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E3 2012: DUST 514 hands-on

Jef Reahard

Well, my first E3 is in the books, and though I got a good look at pretty much everything, I spent most of the time looking at shooters. MMO shooters came first, of course, and there was plenty of PlanetSide 2, Defiance, and even an 8v8 lobby title called Arctic Combat to be had (more on this last in an upcoming The Firing Line).

There was also CCP's DUST 514. This is a title that I'm rooting for both because of my affinity for EVE Online and because the design document is outrageously ambitious. While my first hands-on with the game featured its share of warm fuzzy moments, it also exposed a few concerns about CCP's grab for the casuals.

If you've never sat through a demo at a game industry trade show, let me break it down for you. Most of the time it's a special client build designed specifically for that event, and most of the time you're limited to certain areas, classes, or loadouts. You can't go off the rails, so to speak, and you've usually got a dev or a PR person looking over your shoulder and rambling through a well-rehearsed spiel that is long on talking points and short on opportunities for you to interject questions about the stuff you'd really like to know.

So it was with DUST 514.

The first thing I noticed about the game was how it looks. I hate to use the word dated here, but I'm going to. Keeping in mind that this was an early build, I was still surprised at the number of errant textures and the overall low fidelity on display when compared to something like PlanetSide 2 or the latest Battlefield offering.

DUST doesn't look bad by any stretch. In fact it's got EVE's chilly sci-fi art direction down pat, but the E3 build simply wasn't as sharp as its competitors. This is doubly curious because CCP has gone on record as saying that DUST is its attempt to reach out to gamers who aren't already invested in the EVE universe, and a game that looks like it came out in 2008 probably isn't going to do the job.

DUST 514 E3 2012 hands-on
Gameplay is still paramount, though, and E3 represented my first opportunity to look under the hood. The fitting screens are as fascinatingly complex as you'd expect. Yes, your dropsuit functions much as does your spaceship in EVE, and you'll need to micromanage the power grid and theorycraft your way to face-pwning awesomeness much as you do in EVE. This will take some time, too, as CCP said that a player who logs a moderate number of hours per week is looking at approximately four years' worth of training time to fully max out a character.

I also got to run around and shoot things, and I'm happy to report that DUST's heavy chaingun is quite satisfying to use. After my CCP chaperone helpfully inverted the y-axis, I mowed through a few of my fellow demo players before my barrel overheated at an inopportune moment, causing me to do my best deer-in-the-headlights impression and succumb to a barrage of enemy fire.

One thing I didn't have time to do is play around with any of DUST's vehicles. These are a huge part of the gameplay, and like personal gear, they can be destroyed and can be quite costly to replace. We'll talk some more about vehicle gameplay as CCP relaxes its beta NDA later this summer.

DUST 514 E3 2012 hands-on
Where DUST stands apart from its shooter competition is in its gameplay synergy with EVE, but CCP says that at launch, this interaction will be fairly limited, as the devs plan to polish the shooter elements first and gradually expand the games' connections as DUST evolves. Taken on its own, DUST is still quite a bit different from the norm due to the ridiculous amount of character customization.

This is a double-edged sword because on the one hand, it will probably appeal to shooter fans who long for something a bit deeper and a bit more meaningful (you can lose that piece of gear you've spent days tweaking, just as you can lose your spaceship in EVE). On the other hand, if CCP is aiming for accessibility and an influx of casuals in the EVE universe, I'm not sure DUST's loadout complexity is the best way to go about it. Personally I love it, and I think EVE veterans who also like shooters will love it, but the jury's still out on console players who lack any preconceived notions of badassery.

If it sounds like I'm worried about DUST 514, well, I am, and then again, I'm not. What I mean by that is the title is already enjoyable as-is, despite its rough-around-the-edges presentation and my limited hands-on opportunities. Also, CCP is the most adventurous AAA developer in the MMO space, and it is walking a very exciting path with its DUST/EVE integration plans as well as its aim to marry unheard of customization and consequence-driven gameplay with traditional shooter mechanics.

That's the EVE fan in me doing the talking, though. If I didn't already have an ongoing love affair with New Eden's sandbox, I might see DUST as yet another sci-fi shooter (albeit one with a freakishly complex loadout system and a cooler than average backstory). Ultimately I'm still excited about DUST, but I'm equally glad that it's not releasing this week if you know what I mean. Ideally the game will be around for plenty of years, and as such it will have plenty of time to evolve and mature, much like its predecessor.

Massively's on the ground in Los Angeles during the week of June 4-7, bringing you all the best news from E3 2012. We're covering everything from PlanetSide 2 and SWTOR and ArcheAge to RIFT's and LotRO's upcoming expansions, so stay tuned!

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