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|Sony Computer Entertainment
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|8.7/10 - 3 votes
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I Have just received a message from the leader of my Outfit (Planetside's version of a guild) telling me my services are required as a matter of urgency. It seems the Vanu Sovereignty are sweeping across the continent of Hossin in force, having taken the stations of Voltan and Bitol in quick succession. A well-balanced and organised foe, they seem poised to surround the NC Sanctuary warpgate, which if successful would mean our armoured reinforcements will be effectively cut off and the pink armourwearing mutherlovers could be controlling the entire continent within a couple of hours. The question is, do I log into this massively multiplayer online shooter and do my bit for kith and kin, or shall I make my excuses and ensure I get my review in on time? (Don't break the habit of a lifetime on our account - Ed.)
It is of course an easy choice to make. As any freelancer for PC will tell you, lateness is a virtue secretly admired (as the great Paul Mallinson once said, 'You can't rush genius').
Armed with the necessary ammo to stall my baying editor, I make my return to the war-torn planet of Auraxis. Once again slipping into the guise of my trusty alter-ego, a specialist combat engineer, I re-emerge at my faction's Sanctuary.
Back in the warm confines of the game, my reviewing duties are the furthest thing from my mind. Even so, it occurs to me that the graphics are somewhat underwhelming, with garish uniforms and a rather generic range of vehicles. However, criticising the visuals would be a little harsh, given the that the number of players and the size of the environments are both huge. And being both a little chunky and generic myself, who am I to judge?
So back to the game, and a quick message to my Outfit finds most of those online are already engaging the enemy under different squad leaders across three different continents. Now, I could immediately take the HART shuttle and drop down into the thick of the action in a pod, Rogue Trooper-style, but seeing as I'm not much good in a one-on-one firefight (HART pods have a knack of inviting local patrols towards them), I decide to hitch along with a gang who might be going in my general direction. Within minutes I've found a likely bunch.
Now the thing about Planetside that will undoubtedly frustrate a great many people is, that while playing alone as a soldier either side of the lines is possible, it is largely pointless, utterly frustrating and terminally boring. The only way to play is with a temporary squad (or better still an Outfit), and there are always a few in need of semi-experienced players. Unfortunately a fair percentage of them are either led by dimwits, or are made up of a poor selection of player classes. Or both, meaning it can be somewhat of a lottery who you end up fighting alongside, a fact that has a massive influence on how much or how little you'll enjoy the game.
Sadly, my new squad seem pretty clueless. Without the foresight to have enlisted anyone with the necessary skills to pilot any sort of transport vehicle, my new squad mates are consigned to trudge to the front line. More worryingly, our squad leader has neglected to recruit any MAX units (heavily-armoured walking tanks), which are absolutely essential for assaulting and holding capture points for the necessary 15 minutes before a facility comes under the control of your faction.
We do however have three guys in stealth suits, which means we could easily capture one of the more lightly defended installations, we just probably wouldn't be able to hold it for long once the enemy found out. And the enemy does find out, usually very quickly.
Luckily, one altruistic squad member hops off to trade in his stealth skills for the skill of flying a Galaxy transport plane, and. since we already have a Reaver ground assault pilot hovering in his machine overhead, it is decided after 10 minutes of squabbling that we should take off and, as one squad member succinctly puts it, 'crakk sum skullz'. Quite.
Unfortunately, two people bail out en route (another regular and annoying problem), and our team, lacking the skills or indeed numbers, limps heavily towards the Hossin warpgate. Had we not sorted out a proper form of transport though, this would have been one of the most tedious endeavours in the whole of gaming history.
However, it was all for nothing, as we didn't even manage to get to our target area. Minutes after warping in we attracted the attentions of two enemy Reavers and since our own escort had peeled away to deal with an advancing infantry column below, it was left to our trio of hapless door gunners to vainly prod the enemy (rocketfiring) craft with bullets. Minutes later, my whole team was dead. I only survived because I bailed out in time.
Disillusioned, I started looking for another squad and promtly found one which was clearly far more oragnised than my previous Outfit. It was at this point that Planetside started to improve significantly.
Suits You, Sir
After a disorientating few minutes checking the map for nearby fnendly outposts, my new squad leader put out a call and assembled a new team. This time, the squad consisted of a wide variety of class types, meaning our skills would complement each other well. Our leader, for instance, could pilot a Galaxy, drive a massive Sunderer APC, and act as an effective sniper. We would also have a hacker who would sneak in and scout ahead, two MAX units, myself, who would patch them up and set up a perimeter of mines once we'd hacked into the base, two Reaver pilots (one also a medic, the other a fine soldier), plus a driver for the invaluable AMS, the Advanced Mobile Station - a vehicle that once deployed acts as a secret respawn point, invisible to the enemy, which would allow us to spring back into battle without having to take a ten-minute hike. All we needed was a couple of grunts and our assault squad would be ready, a squad capable of taking and holding a base against a far superior force, so long as the element of surprise (another essential factor when launching an offensive in Planetside) was on our side.
