Sony Online Entertainment
PlanetSide 2 beta impressions: a blend of RPG and FPS, with none of the innovations made in either
Here are the things I did in the PlanetSide 2 beta, in no particular order: drove across the desert, waited at a vehicle terminal for seven minutes, chatted with a squadmate about building a custom PC, and stood near a terminal or three to capture them for my faction. I also shot a guy, once. PlanetSide 2 is the follow-up to PlanetSide, one of the only massively multiplayer online first-person shooters in the history of gaming. Both games pursue the same ambitious concept: Hundreds of soldiers engaged in first-person combat, both on foot and in vehicle, warring for control points on a massive map. PlanetSide was ahead of its time, demanding fast, reliable internet that much of the country simply didn't possess. PlanetSide 2 delivers exactly what PlanetSide wanted to, but I'm concerned that it may be too little, too late.
What once was special is now mundane
The blending of RPG elements like leveling up, character customization and classes isn't as unique now as they were in 2003. Black Ops 2 lets players create their own class, a staple of the series for some time now, using a 10-point buy system. Likewise, Halo 4 is allowing for custom loadouts for the first time, and even Halo: Reach featured a heavy focus on classes. The idea that a character can gain XP to unlock new and better equipment or game play changing alterations isn't unique to PlanetSide. So when juggernauts like these enter your ring, how do you compete? Tramell Isaac, senior art director for PlanetSide 2 acknowledged that the game faces stiffer competition than before. “We have competitors like Battlefield and Modern Warfare 3 with some kind of subscription model or some level of persistence, which puts them closer to what PlanetSide is now, on a smaller scale,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. When I asked how PlanetSide 2 would appeal to the headshot-loving FPS crowd as well as the phat loots-worshipping MMO crowd, Isaac reiterated the game's blending of RPG and FPS genres. “It's a first-person shooter with advancement,” he said. “If you're familiar with the original PlanetSide, we still have implants. Implants are a timed boost that allow you to either get a vehicle faster, allows you to have a faster change of weapon time, or things like that.” Isaac used an example of a vehicle-based player who leveled up and used an implant to shorten the respawn timer of his favored vehicle. “But the only way I can get that implant is if I'm Battle Rank 8.” Nine or 10 years ago this system was new and exciting. Today it sounds almost exactly like leveling up and picking a perk in the latest Call of Duty. Thankfully, customizing a class is pretty easy in PlanetSide 2. Each of my characters began as light infantry, but I could access the character information panel of the menu by hitting escape and mousing over to the “Redeploy” button, which would allow me to spawn in as an Infiltrator, Medic, Engineer, or Heavy Infantry in addition to the default class. Each of these had different abilities and weapon loadouts. The Infiltrator, for example, had a cloaking mechanism. By winning battles and utilizing my class weapons and abilities, I earned points which I could then spend on upgrading equipment. My cloak stayed up longer, my sniper rifle aim steadied, and so on. Each bit of customization details its benefits well, so you shouldn't end up accidentally spending your points on something you don't understand.
In need of a driving force
Isaac explained that a mission system, not yet implemented in the beta, will “drive people toward certain objectives, and they’ll get rewards for doing those particular missions.” Isaac said that PlanetSide has historically had a problem of letting people know what to do. “With the mission system in, and giving people objectives to do, and then giving you a quick boon of resources or experience right off the bat by following those objectives trains the player into pursuing those things throughout the game and working their way toward more of—gathering up a squad, getting into an outfit, things that are much more grandiose on the PlanetSide scale,” Isaac said. “[There's a] difference between that and Modern Warfare 3, where you're just running with a squad of people, and then the next match you're running with a different squad of people and so on and so forth. This is how we build a community that you see in the MMO world that you won't see in a first-person shooter.” The idea makes sense, but I worry about its appeal to the uninitiated. PlanetSide 2 doesn't tell a story the same way as most MMOs – or at least it doesn't yet in the beta – though Sony Online Entertainment has brought on Marv Wolfman, creator of Marvel's Blade and many of DC's Teen Titans, to help flesh out the universe's lore. I hope missions aren't too plain and don't follow the now-archaic “go here and kill X number of Y” formula, but I'm worried. When I asked what kind of rewards players could expect for doing things other than killing players such as exploring the world and continents of the game, Isaac said there was no reward system, “per se.” “The reward [for exploring other locations] is you getting to choose the type of playstyle,” he said. Wider open areas are more friendly to vehicular combat. Bases are home to close-quarters combat. The type of game you play is determined by where you choose to fight. PlanetSide 2 is about to have their second continent, the icy tundra of Esamir, go live. The game is attractive and Esamir is pretty to look at, but we'll have to see how much variety is added with the new locations.. When I played the beta, I joined up with a squad of 11 other players, many of whom were vets from the original PlanetSide. We roamed around the country looking for fights, occasionally rolling up to a base under siege. A short firefight would ensue, usually lasting about 10-15 minutes, which was followed by another 10-15 minutes of roaming or traveling to the nearest base under attack. Wash, rinse, repeat. I like the persistence of the world and 40+ people gathered in one battle is something to see, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it all felt very pointless. Why are we fighting? To protect a base so that we can more efficiently protect another base? My experience with the beta combined with Isaac's response leaves me feeling there's nothing more to this game than killing for the sake of killing and, while there's nothing wrong with that design, Planetside 2 is entering a crowded market. Even the idea of a persistent world map isn't as novel as it once was. Planetside 2 is also going to face stiff competition from other free to play multiplayer games that seem so prevalent these days. [Editor's note: we had incorrectly stated Planetside 2 would be a retail title when it's in fact free to play. That portion of this paragraph has been removed.] SOE has a hard sell ahead of them if the only truly unique thing they can say about the game is that it has battles much larger than players can find elsewhere else. Right now, PlanetSide 2 feels like a game made for fans of the original PlanetSide and only those fans. A game needs to feature either new ideas or mechanics done much better than anyone else in order to succeed. Let's hope PlanetSide 2 has some more tricks up its sleeve. We'll dig into the missions when they go live, and report back. More MMO reading: