compressed, so sorry about the screenshot quality. Better than a wall of just text, though.
Rising to the Challenge
Lets get this out of the way right now: if you’re used to console shooters like Call of Duty or Halo, this is a game that is half shooter and half micro-economy. You will lose your assets and have to earn them back. Winning nets you greater rewards than losing, and both outcomes have effects in the worlds of both DUST 514 and EVE Online.
It’s compelling and ambitious, so lets get into it and see if there is is finally payoff to be had. This will be a pretty descriptive article on DUST 514, one from the perspective of someone who has been playing EVE Online since its beta and as someone who is both a PC and console gamer (though the PC is where my gaming heart always lies). I hope everyone can get something out of this and be able to make the decision of whether you want to try out DUST 514.
DUST 514 is a free-to-play PlayStation 3 exclusive, which means you will be having to download it from the PlayStation Store. PSN download performance has never been stellar, so expect to walk away from your console while you gobble this one down (currently DUST 514 clocks in at over two gigabytes). Once this is done the game will probably update its data files after launching, and I think this is CCP’s way of getting around massive client updates.
It’s all pretty painless for the most part. And free.
Getting Your Bearings
Assuming you’re patched and ready to go, character creation is nowhere near as complex as EVE’s, but it doesn’t really need to be. This will become apparent as we get more into skills later. Choosing your race, sex, and profession yields you an initial set of skills and a specialized starter fitting, so its probably best to read the descriptions. That being said, your gameplay path is not set in stone here, not by a long shot.
After some introductory videos you will be dumped in to your mercenary quarters. This is your home base, with various physical implements to shop, play with your gear, etc. This is entirely window dressing on all the features that are on the Neocom, accessible via the start button, which you will probably use exclusively rather than the terminals in your quarters. It’s just faster and easier.
The Neocom is your one-button access to features that help you find battles, manage your character and gear, find a corporation to join, and more. It allows for quick access to all of these features without forcing you to mess around with a giant pile of nested menu options.
The equipment you can use in DUST affect your role in combat, and skills affect what things you can use. If you want to use a shotgun, you need to have the shotgun skill trained. The skills Neocom menu item lets you browse what skills you have on hand and upgrade them to a maximum of five levels each. To start out you will have enough skills and infinitely reusable gear to get you into combat right away, but it pays to plan your route a bit by taking time to manage your skills. You acquire skill points passively (around one point every four or five seconds), and get a few thousand each match you complete. You can then spend your acquired skill points to increase the level of skills you own, making gear more effective or unlocking your ability to use more things. Each skill level is progressively more costly to upgrade than the previous one.
This can seem initially a bit complicated if you’re not used to EVE Online’s way of doing things, but the concepts here are straightforward. You level up prerequisite skills to enable other more specialized ones, which opens the door for more powerful gear and abilities. It’s simple, and works well here.
Shiny New Things
If you’re looking to spend some of your initial cash on new items, the Market browser lets you do just that. I found it useful to hit the Market first and see what’s out there, in order to help plan what skills I would eventually level up. there are several categories of items to choose from, including weapons and dropsuits, modules for your dropsuits such as armor and shields, and various support items like grenades, repair guns, and the like.
It’s worth noting right away that if you’re looking to try things out without investing skill points, the Militia section of the market has a pile of mediocre gear that requires no skill levels to use. It was handy to buy a few different variations on equipment types so I could settle on a particular path with little or no investment, other than the game’s common currency ISK which is rewarded upon completion of battles. In this way, playing the different combat roles is accessible and cheap for the starting player. You won’t be as effective as someone who’s invested skill points and cash, but you can at least see if something’s right for you.
The Market browser contains a ton of hardware. Often, a category of items will include advanced and experimental versions which cost more ISK or even Aurum (AU), the game’s spacebucks you buy with real world money through the PSN store. If you spot a blueprint version of an item, that means you effectively have infinite numbers of that item in your inventory. Otherwise, everything will have to be bought individually for you to use.
Keep this particular fact in mind. If you want to use something you have to buy it with currency of some kind, in-game or otherwise. Replacing items you’ve lost in combat will cost you.
As with any free-to-play game, microtransactions are here. You can exchange real world money for Aurum and use that to purchase some items that may give you an advantage in some situations. It’s not really pay to win though, and some of the paid dropsuits look really neat. Nothings terribly overpriced, so if you’ve dropped a few bucks in games like Planetside 2, expect the same style of purchase prices here.
