Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
As you might have been able to gather from the episodes of Dealspwn Playthrough we dedicated to it (viewable here & here if you missed them) or my ramblings in the recent editions of the PWNcast, I’ve been rather excited about PlanetSide 2, the MMOFPS sequel to what proved to be a rather marmite-esque experience a few years back. This was mainly thanks in one part to some rather divisive design choices, and in another part due to heavy latency on its server. With SOE having learned from their mistakes, they were ready to give it another shot using the best hardware and graphical assets at their disposal. What had been rumoured as Planetside Next was finally unveiled last year as PlanetSide 2, but more importantly was the news that it was doing away with subscriptions in favour of a business model that has really stepped up a gear in recently times – Free To Play – that really set tongues wagging.
For those of you who are not familiar with the conflict of PlanetSide, let me get you up to speed on its backstory. The game takes place on the planet Auraxis: an alien planet filled with technological remains of a long dead race called the Vanu. Unfortunately, the planet gets cut off from the rest of humanity when the nearby wormhole collapses, leaving the military detachment of the totalitarian Terran Republic with no way back home, along with having restore order among the populous that are less than enthused with their governing style. This leads to the New Conglomerate, a group consisting of rebels, industry titans and pirates, to break away and engage the TR in open hostilities, whilst a group of fanatical scientists studying the alien artefacts on Auraxis start to not only create exotic weaponry, but begin to augment their own bodies to enhance humanity. Calling themselves the Vanu Sovereignty, they declare war on anyone of an “unenlightened” nature who sees their ambitions as inhuman. Thus beings a three-sided conflict, forever continuing thanks to adapted Vanu technology resurrecting the fallen to fight another day.
And that’s where you come in.
At launch, the battle for Auraxis takes place over three continents: the sand-filled Indar, the icy Esamir, and the tropical Amerish. Hundreds of players on each of the three sides of the war fight for control of numerous bases and towers scattered across each continent, each one capable of increasing the rate at which resources regenerate. It effectively makes PS2 one big Domination or King Of The Hill gamemode, but what separates SOE’s MMOFPS from other large scale FPS titles such as MAG or 64-player Battlefield 3 is that this war is persistent, with the fight continuing even when you are offline. It’s a struggle that never ends, but thankfully SOE have made sure that it’s a mechanically sound and entertaining eternal conflict.
We’re Going In…
The FPS controls while on foot are some of the best I’ve played all year, providing a platform for players to jump in and get started from the word go. Admittedly though, newcomers will be inducted into the game through a baptism of fire, hurtling down to the planet in a drop pod into the largest battle available. Survival chances will be slim (and anyone who lasts more than the initial 30 seconds should get a medal) but once slain the game begins for real, providing players with a look at the map. That base they just landed in is but a dot on the continent, and the player has the ability to travel (almost) anywhere.
The sheer scale of PS2 can be slightly overwhelming initially, and is mainly due to a lack of effective tutorial. An introduction video rushes through the basics and some pop-ups appear when entering menus for the first time, but a proper in-game beginners sequence needs to be implemented. Instead, players must ask veterans for advice or refer to external sources (ie. Forums and wikis) to understand what to do. SOE had said something is in the pipeline, but for now it is a case of “learn by doing” for the most part. It should also be noted that unlike its predecessor, PS2 does not have a Sanctuary for each empire from which to prepare assaults, with this role now moved to the warpgates on each continent. In short, you’re going to be constantly on the front lines.
Thankfully, the player has everything at their disposal as long as they get to a loadout terminal. From tanks to aircraft, from light weaponry to heavy ordinance, and from healing tools to repair kits, everything is attainable as the situation calls for it thanks to the six roles available to each empire. For example, Light Infantry have jetpacks allowing players to double-jump and scale fortifications, while Engineers can deploy turrets and drop ammo packs, and Infiltrators are able to turn invisible when they are not hacking consoles and sniping. These are but a few of the classes, all fine-tuned to fit into the war machine without feeling too overpowered (or creating a “flavour of the month” scenario.)
Choosing Your Allegiances
It ultimately allows the player to find a role best suited to their abilities and skill level, but beyond this each empire its own individual feel, and this will further work into the playstyle of budding soldiers. This is because, as well as having their own individual aesthetic design, each of the empires has its own strengths and weaknesses. The Terran Republic are the fastest of the three in both vehicles and their weaponry fire rate, but this comes at the cost of hitting with less damage; The New Conglomerate are the heaviest hitters in the game, but it comes at the cost of being the slowest on the battlefield; and the Vanu Sovereignty use energy weapons that do not suffer from bullet drop-off, but as a result do less damage the further their ammunition has the travel. It ensures that as well as playing to the strengths of your empire, players must react differently depending on which army they are fighting, and makes three-way battles some of the most intense fights to be had.
