When The Debt Comes Due – Dust 514 Preview

I’ve always been fascinated with EVE Online, even though I’ve never participated in the game.  I’ve read many blogs detailing the massive encounters that have taken place in the EVE universe involving thousands of ships partaking in coordinated assaults against each other over planets holding vast fortunes in resources.  There are conflicts that take place there that science fiction writers dream of.

Dust 514, CCP Games’ free-to-play first-person shooter, which ties in with the insanely popular online MMO, has had its closed beta, and Gamer Living got to sit down for a couple of days and take a look at the progress that’s been made.  While the beta version doesn’t contain all of the features the full game will eventually have, we were able to take a look at many of the features dealing with the game from a shooter perspective.

In Dust 514, you are a mercenary-for-hire, paid to take on ground assault missions that can affect the balance of power in the EVE Online universe.  These missions allow you to accumulate skill points, which can be used to purchase new skills and enhance existing ones, as well as ISK, a currency for both Dust 514 and EVE Online (however, details of how they transact between the two games, if at all, have not yet been released.  It may simply be the same name.).  You can also purchase Aurum from the PSN store, which is another form of currency allowing you to purchase more desirable items that might otherwise be exceptionally difficult to obtain in-game.

When you initially begin the game, you’re taken to the character creation screen.  You must first choose one of four races: Caldari, Galiente, Amarr, or Minmatar.  From there, the player is given similar choices in bloodline, gender, and specialty to choose from, as well as a portrait of what your starter character will look like.  Once completed, you’ll give your character a name, and it’s off to your own personal apartment, or Merc Quarters.

It’s here you’ll be able to move from terminal to terminal to check out the Marketplace, your Character Sheet, Vehicle and Dropsuit Fittings, and the Battle Finder. The Marketplace terminal is where you can purchase weapons, armor, vehicles, augmentations and more.  Your Character Sheet is where you’ll be able to look at your character’s info, view and purchase additional skills and augmentations, view your employment history, and so on.  The Dropsuit and Vehicle fittings allows you to view and modify your armor and vehicle loadouts, while the Battle Finder gives you a roster of all of the available battles you can sign up for to earn some cold, hard cash and additional skill points.

What’s really intrigued me thus far about Dust 514 is how it feels as much like an RPG as it does an FPS.  There are many layers of customization that go beyond the typical “loadout” scenarios most other first-person shooters offer.  Take, for example, the skill tree, which is a part of the gamer’s Character Sheet.  The skill tree allows you to allocate skill points earned in combat to a wide variety of categories to build your character the way you see fit.  For example, if you prefer to be a heavy-weapons specialist, you would likely build up your stats in Weaponry to unlock heavy-duty weapons such as Mass Drivers. In order to use these weapons, you would have to first level up your character to level IV in weaponry, and then perhaps purchase the Mass Driver Operation skill with your ISK.  Then you would be able to apply skill points to your Mass Driver Operation skill to level up, allowing you to purchase more and more powerful Mass Driver cannons.  If you wanted to pilot a particular type of vehicle, you would have to level up your Vehicle Command and Piloting skills to do so, and so forth.  This level of customization allows for literally thousands of different permutations to be created by the gamer, to give them the ability to specialize, and stand out among his or her fellow mercs by specializing in a particular field the gamer enjoys the most.

The same thing is applied to Drop Suits and Vehicles.  Skills allow you to unlock the use of particular vehicles and gain the ability to customize them.  Drop Suits purchased can have a number of modifiers to improve health, armor, movement, and speed, among others.

You can also purchase additional equipment to replenish ammunition or boost your stats even more.  The same goes for the vehicles: Once you’ve built up your skills to the necessary requirements to use a vehicle, additional equipment such as armor plating for strength, lighter materials to increase speed, and additional turrets can be added to the setup.  The caveat with vehicles and weapons, however, is they’re consumable.  This means if your dropship or tank is destroyed in battle, it’s gone for good, so you’ll have to purchase additional stockpiles of the vehicles, equipment, and weapons if you have a specific build you enjoy using.  The exception to this is the basic LAV (light assault vehicle), HAV (heavy assault vehicle), and dropship, you are initially given.  These can be used and destroyed ad infinitum, but they also cannot be modified and contain the most basic of weapons and equipment.