The Waiting Game
Which it was. We entered the base of Nuam without incident, found the Command Console and began hacking it without meeting a single enemy. Five minutes into the process the enemy poured in to the area to resecure it. Our Reaver pilots were quickly overwhelmed, but respawned and crept back into the base to join our defensive perimeter of mines and motion sensors, while the rest of us camped behind crates in the hall that guarded access to the console chamber. Both corridors that led to the hall were guarded by our MAXs, while the medic and I occasionally flitted around waiting to heal wounds and repair armour. While we waited for the assault to come, our leader, having hidden the transport among some trees outside the camp, had taken up a position overlooking the base, occasionally picking them off and giving us reports as to the enemy numbers. This guy was playing his role to perfection, and it was then that it became apparent just how important it is to stick to your role if you want your squad to be successful. His quick thinking had given us a vital edge.
As the battle raged and the enemy assault began in earnest, I realised my arms were shaking and my cursor was jumping across the screen, such was the tension - something I hadn't experienced in a game since the early days of Counter-Strike.
An enemy suddenly flicked into view, a scout wearing an Infiltration suit, invisible to certain classes not equipped with the implant necessary to spot his movement. Fortunately I was property equipped and cut him down in a second. Behind him pounded an enemy MAX, its chain gun spitting bullets into the hallway around us, and from behind him I saw a dozen soldiers eager to get past his bulk, some with grenade launchers, others with shotguns and laser rifles.
Over the next few minutes we must have wasted more than 100 enemies. Some tripped on mines, others were cut down by gunfire and rockets. But ammunition was running low and our AMS had been found and destroyed - if any of us were to die now we wouldn't be able to make it back in time to defend the base before the hack had been completed.
Two minutes remained and one MAX was destroyed -1 couldn't get to him to repair him in time - and my health was dangerously low too. I looked around and saw our Medic had gone, marooned elsewhere in the base. Our Hacker was still guarding the command console and the enemy were still attacking in numbers.
Then came a message from the leader outside: at least a dozen friendly tanks and APCs were rushing along the road from the south. Better still, two AMSs had deployed inside the base perimeter, which meant allied soldiers would soon be pouring in. The cavalry was well and truly on their way and the base was all but won - a glorious moment.
This is what Planetside is all about: fighting against the odds, holding out while praying for reinforcements. And when they arrive the feeling of euphoria is indescribable. Add to this the feeling of smugness as you're awarded points to spend on new skills, and you'll be baying for more of the same. At least, for a short while anyway.
The real problem is the value inherent in the game. Had Planetside been released as a regular retail game without the need for people to pay a monthly subscription we would have seriously considered awarding it a Classic score. Expansion packs will add new vehicles, weapons, items and skills and people will buy them and probably be very happy with them. But will it be too little too late? Only time will tell.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, I was hooked for long enough to get my review in late. And when I logged in the day after my side's great victory to try out my character's newly acquired skill for stomping about in MAX armour, I discovered the Hossin continent had been lost, along with half the planet, not to the alien-loving Vanu Sovereignty and their poncy gravity tanks, but to the repressive Terran Republic. All that work was for nothing.
It's clear that despite the persistent way in which people develop their characters, there is no real progression to the game world: front lines shift on the whim of players, but the landscape doesn't fundamentally change over time. The side you join can neither win nor be overthrown and there is no real compulsion to go back to the game once you've taken a couple of days away from it, since you eventually work out that one battle is fundamentally the same as any other.
And that's the thing with Planetside; great fun though it usually is, despite the incredible sense of camaraderie you feel with your allies and especially your squad, and the urgency, tension and incredible scale of some of the battles, there is no real sense of drive to the game, as there is no way any side can really win. At the moment, Planetside is a fantastically enjoyable experience unique from virtually any other FPS, but one that many people will have trouble justifying subscribing to after the 30-day free period expires.
Though your character advances in skill, a hard won gain today will always be followed by a defeat the next that will be out of your hands. It's a bitter pill to swallow and it's sad that there are no campaign medals to earn, only yet another titanic battle over the next hill. But what a battle it will be...
Duck And Cover-a classic tactic in troubled times. But it doesn't do much good when there's a horde of enemy soldiers, two MagRiders and a shell-spewing Lightning tank barreling down on your ass and all you've got handy is a measly AMP pistol. Bugger it all... in the next life, you'll be packing a heavy assault readout. Welcome to life on the front lines, soldier. Welcome to PlanetSide.
