Dust 514 is much more than the Halo clone it appears to be at first glance. Not only is CCP Games delivering a free-to-play shooter for PlayStation 3, it has connected it to an entirely different title on another platform. The game takes place in real-time within the same universe as the popular PC massively-mulitplayer online (MMO) game EVE Online, and some of those cross-play features have to be seen to be believed.
The idea behind this ambitious project is that EVE's starship commanders can secure the services of Dust 514's mercenaries to capture strategic points and vanquish enemies through FPS campaigns; but the integration between the two games runs much deeper. Everything from the gun in your hand to the armour on your back may have been manufactured by EVE players from raw materials they mined and shipped across the galaxy, and this is just one example of the kind of depth we're talking about.
Robust shooter mechanics
There is no doubt that CCP is working on something that could change the face of gaming, yet boiling down Dust 514 to its essence, we still have a solid shooter on our hands. The studio has brought in personnel from the likes of DICE and Ubisoft who have stacks of experience in the genre, and it shows.
"We have a number of people that joined for DICE, and worked on the Battlefield franchise. You have to have a great moment-to-moment experience on a first-person shooter or else the game just fails, right?" said CCP's chief marketing officer David Reid.
Stepping away for the EVE link for a moment, the game plays not unlike an intergalactic version of Battlefield. You'll take part in team-based skirmishes, drive vehicles and capture territories. Controls will feel familiar to anyone well-schooled in the shooter genre, suggesting that CCP is marketing the game towards the console crowd rather than trying to convert the EVE purists.
Dust 514 is fast-paced yet tactical. The maps range from small multi-level arenas with plenty of vantage points to vast layouts capable of supporting 24-v-24 contests. It's the kind of title you can dip into for a quick match, or invest the best part of a lifetime in, unlocking all of its intricacies. In short, it's everything console gamers could want from a first-person shooter, but it's connected to something much bigger.
Loadouts, inter-connectivity and microtransactions
The most impressive thing about Dust 514 is the inter-connectivity with EVE Online. During a CCP presentation at this year's EVE Fanfest, we witnessed EVE players make their mark on a Dust contest, supporting their mercenaries by unleashing a devastating orbital bombardment on the opposition.
While the end result doesn't look radically different from calling in an airstrike in Call of Duty, the very concept of players firing at other players in an entirely different game, on an entirely different platform, is simply mind-blowing.
It works both ways, too; Dust mercs can secure surface cannons and fire back up at their EVE counterparts, and as anyone familiar with the MMO will tell you, the results of a direct hit are unpleasantly far-reaching.
Some of EVE's in-depth customisation mechanics have found their way in here. Players have almost boundless freedom when it comes to tweaking their loadouts. You can essentially combine all of the game's classes depending on your strengths and weaknesses. For instance, it is possible to mould a mercenary with the agility of a sniper and the raw fire power of a heavy assault trooper.
An in-game store not dissimilar to the one found in EVE arms players with even more customisation options. ISK (the universe's currency) can be purchased via micro-transaction, though CCP is quick to point out that there is no danger of this upsetting the game's delicate balance. This is not a pay-to-win affair, so there's no amount of cash you can throw at your character to give them an unfair advantage. It's all about achieving personal preference through optional financial investment.
Playing it safe
The EVE universe, with its political intricacies and economic complexities, is a finely balanced equation, so merging it with a fully-fledged console FPS must be done with the utmost care. It's clear that CCP games is playing it safe in this regard, casting the PS3 players as mercs with the EVE veterans pulling the strings.
Reid said: "We need to tune those dials very carefully. It all does come back to you, so we have to ask 'What is the effort you must expend to earn you in-game currency?'
"As an example, let's say a spaceship in EVE costs a billion ISK. It's the size of a city, it's got cannon and turrets and everything. Then you have a handgun in Dust that costs a hundred million ISK. It's a really good handgun, but is it really worth one-tenth of a starship? That's the kind of tuning we've got to do, and make sure that it's sensible, fair and all works together."
The project has been years in the making, and a considerable portion of that time has been invested in maintaining equilibrium and fine-tuning, but CCP is adamant that Dust will not see the light of day until it is ready. Beta testing is scheduled to begin in April, and we can expect the studio to listen closely to feedback during this phase.
Following beta, Dust 514 will be integrated into the mix one step at a time, starting with cross-game item trading, functions like avatar chat, and other means of connectivity. And that's just the short term. Should CCP manage to successfully integrate Dust into the EVE universe, there's no reason why other games on other platforms can't be added to the equation. If all goes as planned, this could be nothing short of revolutionary.
> Read our 'Dust 514' interview with CCP Games
> 'EVE Online: Inferno' expansion to launch in May
Dust 514 will be available for PlayStation 3 in 2012. EVE Online is available for PC now.