Then there are the vehicles, the sweet, sweet vehicles. The various ground vehicles available handle with as much precision as being on foot, with the tanks in particular providing me with some of my most satisfying kills, but the aircraft takes some getting used to with a mouse and keyboard. As it stands joystick support is included in the game, but mixed results unfortunately ensure it isn’t a viable control alternative, something I hope SOE remedy over time. However, with the ability to have multiple people in a number of transport options, it allows a true feeling of teamwork to be included as you travel (especially in the case of the bomber aircraft) making the sight of a huge convoy of vehicles not only one of the more breath-taking sights in the game, but ensure that the battles are beyond anything else available in an FPS today.
Also, the Vanu superiority fighter, the Wraith, is clearly the best looking thing in the game… and I’m not just saying that because it’s basically a Cylon Raider (that is a large plus point though.)
The User Interface, while able to display all the relevant information you need at the time, does have some room for improvement. The radar, for example, can get swamped with unit indicators, and if a squad member goes outside of the display radius it can be difficult to locate them without directly asking them. Even identifying objectives can be troublesome in the heat of the moment, although taking a step back to analyse the situation usually helps (it also usually get my killed though.) That said, the built-in VOIP, while not perfect, allows for players to communicate both with teammates and in the local proximity to help organise the war effort. It’s not quite on par with dedicated software that is available, but its implementation is a welcome one.
Triple-A Visuals For (Optionally) Nothing
Although these battles usually end up as a spawn-camping session until the base in question is captured, everything up until that point is nothing but pure adrenaline-fuelled combat, no matter how you’re partaking. The fact it’s also one of the better looking FPS titles on PC certainly doesn’t hurt matters, and even after all my time in-game I’m still impressed by the visuals, especially the night time battles where the tracer fire flies through the darkness as if you’re playing with a sparkler. The various environments over which the battles take place are incredibly well designed, each region having its own familiar-looking and alien flora to see as you explore the land around you (or, more likely, use as cover against incoming fire.) The end result is a suitably impressive backdrop for some of the most visually intense battles I’ve played in a game, rivalling orchestrated set pieces of some of the biggest blockbusters of the year.
Let me put it this way: Dozens upon dozens of tanks firing, being backed up by troop transports, whilst air support flies overhead, and infantry try to hold the line from an oncoming assault? It’s a sight that beats anything Halo, COD, or BF can muster up, hands-down.
If there is any criticism about the layout of the various continents, it is how apart from the bridges, there are no real roads – only dirt tracks. The lore for the game (found on the website) tries to explain why, but it makes the world feel like it was only recently settled, and a little empty in the process. My personal wish is that one of the future continents features an occasional urbanised area to mix things up a little, instead of it being “base, vista, another base, rinse-repeat” all over yet again.
"She Can't Handle That Mu-... Oh Wait, She Can. Carry On!"
So, let’s talk performance. It appears that optimisation and system performance has been a high priority for SOE, with my beast of a PC rig being able to create stunning visuals as I fly across the vistas of Auraxis. The effects, from the way light shines from headlights or torches, is used effectively (and displays for all players) to the exhaust being emitted from aircraft provide visuals normally only found in AAA titles. Perhaps more impressively, PlanetSide 2 manages to run on less powerful systems without suffering too badly. Visual effects such as those from explosions take a hit in the spectacle department, but as scalability goes it should mean that a large number of systems can join in the fight.
Latency has reared its ugly head during peak times on occasion for me, and I have shared the frustrations of many in regards to server outage issues during the launch window, but for the most part I have found myself being able to engage in fights without fear of lag ruining my day. Of course, during evenings when hundreds of players want to play, the queues begin to form, with subscribers getting the opportunity to cut in front of their non-playing brethren. It’s an important fact to consider when choosing a server (such as Miller, where I currently play) but I have yet to wait anything longer than 15 minutes as a non-subscriber at the time of writing. Take from that what you will.