The Fittings menu item in your Neocom is the place to go to get your gear ready for fighting. Each fitting starts with a dropsuit, providing the base statistics platform you will work off of. Dropsuits provide high, medium and low slots for equipment, powergrid and CPU to run those equipment, as well as weapons and utility slots for guns and gear. The Fittings section lets you throw together the gear you own into what are effectively templates, which you can name what you wish for quick identification later.
The dropsuits generally follow the racial specialization formula that is present in EVE, though this does not always preclude you from mixing suit types with weapon types:
This is also the place you come to restock your fittings, spending your hard earned ISK to make sure you have enough gear lined up to fight with. Again, dying in combat means losing your stuff. If you’re investing in expensive dropsuits and expensive gear to go along with it, expect to lose a lot of your match earnings on replacing them.
No matter how you went through the character creation process, you will end up with several starter fittings. These will cover off some basic combat roles, and also don’t deplete in combat. Consider these your go-to fits when you don’t want to risk purchased equipment.
Getting a new dropsuit ready for combat is a straightforward affair once you get used to it. Remember that you need to actually have an item in your possession in order to fit it the first time, so you may find yourself running back and forth between the fittings and market areas to buy various items and experiment with fitting them. If you find your dropsuit just barely doesn’t cover the powergrid or CPU requirements for something, the market sells items which boost those stats, as well as skills that reduce the requirements of items. There’s definitely some complexity here that should keep you busy once you start delving in to your own customized dropsuits.
Along with dropsuits, this is also the area to manage your vehicle fittings. Similar mechanisms apply to vehicle fittings, which are configurable with a plethora of turrets to blast at your enemies with.
Ok, we’ve danced around this long enough, time to go shoot some things. Heading to your Neocom you will find the Battle Finder, where you will be able to pick a battle type to take part in. At the time of this writing only Ambush and Skirmish types to choose from, the former being basically team deathmatch, and the latter being what we normally see in other shooters as conquest mode.
Skirmish is by far the most interesting of the two, where each team drops to the surface from a Mobile Command Center (MCC) hovering over the surface of the battlefield. They then fight over capturing control points on the map.
After picking a match you won’t have long to wait, I’ve never had to wait longer than 30 seconds to get into a match. Sometimes you’ll join one in progress, but that’s fine since it keeps you from waiting around. You’ll usually end up in a kind of briefing deck in orbit of the planet you’re about to fight on.
It’s a nice touch, letting you check out the armor of your compatriots and get some last minute fitting tweaks done before the fight starts.
You start by picking a spawn point to show up at — to start you’ll usually have one or maybe two. This is where you will select one of those fittings you worked on earlier, and head to the nearest control point. Holding down the circle button starts a hacking timer, eventually flipping the control point to your side and it will begin firing cruise missiles at the enemy MCC.
The enemy team is doing the same thing of course, and thus begins conflict where you win by one of two ways: kill all the enemies depleting their clone reserves or keeping control of the majority of control points, blowing their MCC out of the sky.
Speaking of the sky, it frequently becomes your enemy in DUST. The much touted orbital bombardment shows up from time to time, and being on the receiving end results in a very brief demise. It’s an awesome area denial tool, and if timed right can pave the way for a well timed assault to follow.
I was expecting more of an epic sense of occasion when one of these happens, but sadly all you get a strange tone (the louder it is the closer the strike will be to your location) and suddenly things start exploding. Now I’m not saying there has to be some sort of insane effect like a Final Fantasy Bahamut summon, but for all intents and purposes this is basically like a hugely powerful bunch of grenades going off. Given it represents the purest sort of EVE Online vs DUST 514 player vs player interaction, I was expecting something more epic — more Michael Bay, less Stephen Soderbergh.
If you’ve played deathmatch modes in pretty much any other game, you won’t be surprised about what’s on offer for DUST’s Ambush mode. It’s as generic as it gets, with a shorter respawn time than Skirmish, and semi-random respawn locations that you can’t pick from. It’s faster than the Skirmish mode, but nowhere near as enjoyable.
