When Worlds Collide – Hands On with DUST 514

Discussions with CCP Senior Producer Brandon Laurino and Creative Director Atli Már Sveinsson at EVE Fanfest 2012 led to some quality hands-on time with DUST 514, the PS3-exclusive free-to-play FPS that will finally put boots (and territory control) on the ground in the EVE universe.

Discussions with CCP Executive Producer Brandon Laurino and Creative Director Atli Már Sveinsson led to some quality hands-on time with DUST 514, the PS3-exclusive free-to-play FPS that will finally put boots (and territory control) on the ground in the EVE universe.

DUST 514 - The Big Picture

While the EVE universe has literally tens of thousands of planets DUST 514 players could potentially conquer, the DUST 514 team is focusing on the game’s 7,000+ temperate planets for launch. 7k is obviously a huge number, and since it’s not feasible to design a unique environment for each and every planet – not only is custom development expensive, there’s the PS3 memory footprint to consider as well – CCP is streamlining and proceduralizing (if that's a word) planet map development in several ways.

DUST 514 Screenshot

In the Seeding DUST 514 presentation, Atli explained that algorithms will place Districts (up to two square mile-sized conquerable areas on planet) on each planet to create fidelity to an EVE player’s point of view, and shaders and height maps taken from the planet itself will determine the layout and basic textures of the district. From preview images seen at the DUST 514 panels, this looks to be a significant step towards that holy grail of game development: procedural design that looks (but more importantly, plays) handmade by skilled level designers.

Within Districts are one or more Outposts. Outposts are tied to Production Facilities on planets, and gameplay-wise are the equivalent of individual online FPS maps. These are placed on the map as capture points, along with a number of other structures and detail objects.

Worlds Collide

“It’s very important for us to make sure that both DUST 514 and EVE Online function as standalone games,” Brandon explained. That said, CCP wants to offer plenty of incentives to EVE and DUST 514 players to work together for mutual benefit (or destruction).

DUST 514 Screenshot

The most common interaction between FIS (the “flying in space” experience) players and what Laurino calls "SIF" (the “shooting in face” experience) players will be fiscal in nature, and as EVE has an eight year head start economically, CCP's goal in the short term will be to see money flow out of the EVE's richest alliances and into the DUST 514 playerbase. That might sound heavy handed, but all of the EVE players I spoke with are anxious for cash sinks in EVE's highly mudflated economy. That is, so long as it's something they want to do and could pay off long-term, not something they have to do to preserve the core Internet Spaceships game.

Perhaps the biggest rumor we were able to confirm about DUST 514 is that the game will “absolutely” include Player vs. Environment (PvE) gameplay.

Just as in EVE, Brandon explained that "everything is a commodity in DUST 514." That means everything DUST players use, EVE players can potentially produce. But armor, weapons, vehicles, turrets, and modules are just the beginning. In low sec and null sec space, DUST corps can drop in turrets, respawn stations, and other fixed emplacements before the battle, as well as possibly increase the spawn reserves (within reason) they take into battle. This is significant; depleting clone reserves can result in a secondary win condition if your team has more clones than the enemy when time expires or if you reduce the enemies clone count to zero.

Economics might be the most common interaction between EVE and DUST 514 players, but orbital strikes are certainly the more direct and dramatic interaction. CCP demonstrated not one but two working orbital strikes in what CCP billed as a historic first interaction between a console and PC game at the EVE Fanfest 2012's Thursday keynote. Brandon lazed a grouping of enemy players using DUST 314's gorgeous 3D battle map, and CCP Soundwave coolly received the targeting information in orbit and dialed in a punishing strike from an Amarr battleship. The resulting explosion showed as a bright puff of fiery orange from orbit, totally out of scale from the still-impressive blast seen below.

Though orbital strikes are fun to watch for even the less-than-megalomaniacal sort in the EVE community (definitely a minority here at Fanfest), perhaps the biggest rumor we were able to confirm about DUST 514 is that the game will “absolutely” include Player vs. Environment (PvE) gameplay.

What form PvE content in DUST 514 will take is still undisclosed – we don’t know, for example, if DUST 514 players would be opposed by hired AI soldiers if no opposing DUST 514 players can be found or if DUST 514 will offer large scale boss battle. We do know that districts in high security space will be controlled by NPCs and that at its most basic level, DUST 514 players will participate in matchmade actions in these areas, so it stands to reason that bots might be on the menu in high sec.

UPDATE: In the final keynote presentation of EVE Fanfest 2012, Brandon Laurino explained that rogue droids - a terrestrial cousin of the ai-controlled droids that have plagued EVE Online players for years (and moreso since the Sansha's Nation started acting up in the Incursion expansion) - would form the backbone of PvE in DUST 514.

DUST 514 Gameplay and Impressions

On the Fanfest show floor, CCP offered attendees and press a 24v24 team deathmatch demo centered on a biomass processing facility - where, fittingly, dead bodies are recycled into clones - in Caldari territory. This map was on the small side of DUST 514 maps, which will range in size up to 5 square kilometers (about 2 square miles). Creative Director Atli Már Sveinsson noted that through the magic of the game’s Unreal 3 engine and occlusive bitmaps (that help stream in high quality graphics based on distance), that number could easily rise to 50 km2. “We’d sell a lot more vehicles,” he joked, “but it really wouldn’t be as fun.”

