The next few years are going to be interesting ones in the world of online-focused first-person shooters. Infinity Ward successfully streamlined the concept of dangling carrot-style player progression in the multiplayer space with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, to the point that you can’t really fire up that style of game nowadays without some sort of framework for custom classes, perks, and unlocking content as you earn levels. We’re now seeing ideas like these carry over into high-profile free-to-play titles like PlanetSide 2. The most promising of the bunch, however, is CCP Games’ Dust 514, for a variety of reasons.

For starters, it’s a PlayStation 3-exclusive game, and the first of its kind (F2P FPS) on the PlayStation Network. It also has the advantage of hitting the ground running with a pre-existing fanbase, since Dust spins off from the popular space-based MMO, EVE Online, in a rather innovative way. The EVE universe is unique among other MMOs for its “single-shard universe” philosophy. Unlike most MMOs which section off large groups of players into discrete servers offering identical play content, everything that happens in EVE Online occurs within the same universe. A single shard, as it were.

Dust 514, then, represents a splintering off from that main shard. It’s a team-based first-person shooter in which players occupy the role of mercenaries-for-hire in the EVE universe. In the core game, a PC-based MMO, each human player is, at the core, a ship captain. There are other avenues and professions to pursue in the game as well, but it all starts and ends with your very own ship. Dust is much more focused; in playing it, you become an EVE mercenary. You can accept contracts from corporations in the larger universe — a feature that will connect directly with the PC MMO, with players there being the ones to offer the contracts — and earn money in exchange for your efforts.

There are currently two separate versions of Dust 514 for us to consider: what it is right now in its closed beta state and what it will one day become once issues like balance are ironed out. I got a better sense of both of these last week when Sony wheeled through New York City for a seasonal preview tour.

In purely functional terms, Dust 514 looks to be a in solid place right now. The action in the online-enabled Team Deathmatch mode that was available for the hands-on, moved at a steady clip as I gunned down players participating in the currently closed beta test. The controls will feel immediately familiar to Call of Duty fans; if your fingers instinctively move to the square button to reload or click down on the left stick to sprint, you’ll be in familiar territory. The lone map I played on felt like a good size–a sci-fi research facility of some kind set on a distant planet. Good lanes of fire and sightlines for all, though larger vehicles couldn’t move around very easily.

Outside of battle, you interact with the world from a third-person perspective. Your unarmored merc’s base of operations between missions is the Merc Quarters, similar to EVE Online‘s Captain’s Quarters. You’ll be able to do things here like check stats, make use of community features, tweak loadouts, and bulk up your skills and your arsenal. I didn’t get to explore the skill and item shops thoroughly, but it’s clear after even a brief look that there’s a lot of variety here. You earn general-use skill points just for playing, and they’re independent of the skills you’re able to buy. So, for example, you could earn a bunch of skill points using a sniper rifle and then spend it all on improving your assault rifle capabilities.

The store is similarly packed with content, gear of all kinds, weapons, everything you would expect from this kind of game. You’ll earn the same ISK currency that EVE players doing for completing contracts and the like, currency that can be spent in the store. You can also spend real dollars on AUR to buy different store items, though CCP emphasizes that there’s no “pay-to-win” element here. It’s clear looking at the store listings that AUR-priced items are much less numerous than ISK-priced ones. Even if you do spend real money on a nifty weapon of some kind that you haven’t unlocked the equivalent of yet, the emphasis in Dust is on sidegrades rather than upgrades. There is no ultimate weapon you’re working toward; much like the extensive list of skills, the idea here is to tweak your merc to suit your own play style.

Once you’ve got some weapons, gear, and skills set up, your next step is to create a set of Fittings. Think of the Dust Fittings as your custom classes. You’ll have separate sets of them for your Dropsuit and any vehicles you call in. Once again, the look at this portion of the game was brief. It’s immediately familiar if you’re a fan of progression-based online shooters though. There’s a new language to learn, but the concepts are largely the same as what you’d typically see in other games. The variety of skills you can learn and gear you can make use of seems pretty staggering too; if you enjoy unlocking stuff in games like these, then just know there’s plenty of that to do in Dust.

Team Deathmatch was the only option available for the demo session, but Dust 514 will also offer up an objective-based Skirmish mode, complete with capture points and the like. The eventual goal is to see all of this linking up with the PC MMO. So you’ll have a player on the PC side issue a contract to liberate some plot of land or another from a world held by one of the PC player’s enemies. You’ll set out on your mission from the ground using the Dust 514 client on your PS3 while the PC player waits on his or her ship above. The advantage to that is the opportunity to launch coordinated strikes; as a ground soldier, you’ll essentially be able to call locations in to the ship captain on the PC side, who can then send the fiery hell of an orbital strike raining down on enemy forces. Features like that still need to be balanced, but it speaks to CCP’s larger goal of linking up the gameplay on the PC side with the gameplay on the console side.

The corporation battles will be the centerpiece for the game when it launches later this year, but players can also get a handle on the ground-based warfare in Battle Moon mode, which stands apart from the EVE Online connectivity.

And that’s where things stand right now with Dust 514. If all goes according to plan, you should be able to download the game to your PS3 at no cost sometime before the end of this year, and possibly as soon as this summer. There will also be a version released on the Vita, but it is being described as more of a companion to the game rather than an extension of it. The Vita version will allow you to interact with the store and modify other non-gameplay elements–in many ways it sounds like Call of Duty Elite.

If/when the closed beta becomes an open one, you can also expect that to transition seamlessly into the final release. CCP’s aspirations are huge for this game, but EVE Online‘s single-shard framework is something of a miracle on its own. Once the full experience is up and running, shooter fans will suddenly find they have a very compelling, no-cost alternative to the $60 shooters of the world.