Sony Online Entertainment pioneered the MMOFPS with the original PlanetSide almost ten years ago, and now theyre rolling out the second game in that franchise, PlanetSide 2. A lot has changed in that time, both with the game and its target audience. The average gamer is older today than the gamers of a decade ago, and developers are challenged with designing titles that are fun and exciting to younger players while keeping them accessible to mature gamers with careers and families.
Not only has the market changed since PlanetSide was released, but the standard for graphics has continued to accelerate while the FPS genre has become increasingly taxing on hardware. A changing target audience and demanding technical considerations mean that SOE had their work cut out for them in the development of PlanetSide 2. Did they succeed?
Throughout beta, Ten Ton Hammer stalked the forests of Amerish, battled the snow and chill of Esamir, and struggled through the dusty canyons of Indar to answer just that.
PlanetSide 2 is a first person shooter and, of course, combat equates to simulated violence. Theres no blood, and little attention was paid to simulating the gore of actual combat. PS2 isnt that kind of game, so while violence is inherent, its nothing overtly brutal.
Though the game-play would be relatively easy for a young player to pick up, the new addition of VoIP means that kids may hear some things youd rather they didnt. Additional caution in that area would be warranted if youd rather your kid didnt add some colorful language to his or her vocabulary.
Gameplay - 87 / 100
PlanetSide 2 takes off as soon as you step into the game. There are no levels to slow you down or define your area of play. A few very basic clicks in the character-creation process, a quick look at the map for the nearest fight, and youre on your way.
All Your Base
The mechanics around base capture could prove confusing for some newcomers to the franchise, although there are a few FPS games out there that function similarly. The tactical objective in PlanetSide 2 is to capture bases on whichever continent youre on. Each base is designed a little differently than the others, and some are wildly unique. Between major facilities are smaller outposts, and each provides some benefit.
Larger facilities might give the controlling empire a small health regeneration boost when out of combat, or access to bigger vehicles. Outposts are still important in the grand scheme because, like facilities, they produce the resources used to pull vehicles and replenish special weaponry. Occasionally, players can find themselves perplexed when theyre unable to access certain things where they expected to be able to. Often, the reason is the loss of the facility that granted access to it.
All equipment is always accessible at your empires warp gate, though. Having to go back that far from the front line may frustrate some players, but the planning, staging, and execution of major offensives is one of the hallmarks of the franchise and creates some of the best stories.
Unlike the original PlanetSide, a player could conceivably get every single certification in PlanetSide 2, although they are numerous, and the achievement would be no small feat. While this does prevent players from being more limited like they were in the first PlanetSide, Im personally not that crazy about the new system.
The problem with the new system is that it diminishes the value of any particular class as a whole by giving everyone the ability to become a generalist rather than a specialist when necessary, and by failing to promote interdependency between the classes. Theres no need to wait on the engineer to repair my tank, I can just pull up next to an infantry terminal, become an engineer, and then repair it myself.
Additionally, where in the original PlanetSide battles took more forethought and planning to ensure that the right people were in position at the right time, the newer system pits raw numbers against raw numbers. Specific needs can be met on the fly without the same amount of strategic coordination.
I know SOEs intent was to make the game more accessible to players, but the results seem to devalue expertise. In the end, players no longer have the chance to take pride in being good at their chosen profession because anyone can do the same. While SOE got a lot right with PlanetSide 2, I honestly think the homogenization of the classes took away from one of the aspects that made the first game so special.
Words with Friends
PlanetSide 2 added VoIP, and while it has its detractors, Id call it a resounding success. Third-Party VoIP systems are still better overall, as many players will tell you, but its not fair to compare dedicated software to in-game voice chat offered as a perk.
The VoIP system allows the average player access to a number of channels such as Local Area, Squad, Platoon, and Outfit. This facilitates communication greatly, and allows PUGs access to the same potential level of coordination as an established outfit. A good outfit platoon will still whip a PUG virtually every time, but not nearly so handily or as easily as they might have otherwise.