DUST 514 Screenshot

DUST 514's interface and mechanics borrow heavily from EVE Online. This is a good thing, in general. The radial display of hitpoints and shield points, for example, finds space on DUST 514's minimalist UI, and the familiar limiters from EVE 's Neocom interface - power grid and CPU - will limit what weapons and equipment DUST 514 players can fit to their drop suit. Outside combat, the controls make slick use of analog stick-friendly radial menus. Apart from text chat (always a stumpy affair without a natural keyboard) It all maps rather nicely to the PS3 controller and, better yet, most choices (other than which weapon or vehicle you want to use) are kept out of combat altogether.

Players have a number of choices related to drop suits. Not unlike ship choice and fitting equivalents in EVE Online, drop suits come in the usual categories - Assault, Scout, Heavy, and the engineer-like Logistics type - but can be heavily modified to fit multiple roles. Brandon noted that through training and according to power grid and CPU requirements, a Scout drop suit specialized in sniping can accommodate heavy armor rather than light.

Your mileage may vary with the default control scheme. My fierce preference for PC shooters will show in high relief here, but really, in a shooter, controls are fairly simple. You need to move, shoot, change weapons, reload, and maybe to zoom in to snipe or get in a vehicle. Moving wasn't a problem, a prompt to press the circle button appeared when I got in boarding range. But shooting, changing weapons, and reload was mapped to L1, L2, and square, respectively, which confused the hell out of me for the first few deaths. Further fuddling the issue was the anti-vehicle missile launcher I'd equipped by default, which must be charged to full before it can be fired and would only target vehicles.

All that said, Brandon confirmed the rumors that we’d see full keyboard and mouse support for the game, even on PS3. As for how this might imbalance the game, Brandon noted that players would be able to filter matches based on controls in high security space. As for low sec and null sec space, the wild west will remain the wild west.

Feeling fairly useless in a purely infantry role, I ordered up an HAV. Player controller vehicles come in three flavors in DUST 514, the HAV (a multi-turret tank), the LAV (a dune buggy-like single turret scout vehicle), and a dropship, an air transport that has very limited close support capacity. The RDV (rapid deployment vehicle) nearly dropped my tank on my head just outside the facility (yes, you can be killed by falling tanks – it happened to Brandon in the press demo).

DUST 514 Screenshot

Tanks were much more my style. I blistered an enemy’s Marauder tank and several grunts before finding two HAVs around a blind corner. The proper move would have been to jump out of the tank as it began taking heavy fire, using it as temporary cover while I found some kind of barricade that wouldn’t despawn, but instead I tried to push the enemy tanks into cover to allow our ground troops to get within anti-vehicle range. It didn’t work, but at least our infantry battle had turned into an armor battle.

Time ticked down, and the other team won on clone counts (as described above). All in all, the shooter gameplay felt solid if a little claustrophobic when the tanks started rolling. Though the tanks could steamroll through the center of the facility, they could be easily ambushed from cover and elevated positions inside the facility.

Thankfully, dropships were never really a threat inside the outpost due to the ample cover and ceiling limitations (I’d prefer to see dropships remain an anti-tank vehicle in the great rock-paper-scissors matchup of open terrain combat) but the game actually looked good from above (never a given for an Unreal 3 game).

It’s one District on one planet out of a proposed 7,000 planets worth of content, but the Caldari Biomass Facility didn’t play or look like a procedurally created map. Plus, the EVE tie-ins are robust enough to be instantly recognizable for EVE players, yet fairly unique for those who have never seen the neocom.

We do have some concerns about the current state of DUST 514 (and its EVE tie-ins). The textures, shaders, most particle effects, etc. weren’t final in the demo, which means we unfortunately saw a game that already looks graphically dated by today’s AAA standards. DUST 514 is also a game at war with its sheer size and the constraints of its platform, so the PS3 will always put an artificial cap on how gorgeous and full-featured CCP can make the game.

Also, EVE Online’s Destiny physics engine doesn’t currently allow spaceships to orbit planets and Atli confirmed that it’s not an easy feature to create. That being the case, those vaunted orbital strikes might require a little suspension of belief in practice, especially during longer planetary engagements.

DUST 514 Screenshot

We also have a number of unknowns, which is not uncommon for a game with this size, scope, and level of integration. For example, how DUST 514 will incentivize FPS players beyond ISK and skill points? During the DUST 514 Battlefield Roles panel, Atli noted that planet sovereignty will be established by both OCC (orbital command centers) and SCC (the surface variant), so DUST 514 players can control territory - they’re not just cannon fodder for EVE players – but what’s the balance, and how adept will DUST players be at playing the political side of the game (since they can’t directly attack EVE players to settle disputes)?

Atli also explained that planetside artillery can drive off or destroy orbiting attackers (and vice versa), but we didn’t see this feature in action, and aren’t sure who foots the bill for such defenses. We know that FIS and SIF corps can partner up to take control of a planet, but it’s unclear how sharing costs for military operations and surface infrastructure might work.

Those and dozens of other questions surround DUST 514. To be fair to CCP, their intent for Fanfest was to show the core shooter gameplay and gather feedback about the game, and mission accomplished on that front. But with beta beginning in April, less than a month away, we hope to have more answers soon. Our thanks to Brandon Laurino, Atli Már Sveinsson, and the CCP crew running the demos for their time and wish them luck on DUST 514’s 2012 release.

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