I’ve always wondered why MMOFPS titles have never truly taken off, or at least to the extent that their step-parents (Battlefield and Call of Duty) have. The original PlanetSide eventually spawned a sort of cult following, but never managed (possibly due to the subscription fee structure) to grow a base of significant popularity. There have been games since, such as Sony’s MAG on the PS3, that attempted to create large battlefields along with the illusion of persistent cause and effect, but nothing had managed to reach the lofty aspirations of wide constant conflict.
PlanetSide 2 hopes to change the fortunes of the IP, namely by removing the largest barrier to entry (upfront and ongoing costs), overhauling the engine, and re-working much of the advancement, deployment and certification systems to invite a new generation of players who grew up with modern shooters. But have SOE prevailed where many of their other properties have failed?
For those unaware of the original PlanetSide, battle takes place across one of a few sprawling conquest-style maps, where players align themselves with one of three colours empires (each with various traits) and fight to capture the facilities across the landscape. Capturing certain areas opens up tactical possibilities, including both infantry and vehicle spawn points for both air and ground assets, resources (Aerospace, Mechanized, and Infantry, more on these later), regrouping for assaults and so forth. The aim is, as you would imagine, to dominate your enemy through a combination of clever tactical manoeuvres (such as grabbing a dropship of 12 soldiers and flanking across enemy lines) and sheer brute force. Dropships can also be used as mobile spawn points, and in some cases, you are able to use the “Instant Action” feature to drop from space onto flash points directly.
Players can choose one of five classes; a light or heavy assault class, a medic, a infiltrator (scout) and engineer. Each class can be heavily customized and upgraded via the certification system by spending certification points, gained via time spent in game or through XP generation, to purchase upgrades. One change that PS1 veterans may notice is that there is no longer a limit to point generation — this is essentially to both reward continued play but also to allow for levelling of multiple classes on the same soldier. As someone who got a little tired of being typecast as a heavy in the original, this is a welcome change.
Resources are split between various territories and are vital components for your equipment, from vehicles to items, and an empire’s lack of a certain resource can restrict the availability of that tool. What this attempts to do is force players to identify which resources are required and to capture facilities that are generating them. I really like the idea but in practice it’s a little bit messy. This could be entirely due to the lack of experienced players certified in senior positions, to help co-ordinate units and squads to fill gaps and silo materials. At the very least, it provides more of a concrete incentive to choose a certain area over another and allows squads to make “hero” plays by single-handedly capturing important supply routes for their empires.
One of the biggest assets PlanetSide 2 had from its inception to its recent launch is John Smedley, the president of SOE and one of the most open and passionate advocates I’ve seen for a title in a very long time. It’s obvious from his almost 24hr presence on social networks, countless interviews and weekly blog posts that there is a lot riding on the success of this title, particularly after the costly, mistake ridden and high profile failure of DC Universe Online.
SOE’s subsequent attempts to revitalise its entire suite of MMOs via “Play Your Way”, a universal F2P monetisation structure, has begun to gradually change its fortunes, with titles originally struggling to turn a dollar reporting dramatic increases in revenue. PlanetSide 2 is the first new title to be designed entirely around this concept, relying on the idea that players will be willing to fork over some cash to streamline or speed up their soldiers development.
It’s arguably the biggest change, conceptually, to the game but the developers have been very careful to ensure that it doesn’t perversely affect the game’s balance. The large majority of paid advantage comes in the form of boosts, from XP gain to passive certification growth. Paid members get no more than a 50% boost to any of these properties, with the exception of resource gain, which is 100%, in the form of being able to spawn an extra vehicle if the pool happens to be tapped out. Additionally, while weapon and ability unlocks can be purchased (with Station Points), many of these abilities tend to be more in the form of “sidegrades”, providing no absolute advantage (the weapon is no more powerful from a damage perspective than any other) but may offer a different way to play a class.
After playing for quite a long time during both open and closed beta, and for the last few days during retail, it’s clear that SOE have thought a lot about avoiding that dreaded Pay to Win scenario. It is entirely possible to play through the game forever without any payments or boosts and feel like you are advancing at a fair rate. Nothing feels overpowered and I’ve regularly managed to take out players well above my level using standard weapons and vehicles, even when many of them would have advantages based around certification upgrade.
