Have you ever played one of those 2D Flash or Java physics simulators? Where you are allowed to just drop sand, water or oil and see how all these materials react with each other. From Dust is what would happen if a big studio like Ubisoft got behind this idea and made it into a full 3D game, with objectives and an actual story.
The game play could quite literally be called a sand box, and I'm not talking sandbox like GTA where you run around a large map taking missions. You are literally given and area in which you can pick up and move any of the materials that are on the floor aside from rock. You can use dirt to redirect rivers, pick up water and use it to extinguish flames or even use lava to create stone walls. The objective of every map in the story is to populate four “totems” with villages, this involves directing five people from your starting village or any currently occupied village to the totem where they can set up. With each new village founded in a map, you get an extra power. This could be the ability to temporarily make water into jelly or amplify the amount of material you can pick up and drop, there are many of these powers that I do not want to reveal here as a lot of them are really interesting and surprising.
The story starts out with a small group of tribal humans having just survived some sort of world ending event, finding themselves as the last known survivors. It is then that they begin the ritual to create “The Breath”. The Breath is what can be best described as the character that you play as in the game. It is from there that you are able to move a cursor around the map, picking up and dropping dirt.
The main story can last around 4 hours in total, spread over 13 levels. Each level generally explains a new power or somehow provides an interesting variation from the norm. There is never really a moment where you feel that the level design gets stale or repetitive, each one seems to somehow put a twist on what you've previously learnt or introduces a new mechanic.
The story itself is pretty light on details, every level starts out with a brief cut scene which usually involves a panning shot of the area while a narrator speaks in an unknown language that sounds African in origin. There isn't much of an emotional attachment with any of the people that you are saving, so you never really feel for these people as they journey through the land. However, there is a slightly interesting twist at the end of the game that will leave you thinking or will, at the very least, help to understand how this situation started. As a side note, it has to be said that maybe they wouldn't need any help if they just tried settling in a nice field with no volcanoes or tidal waves! Though there wouldn't be much of a game in that case.
After the story is completed, there are a large amount of “Challenge maps” to play. These are one off maps where you are given a quick objective to complete. This could involve getting a certain power before the time runs out or saving a village from fire with only the ability to dispense lava. These all provide a unique challenge and really help to extend the playtime of the game beyond the story.
Technologically, the game is incredible. I have never seen a game pull off sand and liquid physics so well. Redirecting rivers and lava streams is pulled off so naturally without any assistance or guidance from the game. There are no pre-canned animations for various rivers, just the programming generating a river that flows according to the landscape. It's really amazing to look at and really fun to play around with.
While it is a great game in many areas, it does have a few flaws. The controls do not lend themselves well to an Xbox controller and would be much better suited to a mouse or maybe even a Playstation Move controller if Ubisoft are planning a PS3 version in the future. It is also a shame that the story is so short; it would have been nice to see at least a couple more levels in the main mode. The game also becomes rather difficult towards the end levels, I found myself shouting in pure frustration at my Xbox as my villages fell just as soon as I had erected them.
It's interesting to note that From Dust is also a really fun game to play. Most would expect a technological piece like From Dust to be a really cool thing to look at but very bad at being a game. While the game may fall short in terms of story and difficulty at some points, it does make up for that by being really fun to mess around with and having the challenge mode to keep you going. It's certainly worth a try, I suggest anyone who owns an Xbox at least download the demo and have a poke around, you will not be disappointed.