PlanetSide Open Beta Impressions
I played some more PlanetSide last night, before they gave us the "fully optimized" patch that "fully crashed" every five minutes or so. Hey, it's a free beta right now, so it didn't even upset me. And I got to go to bed on time. I posted my impressions from my first day in the forums, but I've cleaned them up a little and I'm running them up the front page flagpole now.
There is a lot of fun to be had playing PlanetSide. Since that's my primary concern when playing any game, this one has already scored bonus points. It is an engaging FPS on a scale we haven't seen before. The urge to compare the game to Tribes is overwhelming from the start. You hit an inventory machine and wander around lost in the corrugated corridors of a meandering base until you finally find an exit into the bright sunshine where you are promptly pummeled by incoming plasma. When you are lucky enough to make it out of your base alive, you are given options to place turrets and sensors, fly around and buzz the citizenry, defend your generators, or capture an enemy base. I haven't captured any flags yet, but, let's face it, this is the sequel to Starsiege: Tribes we never got. More bonus points.
The options available to the new player are very refreshing. I don't feel restricted as a brand new player like in many online games. As soon as a fellow player was kind enough to point me to the big building that said "Training" on it, I was able to try out virtually every weapon and vehicle our faction had. Not only was I allowed to put on full heavy armor and blast simulated aircraft out of the shooting range sky, but I was given experience to do it. Something will probably have to be done for those who have already completed training once so they can still get those initial two battle rank promotions, but it's definitely more exciting than whacking rats with sticks for an hour.
Those initial ranks and points you get from training allow you to become an effective player for even your first battle. You spend your points on certifications in various armor, weapons, vehicles, and technical skills. There is enough variety so you don't end up with a "path of least resistance" formula where everyone is a clone. I happened to like driving the Harrasser (mainly because it reminded me of the G.I.Joe A.W.E. Striker I had as a kid) when I was trying out the different vehicles so I dropped a couple points into it and, just like that, I get to do it in-game. You don't have to be level 30 to fly a Galaxy troop transport. You don't even need hand-eye coordination, as Gaald proved. In fact, you can load up a Harrasser into a Galaxy and hot drop IN the Harrasser INSIDE a base! It was definitely one of those highlight moments we have every now and then in gaming.
Ooh! Let me tell you another from last night. I was booting around in my Harrasser buggy with Certis in the passenger seat as my gunner. I actually got to say, "Meet me at the car!" to him after he stealthed into an enemy-held tower and I secured it while he hacked it and claimed it for Vanu. Anyway, we were heading across the countryside to a distant base that our map told us was being compromised. We happened to cross paths with an enemy vehicle probably headed back to reclaim the tower we just captured. I pull behind them and Certis begins to rip into them with the mounted machine gun. They try some evasive maneuvering, but in swoops our close air support to finish the task. If we were in the same squad as the person flying the aircraft, we would have shared the experience he earned, but it wasn't terribly disappointing because any victory helps.
The squad-based gameplay is where PlanetSide shines for me, though. The game makes it very easy to team up and become a cohesive unit. Everything from the big numbers representing your squad-mates on the map to the highlighting of their name onscreen when they type or say something or even use the menu-based quick chat commands just adds to the team experience. The voice chat might have been the cause of some of my lag, but even that was implemented very well. It would be great if squad leaders could get some sort of command interface and set waypoints and directives for members of the team, but nobody is saying it won't be added later [EDIT: Yomm has kindly informed me that at Commander Level 2, squad leaders can, in fact, set waypoints for others. Thanks, Yomm]. With shared experience points, easily shared objectives, and methods for transporting your entire squad as a group, good squads can remain a very tight team.
I've gushed enough now. It's time for the bad news. The game is a massively multiplayer online first person shooter. You get points for shooting others. Completely distilled of all extraneous gameplay, PlanetSide is about shooting the bad guy before he shoots you. If that is the core game, then that should be the best-developed portion. It is not. At least it wasn't on my computer. I've got a P4 1.7, 512 DDR, Radeon 9500 Pro and it went slideshow on me during a 30-person firefight. Maybe that's just an ideal battle size, but even when I'm going one on one the framerate still takes a noticeable hit. If I am to be rewarded for my ability to react quickly and accurately then I want it to be my fault when I fail, not the game's. Now, if, for instance, I could get points for shuttling important personnel between bases in my Harrasser, or for healing the wounded, or for repairing equipment, or for hacking bases, I would be much more supportive of the overall gameplay. But if it's an FPS, I should at least be able to play it as such.
I also have a couple minor gripes about the FPS aspect. The guns all feel sort of underpowered. I don't need a gun to do tons of damage as long as it "feels" like it's doing tons of damage. I understand explosions can get expensive if there are a lot on the screen. But if you're not going to let me see how much life the enemy is losing, at least give me some indication he is actually taking damage. Evidently there are implants you can get which will allow you to see enemy health, but at least give me some noticeable damage decals and skins or something. Also, there shouldn't be any warfare going on around spawn tubes. On paper it's a good tactical strategy. In practice, there is a lot of loading on the player's machine at that time and it's just not fun to load into a corpse.
And, of course, the big complaint. What is there to accomplish? This one is more of a concern to me at some times than others. When compared to MMORPGs (which I don't think is a valid comparison) the game seems futile, even when compared to the realm vs. realm in DAOC. The relics in DAOC affect the skills of the realm that owns them. It's not just a fight for territory. I'm sure we'll end up seeing something like that added into PlanetSide. How about any faction with a locked continent has their spare ammo pack capacity extended by 10%? If the game isn't supposed to be about getting to level 60, then give us some other goals. This makes me wonder why PlanetSide wasn't developed so that a faction could "win". What's wrong with an end-game? How about every time a continent is locked by a faction, anyone in that faction on that continent gets a medal? That would cause a couple things to happen. There would be a new medal ladder which would give players a sense of accomplishment that is less fleeting than a captured base. It would also cause everyone in the faction that is about to lock the continent to flock to that place for the medal, thereby leaving a lot of territory undefended elsewhere. Or how about adding a monetary reward system where you can buy expensive little enhancements like custom helmets or sexy boots? Hopefully we'll also see bases "owned" and branded by outfits (again similar to DAOC). Those in a big enough outfit will likely be able to hold bases for weeks at a time. These features would go far in adding purpose to the game. Other times I feel like any point beyond just playing to have fun would be moot. The game has stats and a rudimentary skill system and experience points. That should be more than enough for a FPS. I think people are mainly concerned with the lack of any way to make any sort of difference in a world that is basically persistent. This also stems from the fact that most MMOGs up to this point have been of the RPG variety.
It seems that the majority of players will agree that PlanetSide is a good game. Personally, I think it's a great game with huge potential. The hesitation always occurs at the subscription portion. I don't doubt that PlanetSide will be remade several times over the course of time, just like we've seen with EQ and its expansion and evolution. The game is great now and it will definitely get better. However I cannot bring myself to pay MSRP for the box, plus more than about another $5 a month. Bring on the product placement and banner ads to subsidize the costs! I watch ads in every Battle.net channel to help keep it free. I'm more than happy to capture the Continent of Frito-Lay so that I can keep playing this game at a reasonable price. And, just to make it clear, I'm not willing to pay $12 for any game now, not just PlanetSide. I'll have to re-examine my budget when World of Warcraft is released. Until the beta ends...see you PlanetSide.