The Free Agent: Episode 6 - Dust 514

FPS meets MMO, all on the PS3, in Episode 6 of the Free Agent

Hello to all our new readers, and welcome back to those who have been following ZAM's bi-weekly column, The Free Agent. Our mission, as always, is to answer the question "Can gaming REALLY be free?"

The previous episode of the Free Agent got a little buried under all the gaming news coming out of E3 two weeks ago, so if you want to know what free buys you in the new Action RPG Marvel Heroes, be sure to take a gander at Episode 5.

For this week's episode of the Free Agent I dusted off the old PS3, which has been relegated to Netflix duty for the better part of two years. That's right, for one episode only, the Free Agent is going console.

Why you ask? Well it just so happens that our next assignment is the PlayStation exclusive Dust 514, a free-to-play FPS from Icelandic developer/publisher CCP that many are calling the first true MMOFPS. So can console gamers play to their heart's content without spending a cent? Let’s find out.

First things first, I fired up my PS3 and downloaded Dust 514 (for free of course) from the PSN Store. As I waited for the game client to download and install I got thinking about what I was about to experience. Dust 514 is as bold an endeavor as it is risky for CCP and because of this I both admire them and pity them.

Certainly no one can deny that CCP has carved itself a very generous piece of the PC MMO pie with its space faring MMO Eve Online, but the console FPS market is already a hot bed of competition with a narrow margin for success and a player base that some would say has the attention span of a baby squirrel. Into this seemingly hostile environment strides CCP, boasting a less than robust portfolio of FPS titles under its belt. Better cinch up that belt CCP, 'dem dang old squirrels gonna try steal your nuts'.

So you’re thinking what does this have to do with squirrels. Good question; if you're one of these baby squirrel-like gamers, you probably will never find out because, let's be honest, you stopped reading already. But for the rest of you I promise I'll come back to it.

Dust 514 has just finished downloading and I'm timidly optimistic as I fire it up for the first time.

First Impressions Count

As I sit in the lobby waiting for the match to start, it suddenly occurs to me, this is a console FPS. I definitely prefer to play FPSes on PC, but I'm no stranger to console FPS. After all I spent a good portion of my teenage years playing Golden Eye and Perfect Dark on the N64, not to mention plenty of Call of Duty when I first bought a PS3 years back.

In a panic I awkwardly navigate a game menu until I find the "invert vertical axis" option, crisis averted, that's right I'm one of "those".  At the same time I glance over the controls, seems straight forward enough, then just like that the match begins.

I wander aimlessly for the first while through the unimpressively rendered landscape set before me; the PS3 is old tech to a snobby PC gamer like me, so I wasn't expecting much anyway. It feels a little eerie; it’s so empty at first, I’m hardly even bumping into anyone from my own team.  But I'm pretty rusty with a PS3 controller so I take the opportunity to get used to the controls.

That's when I start taking a few practice shots. I tap the trigger a few times, nothing happens."Huh? Why isn't my gun shooting, oh never mind I was pushing the wrong button. Hmm I wonder what the button I did push does. Hey what's this little thing at my feet?" BOOM! I'm dead, turns out that was the grenade button...

As I progress through the battlefield I finally run into some enemy players and then this debacle repeats itself several times. Each time as an enemy pops out from behind cover, I try to tap off a few rounds and instead blow myself up with a grenade. For some reason the controls are just completely counter-intuitive to what my brain thinks they should be. I go to switch up the controls but discover there are only a handful of presets and none of them is working for me. No matter which one I choose I die again and again. If not from blowing myself up, it's from enemies with far better skill than me shooting me in the head.

By now I'm ready to throw the controller through the TV. I'm beginning to remember why I only play FPS on PC. Disgusted with my first few hours of play, I turn the PS3 off and walk away. My first impressions of this game are so bad that I simply can't force myself to play it again for at least a week.

Dig a Little Deeper

So far it's looking pretty dismal for Dust 514, but eventually I decide I better give it another go. I Experiment briefly with the PlayStation Move controllers but that doesn't do it for me either. Sadly I don't have a spare USB keyboard kicking around either so I can't try it out with mouse and keyboard option (though I daresay I was relieved to discover it existed). So I just grin and bear it, determined that I will get used to these controls.

It takes a few more hours, but finally I'm at least able to not blow myself up, and I even score a few kills and help my squad defend a capture point against some pretty intense firepower. The more I play, the more I discover that I'm actually almost enjoying myself.

Another funny thing happens as I play more, I start to explore some of the more MMOish features like the skill trees and fittings, timidly at first, but delve deeper and deeper each time I open a new menu. What I discover is a much more natural approach to learning what was initially an overwhelming amount of information.

Now that I've learned how to customize my drop suits and experiment with a few alternate weapons, I feel like I'm finally getting the hang of it. I'm still playing at a skill level somewhere between cannon fodder and meat shield, but that's okay. I have no delusions of grandeur, I flat out suck at FPS, particularly with a thumb stick.

But I find my niche when I learn to call in vehicle drops. The speedy Light Attack Vehicles (LAV) are free to use and have unlimited deployment. So I learn to call them in, wait 15-20 seconds for a LAV to be flown in and dropped at my feet, then race my way behind enemy lines to capture vulnerable NULL cannons to assist my team in destroying the enemy command center floating over the battlefield. Just like that I discover I'm having a blast.

Around this time I start to scratch at the surface of the interconnectivity between the Dust 514 and Eve gaming universe. I know from reputation that the Eve universe is rife with player driven conflict between countless factions, and I begin to see matches cropping up that take these conflicts from across the vast expanses of space and spill them over onto the surfaces of planets. It's this sort of interconnectivity that is the true potential for greatness for Dust 514. And while in my noobism I don't seem to yet have the means to call in orbital support from players in the Eve universe, the very thought of it excites me. I mean who doesn't want this guy as an ally?

Okay so what's free got to do with it? Check out page two to find out

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Constantly evolving
# Jun 27 2013 at 6:01 PM Rating: Good
CCP Games prides themselves on listening to their community. Sometimes they listen to the wrong portion of the community (IMO) but they have consistently delivered content that is user driven and reflects at least a portion of their community's desires for game improvement and growth. The area that, as a new player, you have yet to explore is the Planetary Conquest aspect of Dust 514. It provides much bigger payouts as well as salvage of items used in battle. The winners of these matches receive a planetary district which produces passive income in the form of clones sold automatically when the clone vats are full or manually to genoloution, the entity responsible for the sale of merc packs (150 clones) for the use of conquering the districts. In the PC battles we have the ability to call in Orbital Bombardments from pilots in Eve Online and generally have our best player's in the battles. This is mainly for players who have been around for awhile and have several million skill points acquired and specced into specialty suits and gear. This is what I like to play Dust for.

Many of us have been active on the forums discussing how to make the start of a mercenary career in Dust easier and more user friendly. We have already seen some player driven improvements with the Battle Academy and are looking forward to many new features sure to come. If you are a Dust merc and have some idea on what can be done to make the start of the game better, please join us on the forums and make your opinions and voice heard. We are responsible for directing the development team towards the solutions and pointing out the problems. Many of us have been playing since Closed Beta, which began more than a year ago so it really is unfair when we shoot you in the head while you drop grenades at your feet, blowing yourselves up but we want you to get better at Dust and be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with us in our corps to move forward together through battle and blood to conquer districts and battle alliances and other corps seeking to dominate the battlefield.

Welcome to New Eden
Constantly evolving
# Jun 28 2013 at 11:03 AM Rating: Decent
28 posts
Thanks for the input StarkKnight. Definitely some valid points there. With my somewhat limited window of time (the Free Agent is on to a new game every 2 weeks) I definitely didn't get to experience Planetary Conquest, which sounds like loads of fun and adds to the immersive depth that I already sense from Dust514.

I think that if anyone can really dig in to Dust514 they will be rewarded, but in my mind it's all about smoothing out the early experience to draw players in further. There is a ALOT of game to get lost in, which is both a good and a bad thing.

I look forward to hearing some of the stories that will come out of Dust514 and in particular the tie with Eve Online. I also sincerely hope that the early game can be improved so that Dust514 can garner the player base it deserves.
Needs improvement
# Jun 27 2013 at 7:54 AM Rating: Decent
It's unfortunate that while Dust 514 took a great leap forward graphically with the arrival of the Uprising build, the general gungame suffered. A lot of discord followed on the official forums and player numbers dropped in the face of CCP's silence. However, it now looks like the devs have realised the error of their ways and are communicating far more often with the playerbase and have committed themselves to monthly updates to the game. There's hope again for Dust 514, and now might be a good time to jump in before Uprising 1.2 arrives July 2nd. The new Academy feature should ensure that new players have time to settle in to the mechanics and controls before they face far more powerful and experienced veteran players, and moreover new players are able to receive a few bonus items to help them along the way, such as a permanent assault rifle and a skill booster if they sign up to Dust 514 via the link below:
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