There's a small part of me that is still freaking out somewhere at back of my brain: an online console shooter, for free? I still harbor that sneaking suspicion that at any moment the gamepad is about to be whipped from joystick twiddling fingers, and my face slapped like a particularly bad confidence man. We surely don't get nice things for free do we?
It's odd that in the space of 2 years, the F2P gaming has become so passé, so ordinary, and so expected. Instead, most of us jeer at in-game shops and lament shortcomings - even though we have failed to throw down a single dime. It seems as though the more we are given, the less happy we are about it - like a toddler gumming down an ice cream whilst glowering at a parent because it isn't the right flavor, and the optional sprinkles not applied liberally enough.
Dust 514 is such an experience. An excellent shooter than allows for countless hours of fun, but somewhat overshadowed by its truncated launch and micro transaction leanings. CCP's first entry into the world of headshots and frag grenades should be groundbreaking, and is in many ways, but it is comes close to being undone by its own legend and missed opportunities.
The most lackluster and telling of the Icelandic developer's relative greenness in FPS design is in the graphical department. First introductions of D514 snag on the crudeness of the in-game engine and the general ugliness that it manages to muster. Textures are stretched and overburdened, whilst draw distances continuingly underwhelm.
It seems as though D514 was destined for another time. The design warping functions of stitching two separate games together is the stuff of video game sci-fi, but the decision to wrap it all up in the black and silver packaging of a PlayStation 3 only serves to undermine. CCG show a clear unease with the technology, with a myriad of bugs thrown into the mix to make matters worse.
If it wasn't for Eve Online inspired UIs and some fairly immersive menu navigation, D514 would be an almost complete graphical disaster. Launching as it has near the sell-by-date of the PS3, you have to question why CCG didn't either move faster, or stick to their native PC. The technology used would have been perhaps better served, and the development team clearly more comfortable: and once you throw your hat into the realm of Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo, getting the visuals correct is a must.
But it isn't all doom and gloom. D514, for the most part, is a solid product. The shooting is fast and frantic and also packs a Tribes-like-punch, while the general scale and ambition of the software is hard not to admire.
CCG have managed to stitch two of their pieces of software together, creating something that puts one foot down in the future, and one in the present. Riding the zeitgeist of FPS and online interaction is key to what makes D514 so admirable, but also presents its biggest challenge.
And for the most part, CCG have pulled off this new genre with ease. Shooting feels satisfactory, and they have side-stepped the age old feeling of weightlessness. There are no moon boots in New Eden, and players cannot jump the distance of small buildings. Instead the game is given a weight and heft to it. While sometimes it may feel like wading through a murk of treacle, the avatars movements can feel strained and contorted, and with most of the experience represented through 3rd or 1st person and not menu systems, the sheer weight of metallic armour accounts for why your character should feel so bogged down and at the wrong end of spritely.
The general gunplay feels tight, if not a little left-field of what Activision and EA DICE are currently achieving. While CCG are apparently not completely at ease with the genre they are meddling with, the structure and formation of D514 is solid, if a little safe. Players chose from a number of pre-made classes, and then also customize by purchasing skill books - in the same vein of Eve Online - and while this is a fine system, the same old character roles are generally thrown up and recycled - scout, sniper, and assault ad infinitum.
Vehicles also make an appearance, but opting for a Halo-like sole thumb stick control. It makes for difficult navigation, and the bounciness and propensity to want to flip over makes you feel that the wheels are made out of spare bits of trampoline.
In all, Dust 514 is a solid package, but can be uninspired at times. The shooting is fun, the interplay between skills and battles fine, and the relative ease in which skirmishes can be accessed is a success. It's just a little safe at times though.
Where CCG have really shown their past experience and allowed themselves a little time for flamboyance is within the innovations that D514 brings to the MMO table. The game, despite all prelaunch concern, works. Touching down for a planet-bound battle feels just so, with the scale and scope of the experience making it feel as though there is something happening right above, but just out of sight - aside from all of the orbital bombardment.
The most touted feature of D514 is the interplay between Eve players and those wielding a joypad. Corporations on the MMO side of virtual life can take out contracts and utilise FPS squadrons to do their bidding. The interconnection between these two player bases makes the adventure feel more realistic and less arbitrary.
The aforementioned skill system also allows for a large degree of customization and tinkering with the formula. While Call of Duty will have you grind out new weapons, attachments, and texture skins, D514 makes you feel at real sense of progression. So while the skill system can err on the side of grind, it does feel satisfying to sculpt your own avatar.
In all, D514 is nothing short groundbreaking, and paves the way for future games to interact with one another.
But unfortunately, for all of the highfaluting praise that can be heaped upon the concept documents CCG have managed to create, the game is seriously let down by a few engine problems. Bugs appear intermittently, textures pop-in-and-out, and certain elements need fine tuning.
Just simple problems such as spawning into the thick of action to be instantly murdered could be solved soon - but it presents a challenge that CCG have in the coming months and years to iterate and refine: and with a closing window to really succeed on the PS3, they 'aint got much time left.
Depending on your stance with console shooters, you will find D514 also dips into the realm of the curse-ridden 12 year old. We could decry it as symptomatic of our modern culture and society, but in reality the majority of console gamers are fouled mouth little A** hats. Of which I proudly stand as one of their number.
Where D514 stands high above many headset wearing comrades is in the fact it hails from an ancestry of MMORPG. Entire corporations that spend day times floating in the infinite expanse above have also relocated below created some intense team games as well as some interesting communities. The only problem is finding your way in if you're coming in cold.
In reality, you can experience a lot of D514 without putting down a single dime, and for that fact it is an exemplary product. Microtransactions are present, but are largely considered with cosmetic items and follow a similar path of League of Legends. There are optional packs and upgrades but CCG have thrown their hat into the tricky F2P ring and come off somewhere on the side of fair.
So to conclude, if for a few issues here and there, CCG's punt outside the realm of starships and mining rigs is largely a success. The shooting is tight, the experience exciting, and the interplay between games a joy to behold. There are definitely a few months of refinement ahead, but Eve Online players can enjoy another facet to their universe and PS3 loyalists can enjoy a great shooter for nothing.