I have a fear that grows in strength with each review I find myself writing. The fear is that, as soon I've filed my copy, an update will arrive that might rebuild, repair or rebalance the game quite substantially, and suddenly a great chunk of what I've written would be made irrelevant.
With Dust 514, I found myself increasingly hoping that this would happen. It's likely that much about the game will change in the months and years to come; that the commitment and dedication developer CCP has shown toward Eve Online, the space MMO that is essentially Dust 514's parent, will also be bestowed on this free-to-play spin-off first-person shooter. I've already seen signs that many of those playing Dust 514 are becoming as invested in the experience as members of Eve's community are and this, too, bodes well for the game's ongoing development.
Unfortunately, it cannot change the fact that, at launch, Dust 514 is not a very good game.
It's not a particularly bad game either, occupying a middle ground of marked mediocrity and doing an OK job of ticking all the boxes that a first-person shooter should tick, without offering anything remarkable or original. Lurking behind all this there is Eve Online, a completely different game with which Dust 514 enjoys a symbiotic connection - but this only means that the most interesting thing about Dust 514 is its metagame, a concept that is considerably more engaging than the game itself.
If you're not yet familiar with the nature of the symbiosis, here it is: the first-person combat happening in Dust 514 could be taking place on a particular world in the Eve Online galaxy, the soldiers who are fighting it out being mercenaries that have been hired by opposing Eve corporations hoping to gain control of that world. Those spacefaring corporations might also contribute to the fight from afar, blasting the surface of the planet with orbital strikes that support the troops far below them.
I speak hypothetically because, a lot of the time, you won't be engaged in these land grabs. If you're not a member of a mercenary corporation and not hired to take part in one of these conflicts, then there's a rather more generic matchmaking mode available that has a couple of team deathmatch and point-capture maps. Right now, this is where the majority of Dust 514's battles are raging.
And those battles are rubbish. Since the days of the rather brown beta, the game's frame-rate has been improved considerably, but it still drops during busy moments or when you find yourself stood high up, staring out across a map. Objects and textures pop into view. When a light attack vehicle (analogous to Halo's Warthogs) is destroyed, it's overlaid with a tongue of flame for a few moments before simply disappearing from view, an effect so hideous I felt embarrassed as soon as I saw it. On more than one occasion you might glance down at the ground and find yourself able to see through it entirely as the game gifts you a terrifying vision of the limitless nothingness below.
Meanwhile, the controls give the impression that you're gliding through treacle. There's not enough precision when using a joypad, and while a mouse and keyboard arrangement is much better, many veteran FPS players aren't going to find the mouse sensitive enough, even with the sensitivity setting maxed out.
Bugs abound, too. Occupational hazards for galactic mercenaries include getting stuck on scenery or wedged in terrain and at one point, while climbing across the roof of a building, I found myself suddenly and very rapidly trembling on the spot, oscillating up and down as if shivering from the cold.
The vital revive mechanic is also broken. If your mercenary is carrying the medical tool that is the nanite injector, you should be able to bring a downed team-mate back into the fight, but since a beta update two weeks ago, revive icons no longer appear above these team-mates. A collision detection bug also makes it all but impossible to actually apply the injector, leaving you repeatedly stabbing away at a soon-to-be corpse and the ground all around it - an experience akin to, and almost as much fun as, piercing the film lid on a microwave ready meal. As a result, should you go down in a fight, nobody's going to help you up.
The handful of game modes on offer are rudimentary and unremarkable, with Dust 514 offering nothing that you won't have played before and featuring a meagre selection of maps that will start to repeat all too soon. During one evening with the game I played the same map four times in a row. These are generally wide and spacious affairs that are fairly well designed but, for all their scenery and buildings, they're inevitably dominated by snipers. Most weapons are surprisingly lacking in range.
The weapons and equipment are the worst of it. You'll start the game with a selection of default loadouts such as assault troopers or snipers, all of which are armed with "Militia" grade guns. These are the the galaxy's worst weapons, the Tesco Value range of battlefield equipment, and while they can and will kill your enemies, you'll want to earn something else as soon as possible.
Dust 514 has a number of much more interesting weapons locked away at higher tiers, such as the face-melting laser rifle, the chargeable scrambler or the mass driver, which functions like a grenade launcher. All of these will kill you many times over while you respond to their attentions with your Militia-grade pea shooters, and the road to unlocking them is the definition of grind.
After each fight, you'll come away with both in-game currency (ISK) and skill points. The first is for buying new or replacement equipment, the latter is for slowly growing a complex skill tree. To be able to use most weapons in the game, as well as the dropsuits that you wear into battle, you won't just have to buy them, you'll also have to unlock the relevant skill, a baroque process of intimate interdependencies. To be able to use the Scout M-1 dropsuit you'll need to unlock the skills Dropsuit Command, Minmatar Light Dropsuits and Minmatar Scout Dropsuits. Oh, and those will have to be unlocked to level 2, level 3 and level 1 accordingly.
Many of these skills are only a means to an end and have little inherent value. Do you really care about boosting your Small Hybrid Turret Operation when it only gives you a one per cent ability increase per level? All this takes time and much grinding - or, alternatively, money from your pocket to speed up the process. Real-world cash buys you in-game AUR, the currency of possibility.
All this unlocking also has you wandering through the game's unintuitive menu system. It's something that, like all labyrinths, is baffling but can ultimately be learned. Character customisation is also initially confusing, but there's a knack to it. Each dropsuit allows for different combinations of weapons and equipment, but is limited by its power generation and processing capacity. Naturally, heavier suits are slower but present more options for armour upgrades and fancy enhancements. There's a lot to play with; customisation is a rewarding experience for those willing to slog their way toward each new unlock. Stepping out onto the battlefield with your newer, better equipment is a lot more fun than your early firefights - if you have the patience (or cash) to get there.
It's refreshing to be able to say that one of Dust 514's greatest assets is the literate and proactive audience that it's building, no doubt consisting of many Eve Online players who are keen to co-operate and experiment. Already, players are calculating the economics of expenditure, working out which equipment makes the most money on the battlefield when balanced against the cost of its replacement (your lives are infinite, your equipment is not). The complexities of the game are likely to turn away those used to the more immediate gratification of Battlefield or Call of Duty and instead encourage a certain kind of player who is more interested in the metagame.
Eve Online is now 10 years old. Dust 514 may also have a decade of evolution ahead of it, so I hope this is far from the last word on what has started out as a distinctly average and rather buggy shooter. It could well be a game with a bright future, but right now it's saddled with a very dull debut.