Dust 514 preview

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It's real. I've witnessed an EVE Online player laying down an orbital strike on a bunch of PS3 dudes. And the crowd went mental. As CCP, creators of EVE Online and DUST 514 are keen to stress, DUST 514 will be the first ever video game connected to another game on another platform. Sadly, despite the coded confirmations, Dust 514 will still be a PS3 exclusive… at launch.

But how will we interact with our console brethren? Is it going to be friendly?

EVE players can offer contracts which will then appear on a board for the console kids to choose from. Capturing bases, hacking mainframes - you know the kind of thing. And in case there aren't any EVE players offering jobs, the AI will lay down a few too.

PC gamers will also get to call down strikes on planets under contention. Who, what, and why you hit will be up to you, but it's an undeniably cool feature that had the Fanfest crowd whooping with delight. Well, most of them; I overheard a disgruntled EVE player talking post-conference: “We're supposed to be the gods aren't we? I want more mayhem. More destruction!” Then he left the toilet.

CCP are keen to stress that Dust 514 will be a more inclusive experience which won't just cater to MMO-centric console gamers. Players can jump into a battlefield in seconds, despite their level of dedication to a corp or knowledge of a star map. As David Reid, Chief Marketing Officer at CCP describes it, PS3 players will be “dipping their toes” into EVE Online's universe, not splashing around and making a mess. DUST 514 won't risk the integrity of EVE Online; it'll provide new motivations for existing activities.

CCP's CEO has already admitted that cross-platform interactions will be limited in scope, at least at first. After a few demos and a short hands-on, and I'm left with the impression that DUST players will be more of a mercenary force than an essential component of a successful corporation. CCP are erring on the side of caution, for now.

That's not to say that DUST doesn't get deep. It's bringing free to play mechanics to console, and with free-to-play comes customisation. Almost ludicrous amounts of customisation. Just like EVE Online's Marketplace, DUST's store will let players mod their dropsuits, vehicles and weapons to a level beyond anything I've seen in an FPS. Are you opting for an armour repair module or a “complex armour repair” module? One's probably better than the other. And it'll make all the difference when you're storming across the desert with 23 men and a few tanks at your side.

And the vehicles, weapons and modules will all be assets in the EVE universe at large. PC players will have opportunity to cater to an entirely different market, constructing PS3 players' tools, even if they don't want to get more directly involved in the combat.

This part of DUST was the most tantalising; just like EVE's moreish ship customisation, the interface is elegant and satisfying to use. “Amazingly it all works on a console controller” says Brandon Ferrino, executive producer of DUST as he shows off the tools. And it is impressive - the level of customisation here goes beyond Call of Duty and even Tribes: Ascend. Want your scout to carry a heavy machine gun instead of a sniper? It's possible. Want to choose the exact turrets for each slot on your dropship? Just pay the appropriate amount of ISK (EVE's in-game currency) or AUR (the currency you purchase with real-life cash) and it'll drop from the sky, exactly as ordered.

There's a skill system too, which includes passive upgrades, like in EVE Online, along with more direct choices post-battle. And there are a lot of them - it'll take 7 years for a player to max out every one. CCP have even hinted at using cloud streaming to bring a slice of the experience to more mobile platforms later on.

It's difficult to assess exactly how DUST will play on PS3 - we got to go hands-on, but it was an enclosed team deathmatch with set classes. It feels like a sci-fi Battlefield, albeit one that's less pretty than we're used to seeing on PC, with less snappy mechanics.

DUST 514 is using the - arguably dated - Unreal Engine. The scale might be impressive, but the textures? Not so much. It's a compromise that's necessary, but PC gamers who invest in a PS3 for this FPS experience might end up squinting. Still, these are early days and there's a lot of polish left to come - CCP aren't in a rush; DUST 514 is still listed for a 2012 release.

Dust 514 is a vision of an exciting future. And today's presentation did succeed as a proof of concept. It's a long way off the “Future Vision” trailer of a few months ago though. I can imagine that game running in real-time, but on a different platform. Possibly a more familiar one...