EVE Evolved: First impressions of DUST 514

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Every time I'm in a conversation about DUST 514, I find myself excusing its gameplay problems on the basis that it's treading new ground and has years of development ahead of it. But even though CCP has revealed an aggressive new schedule of big monthly updates, console gamers aren't willing to give it a free pass today based on future potential. I finally convinced my console gamer friends to pick the game up this week and gave it a fair go myself.

I absolutely love the idea of DUST 514 and want to see the game succeed, but console gamers just don't seem impressed. When the game officially launched on May 14th, it was largely regarded as just another mediocre and buggy first-person shooter with a perishable gear system. The MMO components such as territorial control aren't very visible or accessible to new players, the gameplay balance and graphics need serious work, and the link with EVE Online feels practically non-existent. It pains me to say it, but DUST is neither a great FPS nor a great MMO.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I delve into DUST 514 and give my first impressions of it as an EVE player.

Game side imageFirst steps into the game

Creating a new character in DUST was a surprisingly big let-down. EVE Online has one of the most impressive and detailed character creators in the industry, but DUST offers practically no customisation at all. It was interesting to see the races and bloodlines I knew from EVE, but none of your choices in character creation actually seems to matter. You even wear a full dropsuit with a helmet when chilling out in your quarters between matches. The theme of the game may be that you're just another faceless mercenary, but that's taking it a bit too literally. It would have been nice to create a detailed human character, even if it ends up being visible only in your portrait and quarters.

The mercenary quarters and parts of the user interface are lifted straight from EVE Online, so the game felt very intuitive to me. The ambient music was awesome, and having a system name in the top left of the screen made me feel as if I really was in the EVE universe. If I had one complaint about the UI, it would be that there didn't seem to be much in the way of social interaction. EVE players didn't show up in the local channel, I was never encouraged to join a corporation or given details on planetary conquest, and I found the squad options only by accident.

Game side imageGraphics and general feel

The best way to describe DUST 514 right now would be that it's like a clunky, unpolished Battlefield 2142 with persistent gear. After seeing screenshots of the impressive graphical upgrades in the Uprising patch at this year's Fanfest, I was extremely disappointed to see how ugly it actually looks in-game. My console gamer friends have assured me that the graphics are now quite good for a PS3 game, but the game doesn't look nearly as good as it does in all the marketing screenshots. I'm forced to wonder if they were rendered on a PC or simply mocked up in the game engine.

The graphics are clearly optimised for close-range combat, as trying to snipe at long range exposes some terrible aliasing and z-fighting problems on some maps. When you're trying to get a shot into someone's head from a good far-off vantage point, it really doesn't help that he's a tiny block of black pixels that's indistinguishable from the edge of a nearby wall. Aiming with the controller proved too difficult for me as I'm no good with console controllers, but switching to mouse and keyboard presented its own problems. The mouse sensitivity can be changed only in increments of 10, and it's automatically reduced by an unreasonably huge factor while zoomed in with a weapon.

Game side imageGear and dropsuit customisation

Kills are very satisfying when you get them, but the experience for new players is more often one of repeated, frustrating, and unfair deaths. The game will let you spawn right in front of the enemy team, with no indication that the spawn point isn't safe. That might be partly forgiveable in a normal FPS, but it starts to sting when every single death carries a cost in ISK. My first few hours went by in a blur of swear words prompted by being killed in one hit by snipers I couldn't see and being gunned down by assault rifles from halfway across the map. When using the free militia fittings, I felt as if my armour was made of styrofoam and I was armed with pea shooters.

I was luckily playing on a character that was created a few months ago, so I had around three million skillpoints to allocate and a few hundred thousand ISK. I spent the next few hours theorycrafting dropsuit setups and trying out some of the higher-tier guns, which closed the gap between me and the other players a little. As the kind of player who loves optimising ship setups in EVE, I did find the whole DUST experience familiar and a bit addictive. But had I not been sitting on several million skill points, I would probably have been stuck using militia gear and being killed in one hit by anyone with a decent weapon.

Game side imageBalance and weapon feel

The biggest problem I found was that older and richer players dominated public matches, which is sure to put off newbies. In EVE, a new player can engage in PvE appropriate to his skill level, and he can still contribute to a PvP fleet because there's no limit to the number of ships in a fleet. Since DUST matches are limited to a maximum of 32 players, having worse gear or skills than the enemy is a much bigger deal. The random public games also don't seem to have any kind of matchmaking or balancing system, so I was routinely put up against players with full prototype loadouts and a stock of heavy tanks.

I quickly ran into the horror that is the Flaylock pistol, a hand-held rocket launcher side-arm with enough direct and splash damage to kill a militia starter pack loadout in one hit. This weapon is so overpowered right now that there is a thread on the official forums naming and shaming anyone abusing it. Some weapons also felt completely ineffective, like the shotgun that seemed to sometimes miss people right in the middle of the crosshair and the swarm launcher that didn't deal splash damage to infantry beside a tank. All of the standard weapons seemed to be insanely accurate and have no bullet drop or recoil, and information on their effective ranges is not even currently available in-game! All of this discussion is largely moot, however, as the best attack strategy turned out to be running over people's expensive dropsuits with a free vehicle for an instant kill.

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I desperately want DUST 514 to be awesome and popular so that I can introduce my console friends to the EVE universe, but so far it looks as if CCP has missed the mark. The millions of console gamers developers wanted to introduce to the EVE universe never materialised, and the daily concurrent player total has almost dropped down to the pre-launch level of below 4,000. The only saving grace is that DUST doesn't have to succeed or be profitable to keep going, as EVE Online's subscriptions are basically paying for its development.

DUST 514 could be a great shooter with some interesting EVE tie-ins a few years down the line, but right now it's not even close to ready. Tune in to EVE Evolved next week as I delve into the arguments for and against DUST 514's microtransactions constituting a pay-to-win system and ask what went wrong with the game's launch reception.

Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to brendan@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.