Another bonus is that Outfits can pick up potential recruits, run a few operations with them, talk to them, and get to know them without ever having to grant them access to the outfits private servers until the decision has been made to accept them into the fold. It may not seem like much, but I think its a real step forward in facilitating communication in the community. Anything that makes outfit recruiting easier is a win.
The quality of the VoIP is decent, too. (Ive definitely used worse in my Army days, but then its not hard to beat HF.) Ive noticed that when theres a lot of activity in my area of the server, or when Im limiting the available bandwidth for whatever reason, the PS2 VoIP will break up a little more than a third-party system will. But then, its also running through the game itself, so one shouldnt expect the same performance.
Graphics - 90 / 100
Some might see a graphics score of 90 for PlanetSide 2 as high. Sure, the game isnt exactly on the bleeding edge of the graphics spectrum, but dont turn your nose up at it until youve seen a fight at night.
Even during the daylight periods, the game is nice looking with solid character models and texturing. The glowing lights and details on bases and vehicles are all well done and arent so heavily used as to just be silly. The results are a good representation of that futuristic military vibe the devs were going for without hitting you in the face with it over and over.
Blown vehicle husks still look a little basic and tracers from weapons often look less than realistic, but the dust and debris kicked up from explosions adds realism, and so do the smoke effects. Ive caught myself high above a tank battle pausing to watch the fighting surge back and forth across an open field more than once.
Its when the sun goes down that the game starts shining graphically, though. Tracer-fire that looks a little cheesy in the daylight looks simply amazing at night. Battles with explosions caught against the starlit sky, with the rising disk of a blue-green planet in the background, coalesce into one of the quintessential scenes in PS2.
Sound - 95 / 100
PlanetSide 2 is expertly scored by Jeff Broadbent, with additional music by Don Ferrone, who wrote the music for the first PlanetSide. Several themes will sound familiar to returning veterans. Each faction receives its own flair in the music department, with the Vanu being more synth and techno, the Terrans leaning toward the symphonic side, and the NC getting a touch of rock.
The sound effects lend a credible amount of realism. Most games merely adjust volume for weapons fire at various ranges, but in reality the sound of weapons changes quite a bit over distance as terrain absorbs some frequencies and amplifies others. PS2 does a good job of capturing that distance effect on weapons fire and explosions. I was capturing a facility in the Beta and a tank battle started up off in the distance. I was struck by how exceptionally well the sound folks at SOE captured the nuances of distant guns and explosions.
Multiplayer - 90 / 100
Groups in PlanetSide 2 are called squads, and theyre made up of 12 players. If there are enough players to form multiple squads, up to four at a time can join together to form a platoon. When teamed up in this way, players can see other members color coded by squad on the map. Playing in a squad or platoon in PS2 is really the best idea. Besides the obvious benefit of having teammates to count on in a fight, joining a squad also allows the player to join the action quickly by using a drop-pod to get into the fight from anywhere on the continent.
Both the platoon and each squad have their own dedicated VoIP channels for facilitating conversation. Occasionally, that can prove irritating when players talk over each other but, as with the local VoIP channel, specific volume controls allow you to turn down offenders. With good communication a solid squad or platoon can create a gaming experience unlike anything in any other FPS.
Beyond the immediate fight, players can join an outfit in PlanetSide 2 (think guild or corp from other games). Outfits have their own VoIP channel for communicating with multiple platoons at once, and in PS2 the bigger the battle, the more fun it is. Outfits provide a faster way to find good fights, and SOE did a good job with the auto-squadding feature, which puts outfit squads at the top of the list when used.
Value - 95 / 100
Its really hard to argue with free, and PlanetSide 2 being free-to-play earns it a solid score in this category. Players are getting a triple-A title that they dont have to pay for. A lot of games have come out recently as pay-to-play and then switched to a free-to-play model as subscribers started losing interest. You dont even have to buy the game to play PS2, its a free download.
