It’s been almost a whole year since I last previewed Dust 514, but the game is going into full open beta today and we got a chance to get hands-on last week. For those of you needing a refresher before dropping into combat, Dust 514 is a free- to-play MMOFPS that’s exclusive to the PS3 and made by CCP, the folks behind EVE Online. The latter point is important because it’s part of Dust 514‘s unique claim to fame. Dust 514 and Eve Online are not just games made by the same company and involving the same setting; the two games are actually going to share the same universe and players of both can interact with each other. For example, a Dust soldier can call down an orbital bombardment in real time from an EVE pilot loitering in the planet’s orbit in his battlecruiser.

The most noticeable improvement since last year has been the tightening up of the game engine and graphics. The version we played last year was serviceable, but there were occasional frame rate hiccups and texture issues that you might expect from such an early pre-beta version. Some of the textures could still stand for some improvements, but the game runs quite smoothly even with a number of players and vehicles on screen. The developers are also committed to continuing to make visual updates and improvements; one of the features on the horizon is a system to sample the vegetation and environment of the planets as they exist in EVE. So if a planet is supposed to be lush and fertile the map will reflect that. It’s a small touch that may be missed by most players, but one that will bring EVE and Dust a little closer together.

If you’ve never played EVE though, Dust 514 is still a stand-alone shooter experience unto itself. You call in vehicles, fight over capture points and use squad tactics to your advantage, much like you would in other similar titles. A PVE survival mode based around fighting rogue drones is in the pipeline for future updates. Even weapons were considered when making the game accessible; while they certainly have a sci-fi feel to them, players will instantly be able to connect shotguns, sniper rifles and such from Dust to more mundane fare in other games. However, a recently implemented laser that gets stronger the longer it’s fired is a taste of the more flavorful and outlandish weapons to come.

What’s at the heart of Dust 514 is a ridiculous level of customization and the game’s economy. While your average shooter player can easy replicate some tried and true archtypes in Dust, the real fun comes once you drill down into the flexibility of the fitting system that lets you individually change slotted equipment on your soldier’s armored suit. You could make a scout that slots for speed, running around the battlefield at what’s nearly Flash-like speed compared to everyone else. Pair that with a high powered shotgun and you’ve tapped into the boxer Muhammad Ali’s catchphrase of “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” The developers even shared stories from the closed beta of a group of players specializing entirely in remote explosives. (Need something blown up? These were the guys to hire.) After only a match or two, I had already devised my own class relying on speed, some trusty plasma knives and hacking improvement modules, letting me quickly backstab anyone trying to capture our objectives and go flip the other team’s points with deadly efficiency.

Because it’s a free-to-play game, currency and economy are also important. The setting spark behind Dust is that a technology is discovered allowing for one’s consciousness to be downloaded at the moment of death. So you’ll retain your skills and experiences, but all your equipment is destroyed or looted by the enemy. This necessitates buying your equipment in bulk, using the ISK, the in-game currency for both Dust and EVE, you’re rewarded at the end of a match. For now, CCP is keeping a close eye on the balance of ISK and prices, but the cross linking of the economies of the games will slowly begin to expand. The paid currency will primarily be used for cosmetic difference, but in the foreseeable future, a Dust mercenary group might take up a contract from an EVE corporation in order to secure a planet for them, thereby getting a discounted rate on the equipment that that the corporation is manufacturing on said controlled planet.

It’s this freedom that’s really driven EVE and the ambition of sharing this with Dust is what could really make the difference in keeping Dust 514 from being just another shooter. Dust 514 enters open beta today.

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