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PlanetSide 2 Review

By Jeff Buckland, 11/30/2012

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Planetside 2 is unlike nearly any other first person shooter you've ever played; the only game it's similar to... is the first Planetside. It's a massive multiplayer online shooter that divides players into three competing factions and sets them loose by the thousands onto large continents with a wide range of weapons, vehicles, aircraft, and other equipment. It's up to the players to figure out how to capture bases, defend the territory they've already taken, and paint the continent in their color: red, blue, or purple.

My first two hours playing the release version of Planetside 2 served as a pretty good example of how this game subverts expectations of what a first person shooter should be. I had a few hours' worth of experience in beta and early experience with the first game, so I just decided to jump right in. When I created my character and jumped into the game, I was immediately met with an on-screen prompt to auto-join a squad of players with a single key. I hit it, and was then invited to press it again to immediately spawn on a squadmate at a battle hotspot. How could I refuse? I found myself at a small tower with several anti-air turret and anti-armor cannon installations placed all it, and found myself simply manning these turrets for the next two hours, fighting off infantry appearing via orbital drops, the aircraft coming for our armor, and enemy armor itself. I ran around and repaired turrets as the Engineer class, but spent most of my time frantically shooting enemies from the turrets themselves, learning to lead and adjust for bullet drop, and playing cat-and-mouse - well, as much as you can in a stationary turret - with tank drivers thinking they could pull a fast one on me. (And sometimes that's exactly what they did, and I can't say I was too upset about it.)

I was at that tower for two hours, simply defending against the enemy assault. Two hours in most first person shooters today would be a very different experience, as in most cases, the developers would be so wary of constantly impending boredom that they keep throwing shiny things at you in order to keep your eyes glued to the screen. With Planetside 2, Sony Online understands that most FPS games are a catering to the attention-deficit players we see so often today, and Sony isn't even trying to appeal to them. Instead, they challenges players to create their own goals and accomplishments, even if it's just to hold out at one tower, even if that's only one of dozens of installations on one of the game's three continents. In this game, you're not the chosen one, there's no narrative for your character, and except in the most rare of circumstances, the sheer size of the firefights and the vast number of people involved means that any one player's effect on a battle will be severely limited. No one person can carry the team when the team numbers in the hundreds.

But that limitation is hit only when playing alone; squads and outfits are something different entirely. With Planetside 2's competent voice chat support, fairly large squads, and the ability to work together by the dozens in an outfit (this game's version of guilds or clans), organized efforts to change the course of a battle on a continent can most certainly have an impact. It's during these moments that Planetside 2 is at its best, but what makes this game a success is that you don't need all of this to jump on for a lunch-break-sized firefight and still contribute to your side's progress in a continent. The downside is that the next day the map will look entirely different and all that effort you spent is likely to have been erased, but I don't see a way to fix this, really. After all, nothing is really permanent in an online action game anyway, so as long as zone control isn't constantly flipping back and forth every five minutes, keeping something safe for at least a few hours is probably plenty.

Planetside 2 is a free-to-play game, and that means a lot of questions have to be asked that wouldn't even come up if the game cost sixty bucks. The first is whether the ways to pay for faster unlocks - through buying weapons, getting boosts and becoming a subscriber for perks - ruins the game for those who choose not to pay a dime. This is a living game that can and will change, but for now, my assessment is that no, the integrity of the game isn't ruined by the developers asking for money to allow players to progress more quickly. Some guns seem a lot like obvious upgrades while others are more like sidegrades, but one issue right now is that the game offers no statistics beyond a basic lore-centric description of these weapons. Sony has instituted a system where you can temporarily equip a gun and try before you buy for a limited time, but many players are not aware since it's actually a little hidden behind the "Unlock" button's menu option. And yes, nearly every performance-changing weapon and upgrade is attainable with free play; the XP and real-money cost of guns can be a bit rough, but it's manageable in my opinion, if only just.

Either way, you can probably afford one upgrade for a weapon or vehicle using just the XP from one good, productive evening's worth of play (and without spending any money at all), but to unlock a premium gun, you'd have to save up for at least a few days unless you are making XP at a really ridiculous rate. On top of all this, you can get boosts to improve XP gain either by the hour, day, or week, and you can even use a squad-based XP boost that will stack with others' boosts - but these can only be bought with real money. So to boil it down: there's a tiny bit of "pay to win" here in Planetside 2, but for the most part, you can reasonably play without paying a dime and do a lot of good work, especially since tactics and organization are vastly more important than the gun in your hands.

