Planetside 2 Hands-on Comic-Con 2012 Preview -- Lone Wolves Need Not ApplyBy Kevin Kelly - Posted Jul 17, 2012
Planetside 2 wants to turn the current MMO paradigm on its ear by swapping out swords and spells for spaceships and guns. It also wants to capitalize on the rabid fanbase that the original game built up after launching in 2003, back when broadband internet wasn't nearly as popular as it is now.
The team at Sony Online Entertainment also want to make the game "future proof" by putting options into the menus that will "bring the world's best systems to a halt," according to Matt Higby. They want the powerhouse computers that haven't even been made yet to take advantage of abilities we don't know about yet, which is setting your own bar fairly high.
But that's the future. Let's talk about the present, where we just had our own hands-on experience with Planetside 2 nearly a year after it was first announced. Forget about vertex shaders and hyper gamma settings and support for holographic monitors. Is this game fun? The short answer is: yes. A slightly longer answer: Actually, it's a lot of fun. And it's even more fun if you work together and play with a team that has skill. That's where Planetside 2 faces its biggest challenge, and its greatest asset: making players work together.
Most FPS games drop you into a firefight and give you one goal, which is commonly to shoot more opponents than the other team. Almost always, the emphasis is on lone wolfing your way through a match. While some games offer squad-based mechanics and ways for players to partner up, more often than not you'll find people running and gunning, dying, respawning, and then repeating.
Rarely is there a team-effort present, and any instructions you're likely to hear are along the lines of, "HEY IDIOT! WHY DO YOU SUCK SO BAD!?" Which of course is paraphrased from your standard online-speak, which will normally contain several colorful expletives. Hopefully, Planetside 2 will avoid that trap.
During my first outing into the game, I wasn't aware of what would be a good spawn point. So, I inadvertently found myself located very far away from my teammates on the eight kilometer by eight kilometer map. One of the developers came by and said, "Oh, wow. You're really far away from everyone else. You should just kill yourself and respawn."
But, is that good gameplay? That isn't something you could do if you were an actual soldier in this conflict, and in a real game, you could use voice or text chat to have a buddy come and pick you up in a vehicle.
Sadly, none of the journalists I was playing with were using chat, so after running for a few minutes, I gave up and tossed a grenade at my feet. Upon further inspection and a bit of studying, you'll notice that the spawn map actually reads as a hex-based game board. Different areas are colored to represent the faction that controls them, and zooming in will let you see where conflicts and your teammates are. You can also pick out important structures and locations, making it easy to deploy near a vehicle terminal or base. Otherwise, you'll be hoofing it, or attempting to capture points all on your own in the middle of nowhere, and that isn't much fun.
Planetside 2 is all about controlling the map, which means capturing and defending. Some locations are small and only have one capture point, but others are large and require you to control several different spots on the map, at which point the location as a whole will slowly come under your control, and is represented by a bar on your HUD. If you're trying to take a location deep inside enemy territory, it will take a long time, but if you're taking somewhere that is bordered by your faction, you'll have an easier time.
Vehicles are extremely popular, and you'll probably find the aerial offerings a bit difficult to fly. You'll want to practice out in the middle of nowhere, because like the helicopters in Battlefield 3, these things are very easy to crash. Ground vehicles are much easier to pilot, but of course aren't quite as fast or agile. Like other FPS games, pairing an engineer and a tank together are a good bet. Had we been playing together as a squad, it would be been satisfying to load up a gunship with people manning the guns. Instead, I was often flying solo, and occasionally managing a good strafe run.
On foot, the dev team wants the game to "feel like a Triple A title," and for the most part, it does. You're presented with a spread of weapons and classes to choose from, complete with upgrades, sidegrades, and perks, which give you a huge possibility of combinations. According to creative director Matt Higby, "We never want the player to feel like they're capped out." You'll find stations throughout the map that will allow you to switch classes on the fly, and you can play everything from a light stealth soldier, to piloting a massive Mechanized Assault Exo-Suit (MAX) suit around, stomping and clomping towards the enemy.
Vehicle stations are also where you'll spawn your rides, but given their popularity, there are cooldown timers on all of the vehicles. Which is a good thing, otherwise the skies would be full of airborne incoming at all times. The same goes for the larger vehicles, which avoids tank spam as well. You'll also lose and gain access to vehicle terminals based on your control of the structure they're attached to, and some bases have gun emplacements that are good for fending off ground and air attacks. Although these too are only usable if you control the structure.
The game looks very impressive, and you'll notice a good deal of variety on all of the maps, ranging from barren deserts, to snowbound ice, to lush green areas and canyons. According to Higby, "Each of these maps are handcrafted, and every square inch is meant to support combat."
Taking a tour around the maps in an airborne Mosquito feels like you're in a sci-fi ride at a theme park, and you'll be able to see real-time battles off in the distance if you fly close enough to a skirmish. 3D cockpit views look impressive as well, with actual readouts on the instruments.
Of the three factions in the game, I spent the most time playing the Terran Republic. Probably because they felt the most similar to the space marines you tend to play in most science-fiction games, and also due to the fact that their aerial vehicles felt the most "military." But near the end of our time with the title I switched to the Vanu Soverignty, and had a lot of fun piloting a Magrider tank, which can strafe left and right due to the fact that it actually hovers above the ground. Sorry New Conglomerate fans, I just didn't have time to jump into your group.
The match we played lasted several hours, with portions of the map being lost, retaken, lost, and retaken, providing the feeling of a real, live struggle taking place. When we would take one portion of the map, our enemies would quickly take another, and you can quickly see where working together is the only way you'll be able to dominate. Squads can work together, with a squad leader placing rally points on the map, and you can also turn a larger squad into a platoon with several squads working in tandem towards a common goal.
"The most ideal situation," according to Higby, "is being a platoon, and when you're playing with 30 or 40 people, it starts to feel really good. When you have multiple Galaxies filled with soldiers and you're dropping in on something at once, that feels really amazing."
The game isn't quite in open beta yet, although Sony Online promises that will be coming fairly soon. As a result, not everything was perfect. The jetpacks with the light assault troopers wouldn't fire more than once, and the death animation is a bit too humorous, where you can fall from a tremendous height and when you hit the ground, your view topples over to the side as you expire.
We also weren't able to check out all of the online purchase options yet. Since this is a free to play game, with the ability to buy equipment and visual customizations, there is a huge emphasis placed on balance. You won't be able to purchase new guns and vehicles through the shop, so you can't buy your way to victory.
While there is definitely a learning curve that you'll need to climb when you first drop into Planetside 2, the massive scale of the game combined with the gameplay provides a lot of fun. This is one of the only games that looks poised to actually fill the MMOFPS role, and to do it very well. Working together in tandem with hundreds of other players to take a goal represents a gameplay niche that is currently only represented by EVE Online.
With a beta coming soon, and the dev team still hard at work, we're hoping things will continue to improve, and it already looks on track to do that. PC gamers had better clear plenty of free time in their schedules, and make sure their headsets work, because in PS2, you'll need both.