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Dust 514 beta preview: War-torn and complex

Xav de Matos, @Xav

Part of the excitement lobbed at Dust 514 is its connectivity with the complex, massively-multiplayer beast known as EVE Online. Linked physically by servers in the real world and otherwise by a thin story thread, Dust 514 has escaped close examination as we fawn over its ambitious moving parts. Developer CCP has swatted the magnifying glasses away so far, showing it off at industry trade shows for us to marvel at its potential.

As of yesterday for PlayStation Plus users – and earlier for some, including press – the secrets of Dust 514 have become (mostly) public, with the widening of a closed beta for the free-to-play PS3 exclusive. Though Dust 514 is a console game, it features a complexity usually reserved for cult-hit, hardcore PC shooters. Like its MMORPG sibling, Dust 514 can be daunting.

Gallery: Dust 514 (8/21/12) | 13 Photos

I've always been too intimidated to play EVE Online, though the game intrigues me. It's a game where players are given so much control, they can cripple economies. There have been multiple real-world political dramas because of player actions. What other games can make that claim?

But this is where EVE Online and Dust 514 walk different paths. Because the shooter feeds into the world of EVE Online, it feels – at least in this stage – completely supplemental to a greater universe. Dust 514 players are mercs for the various companies in EVE Online, and it would seem that the majority of control is still offered to the folks playing the MMO.

There's a real question about how this will affect PS3-owning shooter fans: Do they know or care about EVE Online? Will they understand what they are fighting for? I still don't really understand the context for skirmishes in the beta, and I've been playing it for hours. EVE Online players may have a deeper appreciation for what CCP is trying to do, but those new to the franchise may feel lost to the point of apathy. There's a lack of substantive context here.

What it comes down to for shooter fans is whether or not Dust 514 offers a unique shooter experience. The pre-battle stuff is deep and may scare away some players, but those interested in its complex nature will find something to adore.

Once you log in, you are placed inside a small command center; a 3D space with terminals accessing the marketplace, quick matches, server lists, loadout (or dropsuit, as it's called) modifier and more. At the marketplace you can get items using ISK – the same in-game currency from EVE Online, which you collect by competing online – or the real-world purchased currency, Aurum (AUR). Some items in the marketplace are only available for purchase with AUR, currently. This includes skill point boosts, which award more points in-game.

From your dropsuit customization menu, you can load different mods and tweak things as small as how shields and health regenerate, to something as important as the types of weapons and equipment you have. More powerful suits give you the ability to bring more gear into battle, and all have differing stats so the changes aren't cosmetic. You can dig really deep into these menus and finely tune a build that is completely unique – though you'll be stuck with the basic gear initially, until you collect enough ISK to gear up appropriately. You could buy your way in to more advanced gear, but you still need to meet skill requirements, which can only be unlocked by playing the game. It can get very complex, which is something I really enjoyed.

On the battlefield, things are far less ambitious.

Dust 514 is a fairly straightforward, team-based, class-based multiplayer shooter. Maps are large and bland. Even in 48-player skirmishes, you could find yourself alone with no one to attack. Structure layouts are pointless; even though this is a result of player choice dictating those layouts. Maps evolve based on the players within. When you do find pockets of conflict the combat can be satisfying, but Dust 514's beta is currently in need of real tweaking.

Unlike this generation's constant usurping of the term "beta" in place of "limited time demo," this is a true test version of Dust 514. There are graphical and framerate issues – mainly, neither are very good – weapons are unbalanced; hit detection is off, I don't feel like I'm doing any damage; and I have more control trying to pick a wet noodle off the floor than I do with some of Dust 514's land vehicles. But it's a beta and these things may be on the top of CCP's "fix right away" list. And they should be.

This is where some of the complex mystique starts to wear thin with me, because some of the decisions in Dust 514's core gameplay may rub players the wrong way. Regular gear collected from combat or purchased with in-game or real money can expire when you do. If you purchase an item with ten uses, for example, it loses a "use" every time you die. This could be a weapon, armor upgrade, or special item. If balance and hit detection isn't addressed and I feel like I'm dying for the wrong reasons, why would I continue to evolve my character? There are also items designated as "blue prints" within the world, which you can also purchase and that never exhaust in use (these items are usually sold at a premium). For me, constant resets don't push me to work harder, they push me to walk away.

EVE Online players may have a deeper appreciation for what CCP is trying to do [in Dust 514], but those new to the franchise may feel lost to the point of apathy. There's a substantive lack of context here.

The current marketplace feels geared to players buying their way to success. Purchases aren't simply cosmetic in Dust 514. Players can (with real money) buy performance boosts, better gear, better vehicles. This sort of echoes my perception of EVE Online, which is that those who command the biggest wallets dictate the course of battle. According to CCP's Creative Director, Atli Mar Sveinsson, the ability to freely trade items between players helps to avoid the "buy/win problem that some microtransaction-based games have." But wouldn't that mean two people with powerful, paid-for items would just trade between each other? That doesn't solve the problem for the rest of us, does it?

Though I certainly don't mean to generalize or insult console gamers, this game has a mountain to climb for those more familiar with the current crop of PS3 shooters. It's complicated and currently a little broken. Dust 514 is far from being ready for launch and I definitely need to spend more than a few hours with the game to understand some of CCP's design decisions. But I'm willing to try it out.

That's the thing with free-to-play games: there is limited barrier to entry. If its complex systems and business model are embraced and Dust 514 becomes a success, it could spell a significant change for the way we go to war on console.

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