Planetside 2 has not had the best of launches. New players logged on to new servers in a new game to be greeted with crashes and glitches and lags and queues that made that game nigh-unplayable. It wasn’t pretty – or acceptable, even if the game is free to play – but I’ve seen this sort of thing before with many an MMO launch and knew it would be unfair to judge Planetside based on its disastrous first few days of life. So I left it for a week, then dove back in with a character made on one of the less rammed European servers (Lithcorp) to see if things had improved at all.
I need to make two things clear from the outset here. One is that I’ve played Planetside 2 for about fifteen hours now, which is enough to get a good impression of it and at least try all of the classes and vehicles, but nowhere near enough that I could say I play them all well. The other is that I’ve been playing it mostly with a group of 2-3 friends and not an outfit of sixty or seventy people. We can scrape together just enough people to fully crew a Liberator bomber; we can’t win battles singlehandedly. I think this is likely to reflect most people’s potential experience with Planetside – they’re going to be small cogs in a big machine, not the machine itself – but if you’re looking for an account of what being part of a large outfit is like then this review isn’t it.
Planetside is a game of eternal war between three conveniently colour-coded factions: the Vanu (purple techno-fetishists in more ways than one), the New Conglomerate (blue libertarian trailer-park hicks), and the Terran Republic(a generic faction with no distinguishing features other than being coloured red). Three is an important number in Planetside, as each faction fights for dominance of three continents with three warpgates on each. Each faction gets one warpgate per continent as their home base and safe area that can never be captured. Everything else is up for grabs; the continents are divided into a collection of territories that can all be conquered by any side as long as they cram enough infantry onto the control points for long enough.
The back-and-forth battles over territory provide the backdrop for Planetside’s combat engagements, but they’re not really anything more than that. Since it isn’t possible to take a faction’s warpgate it isn’t possible for any one side to “win”, and the best you can do is to spread your faction’s colours over everything except the warpgates. Even then it will mean little, as the resources you get from territory control are a bonus rather than something you need to fight with, and so one side’s control of a continent is going to last just as long as it takes for the other side’s players to get out of bed1 The conflicts over territory give you somewhere to go when you spawn, but they don’t represent anything more than a temporary goal.
What is the goal of Planetside, then? From what I can see it appears to be for everyone to have a jolly good time shooting the crap out of each other with no long-term consequences — which isn’t exactly unusual when it comes to multiplayer videogames – but what makes Planetside 2 stand out is its scale. Its internecine squabbles over control points can feature fifty or even a hundred players per side, and all of those players have the opportunity to drive various different types of vehicle to provide armour or air support. A battle in Planetside is a true combined arms engagement, far more so than a game like Battlefield where you get X number of jets and Y number of tanks per side and that’s it. In Planetside every player could have a jet or a tank if they wanted, and the only thing that’s really stopping them is communication and coordination – that and the fact that in most places it’s physically impossible to bring more than eight tanks to bear on the enemy at once.
If there is one thing Planetside is good at, it’s communicating this sense of scale to the player. It can be difficult to get a sense of how many infantry there are supporting a push since most of them will be hidden in the nooks and crannies of the battlefield (if they’re smart, anyway) but you can see everything else. The Reavers and Mosquitos buzzing overhead, carrying out rocket runs on ground targets and jockeying for air supremacy. The Phalanx anti-air turrets on top of a besieged fortress spewing out a relentless barrage of AA shells in an attempt to get those Liberators bombing the ground troops to back off. The Lightnings and Vanguards duking it out on the ground with enemy tanks and infantry. The rockets fired by Heavy Assault troopers that criss-cross the battlefield whenever armoured units rear their ugly heads. The crewed Engineer turrets desperately trying to defend chokepoints and entrances. The steady stream of footsoldiers coming from the Sunderer parked around the corner, which acts as a mobile spawn point when stationary and deployed. You see and take in all of this stuff in a couple of seconds in a typical big battle, which is good because your chances of hearing it through the tremendous din of constant explosions is nil. The biggest draw of Planetside for me is the spectacle. No other game can do this. No other game comes close.
In the face of all this it might seem difficult for one player to make a huge difference to the overall war effort – what chance has a single infantryman against an enemy armoured column, after all2? You can still make an impact if you’re smart, though. With so much going on it’s quite easy for one soldier to be missed, especially if they’re cloaked Infiltrators or Light Assaults with jetpacks, and if you can get into the enemy’s rear it’s perfectly possible for you to wreak a proportionate amount of havoc. Ideally you’d blow up the enemy Sunderer providing reinforcements for their army, or sabotage the nearby vehicle pads to cut off their armour support. Failing that you can try to distract some of the enemy by taking control points behind the lines that were supposed to be safely in their hands; at the very least this will draw off a small portion of the enemy strength to come and take it back, and that might make all the difference to a previously deadlocked combat. As long as you’re not just sat up in a high place futilely attempting to snipe baddies from a kilometre away you’re making a contribution.
It’s strange, but Planetside is the first multiplayer FPS I’ve played where killing people doesn’t really matter that much (except on a personal level, which I’ll get to later). You shot a guy from your sniper’s perch? Good for you, but unless you can also kill the ninety-nine guys behind him before he respawns that’s not exactly a massive achievement in terms of winning the battle. Spawn times are quite fast in Planetside and the chances are there’s somewhere reasonably close by where he can come back into the fray, so twenty seconds later there’s a good chance you’ll be sniping the same guy in the same place all over again. Trying to win a battle in Planetside by way of attrition is a Sisyphean task. Instead it’s destruction of material and infrastructure that counts: blowing up enemy spawn points and support facilities and diminishing their overall ability to continue the fight will weaken their forces to the point where yours just eventually roll over them.