Just like other free-to-play titles, PlanetSide 2 does offer an online store where players can purchase upgrades with Station Cash. Upgrades are broken into three categories: Cosmetics, Certifications, and Boosts/Implants. Cosmetic upgrades are the only ones that cant be earned just by playing the game.
The decision to make every game-impacting item in PlanetSide 2 available through in-game mechanics was a wise one. Too often, companies try to squeeze a few extra dollars out of players by making something that changes the power dynamics of the game exclusive to the online store. That sort of pay-to-win system has consistently killed game communities and created pervasive skepticism when it comes to most free-to-play titles.
Conversely, offering a way to purchase those items for cash, as opposed to spending extra time in the game, makes PlanetSide 2 far more accessible to older gamers with busy lives. SOE accomplishes this without breaking the balance of the game because everything that can be bought can also just be earned, meaning that players are really just purchasing time and convenience more than anything else. Thats a winning recipe.
Lasting Appeal - 82 / 100
Based on some of the comments from the SOE devs about whats in the works, and what should be coming down the pike in the near future, this score could potentially be higher. For fans of the series, there have been some phenomenal ideas kicked around by both Smed and Higby, and Id be lying if I said I wasnt excited. The problem is that we have to grade games on their launched state, not their potential. With that in mind, there are a few things about PS2 that keep it from scoring as well in this category as it did in some of the others.
To begin with, there are really only three continents to fight over at launch, as opposed to ten in the original (not counting the caverns from Core Combat), and while the three we have are much better looking and the level of effort in the design of the continents is obvious, the game does feel significantly smaller.
The feel of the game being smaller is also exacerbated by the choice to lose the lattice system that tied facilities together in the first game. Because theres no real focus to move from one specific facility to the next, the battles become more spread out and involve several smaller engagements, rather than one or two larger ones. I know it was a design decision, and there were good reasons for it, but epically large battles have always been one of the defining characteristics of PlanetSide. I miss them.
That said, PlanetSide 2 is enormously addicting and fun as it stands now, even though, as a fan, I might wish SOE had handled some things differently. For example, though its not my favorite mechanic, I have to admit that the certification system with lateral upgrades provides enough complexity to give the game significant flexibility, and thus sustainability.
The fact that you dont have to worry about a subscription makes it easy to leave and come back to the game with ease. And, if you find that your friends have out-progressed you a little, you can just dump a small amount of cash into the online store and youre caught back up. With all it has going for it, even though it probably wont be the only pony in the stable, PlanetSide 2 is likely to be one of those games you turn back to periodically.
Pros and Cons
- Cant beat free, especially for a title of this quality
- Fight on some of the largest maps in any FPS
- Battle with thousands of other players on a single continent
- Roll tanks, bombers, or infantry as you head out to meet the enemy
- New in-game VoIP system makes communication a snap
- Very easy game to invest small chunks of time in, rather than requiring hours at a sitting
- In-game interface for recording videos for those who are in to machinima
- The certification system de-emphasizes specialization in any particular class
- New players may find it a little hard to understand why theyre fighting and where
- Theres a lot going on, so new players may be overwhelmed at volume of unrelated activity around them until they get a better grasp of game mechanics
- The UI is a little clunky and takes getting used to
- Smaller world than its predecessor, and diffused battles makes it feel a little less epic
At the end of the day, you want to know whether PlanetSide 2 is a game worth playing, and my answer would be a definite yes. There may be things I wish SOE had done differently, but what game dont we have those thoughts about?
What matters is that, when it all shakes out, this game is fun and its free--a winning combination in anyones book. The size of the game makes it unique in the genre and provides something no pitiful Call of Duty game will ever be able to touch. Levels dont matter, so no matter how much time youve invested in the game, youll still be competitive. Thats good news for busy folks who cant afford a significant time investment.
SOE has created a pretty game with solid mechanics in PlanetSide 2, and theyre allowing you to play it for free. In my opinion, youd be smart to give it a shot. Its likely youll find a game that changes the standard by which FPSs are measured. So, get out there and defend your planet, Soldier!
Overall 90/100 - Great
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