After scoring a beta code from this Joystiq giveaway (unfortunately it seems like they are all out now), I decided to give CCP’s Dust 514 – a free-to-play MMOFPS set in the Eve Online universe – a try. Here are some impressions of the 0.6 version of the title after roughly six hours or so.

For the uninitiated, Dust 514 is a first person shooter, and you shoot people…in the first person. But the larger draw is that this title is directly linked with Eve Online, and decisions made in one can affect the other. As someone who has never played Eve, I am learning that there are thousands of planets that exist in that game, and on these planets is where the action of Dust takes place.

You are a clone

After you get through the whole download process (~2.5gb for this current version), an opening cinematic briefly describes your role in the game. You are a clone. And beyond that, you are a mercenary. A technology has been found that allows instantaneous transfer of memories from a dying body to be implanted into a new clone, and corporations use this to supply bodies for use in their wars. Basically, every time you die, you get a new meat bag, but your experience up to that point is kept. You play as a cylon, essentially.

Upon starting the game proper, you are asked to make a character (one of three, with no additional cost for making a new character. HEAR THAT MAG?), and choose from a faction and corporation you want to be aligned with. It doesn’t really matter what you choose as far as I can tell, as you can join any battle with anyone, but each has its own flavor text. Maybe this is more important as the game gets developed.

After choosing to be with the Amarr Empire and joining the Royal Uhlans Corporation, I created a female support character named Bloctar. She is really feminine, let me tell you. Once Bloctar was created, we were ready for some killing.

Loading out

…Or so I might have thought. After selecting my newly made, Bloctar appeared before me in what the game calls your Merc Quarters, basically a small space where you can prep for the next battle. Instead of a simple menu, you – in a third persion view – can walk around the room and check several different terminals. These all display different things from a star map of Eve’s galaxies (you can zoom all the way in to single planets. It’s pretty cool.) to an in game marketplace where you will spend a considerable amount of time.

Unfortunately for this staging area, there actually is a simple menu that you can use to access everything you need. By hitting L1, a menu slides in from the left side that has access to everything that might be on the terminals. It seems like very few people will actually be walking up to consoles about the room with this severely simpler way to access everything you need, but I suppose it’s nice to see your character? In all honesty, if it cut down on loading times, just show me the menu. Show me a picture of my character standing in front of a computer, and then load the menu on top of that. That’s all Bloctar and I need.

It sure is MMO-y

Just like any good massive online game, things are a little overwhelming at first. When Bloctar started looking through the menus (the “computer system” where you access the menus is called the “Neocom,” by the by), she had no idea what she actually needed to do, and because she is impatient, she skipped all of the tutorials that tried to explain everything. Silly Bloctar.

In the menu you will find sections for Battle, Character, Fitting, Market, Social, Corporation, Settings, and Help. Most of these will be pretty self explanatory, save for Fitting. Like a lot of FPS titles, you can outfit your character in certain ways so that they have the items or guns you want in battle, but unlike many (and a bit more realistically), the items you take in to battle are one-offs. What I mean by that is you only have X amount of guns, suits, grenades, and other equipment, and if you run out of a certain thing during battle, you simply run out of it (although you can make purchases in battle, so you are not necessarily SOL). Each time you spawn, you use one of your stock of everything you take into battle, save for some super crappy gear that is unlimited.

But let’s step back a bit. The Fitting section of the Neocon lets you outfit your clone (or your vehicles), starting with what type of suit you will be wearing into battle. Bloctar is a support character (which really doesn’t mean much, more on than later), so I have her in a Logistics Dropsuit that allows her to carry more equipment into battle than someone else with a suit tailored to have more armor, say, or one that has more shields. Once you have your suit, you put in whatever guns and other gear you want (so long as you don’t go over a carry limit), and that becomes a choosable dropsuit during battle. You can create as many as you want, and rename them so you know exactly which one to bring in during certain points in a battle.

All of these things you take in to a fight require skill to use them, and this is where the RPG side comes in. I mentioned that Bloctar’s support characteristic didn’t really matter, and what I mean by that is that you can seemingly level into anything you want, but what you choose at the beginning gives you a few levels initially in certain skills that apply to you character. Bloctar started with a couple of levels in an electronics skill and some in another that allowed her to heal fallen comrades. As you play through the game, you will gain skill points and money, and as you might guess, your SP will be used to upgrade your current bank of skills. A quick count of all of the skills listed in the game right now comes out to 102.

By the by, your character does not level up, just the individual skills.

This little cloney went to market

As I said before, the market is where you will spend quite a bit of time, because everything exists there to buy with your space bux (or real bux if you so desire). This includes the skills, and skills include everything from being able to hack points faster to holding certain guns to piloting ships. For example, say you want to use that shiny sniper rifle you have had your eye on. Before you can do that, you might have to buy a skill book that allows you the ability to equip High Level Rifles. Now you have the High Level Rifle skill that you can spend XP on. The rifle you want is a level 3 of High Level Rifle skill, so you have to level up three times in that skill before being able to take that weapon in to battle, so long as you have bought the rifle.

This process is certainly weird at first, but after a few iterations through the motions, it makes sense. Maybe it is all just laid out in a way that makes it a little confusing at first, I am not sure. But suffice it to say, there is a ton of customization that you can do for your character as you play the game, with each skill having five levels and there being 102 skills and all.

You might have seen the brief mention of vehicles up above, and although I have not been able to purchase any vehicle skills (they are expensive), there are tanks, and drop ships, and light armored vehicles you can bring in to battles. Just like equipment, though, they are one-offs. When you deploy one, that’s it, you have used up your tank or what-have-you, and you have to go buy a new one for the next battle. You really have to think about what is needed and when.

