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Dust 514 Review Week 1: Choppy Waters
My first week’s experience with CCP’s new online shooter Dust 514 wasn’t exactly a smooth virgin voyage.
Granted, the game is an ambitious one. It’s a semi-MMO F2P FPS.
Or, in layman’s terms: it’s multiplayer-only, FPS, free to download and play game interconnected with the online starship simulator EVE Online, which itself has more than half a million regular subscribers. As well as doing regular old matchmaking like in any other online shooter, like Call of Duty or Halo, certain matches in Dust 514 are actually instigated by large-scale clan wars and resource battles forged in EVE. It’s a fascinating idea. Players in EVE’s galaxy can even call orbital strikes and such down onto the planets that faction wars are being waged on by Dust 514 players.
So what went wrong with my experience, you ask? For one, I couldn’t download the game for two days. I emailed support about the issue: apparently a slice of the public (possibly EU only) couldn’t even see the thing on the PSN store when it went live. If I tried getting it from the browser-based PSN store it said: “You are not eligible to download this content.” Great.
Luckily, a day or two later the game appeared and I promptly downloaded it.
On bootup, the sailing smoothed out for a period of time. The game’s interface is solid and functioning at all stages. Its frontend screen displays patch updates clearly and downloads them quickly. After you’ve created your character, you are sent to your MQ, your Mercenaries Quarters, where you walk around and buy stuff, upgrade your merc.
The second problem: CCP has made all this stuff a lot more complicated than it should be.
[The following section is heavy on stat-type things. If you’d rather just know how the game plays, skip to the section below: ‘How does it play’. Also, as Dust 514 is operating under an MMO’s development cycle, many features are yet to be rolled out and the game is subject to constant updating. As such, Leviathyn will provide updated review packages every time a significant milestone is met or a new aspect of the game is explored.]
Character Sheets And Upgrades
I’m used to the upgrade and perk system pioneered by Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare where you have loadouts with their own weapons and perks. Weapons get upgrades to make them better. Perks make your character’s performance better. This is seen, with variations, in almost every online shooter, including Dust 514. However, Dust 514 lays the system thick with complicated interfaces, and is relentless with these until actual gameplay.
Here’s how unnecessarily complex, for example, the skill system is. To make your character better, you need skills. To learn a skill, you need a skillbook. Skillbooks are purchased with the game’s currency, ISK. If you have a skillbook, you still technically haven’t learnt the skill. To actually gain the skill and to level it up, you spend Skill Points, earned in tandem with ISK in game matches. (That is putting it much simpler than the game ever puts it).
The interface for this system is a nightmarish mishmash of blue tabs on the left with circular “skill nodes” on the right all interconnecting. It’s not obvious or even clear what skills are needed for — until you start hitting barriers trying to buy certain items or encounter certain issues in gameplay. After a bit of study and thought on the system, it becomes clearer and you plunge elbow deep into it. The whole thing is just a basic skill tree, but the interface, the mixup of ISK, Skill Points, and Aurum (if you want to pay real-world money to get ahead), and how they impact item buying or gameplay is barely explained with any clarity by the tutorials.
Then we get to gear: weapons, dropsuits (armour), items, and vehicles. Essentially, gear comes in four types:
- ISK-bought items which last one life.
- ISK-bought Blueprints which last forever.
- Aurum-bought items which last one life.
- And finally, Aurum-bought blueprints which last forever.
So if you want to take a plunge on a gun you like, you can have infinite versions of it if you lay down a lot of money for a blueprint. But if, like me, you haven’t yet found a perfect loadout, you needn’t bother. You just buy in small stocks of items which deplete every time you die. Using Aurum you can buy better weapons, unavailable for ISK purchase, and these can also be bought with Blueprint versions to last forever.
This caught my eye about Dust originally — items depleting with death seemed like a nice middle-ground of permadeath and infinispawning. The mechanic has led to a couple of compelling situations where I didn’t want to lose items in my best loadout, so I ran away from combat with a sensation nearing permadeath fear. A fun and thrilling experience. I haven’t explored vehicles yet (there’s a lot of game to play here), so I can’t comment on how it works with them.
This system ultimately, however, led to a big revelation I had regarding the game’s free-to-play system:
You want to not be precious about your amazing loadout? Pay money. You want rapid access to skills and weapons? Pay money. If you don’t, you’ll be spending a lot more time micromanaging and living on the game’s Marketplace and Character sheet tabs.
Dust 514 isn’t so much “pay to win,” as “pay to remove minor inconveniences which may become unbearably frustrating over time.”
Which is understandable I suppose. The developer wants to swing you into buying stuff, but not too blatantly. Whether you buy stuff or not: the depth and level of customization available here is pretty breathtaking. They just need to find a clearer interface and a better tutorial for it. Some sort of “Map” of all the game’s interconnecting systems would be useful.
I’ll update thoughts on this hopefully regularly over the coming months and years, to see how it develops.
How Does It Actually Play?
The short answer is: well, but not without minor issues.
Dust 514’s gameplay feels, as usual these days, like a mix of a lot of things. There’s the cool vehicle dropping from Halo: Combat Evolved’s story missions. You order in a Jeep and a big, badass dropship flies down and drops it off in the middle of the battlefield. Instant action battles are pretty small, 16-24 people affairs, but if you get into a larger faction battle you can be looking at upwards of 40 players in a battle, resplendent with vehicles, orbital strikes, ground skirmishes, strategic standoffs, and chokepoints.
Gameplay has the actual tactility of a large-scale multiplayer shooter like MAG or Planetside. There are moments of sublime teamplay and fun collaboration with other players, but the interface for this just isn’t refined enough yet. It’s not clear where your squadmates are or even what benefits you get from being in a squad. There are so many different items and options, which the game does a bad job of educating you about, that aside from shooting people it’s often very confusing as to what you should be doing.
There’s next to no support regarding how to actually join games other than Instant Action ones. As in, the game doesn’t physically point out where you do this or how. My first six games in Dust 514 were all on the same map due to not knowing how to join Faction battles, which is pretty inexcusable. To join faction or corporation games, there is a giant starmap of the whole EVE system, which is really compelling and fascinating to examine. It’s full of clan names, contested systems, mining wars. But on first examination, it seemed impossible to join faction games from there. By pure luck I stumbled into my first one; as it turned out, selecting a contested planet then just sitting and waiting for a couple of minutes throws you into a game on it. There’s no interface telling you this is how it works.
Still, actual gameplay is above passable. Gunfighting is decent and chunky, vehicle combat is okay. It all feels a little superficial, but thrills arise from camaraderie when you and your squad manage to take over and hold down a Skirmish point (a game where points must be held to deal damage to the other teams “mothership”).
All in all, Dust 514 provides a promising experience, but at this stage it needs work. It’s not that the game isn’t polished, in fact it looks pretty good at all stages. It’s that a lot of its design is fundamentally too complicated and that there aren’t enough support mechanisms in place to help players fully make the most of some of its opportunities. Underneath all of the layers is a pretty decent, fun shooter, but you need to scrabble through a lot of rubbish to get to that and make the most of it.
To reiterate what was said at the beginning of this review, as Dust 514 is operating under an MMO cycle, many features are yet to be rolled out and the game is under constant updating. As such, Leviathyn will provide updated review packages every time a significant milestone is met- or a new aspect of the game is explored.