Although a large portion of my time in PlanetSide 2 has been going solo without a squad, I’ve honestly never felt lonely. In fact, I’ve still felt like a part of a team as the glorious Terran Republic charges forward, wiping out the scum in blue and purple. Sorry, I’ll try and remain impartial for the rest of the review, but this is actually one of the aspects that SOE have absolutely nailed – The unapologetic, slightly unreasonable, and all-in-good-fun rivalry between members of each empire. Yelling out because a damn Elmo has just managed to flank you, or crying when you spot a wing of Barney Wraiths flying over the horizon towards you is all part of the process. A glorious, red-dominating process [Focus, Carl -Ed.] Getting back on topic though, solo players are never punished for going it alone, but playing in a group ultimately provides the best experience.
Career Progression: Hard Earned Or Paid For?
Of course, beyond the battle there needs to be a reason to return time and time again, an encouragement to go out there and capture one more base or kill another opposing player. This comes through the acquisition of Certification Points that are periodically awarded as a player earns experience. Spending these points unlock upgrades for class abilities (such as better healing or improved armour) allowing players to become more proficient at their chosen role, but the best part about it is that they can be acquired into any area. For example, I could be playing as a Medic, healing my comrades and earning Cert Points, but then allocating them into improving my skill with a tank. These points can also be spent on upgrades for your weapons, but here comes the kicker: the rate at which you acquire points will test the patience of many gamers.
This is where the microtransaction store will come into play, allowing the purchase of not only XP multipliers for faster gain, but allows players to instantly unlock weapons for classes and vehicles (there is even a "Try Before You Buy" feature to ensure you never regret a purchase.) Although everything can be unlocked just by playing for free should you wish to, an uphill struggle is certainly ahead, especially with the aircraft in mind. I found myself having to buy a new gun for my Mosquito fighter just to stand a chance at killing other targets, and even now I feel I should probably get missiles as well as I continue to have a hard time gaining air superiority. I’m not suggesting the system is imbalanced at all, in fact I found that unless you have a larger role in an Outfit (ie Clan / Guild) you can actually get by with the standard loadout for most vehicles, but newcomers could feel pressured into buying some weapons just to play catch up.
Then again, having paid nothing for the game in the first place, is that really such a bad thing? You only spend as much as you want to, and you help to support a game that, quite frankly, is an absolute blast to play, be it for 15 minutes or an entire afternoon. A number of vanity items are also available too, should players feel the need to be more unique on the battlefield, but the larger question remains: is there a reason to keep coming back for more, or even investing any money into the experience?
There Is Only The Fight
In a discussion I had with Jon during one of our play sessions, we came to an agreement that what SOE have managed to do with PlanetSide 2 is capture the exciting cinematic experience of a battle normally reserved for cutscenes They have ensured the moment to moment gameplay is always interesting and that there is always a fight to be had somewhere on Auraxis. What it doesn't do is capture the concept and aftermath of war. By that I mean that there is no time to revel in the hard fought capture of that base you just liberated, and there's no general populous to appreciate or loathe your efforts: There is only the fight. Ultimately that base you captured will no doubt be under enemy control in a few hours, and the only stand-out characters are the players who make a name for themselves, or those you create a rivalry in a battle-by-battle basis. As such, if you're looking for a deep and meaningful conflict that is told through a intricate narrative, you will almost certainly end up feeling like the game is a little empty.
But here's the thing: You make your OWN narrative with the players you team up with. That small skirmish you just started over a tower could escalate into a large scale pitched battle that goes on for an hour, perhaps even longer, ultimately leading into a charge across the map making sweeping gains on all fronts... until the retaliation begins, and you find yourself running for your life. That's just one story from mine and Jon's adventures (yours may vary) and while the same bases will be fought over tomorrow or next week, it certainly won't be the same battle as last time. It's a case of "it's the journey, not the destination" with PlanetSide 2, and it's a journey you can make for free. In fact, you could make your own mind up, if you were so inclined.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some Smurfs and Barneys to destroy.
- An FPS on a scale unlike anything else on the market.
- Truly exciting and visually intense combat, all the time.
- A Triple-A gaming experience, and you don't have to pay a penny for it...
- ... That said, you might feel you have to spend a little trying to catch up initially.
- A lack of tutorial will ensure newcomers are unnecessarily disorientated initially.
- Identifying objectives and targets of interest can be troublesome with the radar in its current state.
The Short Version: As long as players can weather the storm that is the the initial drop into the game, PlanetSide 2 provides the largest, the most intense, and arguably exciting FPS experience available on the market today. Despite some niggling launch issues, SOE have managed to create one of the first Free To Play titles with a Triple-A feel. Best of all, you don't have to pay a penny for it.