Once you have finished building your character and equipment, you can head to the Battle Finder.  This is where you’ll select which contracts to pick up.  After you’ve selected your contract, you’re taken to the War Room: It’s essentially a lobby where you’ll wait for the next match to begin.  In this area you can walk up to the same terminals that were available in your Merc Quarters to purchase some last-minute equipment, or just simply admire the sensational view outside of the gigantic window facing the planet below.

Available to me were only two battle modes: Ambush and Skirmish.  Ambush is essentially a big team match where each team is given a number of “clones” in reserve to fight with.  Each time a team member is killed and respawns, one of these clone allotments is used.  The first team to deplete all of the other team’s reserves wins.  Skirmish is a domination-style game type where each team is vying for control of a number of objectives on the map.  The attacking team is seeking to gain control of three primary waypoints (marked A, B, and C) to shut down the associated surface to air cannons aimed at their MMC (Mobile Mission Command ship), which is attempting to dock at the defending team’s facility.  A number of secondary objectives (storage facilities, turrets, etc.) are also available to be taken to serve as spawn points.  The turrets are also capable of being controlled by a player to deal damage to incoming forces.  If the MMC docks with the defending team’s facility, the defending team loses; however, if the MMC is destroyed before it can dock, then the attacking team loses.

In both game types, strategy is key in order to win the match.  In most matches that I partook in, the team that coordinated its attacks and had a good mixture of air superiority and ground tactics was able to win the round rather quickly.  Two opposing teams with a good strategy and a well-rounded squad often led to the best battles, oftentimes coming right down to the wire for a good, long grind.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, teams not well-organized or don’t work together will usually find themselves dominated so badly the opposing force will be sitting at their front doors, knocking down a poorly coordinated group at its only remaining spawn point.  Much like EVE Online, it’s the well-organized militia that will find its way to victory, not necessarily the best-equipped one.

Once a mission is completed, your game stats and contract earnings become available for you to view.  Your pay is usually based on performance (number of objectives taken over, personnel kills, vehicle kills, etc.) as well as your skill points.  When you’ve finished the mission, you’re taken back to your Merc Quarters to purchase or level up your skills, buy some new equipment, or just relax for a bit after a hard day’s work.  Afterwards, you head back on over to the Battle Finder to do it all over again.

One of the most addictive things about Dust 514 is its leveling system.  You’ll look at your skill tree thinking, “OK, just one more battle and I’ll have the 43,000 skill points I need to finally upgrade my vehicle command skill and I’m done for the night,” only to unlock it and find that now, you have the Piloting skill available to you for only another 30,000XP.  So off to battle you go once again to unlock your Piloting skill to now find you can get the Caldari Dropship skill to start upgrading a new dropship with an array of awesome weapons.  Next thing you know, it’s 3 a.m. and the “last game” was about 20 matches ago.  It’s this ability to constantly level up your character and fine tune them to create your own vision of a perfect warrior that really becomes the motivation to keep playing the game and put FPS gamers in the same boat as other MMO players, spending hours upon hours investing in their avatars to make them better, and gain only the best equipment.

From a graphical standpoint, Dust 514 looks exceptional as a free-to-play game.  The landscapes we were able to view were simply stunning, and the level design was expansive enough to allow for a lot of diversity in fighting tactics, but not so large that finding an enemy to pick off was a rare occurrence.  CCP Games has done an excellent job so far in creating a well-balanced environment that serves the tactical needs of a large number of gamestyles.

While we weren’t able to experience the cross-functionality that bridges the EVE Online universe with Dust 514 due to scheduling conflicts with the last couple of beta weekends, what we were able to experience was something truly unique among shooters.  The fantastic graphics and sound make the game stand up to just about any full-purchase, triple-A shooter out there and hook any true first-person aficionado. The sheer amount of customizability of your character and accompanying equipment will keep those gamers drawn in to spend just as much time as any COD player does in working on their Prestiges.  CCP Games also promises there will be a massive number of maps available in the game eventually with four maps available to start, making this quite possibly the most ambitious free-to-play game of all time.  It’s an absolute shame Xbox 360 players will miss out on the action, because from what we’ve experienced, Dust 514 has the potential to be one of the best shooters of 2012!

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August 22, 2012 - 9:00 am