Game developers usually stick to what they know. Infinity Ward makes shooters. Harmonix makes music games. And CCP Games focuses on massively multiplayer online games (MMO). But CCP loves its MMO so much that it’s venturing into an entirely different genre just to expand it.

Dust 514 (out now on PlayStation 3) is a free-to-play first-person shooter that ties into the universe of CCP’s infamous sci-fi MMO, Eve Online, to consoles — both games are on the developer’s “Tranquility” server, an ironic name when you consider how often Eve makes headlines for its massive battles and stories of betrayal. Dust players and Eve ship pilots can work together to take over planets in the name of ruthless factions and corporations, and what they accomplish will shape the direction of Dust, Eve, and whatever else CCP comes up with for years to come.

With Dust 514, the Reykjavík, Iceland-based developer is attempting to merge Eve’s personal and political turmoil with the accessibility of FPSes. And for the most part, the experiment works — player-owned corporations are already trying to outwit each other in devious ways. Unfortunately, the combat isn’t as exciting as the stories happening around it.

Dust 514

What you’ll like

Creating your perfect mercenary
Dust 514 has many more things in common with role-playing games than it does with shooters. While you don’t level up, you can tinker with your Fittings, which are outfits for battle that include dropsuits (uniforms you wear with different armor and shield stats), weapons, vehicles, and accessories (mobile spawn points, shield boosters, repair tools, etc.). Learning what each item is used for takes a while, but it’s a small trade-off for having complete control over the role that your soldier will play.

However, it’s going to take some money (known as ISK) and skill points (SP) to customize your merc: The skills you learn with SP determine the kind of items you can use in the Marketplace. You earn ISK and SP after every match. Actions in battle reward you with War Points (WP), and the more WP you earn, the more SP you’ll get afterward. Skill points also just passively accrue after creating your character, and this continues even when you’re offline.

That’s a lot of numbers to keep track of, but I enjoyed the RPG-like trappings. When I grew bored with the standard “assault” fitting, I groomed my mercenary for up-close combat with shotguns; when that was tiring, I morphed her into a tough medic who could defend herself rather well in a firefight. It won’t always be this flexible — eventually, I’ll have to commit to only a few fittings to reserve ISK and SP for more powerful equipment — but Dust 514 gives you enough time to figure this out before you go all in.

Fighting for a cause greater than yourself
The only way you can experience the type of high-level play that Dust 514 encourages is by joining or creating a corporation, which is similar in structure to online clans in other shooters. The difference is that these organizations can own planetary districts through the Planetary Conquest feature, where they fight each other for territory. They passively earn ISK from owning these districts and building facilities on them.

OSG Planetary Operations was kind enough to let a few reviewers and I join their corporate ranks to see how serious Dust 514 can get. It was a radical departure from just playing by myself — nothing illustrated this better than the Planetary Conquest battles. Headsets are mandatory in OSG’s system because a single ground commander oversees the battle, and he or she will pass down orders to squad leaders, who then pass orders to their squadmates. Each squad has a specific task, and the constant chatter between them intensifies as the battlefield changes.

Despite my basic equipment, I felt like I was part of a real tactical unit. Before joining them, I’d run around the maps aimlessly without paying attention to my comrades during random battles. But playing with OSG taught me how important it is to aggressively work with your allies to complete the mission objectives. Suddenly, the stakes for each match became higher (and inevitably more fun) because I didn’t want to disappoint them.

After a Planetary Conquest battle, each of the participating OSG members has a chance to evaluate her squad leaders and the commander: what they did right or wrong, and how they can improve for future matches. I’ve never been a part of such tight coordination before in a multiplayer game, so OSG’s intricate doctrines fascinated me. Every corporation will have its own rules and guidelines to follow, but the amount of intelligence and planning behind OSG’s preparations is impressive, and working with it made me a better Dust 514 player.

Political mind games
In my brief time with OSG, I learned how sinister Dust 514 can become. Given the crazy stories that spiral out of Eve Online, this isn’t all that surprising, but it made me understand why OSG and the others are so stringent in the first place. For instance, “shadow corporations” are a common occurrence, where players from top corporations create and become members of dummy corporations to attack districts in Planetary Conquest; they hope that defenders will lower their guard and send in weaker members when they see an unrecognizable name infringing on their territory.

I heard another story where a player somehow siphoned off a ton of the ISK his corporation was earning and ran away with it. I was also told that at least one corporation does extensive over-the-phone interviews with applicants as part of a background check before they can join. The reason? People can act as spies by masquerading as a new player when they apply for a rival corporation.

