Much has already been written about Dust 514's extraordinary connectivity with the bustling mega-MMO Eve Online, and impressive it certainly is. Grand ideas like this always sound like game-changers when they're first spluttered into the ether, but as with any big machine, it needs its cogs and gears to be grinding together smoothly or it'll all fall apart.
Hence, then, CCP's closed beta for its ambitious online PS3 exclusive - a weekend-long trial that saw avid Eve-rs pay a moderate sum to help stress test and sample Dust 514's 48-player skirmishes. Diving in myself, two things immediately struck me. Number one; this is definitely a beta. This is not CCP's version of these polished, final-code tasters that flaunt the beta moniker but are really a demo in disguise. Here frame rate issues, balance problems and connectivity irks were all present and correct. And number two, man, Eve and Dust 514 are complicated. This may be a console shooter, but its hardcore PC lineage is there for all to see and, for many, to fear.
Upon booting up, you're immediately asked to select your class and corporate affiliation from a series of quite confusing questions. As with everything in Dust 514, though, it's all a case of reading in between the future-corp lines. Break down the jargon and a fairly typical class system reveals itself - snipers, hackers, infantrymen and heavy troops - but CCP's penchant for wordiness might put off those just looking for a brainless blast. Perhaps that's the point.
After wading through that particular line of questioning, your chosen mercenary (all of Dust 514's combatants are mercs hired by Eve's corporations) appears on screen in what seems to be his bedroom. Except, instead of an orthopaedic mattress and a cupboard filled with old N64 cables, he has an armoury, modification station and a map of galaxy-wide conflicts known as the Battle Finder. I guess that's the difference between me and a space-bounding soldier of fortune.
It's a daunting place, though, that bedroom. Every station shows off vast customisation options, and at first it's utterly overwhelming. Again, dig a little deeper and the influences reveal themselves - a little bit of Battlefield here, a bit of COD there while leaving room for stylings from WoW and of course Eve itself - but the sheer volume of options available is staggering. And of course, completely impenetrable over a weekend-long beta.
As is often the way in online shooters, the real meat of Dust 514's customisation is locked off until you've had a bit of time on the actual field. The beta offered two forms of combat - Ambush, which is team deathmatch, and Skirmish, an objective-based effort that owes more than a debt to Battlefield.
Before any of that, though, you're taken to a pre-conflict lobby where you can make final adjustments to your customisations and loadouts. Your teammates wander about listlessly, occasionally standing in front of terminals or turning in circles. It's an odd place - like a Stanley Kubrick MMO or PlayStation Home if Skynet ever takes over - and the speed at which your avatar stumbles about the place is agonising. That's surely something that'll be tweaked for the final version.
Finally, after all that menu-fondling, you arrive on the battlefield with an assault rifle in your hands and no real clue of what's going on. Thankfully, Ambush is not a tricky proposition - shoot the men that are trying to shoot you. So that's exactly what I did, and as a testing ground for Dust 514's mechanics, it's a great place to start.
Ignoring frame rate issues and some hit-recognition problems (this is a proper beta, to reiterate), Dust 514 is still a bit lifeless. Admittedly, this comes from comparing it to the likes of Battlefield and COD. It also comes off less than favourably against second-tier fare like Section 8, and that's the level of competition CCP is facing in its battle not only for players' cash, but that most important commodity of all, their time.
In Ambush, most encounters take place over medium range, and play out as protracted firefights with inaccurate rifles. Unlike most modern-day-set shooters, players can take more than a couple of bullets to the chest before they drop, so getting the jump on someone doesn't necessarily translate into an easy kill. Instead, circle-strafing and even jumping play a key role in gun-on-gun combat, and it can look a little, well, silly.
Halo's often criticised for its spray-and-pray blasting, but experienced players understand that bullet-happy base is just part of the power-weapon pyramid that forms the integral structure of the game. Dust 514, it seems, has no specific power structure - its balance comes from loadouts and class selection, so at this stage these lengthy, ugly shootouts do feel a tad amateurish.
Of course, there are other ways to play. The heavy type starts with a rocket launcher that looks absolutely lovely to fire but proves woefully inaccurate. Snipers, well, they're snipers, but tracing a lock on your prey is tricky with the game's current hit-detection problems, and with no 'hold breath to steady' mechanic you don't exactly feel like Leon when your eye's pressed up to the scope.
Perhaps the most interesting class is the infiltrator, known as Scout, who packs a team-healing syringe and an area-of-effect protection shield along with close-quarters weaponry. He's a medic, for all intents and purposes, but allows you to avoid the sketchy gunfights and play your own way.
Of course, the real joy in Dust 514 will be in crafting your own loadout, or dropsuit as they're called. Back in that space bedroom (or command center, if we're being accurate), you can tinker with multi-slotted dropsuits to your heart's content, crafting hybrid classes that suit your play style. Every time you compete, you'll earn ISK, the in-game currency of Eve, which can be used to buy mods, weapons and even vehicles in the black market. Again, it's all stuff that's been used elsewhere in streamlined fashion, but the sheer amount of actual stuff here is impressive.
CCP reckons it'll take seven years to learn all of the skills in the game. A fairly meaningless stat, true, but one that doesn't sound unfeasible when you start peeling back the layers in the customisation terminal. The menus will either have you running in fear or rubbing your hands with glee, depending on your own penchant for endless tweaking.
Back down on the planet, Skirmish proves Dust 514's premiere mode. As with everything in the game, it's totally impenetrable at first. After a few minutes, though, it's clearly just a combination of Battlefield's Rush and Conquest modes. A defending team must protect three Anti-Air outposts, which are blasting away at the attacking team's Mobile Command Center. Destroy the MCC (the ship, not the cricketing body) and the defenders win. Take over the outposts, and it's glory to the attackers.
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There's so much going on that it's easy to get overwhelmed, and when you start trying to wrap your head around the fact that these matches could be affecting other matches elsewhere, and even another entire video game, it's enough to make your head expand. Especially when those MCCs are set to house real-life commanders dictating the action from above, RTS style.
Again, though, Skirmish demonstrates further evidence of Dust 514's grandiose ideas taking the place of core mechanics. The maps are bland and open, with seemingly no real level of design to accommodate all the class types. Skirmishes are a vast and disorganised melee, where soldiers sprint around desperately trying to kill each other and higher-ranked players circle above in their paid-for dropships, blasting everyone below.
In its current state, winning or losing one of these sizeable conflicts feels arbitrary, partly because of the unsteady state of the netcode, and partly because there's no real feedback between what you're doing on the ground and how the Eve mega corps are benefitting or suffering. At beta stage, this is understandable, and hopefully when the final game does appear, your own actions will have more obvious and definable consequences. For now, though, it's all a bit 1998.
There's so much going on in Dust 514 that a weekend-long trial feels more like an assault than a delicious taster, but it's clear a lot of work needs to be done if it's going to live up to its dual status as the first proper free-to-play shooter on console, and the companion game to the marvellous and supremely complicated Eve.
If CCP can concentrate on fine-tuning the details - the feel of the weapons, the satisfaction of a kill - then all that madcap big stuff will fall into place. Without that level of work and refinement, though, it'll be just another grunt on the frontline, trying to stay alive.