The learning curve, however, is generally the biggest barrier to getting into Planetside 2. The game doesn't offer a lot in the way of tutorials, and it throws you right in with the wolves. You can deploy directly into the action instantly upon logging in and quickly hit a key to find a squad and then drop in on them to stand by their sides, but after that it will get a little confusing for a new player. For example, if you successfully defend a base, it can be difficult to know what to do next. Why is the enemy not attacking anymore? (Answer: we blew up the enemy's player-spawning Sunderer APC or spawn generator, and the enemy has decided to hit somewhere else nearby that's less entrenched.) Where did my squad go? (They probably piled into a friendly Sunderer or troop-transporting Galaxy ship and moved on.) Where should I go next? (Check the map and deploy on a hotspot if it's available, follow your friends marked in green on the map, or find a vehicle terminal at the base you're at and grab an ATV or tank and find a hotspot on the map.) But these answers don't come naturally or even in the first couple of hours of play, so if you are considering jumping into Planetside 2 and have no experience with an MMOFPS, the best choice might be to find a mentor to help you get up to speed quickly. That might be in joining an outfit, getting some help from a real-life buddy that plays, or even just watching some YouTube videos, but it's important to point out that you won't get the most from this game without learning how to move around on the map, find fights where they matter, and participate in attack and defense effectively. Playing this game like any other online shooter - like Call of Duty or even Battlefield 3 - is not enough to get the most out of this game.

Sony has left us with some technical issues that need to be addressed in the coming weeks. Sometimes the view distance of enemies seems ridiculously short, player movement feels a little strange, and sometimes your death is a bit confusing (as there is no killcam and your death is often jerky and strangely animated). General network lag also seems to be a problem with regards to enemy movement, as you'll often see players twitching around the screen kind of erratically. At this point, though, it's tough to pinpoint whether that's the fault of the game or a problem with players' individual internet connections. Still, it happens just often enough that it seems like the game's just a bit too much for some PCs, and those machines' issues will kind of drag down the experience a little bit for everyone else. On top of this, it seems like there's still some room for improvements from the developers when it comes to improving and maintaining frame rates, but the thing is, this game can't be scaled down for a slow computer without changing the game's structure or scale. Each of the game's current three continents have thousands of players fighting on them, and often you'll have hundreds of those players coming together at once in large battles.

With Battlefield 3, if you had a slower PC, you could just stick with 16- and 24-player servers rather than the more demanding 64-player servers, but you can't do something similar here since you never know when a hundred players will show up and wreck your frame rate. Simply put, your PC needs to be able to handle the worst Planetside 2 has to offer without getting too bogged down, and if it can't, then you'll find plenty of frustration. I spent some time playing on a laptop that was pretty close to the minimum requirement, and I found myself having to avoid large fights or simply leave areas that were too hot - and instead focus on taking less-populated bases. It'd be tough to explain that to squadmates or guys in your outfit, and again, if working together in numbers to defend and attack facilities isn't your eventual endgame, you're not getting the most out of Planetside 2. Bring a powerful PC if you want to play this game, or wait to play it until you get some upgrades to handle it. You'll have vastly more fun this way.

One of the best bits of praise I think I can hurl towards Planetside 2 is that right now, a game like this simply could not run properly on anything but a powerful PC. The interactions of hundreds of players in one small area, all using tactics along with mixed vehicle and infantry warfare at once is very attractive, but even an intimate one-on-one firefight still feels right. What's even better is that the developers have delivered all this as a free-to-play game that's mostly balanced in its approach for both paying and free players. It's got a bit of wonkiness that can be frustrating to have to deal with and the frame rate could still use a little improvement, but with Planetside 2, Sony Online has shipped the best, most insanely ambitious game they've made in years. It still needs some work, but I'm very impressed with the end result. If you've got a powerful PC and a desire to bring some real tactics and organization to your team-based FPS fighting, then this game is a must-try. And with no material cost to get started, all you have to lose is the time it takes to download, patch, and give it a shot.

Overall: 9 out of 10



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