In one memorable Planetary Conquest battle — these matches follow a specific schedule depending on when the attack happened — the enemy simply didn’t show up. Some OSG members surmised that perhaps it was just a distraction because another PC battle was going on at the same time with the Gunfall, an OSG ally. The mercs in our battle were thus unable to help Gunfall because they joined the fake match.

The possibilities for corruption and stealing (and the drama that follows it) are almost endless. No other multiplayer shooter out there can generate this type of player-driven narrative like Dust 514 can, and sometimes it can happen without firing a single shot.

Dust 514

What you won’t like

Playing alone
While diving into battles by yourself is a great way to earn ISK and skill points when your corporation isn’t scheduled to fight, doing so can feel a little hollow, especially if you’re not communicating with anyone. I felt disconnected from the political story lines when playing this way, and the sparse music and dull sound effects certainly don’t help. Since battles can last up to 20 minutes, I ended up playing podcasts in the background just to have something to listen to while I ran across the huge maps on foot.

I’d see some moments of brilliance — a random teammate driving over an enemy who was about to kill me or the few times I flanked enemy tanks and destroyed them with anti-vehicle grenades — but most of the time, it’s not very exciting. Dust 514 isn’t the type of shooter that you play for instant gratification. Getting more ISK and skill points is a painfully slow process, and you have to think more long-term when it comes to saving them for better fittings. Fighting battles just for the sake of earning more points isn’t very fun at all.

Managing the menus
Anyone familiar with Eve will feel right at home with Dust 514’s extensive amount of menu screens. If you’re not, it’s easy to feel lost. You’ll spend a good chunk of your time looking at your character, the Marketplace, chat rooms, and the skill books screen. Accessibility isn’t the problem. You can bring up the menus at any time via the start and select buttons on your controller. The problem is that you have so many to go through in the first place. But it doesn’t start this way.

You’re given unlimited “Militia” fittings filled with basic equipment to familiarize yourself with the gameplay, so you can just head over to the Battle Finder and hop into a match right away. But as you purchase new suits and items to create custom fittings — mandatory if you want to keep up with advanced players — the difficulty in tracking them multiplies.

Here’s my typical process of restocking equipment for a particular fitting:  I go to the fitting menu, scroll down to the one I’m looking for, find which of the items I need to buy more of, bring up the Marketplace, restock that item, and go back to my fitting to see if I have to replenish anything else. You can restock entire fittings at once to avoid some of that micromanagement (I like to change my items a lot, so I didn’t do this), but the barriers you must overcome before jumping into battle are still there.

Dust 514 does a poor job of explaining the Dust-Eve connection
Unless you dive deep into CCP Games’ forums and developer blogs, it’s difficult to see evidence of the company’s greatest technical accomplishment with Dust 514: merging the shooter with the same server as Eve Online. The best representation of this is the Orbital Bombardment, a special attack from an Eve player who locks on to the battlefield from virtual space. But as far as I could tell, I never came across a battle with an actual Eve ship stationed above. The bombardments I saw came from the A.I.-controlled Warbarge, which sends down a similar but weaker strike.

Dust 514 also has a color-coded overview of the contested planets and the districts neatly laid out in a star map [see below], but the in-game tutorial doesn’t tell you what those percentages mean in the larger context of Eve Online, where ships and factions fight for the star systems that these planets are a part of. I have a feeling that most Dust 514 players will simply ignore these connections because the game does a poor job of explaining what they mean.

If it weren’t for OSG answering a ton of my questions, I would’ve done the same.

Dust 514

Conclusion

After playing Dust 514 for 27 hours, I feel like I haven’t made a dent. I spent most of it jumping into battles alone just so I could collect more money and skill points, which is Dust’s equivalent of fighting random battles over and over in RPGs for experience. It’s only when I fought with a corporation that I truly feel like a part of the Dust 514 narrative. I fear that many players may never even get that far due to how overwhelming the menu-heavy interface can seem.

I’m still planning to keep an eye on Dust 514, though. It’s more accessible than Eve Online’s brutal learning curve, and the real-world stories that the MMO generates are also present — and thriving — on the PlayStation 3. If Eve is anything to go by, Dust 514 can only get better with age as CCP updates it with new content.

Score: 72/100


Dust 514 is out now for free on PlayStation 3. The publisher provided GamesBeat with the Veteran Pack add-on for the purpose of this review.