Dust 514 is a strange beast for the PlayStation 3. A free-to-play first-person shooter tying in with a PC-based massively multiplayer online role-playing game presents numerous hurdles for both the player and the game's developer to overcome. Free-to-play is on the rise in the PC realm, but on consoles, it is uncharted territory.
For the player, a lot of the challenges come down to dealing with an in-game economy that isn't set in stone. Once the full game goes live and ties in with the EVE Online servers, how much ISK -- free currency earned from completing matches -- an assault rifle costs could change from day to day. An event like last winter's raid on the Jita trading hub might happen again and could royally screw everyone.
Also important to note is that your gear expires when you do. Every bit of gear you buy with the spoils earned from combat -- or bought with real-world money -- is purchased in quantity. This isn't a "buy once and you're done" affair. If you die 15 times in one match, you'll lose 15 of whatever you were carrying be it weapon, armor upgrade or health and ammo replenishing nanohive. What doesn't expire, however, are your skills.
Each match completed earns skill points that are used to upgrade various attributes like weapon effectiveness or armor rating. And this is where the balancing act of Dust's free-to-play aspect becomes murky. Skills points aren't bought, they're earned in battle based on your actions. Drop lots of nanohives, hack and capture a ton of checkpoints and frag enemies like there's no tomorrow and you're handsomely rewarded. Or, you could buy a booster pack with Aurum -- in-game premium currency bought with real money -- that multiplies skills earned per match for a given time period. You can make the argument that spending Aurum on a special weapon doesn't affect play balance because if you're a terrible shot with a free weapon, you're still going to be a terrible shot with a premium one. But with the skill-boosters, you're able to upgrade faster becoming more powerful in the process. This is beyond cosmetic upgrades most other free to play games base their premium upgrades on.
Having one set of servers for two games is a double-edged sword for developer CCP. On one hand, it allows for integration and cross communication between the two disparate games. Next weekend, CCP's planning to add full integration between Dust and EVE, allowing players to call in orbital strikes, chat and exchange mail with EVE players. How the orbital strikes will work isn't clear, but they could rapidly change the pace of battle. On the other side of the coin, shared servers are a detriment. Given CCP's laissez-faire approach to the game-world, this link between the two games also has the potential to turn ugly fast, with corporations controlling entire systems both from space and on the ground, making it impossible to jump into matches on a given planet without being completely slaughtered.
When the beta first launched, connectivity issues weren't much of a problem, but over the weeks as more players joined (last weekend CCP granted access to the EVE player-base), lag and other connection-related wonkiness arose. Because everything in the game ties back to the EVE servers, even something as simple as buying new gear or futzing with your loadout is affected. Over the past weekend, sometimes a screen in the store would take upwards of a minute to load or not load at all. Other times, the game crashed wholesale. Granted, this is what a beta is supposed to reveal for the developers to address, but it is something to be aware of.
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But how does Dust actually play? Like almost every other squad-based shooter. Pick a class, play a role and you're good to go. The two game types are standard shooter fare: Ambush is deathmatch, Skirmish is control-point capture. In each you can hack the opposing team's emplacements gaining access to new spawn points and stations to change your loadout on-the-fly. The maps themselves are expansive zones cordoned off from planets of the EVE universe, littered with massive turrets, sniper perches and choke points. The problem is, even with a full 24 vs. 24 player match going, they still feel too large and like it takes longer to travel to the action than take part in it. When you do find a pocket of players, it feels great. Players are filling roles effectively, reviving downed teammates and repairing vehicles. Most don't use voice chat though, which makes calling out enemy positions or coordinating vehicle drop-offs a pain.
When every life lost translates into equipment lost, bad spawns are more than an annoyance. Picking a spawn point, waiting several seconds between that and putting boots on the ground only to die at the hands of three enemies you had no way of knowing were there just isn't fun, especially when you have money on the line.
Herein is the inherent gamble with Dust 514: It's simultaneously the most accessible of the hardcore shooters because there's no barrier to entry and imposing as hell because the business model has direct implications on the gameplay. How many gamers that cut their teeth on consoles are going to understand and embrace the free-to-play model? Only time will tell, but Dust is a game the rest of the industry is watching. How it fares has vast implications of how we'll play and pay for games in the future.