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Dust 514: Something New?

A quick note: Dust 514 is currently in Open Beta, meaning that it could undergo changes at any time. Simply keep in mind that this overview does not necessarily represent the final product.

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But wait...Why are we doing this? If you've ever played a multiplayer match in Halo, Battlefield, or even Call of Duty, the answer won't come as much of a surprise. A standard match of Dust 514 consists of two thirty-two player teams. These teams are then divided into four person squads, the leaders of which have the ability to designate enemies and positions of interest for their squadmates to act on. The objectives for both teams vary by game mode, but Dust rarely tries anything the average gamer hasn't seen before. With one important exception: Skirmish Mode.

Skirmish battles are large, untimed affairs with map sizes ranging from four to six kilometers. The goal is simple: destroy the other team's OCC. These massive ships float just within the planet's atmosphere, deploying troops and providing air-to-ground fire. Their real value however, comes in the form of the Commander that resides within them. Before the match begins, one high ranking player from each team is selected to oversee ground operations, and will remain in his or her OCC for the duration of the battle.

This is where Dust begins to stand out from the crowd. Commanders will never fire a gun, see an enemy face to face, or even have an experience close to the normal shooter. Rather, Commanders will play out the match in a decidedly Real Time Strategy manner; deploying forces and vehicles, building installations (turrets, supply depots etc.), broadcasting team wide orders, and managing battle resources. All while observing tiny blue and red dots scrambling around a map. Very Zen.

There's one more thing Commanders can do, and it's arguably what has brought Dust so much attention. Orbital Bombardments. Time to back up again.

Dust 514 and every player participating in it, are part of the much larger, much more complex EVE Online Universe. Entire books could be written about Eve and it's huge player populated galaxies, space exploration and colonization, political intrigue and assassinations, scandals and wars, bank heists and piracy....But I would not be the one to write them. Suffice it to say, that when an Eve Corporation (yes, an entire corporation) gets the notion to take a planet or system, the result is a battle on a massive scale.

Up until recently however, these conquests would take place solely within the confines of Eve Online, one PC player against the other, MMO style. That changed when CCP Games (the developer behind it all) decided to turn the world upside down, and invite console players into the mix. Now, Eve corporations can hire PS3 players (Dust is  exclusive at this time) to fight their wars for them. So the end result has Eve corporations fighting each other over system space, while at the same time hiring PS3 "mercenaries" to wage the ground wars. The mercenary  team that wins on-planet determines which corporation will rule for the foreseeable future, and which team gets the most pay.

This level of in integration between computer and console players is best demonstrated by - you guessed it - Orbital Bombardments. Team commanders assess the battlefield, designate targets, (perhaps an enemy tank or installation) and can then request support fire from an Eve ship in orbit. All of this is done in real time, with players communicating cross-platform to further their goal of victory. You'd probably expect this amount of interaction to come at the price of smooth gameplay, but Dust performs under pressure, handling the plethora of player options admirably.

That being said, Dust 514 is not at the same level of a Halo or Battlefield. Dust's graphics get the job done, but clearly lack the polish of most Triple A titles, with most maps exhibiting a stock, emotionless sci-fi theme. The gunplay definitely works, and you'll know what you're shooting when you aim at it, but your weapons and the effects surrounding them won't win any awards. Classes feel balanced and powerful in their own right. I was consistently ranking high on the leaderboards just by healing and supporting my squad with a medic class. Moving around the battle is no problem....As long as you're on foot. Using Dust's vehicles would be fun and useful if it wasn't such a chore to handle them. This situation is exacerbated by the inability to change control schemes.

And then you have the rather polarizing progression system. Calling it a progression system is actually doing Dust a bit of a disservice. If you do decide to start leveling up and enhancing your character, be prepared for a veritable avalanche of upgrades, perks, and boosters. Good luck finding what you want though, as the menu system is clunky to say the least. Once you find what you need, get ready for some trial and error as the descriptions for the various items seem almost intentionally vague. If you go into Dust accepting the fact that you'll be doing a bit of head scratching, the reward you get is a depth of customization that puts most RPGs to shame.

Finding people to play with is no problem, as Dust is new and continues to grow daily. The trick is finding someone to talk to. The Playstation 3's lack of packaged-in headsets raises it's ugly head again, so don't be surprised if a percentage of players run around stubbornly mute. The text-based team wide orders issued by Squad Leaders and Commanders alleviate this problem somewhat, but players that seek the most out of the cooperative experience should join a corporation (read clan) that emphasizes communication. Joining one of these groups is easy compared to almost everything else in Dust. Simply open the Corporation tab, choose one that fits your playstyle, hit Join, and you're done. Joining and staying active within a corporation is encouraged, as members get access to special battles and resources.

One of the most attractive aspects of Dust is that it's free to play, with players earning currency and skill points both by playing the game, and from a steady flow provided to you just for being signed up. As with most free games these days, players do have the option of buying perks and weapons with real world cash, rather than grind in game for the points to buy them. Fortunately, Dust avoids being another pay-to-win MMO by employing a challenging rule. When a player dies, he loses his weapons and equipment (but not his experience or skill points) regardless of what he payed for them. This ensures that even the best equipped player will have to use the cheap, lower level weapons at some point.

I walked away from Dust pleasantly surprised. The investment CCP Games has put in this new project shows, even in the Beta. The players I had the good fortune of meeting seem to think so as well, and judging by the constant improvement and expansion of the Eve universe at large, I have nothing but optimism for Dust 514's future.

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