Dust 514 is an innovative concept and a merely decent game, two disparate halves that are never combined into a consistently rewarding whole. The idea behind this online-only free-to-play shooter is great, at least. In the EVE Online universe, player corporations vie for dominance over planetary regions, and those planetside battles are fought by brave Dust warriors with the assistance of the friendly ships that orbit above. This merging of massively multiplayer space intrigue and ground-based action prompts the imagination to create all kinds of incredible scenarios, with dropships transporting squads of soldiers to hot spots while spaceships bombard the ground from above, each participant doing his or her part for a larger political cause.
The problem is that these kinds of thrilling scenarios play out mostly in your imagination, rather than in the largely dry and clinical ground battles. The greater impact of battles is largely felt in EVE, and only if you are a member of a significant cross-game corporation that can take advantage of the galactic struggle. As a lowly grunt on the ground, the effects aren't as noticeable. While the overarching character progression and space-based planetary conquest are persistent, the actual battlefields are not. Dust 514 is often referred to as a massively multiplayer online game, but you don't participate in PlanetSide 2-type skirmishes, with dozens upon dozens of players converging on various explosive hot spots. Instead, this is a standard team-based multiplayer shooter in which teams of limited numbers take aim at each other with various rifles and rocket launchers, or perhaps from behind a rumbling tank's mounted railgun.
The shooting is functional, neither remarkable enough to call out Dust 514 as a genre leader, nor so poor as to render it unenjoyable. It's just serviceable, working well enough once you get used to a few idiosyncrasies. The controls are one such idiosyncrasy: there's a bit of mushiness to the movement, so the game never feels as snappy as you'd hope, though it takes only a bit of time to become accustomed to the general feel. You might think that using a mouse and keyboard would alleviate the sluggishness, but the mouselook is slow and goopy even when sensitivity is set to maximum, and the game doesn't change its onscreen prompts to accommodate the new controls, leaving you to fumble around until you figure things out for yourself.
Stationary turrets and vehicular guns also prove rather cumbersome, in contrast to the bounciness of the light attack vehicles. Other issues affect the shooting range, from the minor (you may not hear any audio cue when sniped, leaving you to momentarily wonder why you're taking damage) to the major (frame rate hitches at the worst possible times). Still, Dust 514 is fun when you squad up with buddies and wade into the fray, presuming your team uses a diversity of tactics. When playing with randoms, it's rare that anyone takes on a support role; in such cases, only occasionally do you see a dropship--Dust 514's only aerial vehicle--in play, nor do many randoms seem keen on reviving you on the battlefield should you fall. That's possibly due to the finicky collision detection, which can make it difficult to use a nanite injector in the heat of battle. Luckily, strangers aren't so stingy with temporary spawn points, dropping them in helpful areas, such as on sniper-guarded roofs, which makes it easy to defend key choke points.
But with friends and other communicative allies, you can bring out the best in Dust 514. A well-placed sniper, a healer at the ready, a heavy weapons specialist, and a couple of large tanks make a formidable attack force. There are moments of excitement during close matches, particularly in Domination (one of four by-the-numbers game modes), in which teams wrestle for control of multiple capture nodes. There's joy in joining a small infiltration squad and capturing peripheral nodes as the larger skirmish rages around another node. And because you still must wait for a virus to finish uploading even after you've interacted with the terminal, it's best to stick around for a while, lest the enemy swoop in and undo your hard work. Some of the tensest moments occur in such scenarios, with one team desperately defending a node still in the process of uploading its virus, knowing that the entire match could hinge on the outcome of the battle.
And so the fun is there, and even common. Yet Dust 514 rarely inspires the kind of controlled chaos that characterizes the best online shooters. Teams move from hot spot to hot spot, shooting each other with tactical assault rifles and autocannons. But with limited vehicle types and many long straightaways on the large maps, there are too few chances for the kinds of heart-stopping conflicts you tell stories about later. Your superior tactics may allow you to triumph, but victory never feels all that victorious. You're rewarded with a win, but not with explosive warfare that could have you shouting triumphant chants with your teammates.
If only the worlds you were fighting for were more intriguing. EVE's humorless space-corporation atmosphere doesn't translate as well on the ground. Brown cliffs and gray military instillations don't instill the sense that you're in a region worth capturing, the low-contrast, monochrome nature of the maps providing you with a place to shoot guns but not much more. Texture resolutions are low enough that you can't always tell whether the full texture has popped in yet, or whether you are looking at a plain placeholder texture. The audio works harder to get the blood flowing, injecting Dust 514 with some much-needed personality. The voice-over that cautions you not to commit suicide in public areas is one such example, though even subtle cues, such as the rubbery buzz that signifies recharging shields, are suitably evocative.
With battlefields this standard and art design this bland, it's amazing that Dust 514 can keep you coming back. And yet it might get its hooks into you, problems aside, almost entirely because of its character persistency. Dust 514 has one of the most extensive and involved skill systems in online shooters, and because it takes significant time to earn skill points, you can become attached to the grind, fighting battle after battle so you may finally earn the right to purchase that fancy laser rifle you've had your eye on.
Great rewards lurk within this skill system, but to uncover them, you must first make sense of Dust 514's interface, which is convoluted and suffers from various redundancies. Certain menus and features are accessible in numerous ways, indicating that there is plenty of room to streamline in the future. The opening tutorials only make matters worse, burying you under an aggressively unhelpful information dump.
You learn how to sort through the infodump, however, leaving you to develop your character in countless ways. It all starts with your dropsuit, which offers a blank slate to create your own class of soldier. You begin with a few generic dropsuits outfitted in specific ways, but you can exercise your creativity almost from the beginning. The character-building metagame is a tactical delight, ultimately leading you to make careful plans about where skill points are best spent. Sure, you might want to upgrade your dropsuit so you can fit more equipment in it--but what about enhancing your vehicular fittings so that you can steamroll the competition within the safe confines of a hulking tank? It takes time to accumulate the skill points you need, so impulsive spending is a big mistake.
The slow progression can be frustrating, too, leading you to spend real-world money on boosters that increase the rate at which you earn skill points. You can also spend money on weapons and such, presuming you find time more valuable than money. Dust 514 sticks to a pay-to-win model, allowing you to purchase some effective weaponry regardless of its skill requirements. Given the protracted nature of progression, you might think spending real money would therefore be irresistible, but most weapons and items are not permanent (unless you nab a blueprint, which is an item's permanent edition), and must be repurchased each time you perish. That's not usually a big deal when using in-game currency, which flows quickly into your coffers. However, should you purchase equipment--say, a predesigned dropsuit fitting--with real-world money, each death means spending a nominal amount of cash. And that cash can add up.
Such an involved skill metagame and economy can lead to battlefield imbalances, pitting you against formidable foes that you feel too underpowered to face, though you get enough credit for kill assists and other support actions to offset resulting frustrations, at least to a degree. Thankfully, the early hours match you with other novices so that you don't feel immediately crushed by the opposition. Even so, crushed you will often be until you learn the ins and outs of Dust 514, and the occasional spark on the battlefield--along with the extended character progression--might be enough to keep you coming back.
Developer CCP's impressive track record of supporting and enlivening EVE Online inspires confidence in Dust 514's future. For now, however, this online shooter relies too much on its connections to EVE to ignite interest, rather than letting the gameplay speak for itself. It's too bad that the gameplay doesn't have anything more exciting to say--and that Dust 514's most compelling feature matters to a relatively small contingent of players. For everyone else, this is a decent game that gives you a lot to look forward to, but the thrills aren't yet common enough to give Dust 514 a competitive edge in a galaxy saturated with good free-to-play shooters.