For those with a short memory, Sony Online Entertainment is the most powerful force in the massively multiplayer universe. We're talking EverQuest, EverQuest 2, Star Wars Galaxies, Sovereign, and this, the world's first true massively multiplayer FPS. With such heavy-hitting stablemates, PlanetSide is sometimes a bit overlooked in the race for online domination, but is ready to set things to right. We've just paid an exclusive visit to the Sony Online command centre, and we've played the damn thing - and believe us this is going to change the face of online fragging forever. Here's what it's all about...
Why can't we all just get along? It's a question that's plagued mankind for centuries, and apparently will do well into the future, as the three races populating PlanetSide's embattled world in the far-off Star Cradle have nothing but hatred for one another.
Choose to play as the Terran Republic, and you'll find an empire with a fondness for old-fashioned, mechanical gear. Opt instead for the Vanu, and you'll become ensconced in a culture whose fetish for energy and beam weapons is rather disturbing. Decide your best is instead the New Conglomerate and super high technology will be your friend. Whatever the decision, make sure it's a careful one -each faction's survival is at stake, and every one boasts a unique pool of weapons, vehicles and abilities.
As could be expected from the world's first massively multiplayer shooter, the objective is simple - annihilate your enemies. Yet doing so isn't so straightforward. Careful snatch 'n' grab tactics must be used to seize the facilities populating 10 massive continents. Not only that, but beyond standard run-and-gun manoeuvers, you're also attempting to co-ordinate a full-blown war. You fight alongside a group of teammates, each of whom plays a specific role, and there's an entire game's worth of content to digest in the setup alone.
With PlanetSide, we wanted to create an experience that would differ vastly from anything audiences had previously encountered," says producer Dave Georgeson, whose previous credits include the award-winning (and thematically comparable) Tribes 2. There's this format for MMOs - they're all similar. The goal here was establishing something way out of the box that would still get your adrenaline pumping."
Before vying for control of a persistent world that operates 24/7, you've got to create a working avatar. By spending an initial pool of character points, which can be added to as experience and greater level rankings are gained, players purchase Certifications. Essentially skill sets, these attributes let you access various pieces of hardware in the game. They fall into four categories - weapons, armour, vehicles and equipment - and a purchase here is an investment in your long-term standing. Proficiencies grant immediate access to newly learned capabilities and ultimately determine the part you'll play in any given battle.
You see, someone has to fend off attacking foot soldiers. Others must man the turrets and anti-vehicular armour. Still more parties have to drive vessels ranging from planes to jeeps, buggies and hovertanks - and somebody has to man the gunnery stations they include. Then you've got the medics who heal troops during battle, combat engineers that establish motion sensor traps, and hackers essential for seizing control of a facility. It's a lot to manage, really, especially when you consider your station in life is not fixed.
Much of the game's appeal lies in its flexibility. Although a simple run-and-gun affair at face value, there's a lot more going on beneath the surface. Battle is constantly waging, yet assaults must be tightly coordinated to stand any chance of effect, as capturing enemy installations can demand you hold the territory for up to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, the face of the foe is continually shifting, due in no small regard to the fact that PlanetSide is light on limitations. Or, to put it less fancifully, you can completely change your approach, and even entire character, at a moment's notice.
It's very different than the normal first-person shooter outing, explains Georgeson. Most titles focus on one main objective as the impetus for play. Here, there's no single underlying goal. In this game, it's always changing."
Ditto for your character. Scattered about safe havens in the vast environments are terminals of varying shapes, sizes and variety. Some let you bind your 'matrix' to them, essentially creating a fixed spawning point. Others let you purchase combat gear. Using such interfaces, you can quickly point and click your way into a new set of armour, additional weapons, a medkit or numerous ammunition types. After all, given soft and hard targets (personnel and vehicles, respectively), you'll need to swap between normal and armour-piercing bullets alongside explosive rounds and jamming projectiles as conflicts get underway.
The choices are staggering. Pop into an EXO suit, and you'll find that you can enter into a lumbering run, leap over walls in a single bound, hold a vast item inventory, and access a powerful built-in armament. Go instead with an infiltration suit, and while you can't carry as much or pack more than two guns, you will enjoy partial invisibility and be able to pilot vehicles. Any number of configurations are possible, and you can save each one to a default set, which you'll quickly respawn with if you have a fatal run-in with the enemy.
Also swappable at any time are implants. Easily mappable to hotkeys, these special upgrades let you run faster, jump higher, and sustain more damage before dying. Acquire a personal shield and hits are duly absorbed. Invoke advanced regeneration and health is restored at a rapid rate. Purchase an audio amplifier and you'll hear enemy footsteps at greater volume, revealing their exact position on radar. Just be careful how often you use such special abilities - firing them up depletes a stamina bar that is also used to determine how long you can sustain a sprint.
