Dust 514 is an ambitious game to say the least. Who would have thought that a subscription-based spaceship MMO and a free-to-play multiplayer FPS would work in tandem with each other? The folks at CCP Games, the hands behind EVE Online, were not content to simply create an online shooter that shared the same setting as the EVE universe. The two games are interconnected and running together on the same server, which allows Dust and EVE players to interact on some previously unseen levels with real-time Dust ground battles taking place on the planets within the larger EVE universe.

That said, while EVE players can rain down orbital bombardments into Dust battles and corporations spanning both games can reap the rewards for having their Dust mercenaries capture and hold territory for them, a lot of the interactions that will stich the two games together even more are still pending. That means your average Dust 514 player, who may not even care about EVE Online, might not fall too deep down the rabbit hole. Ultimately your ability to scratch below the surface will determine whether or not Dust 514 is worth the heavy amount of time you need to invest in it.

While there is no single-player portion or story to Dust 514, the game is not without some world building. The central premise is that the Dust mercenaries, like their EVE pilot counterparts, are essentially immortal. A newly recovered technology allows for their consciousness to be downloaded at death and then simply slipped into a fresh clone. So the best and brightest soldiers keep getting better and never wear down with age. It doesn’t particularly change much from your typical multiplayer shooter, but it’s a nice nod to linking lore and mechanics, since instead of some ambiguous reinforcements you’re actually depleting the enemies clone reserves. It becomes a focus for the endgame of capturing and holding districts for your corporation. Districts generate a supply of military-grade clones for you, and you’ll need to stockpile these clones for when you inevitably attack another district or have to defend your own.

The one gameplay mechanic it does inform is how Dust 514 handles your equipment. Before entering into battle you can purchase armor, weapons and other equipment on the market and save them to various load-outs. You’re going to want to buy in bulk though because each time you die you lose everything equipped this way. You’ll occasionally salvage some items from participating in battles, but the money you earn is easily enough to keep you stocked in basic to medium level gear as it’s all priced for buying in large quantities. When you reach the upper end of the technology and skills tree is where it gets interesting, and you’ll have to weigh the risks of bringing all your shiny prototype weapons into a firefight. Better gear could mean a better score, which leads to more money, but you’re also going to be out a fair chunk of change if you’re not careful. This extra level of stakes really helps to set Dust apart from its kin.

This interplay between losing your gear, skilling up for better weapons and customizing your loadouts becomes the frame of Dust 514‘s free-to-play structure. Every new Dust mercenary starts with a certain amount of skill points that you can invest in skills like Light Weapons or Repair Tools and diving fully into character customization that gives you a lot of freedom to make some unique loadouts to suit your needs and style. There are still some systems in place to limit exactly what you can fit and how much, but Dust 514 has one of the most in depth character customizations of any shooter when it comes to customizing your loadouts. Take it slow, though, as it can be easy to invest too many points right away and they won’t come that quickly afterwards. You’re free to experiment with a lot of ideas, as you could create a character around scout dropsuits, with stamina boosters and a shotgun who just goes around blasting folks and hacking points, or make the ultimate logistics support specialist with drop uplinks, repair tools and nanite injectors to get fallen comrades back on their feet. The better your tech, the more it costs and the higher the skill requirements are.

Aurum, Dust‘s paid currency, is able to shortcut many of the normal restriction. While you participate in battles, you’ll earn skill points, but you’ll also slowly get them passively on one of your characters. With Aurum you can purchase augmentations that boost the rate at which you acquire skill points, more skill points means you can more deeply specialize or allow for a more board skill base to be able to adapt by switching to different loadouts. There are also Aurum only weapons which are simply higher level weapons sans the skill requirements, letting you get some better firepower faster but not any better than what everyone else has access to with time invested. The whole system maintains a nice separation from the pay to win mentality, but be prepared to do some grinding for skill points if you’re not investing into augmentations.

The gameplay is about what you might expect from a big map multiplayer shooter. Rather than tightly cordoned maps promoting hot spots and kill zones, the levels in Dust 514 are large enough for tanks, dropships and other vehicles. For boots on the ground, you’ll find your typical assortment of weaponry. A few of them are sporting more sci-fi nomenclature, but you’ll recognize shotguns, sniper rifles, rocket launcher, assault rifles and more. That’s not to say that all the weapons are mundane: forge guns, lasers and pistols that shoot mini-rockets offer a satisfyingly high tech flair. Another layer of depth surrounding that some weapons are better against shields, a regenerating life bar, or armor, which needs to be repaired, keeps any one strategy of stacking one health source from working too well. Also, the long range engagements and inherent beefiness of many of the dropsuits and fittings means the game favors longer sustained and accurate fire than simply who wins the quick draw.

The game engine can have trouble keeping up with it all though. Some choppy framerate or the occasionally bit of wonky terrain geometry still hasn’t been completely smoothed out, and along the same line the textures are optimized for quantity not necessarily quality. Not everything looks that great up-close. However, the game has improved substantially over the years that I’ve seen it, and CCP is known for the constant iteration. I have no doubt the game will continue to improve graphically, but it’s not quite there yet.

When it comes to free-to-play, the discussion shifts as the cost to enter is literally zero. Instead it’s more a measure of if it’s worth your time and does it manage to find a favorable and fair balance in its monetization. For Dust this will all hinge on having a drive to go deeper into the game, and ultimately all but requiring that you get connected to a corporation. You could play the game solo and may even have some fun with that, but there are better experiences for solo play out there. Covering your corp mate while he hacks a turret to blast away at an opposing corp that is invading your territory is the kind of experience that make it worth putting in the time or money.

Bottom Line: If you’re willing to really delve into all the facets of Dust 514, and a few technical issues, there’s a satisfying shooter with some stakes for you and your corporation mates to be found. If you’d rather not get that invested, then Dust 514 might not be for you.

Recommendation: It’s still a free game. If anything about this review intrigued you try Dust 514 for yourself, but if you want to play it long term then get connected with a corporation.

[rating=3.5]

Game: Dust 514
Genre: Shooter
Developer: CCP Games
Publisher: CCP Games
Platform(s): PS3
Available from: Amazon(US)Play.com(UK)

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