John’s constant emphasis on preventing abuse or imbalance between paid and free, which is well summarized in a blog post from August where he claims his ideal F2P system is based on League of Legends, is integral to the long term survival on a game that is incredibly reliant on teamwork. Not since Tribes have I felt that this issue has been highlighted or planned as well as it is in PS2 and I hope it continues without any creeping throughout its life.
But ironing down a balanced system of fair perpetual battle isn’t the only area where PlanetSide 2 excels. One of the most standout achievements is rooted in the methods that it uses to keep you planted and immersed within the fight. Death is rarely more than a short spawn away before you’re back into the action, and its disadvantages and challenges are more based around how complex your plans are and how far inside enemy lines you have placed yourself. Then there are the numerous “cool” moments, like getting into a dropship with your entire squad, hanging out the window taking in view with your turret, floating over the top of a tank battalion providing cover as they trundle across the rocky landscape to the next point. It’s worth bumping everything up to Max just to admire the detail on everything, from the curved end of a tank’s turret, the rippled edges on Vena armour or simply the industrial enormity of the larger bases.
Combat is fast, frenetic and extraordinarily brutal, especially after the initial drop post-intro (which is primed to put you into the most furious fight currently active), where it’s almost guaranteed that you will die. Constantly. The starting weapons are perfectly fine for most long and medium range encounters, but I highly recommend investigating before randomly choosing unlocks – many of the weapons are designed to suit particular engagements and may heavily disadvantage elements like range, magazine or fire type to dramatically increase other attributes. There are also a lot of them, and SOE has recently allowed players to design and sell their own equipment (within a certain framework), which effectively means the marketplace will grow exponentially over time.
Latency is almost non-existent on the Australian server, as it is actually hosted in Australia, as opposed to in Singapore or LA.
But it’s a testament to PS2′s netcode that the game actually performs remarkably well on the US West servers as well – in some cases (smaller battles) I actually didn’t see much of a difference, but this can change dramatically once the player count in an area increases.
Unsurprisingly, performance can dip when there are hundreds of players in a given area, alongside tanks, bikes and planes, but this isn’t something that’s unusual and it can be negated by reducing graphics options or adding/upgrading GPU(s). At time of print, the Australian server had only just come back on line after more than 12 hours offline, which SOE blamed on it not being part of its local server farm and thus harder to repair. Considering that it exists at all, I’m willing to give it a pass.
There is very little that I don’t like about PlanetSide 2, and that’s probably evident by the fact that I haven’t really mentioned many downsides. The mechanics of play, essentially, are rather basic in that it relies on the players to develop their own rivalries, territories and tactics to produce narrative in lieu of an endgame. SOE have pledged that the game will constantly evolve over time, and there is already a laundry list of suggestions, both provided by the community and the developers, of what will be introduced over the next few years. One of the most intriguing future additions involves NPC units that could temporarily aligned to a particular faction or simply as a global wildcard. This is also on top of the most demanded feature – player built and run structures.
But if there is a simple thing I miss the most from the original PlanetSide, it is that the command and rank structure has been simplified in order to appeal to a wider group of “casual” players. There are few hard restrictions on what can be used and at what time, it’s remarkably easy, resources permitting, to do almost everything you want. Certifications still prevent some of the more heavy equipment from being put in the hands of total noobs, but it doesn’t take very long before you’re piloting a Galaxy. But there is still nothing more powerful than a squad that has been primed for domination.
PlanetSide 2 delivers an experience that not only captures the original by expanding and improving on its merits, but modernises it in every conceivable way. Almost every aspect looks, sounds, plays and performs extraordinarily well, exceeding many of the metrics most people would judge a F2P game (or, frankly, an SOE game) by in the first place. It significantly raises the bar for any competitor thinking of entering the arena and effectively does to the sub-genre what GW2 has done for its MMO. Hands-down one of the best games of the year.
- LOCAL. AUSTRALIAN. SERVER.
- Outstanding graphics, sound, latency and performance
- Both respects and improves on the original
- F2P system is fair, balanced and safeguarded
- Unbelievably addictive
- Very high learning curve
- Rank/Command system has been dulled somewhat
- VOIP system needs some work