Combat in DUST is fairly unique to the shooter genre, but not completely for positive reasons. Dual stick controls have always been janky, and most of the big games out there like the two I mentioned earlier go to great lengths to force the game to operate well with the tools you’re given. DUST tries its best, and even gives you some adjustable settings to help with the sensitivity of each control axis, but the reality is this: you will be fighting the controls the majority of the time you play this game.
You will find you are either adjusting your too slowly to be effective at close or medium range, or far too rapidly to be able to finesse the sniper rifles. I’ve seen two teams of six empty clip after clip at each other and achieve nothing measurable, mostly because the casualties ended up being the sky, walls, and ground.
A keyboard and mouse would help here, and DUST 514 certainly supports the addition of those as controllers. But lets be real here, the vast majority of PS3 players are more likely to charge up their Move controllers than plug in a keyboard and mouse. I can’t fault CCP for giving the options for controller options, it’s certainly a plus.
I also hope you like grenade spam and bunny-hopping, there’s tons of both of those here even though most modern shooters have found some way to mitigate both in some capacity. With DUST 514, both techniques are effective, and thus widespread enough to make your eyes roll.
It’s also becoming apparent that certain weapons are becoming extremely popular due to their deadliness, and I think these problems with the combat controls are helping with that. Heavy machine guns turn the wearer into a walking minigun, eschewing actual accuracy for dumping a wall of metal at enemies. If you don’t have one, you’ll need two extra buddies to soak up the incoming rounds with you and pray you can out-damage him. And if I had a nickel for each time I’ve been killed by a GEK-38 assault rifle I’d be able to retire — hell, it’s #5 on the top list of PSN store purchase for DUST, if you don’t have one good luck soloing a player who does. Lets not mention getting one-shot-killed at range by a shotgun.
There’s a couple of reasons why this kind of stuff matters with DUST. Death means a few things for you here. First, you’ve just lost your entire fitting — dropsuit, guns, modules, you name it. If you’re not using one of those starter fits, that death just cost you an entire fitting you will now have to restock when you’re back at your mercenary hideout. Second, As your character lays on the ground listening to his dying heart beat slower and slower you realize you could be doing something right now — oh yeah, respawning.
You could wait around for a team member with a nanite injector to come along to revive you, but it’s a crap shoot whether anyone will even notice your revive icon on the map and bother to help you out. I frequently play as a medic, and nine times out of ten someone choose to respawn when I’m two feet away with nanite injector in hand. A revive won’t cost your team a clone so if you see the little blue dots on the minimap winning over the red ones you should probably wait around and save yourself some time and in-game money.
Respawning is an unacceptably long experience with DUST 514: you’re looking at around a minimum of 20 seconds (yes, I’ve timed it) between that bullet that put you down and stepping back on the Skirmish battlefield as a new you. The sequence goes like this (times approximate, of course):
What will really make you laugh is when you’re down to one second on that ten second spawn timer and someone successfully hacks the control point you were trying to spawn at: because that cancels your spawn and you have to pick a new spawn point, with a new ten second countdown. I can see why they chose to do this, since capturing a control point makes you a complete sitting duck and having the entire enemy force spawning around you is sub-ideal. Even with that being said, the pacing seems way off the mark.
Vehicle combat is present here as well, which you summon to the battlefield by pressing one of the D-pad buttons and selecting one of your premade vehicle fits. Coming up against a battle tank alone with your assault rifle results in a quick death, which is as it should be. Dropships can be used to deal aerial death with your friends manning turrets, and quick light buggies can be summoned up to get you around the maps faster. Vehicles don’t seem overly off balance, since a few smart folks with swarm launchers can end any serious threat.
When the stars do align and you find yourself with a group of like minded individuals, you can pull off some great moments of assaulting and capturing, but overall these are pretty rare unless you show up with a premade squad of friends. What would help for this is a system whereby you can designate attack/defend orders for your squad members, which give bonuses to XP when performing actions in that area. This is actually in the game, but I’ve only ever seen it used twice and in both cases the individual set a defend order on himself. The 256-player shooter monstrosity that was MAG pulled this concept off much better than DUST does, resulting in gameplay that is far less like chaotic gang brawls and more like an organized ground war.