Naturally, a major part of the gameplay is melee combat. Thrust into battle by taking a shuttle to any drop location, driving a vehicle through warp gates in a series of quick continental hops, or spawning in the thick of things from an AMS vehicle (which allows for mobile matrix binding), you'd best be ready for war. All that careful planning won't mean diddly if you're not packing the right tools for the job, not that anything's quite adequate to the full scope of your task. Let us not forget that PlanetSide provides support for several thousand players, meaning its titanic turf battles make Unreal Tournament's 30-strong servers look positively primitive.
Look at some of the weapons at your disposal. Meet the Punisher, an all-purpose assault rifle with grenade launching capability and a propensity for automatic fire. Joining it in action is the Sweeper Shotgun, a friendly little gadget that peppers enemies within the radius of a lethal scatter pattern. Always popular is the Plasma Cannon, whose lingering burn eats right through pesky dropships and personnel carriers as quickly as it does simple soldiers. Outfit these puppies with attachments including rockets and incendiary grenades, and you've got a recipe for devastation that'd bring a tear to Saddam Hussein's eye.
While I'm not one to advocate murder and mayhem," says Georgeson, I must confess it's the spice of life in PlanetSide. Whom you frag, how you do it, and how far you can splatter their remains across the landscape is a matter of pride. Only you have to do it intelligently, or it'll be you they're wiping off the ground."
Cheeky remarks, yes, but the man isn't kidding. Death is a large part of the experience, with fans of the game set to be no strangers to the afterlife. Learning how to best sacrifice yourself for the most gain - whether it's territory or experience you're after - is part and parcel of the experience. Sony Online even plans on accounting for how many of your stray shots send allies into the great beyond, awarding you Grief Points' so that all interested comers can heap praise upon your doorstep.
If the build-up behind the actual gameplay seems a bit much, it should be. The affair isn't so chaotic as it is an experiment in controlled anarchy, with charging troop teams pushing forward in waves only to die time and again at a stray bullet's hands. Mostly, you'll be screaming obscenities while running at an enemy onslaught, only to wet yourself when noticing their entire armada has changed equipment readouts, prompting a quick sprint back to base. There, it's a frenzied rush of terminal tapping, as you shift weapons, restock ammunition, and race like a marathon sprinter to access a production station from which you can quickly get a vehicle.Afterwards, it's right back into the fray, stopping only for a second to pick up a gunner or buddy in need of a lift. Pauses in the action are few, death defying assaults upon impossible strategic objectives plentiful. The only consolation you'll have while rushing headlong into disaster is that somewhere out there in the great vastness that is the Internet, there's an even less fortunate bloke attempting to make sense of the chaos and execute a master plan. Such is the price one pays for a commanding role.
An ambitious undertaking to say the least, PlanetSide is rapidly rushing towards its launch date (February in the US, a bit later over here). Happily, the promise of impending public slaughter hasn't got the fan community, or the product's proud parents, down. Everyone wants to run a war," says Georgeson. Ever since the days of Quake, that's ultimately been the plan. Everybody knows about it. All companies want it. But that's a huge challenge - and exactly the reason we wanted to tackle it."
Having spent some time in the trenches, we can safely say it looks like Sony Online has risen to the occasion... even if it sometimes feels like they tackled us as well, and with an ultra-heavy exoskeleton on at that.
I managed to pick up a copy of Planetside, and I'm happy to say that I've had a ripping fun time. With a band of friends, and a serious case of need to whoop ass, I logged on and proceeded to slaughter. It takes a little getting used to, but any fan of Massively Multiplayer games should have a good time with this one. Given that it's player vs. player all the way, get used to having a tough enemy to crack, and one that learns well to boot.
Based on a series of continents, reachable by an orbital shuttle that launches every 10 minutes or so, warpgates that transport you instantaneously from continent to continent, or a respawn technology that double-functions as a teleporter, this game is absolutely massive. The game is playable right out of the gate, and you technically don't need to go up in ranks to get much in the way of special equipment, but the extra ranks do help you in carrying a variety of your favorite toys from battle to battle. Vehicles abound'buggys, tanks, fighters, and even dropships, but sadly, no watercraft. Don't worry; there isn't much tactical use in water anyway.
As any MMO game is want to do, it isn't yet perfectly balanced. There have already been a variety of issues cropping up regarding experience gains, and some discussion about one of the factions being significantly weaker offensively, perhaps dramatically so. As a great bonus, the game features a strong emphasis on grouping together in squads, and larger outfits. Squad Leaders can earn command XP, which increases their command rank, conferring a variety of unique abilities.
Still, I've been playing it since launch, and even when the game gets stymied by some bad gameplay, I enjoy myself. The strength of the game lies in the squadding, and the still heavily social environment, even though you're dedicated to killing people left and right. With a few more tweaks, I think Planetside will be a fine example of MMO gameplay.