Time to shoot

NOW IT IS FINALLY TIME TO SHOOT. Bloctar and I spent quite a bit of time figuring out the menus, but eventually we got to a point where we could do some shooting. Right now in the beta there are two map types: a deathmatch type called Ambush and a capture-points type called Skirmish. Ambush acts like you’d think, so you shoot dudes until there are no more dudes to shoot. Skirmish allows for quite a bit more strategy, but at it’s core you are attacking and defending points on a map, and if your side holds more of them the faster a ticker goes down for the enemy. When it reaches zero, you win. The “ticker” actually represents the shields on a massive drop ship, and each point you hold is a giant gun trying to shoot down the opposing force’s ship. It’s actually pretty fun to watch several huge turrets blasting at ships hovering over the battlefield.

Control-wise, the game plays pretty well. For some reason, I don’t always feel like I am in control in some PS3 FPS titles. I don’t know what it is, or if it is just me, but sometimes they seem a bit too floaty. Luckily, once I messed with the sensitivity for aiming, Dust feels good. Basically, when I turn, I feel like I know how far that turn will be. This is not the case for some other PS3 shooters, so +1 for Dust. Beyond that, you have your standard shooter as far as movement and melee is concerned. One thing that is kind of jarring is selecting different weapons and items. To do so, you hold down the R2 button and a radial dial comes up where you can select your item with the right stick. This sounds fine (and it does work), but every time I wish the choosing was mapped to the left stick. Maybe it is just my dumb hands, but I feel like it takes me far too long to choose the thing that I want because I have to remember to use the right stick. There must be a game that does it this way and I am wired to it, because there is nothing conceptually wrong with how choosing items is.

Regarding control options: this game allows you to play with the standard controller, the Move, or a mouse and keyboard. I haven’t had a chance to play with the mouse and keyboard, but I hope to try soon. More console games should allow that option.

Once your side captures a point, you can spawn from that point as long as you hold it. Or you can spawn in the Moblie Command Center hovering above the battlefield. I am not positive, but I think you might be able to man some of the guns on this ship if you have a skill in it, but that might just be wishful thinking. There is an open floor in this giant ship that you can jump from, and using a “inertial dampener” you don’t form a pile of goo when you land. This ship is usually a little bit away from the general spawn area, so it gives you another place to start if there are too many people crowding about.

Visually, the game looks pretty marginal, but you really cannot judge that at this point. One nice thing to look forward to is that maps have different states, so you might play a map at one time where it is daytime, and then the next time at night and the next during a sand storm. It is interesting to see the variations.

Chat is handled by a push-to-talk system (which can be turned on or off), so mostly you don’t hear a bunch of needless chatter. You can toggle among chatting with just your squad, your battle team, or your corporation.

So far in my playtime I haven’t found any crazy issues with guns being too overpowered, but occasionally I will get frustrated with a tank or a sniper that are doing particularly well. The interesting thing, though is that the frustration subsides pretty quickly when I realize that guy had to spend a ton of space bux to put that tank into the battle. He should be doing pretty well. A tank battling a bunch of infantry should be able to hold its own, and so I don’t get too frustrated. I do think it would be nice to know from where the death that was just brought upon you occurred, however. If a particularly good sniper dude is rocking everyone, you have no idea where that is coming from unless you happen to see the shot. I don’t need an explicit view of the guy who did it like in Call of Duty, but maybe point a camera in that direction a little to say, “Hey, it came from over this way.”

The cost of failure

Since every weapon, dropsuit, and item you take is one that you have had to buy (save for super crappy starter gear that you can always use), my and Bloctar’s tactics for approaching a situation have changed significantly. In another game, charging in to a firefight might not be that big of a deal because the only consequence would be waiting on a spawn timer. Here, you are playing with your hard earned space bux every time you spawn, and so each time you hit the ground you are looking to stay alive as long as possible and to utilize your gear the most effective way possible. At first, I didn’t like this premise. Bloctar was still green, and she was wasting all of her supplies. After a few matches, having won a bit of space bux, this wasn’t as much of an issue, but I still certainly keep in mind that Bloctar only has 10 more GOOD assault rifles before she has to use terrible ones.

A lot of times Bloctar brings in extra ammo that she can give to her comrades. Because there is no reason to hold on to this ammo “just in case,” she generally throws some down whenever there are teammates about regardless of the situation. One good tactic we have found is to throw ammo down while approaching a point that needs to be taken over. A lot of times there are plenty of people about anyway vying to take over the point anyway, so you usually can help out pretty easily (and score some extra skill points because you helped your team).

beta pains

This is only the 0.6 release of the game, so I have no problem with any weird glitches that might pop up. That’s part of the point of a public beta, of course: to find out what is going wrong. That said, some issues can every once in a while take away from the fun, like laggy servers. That is probably the biggest thing right now. Overlooking bland textures and longer loading times is easy, but when you have a shot lined up and suddenly your scope has moved, that gets a little frustrating until you calm yourself down and remember that it’s a beta.

On the other hand, I have yet to have a game lag out or drop me as a player, something I cannot say for Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, which still has problems to this day, and it has been out for months. So bravo, Dust beta.

Interested in Eve

The impressions that I have gotten from my relatively short time with this beta are pretty positive. I know the glitches will be ironed out by the time the game launches, so that’s not a big deal, and the game besides occasional lag is fun and works well enough. I am actually interested in seeing how Eve Online plays after this knowing that it all ties in to this game. If their grand design actually works, and things you do in one actually affects the other in significant ways, it would be pretty interesting to play a bit on the ground in Dust and then jump into ships in space in Eve. We will see how that all plays out, but for now there is some nice potential.