So Planetside is free, fun, and reasonably strategic, not to mention utterly gorgeous at times. What’s not to like? Well, just one thing, but from where I’m sitting it’s a fairly big thing, and a fairly predictable one too given what F2P inevitably implies: the unlock system. As with most F2P games, the more you play the game the more virtual currency you amass – in this case called Certifications, or certs – to spend on shiny new toys for your pretend soldier. In my experience, if you’re doing well you’ll amass these certs at the rate of just over one per minute. New guns and equipment costs anywhere from 250 to 1000 certs. This means 12-15 hours of playtime are required to unlock the pricier bits of kit, and I think that’s a hell of a time investment for one gun – especially since you have to pay separately to unlock the Walker chaingun for the tank and the Walker chaingun for the Liberator. It gets even more absurd when you consider the MAX power armour suits, where you have to pay to unlock a scattercannon for your right arm despite having a scattercannon available for your left arm by default. And then you have to upgrade them separately, too.
Despite this there’s no real problem with the infantry unlocks in Planetside as one-on-one fights are overwhelmingly decided in favour of whoever got the drop on the other guy rather than what specific gun each participant was holding at the time. If you’re an infantryman fighting other infantrymen you’ll be competitive right out of the box just so long as you use your brain, but there’s a big problem with the vehicle unlocks because they are required to make the vehicles useful. I’ll use the Liberator bomber as my example since it’s the one I have most experience with, but this also applies to fighters and light tanks at the very least.
The Liberator is a three-seat VTOL aircraft. The pilot gets a nose-mounted cannon which is barely ever used since they’re usually preoccupied with flying the plane. The rear gunner gets a heavy-calibre machine gun for dissuading pursuing fighters, and this is actually powerful enough to shoot fighters down from full health if they’re a good shot and if the fighter doesn’t have missiles or rockets, so there’s no problem there. But then you have the main gunner. The main gunner gets a downward-pointing gun for use against enemy armoured targets. If you get a stock Liberator out of the box this is a rapid-firing chaingun which produces an interesting pattering noise when fired at the roof of a tank and nothing else. In order to successfully kill a healthy tank with this thing the tank would have to be standing stock still while you poured 4-5 magazines worth of rounds into it over the course of about a minute. It’s practically useless against both armour and infantry, and since the Liberator is supposed to be used against ground-based targets this makes the Liberator itself useless.
There’s a couple of other main guns you can buy for the Liberator. I went for the Alpha Squad promo a couple of months back so I decided to sidestep the painful ordeal of amassing 1000 certs by using some of my fake Sony money to buy the most expensive gun available: the C-150 Dalton. The first time we took it out for a spin my squadmates rather unwisely let me fly and I crashed the Liberator into a rock spire the first time we got jumped by enemy aircraft before we ever got to fire the damn thing. The second time we used it, though, I was in the gunner’s seat, and I was rather astonished to learn that this thing is preposterously powerful. It’s basically a tank cannon mounted to the bottom of an aircraft, killing infantry in one close-by hit and tanks in 4-5 direct ones. It changes the Liberator from “Why is this even in the game?” to “We are flying a Liberator every time it’s off cooldown.”
Now, to my mind a single expensive unlock shouldn’t have such a massively disproportionate effect on the effectiveness of a given vehicle, but there it is. It feels very rough and unbalanced – a feeling that extends throughout every part of the game that doesn’t involve directly shooting people, since it’s clear that while they’ve fixed the awful problems that plagued the game on release the metagame elements of Planetside 2 still feel like they’re in beta. You need to spend resources to get vehicles, but there’s also a hardcoded cooldown involved. By the time the cooldown is finished you’ll also have regenerated the resources you spent in the first place, making one of these things redundant. There are infantry “resources” in the game, but these are only used to buy MAX suits and (absurdly) grenades, so they basically never get used unless you’re on base defence. And then there are the unlock costs; some guns are expensive and some are reasonably cheap, but each gun is designed for a role and there’s no progression through tiers of guns. If you want a gun that fits with the role a vehicle was designed for you’re not going to be able to avoid forking out a thousand certs for it.
I guess that’s neither here nor there, though. My primary complaint is this: if I hadn’t spent money on Alpha Squad I would have been effectively limited to infantry combat for, oh, say the first forty hours of the game or so. Sure, I could have spawned vehicles, driven/flown around in them, even killed an infantryman or two if I was lucky – and then I’d have been blown up by somebody with a better gun than me (this still happens whenever I drive a light tank, which I still haven’t upgraded). I lambasted Tribes: Ascend – probably a tad unfairly – for being rather grasping when it came to unlocking the best weapons in the game, but Planetside feels worse somehow. The infantry combat is always enjoyable (except when you get stuck in the meat grinder, but all it’ll take is one death and a redeploy to escape) but vehicle combat is such a huge part of the game that it seems absurd to cripple the default vehicles in this way.
Once again, though, this complaint about the inevitable consequences of the game’s free-to-play nature is mitigated by the game being free-to-play in the first place. It costs you nothing to download and play Planetside 2, and there’s plenty of fun to be had as the infantry class of your choice without paying for unlocks or boosters or ProSiebens or whatever. And by the time you’re bored of slogging around on foot, who knows? You might have enough certs to do something interesting in a vehicle. While it’s not an unqualified recommendation, I’d definitely say Planetside 2 is worth trying if you like FPSes and its particular brand of large-scale mayhem appeals to you. If you have problems with the free-to-play model, though, it’s probably best to steer clear. Planetside 2 doesn’t just fall into the F2P trap, it leaps into it with enthusiasm.