When one side wins, the game tallies up the rewards. You’re given a bunch of skill points to go into your unused skill point pool for later spending, and a pile of ISK as well. How much you’re given depends on how much you participated in the battle. Damaging enemy assets, shooting enemy soldiers, capturing control points, etc. all go towards giving you extra rewards. If you do really well, you may also be rewarded with items such as vehicles, guns, etc. that you can use later. Some of these are rare, and I think only come as battle rewards.
If this seems like an overwhelmingly negative review of the combat in DUST, consider that as a free-to-play shooter the only reason for you to continue playing it is the combat experience. There’s a lot of rough edges here which I hope are smoothed out as the game progresses out of beta.
I have to talk about the framerate first, because this is one of the biggest gripes I have with DUST 514. There are times when things are smooth, but those times are usually when my mercenary is alone in the corner of his quarters doing nothing but staring at the wall. In combat, the game has a horribly inconsistent framerate, dropping well below 30fps frequently. This is absolutely horrible for a first person shooter, and is worth getting out there for those expecting to immerse themselves a butter smooth EVE FPS with a high level of graphical fidelity. Count on it affecting your performance in fights.
It’s not for lack of trying, though. Level designs are monstrous and open, making good use of terrain and buildings to encourage flanking or distance-based tactics while others go in for close range. Ambient light is reflected in surfaces well, and one fight I had on a world with a deep red sun had a great ominous feel as our armor all took on the extra sinister color. But the grand scope of the environments comes at a cost of overall fidelity, and close scrutiny will reveal that.
Dropsuit and vehicle designs are pure EVE Online, drawing effectively on the racial design language developed over the years. They’re almost impossible to discern at a distance, but up close the designs are distinct.
The sound design of DUST has some excellent moments. The voiceover work of the female announcer adds some really cool sci-fi ambiance to any moment of the game. It can get incredibly repetitive during fights where a lot of captures are happening as each attempt and success/failure is announced, but it sounds cool and helps with situational awareness. Most battle sounds are good, but a lot of the gun sounds are incredibly limp. The assault rifles sound like slowly pouring a pack of toothpicks onto a tiled floor, and even though sniper rifles are the size of a cell phone tower they sound about as powerful as a Nerf dart gun.
There’s actually so little oomph to the game’s audio that my subwoofer went to sleep. I’m not kidding at all, it basically gave up waiting on there being enough bass to trigger, and went into power saving mode.
It has already been announced that an update to the game’s audio is planned that will improve upon the sounds that are currently in the beta version. I’m hoping CCP delivers for those of us LFE junkies out there that invested in their home theater audio hardware.
Overall, the presentation disappoints in a lot of critical areas. The framerate is a critical issue, and it’s entirely obvious that some concessions have been made in order to realize CCP’s grand vision. The platform is most likely the issue, as the PS3 takes considerable know-how to be able to crank out high quality visuals. Even the most knowledgeable developers often end up with a final product with sub-HD internal rendering resolutions or godawful textures.
It goes without saying that even though the NDA is just now being lifted the game is still in beta. All of the above is likely to be balanced, improved, tweaked, etc. However, having owned a PS3 since its launch, I have very little faith the game can and will be brought to a state that it needs to be in order to worth a long term investment of your time. This whole business isn’t meant to bash the game or the efforts put into it, I’ve been itching for DUST to be a quality experience since day 1. In its current beta state, the game has serious flaws, and resolving those is going to take considerable effort.
Marketing screenshots for the game show a hell of a lot more detail than is present in the game we’ve been playing thus far. I have a sneaky suspicion that CCP is, as usual, not putting its eggs in one basket. A move to the PC would be one that most EVE players would be interested in, and games like Planetside 2 have shown there is a market for a capable sci-fi free-to-play shooter. With new consoles just around the corner, CCP will have to migrate DUST to a new platform soon, or the game is destined to be a ghost town by this time next year.
If you’re looking for a different way to experience the worlds of the EVE cluster, then by all means give this a whirl. EVE lore doesn’t quite feel as alive here as I’d prefer, and the experience certainly suffers for the choice in platform, but the technological achievement of linking the PlayStation Network with EVE Online is compelling. For me to wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone though, I feel that CCP has a lot of work ahead of it to get the whole experience streamlined enough.
As the worlds of both games are brought more in step with each other there will be interesting financial and combat opportunities for EVE players, and DUST players will be able to plan active role in what is arguably one of the most complex and fascinating universes in gaming.