Planetside

When you want a question answered, the best thing you can do is go to the man who knows that answer.  So when Planetside crossed our doorstep we decided pretty quickly that we had two choices: we could try and squeeze in some time to give it a cursory review, or we could go to someone with a better perspective and more valuable things to say.  In other words, we went to the man who knew the answer to the question: Is Planetside any good?  That man is FangBlackbone - whose got a fantastic sense of what works in this genre and what doesn't - and this is his response ...

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Ambitious is probably the best way to describe Sony Online EntertainmentÂ's Planetside. Despite years of networked FPS games, pulling off a massively multiplayer FPS is a huge undertaking from both a technical and a fiscal standpoint. Most MMO games have individual battles that last at least 30 seconds and often much more as compared to swift first person shooter action of Planetside. Further, most networked FPS games offer coordinated and strategic game play without a monthly fee. Yet, Planetside tackles these challenges with flying colors. So how do they do it?

Keep it simple stupid. Character creation in Planetside is relatively straightforward and suits its purpose adequately. New players pick one of the 3 warring factions, Terran Republic, New Conglomerate, or Vanu Sovereignty. Name, sex, one of about 20 possible face textures and rudimentary voice selections are all that distinguish players from one another. This isnÂ't much choice to stand out and identify with your character but that plays to your advantage. Brazenly drawing the enemyÂ's attention in a FPS is a good way to die a lot. No need to pad the enemyÂ's kill total by standing out from the crowd. As I said, there is nothing too fancy here but itÂ's enough to create your identity.

IÂ'm trying real hard not to break into my Quasimodo voice as I talk about Sanctuary (saaahnkchewerrey!). Sanctuary is your faction home base and is equipped with vehicle-spawning facilities, VR training centers and the HART (high altitude rapid transit) shuttle. The training center shooting range offers a variety of dummy-targets to try out weapon strengths and weaknesses, and all without a waiting period or background checks. The training centers are also part DMV (with smaller lines) by letting players drive all the vehicles available to their faction. After getting a taste of the hardware your faction has to offer, gather the grunts and hit the road. Sanctuary is the spot for forming new squads and is the first place characters can select new skills and equipment.

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The HART shuttle launch is just a nicely animated cut scene, that directly teleports troops to fighting areas every 10 minutes. Once in orbit - or within the Planetary Map as your perspective has it - click on your destination, pop a few Dramamine, and youÂ'll proceed to plummet towards your destination in a drop pod. Be warned, thereÂ's every likelihood that now youÂ'll be run over by a passing tank, or at least thatÂ's been my experience. Despite my bitterness towards becoming road kill, the HART shuttle is indispensable as a means of getting directly to the action.

Now that weÂ're done with Sanctuary, (cue the bells of that French cathedral) letÂ's talk more about your character. Like most other MMOs your character does earn experience. This experience is divided into 2 parts, CR or command rank experience and BR or battle rank experience. CR experience is awarded to squad leaders, the suckers that gave up most of their BR experience to think theyÂ're in control. Earning Command Ranks allows you to test your crayon abilities on the strategy map and deploy giant yellow beacons of light for your squad to follow. In laymenÂ's terms, that means squad leaders can write crude instructions on the tactical map and deploy waypoints that show up as light beams on his squadÂ's screen. Other special abilities await those persistent enough to withstand weeks of putting up with unruly, wayward subordinates.

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Battle Rank experience (BR) is the juicy stuff that nets players skills to help them become well rounded in battle situations. Each new Battle Rank awards a certification point that players can spend on skills. New players start off with 4 certification points, and can quickly earn 2 more certification points for completing most of the VR training. Because of these initial points, even the newest player can have some degree of effectiveness in the field. However, earning more battle ranks is essential for adapting to a greater range of battle situations.

Gameplay

Each of the 3 factions, Vanu Sovereignty, New Conglomerate, and Terran Republic adds its own flavor to some of the weapons, armor and vehicles. 3 weapons, 2 vehicles and all 3 versions of the heavy infantry armors, called MAXs, are unique to each faction. The Vanu Sovereignty specializes in energy based weapons that offer a moderate boost in range and hovercraft tanks. The New ConglomerateÂ's weapons are shotgun based with a devastating spread of damage at close range. The Terran Republic gets rate of fire bonuses from its unique machine guns. ItÂ's funny that no matter which faction you play, you always hear gripes about another factionÂ's weapon being too powerful. The fact is that each faction has 2 unique weapons that are really good and downright unfair in the hands of a skilled player. Some of the general weapons are rocket launcher variants that pack a punch too. Pay no mind to whining. Most players canÂ't handle the ego bruising of dying from being shot in the back a few times.

The certification rundown could be a few pages so letÂ's generalize with brief descriptions starting with armor. There are 4 armor types: the infiltration suit that cloaks, the standard that you spawn with, the agile armor that upgrades standard and the reinforced that offers the best protection for infantry. Restrictions and abilities balance out the armor choices well. Each armor type has 1-2 small pistol holsters and 0-2 rifle holsters for larger weapons.

The race specific MAX heavy infantry armor comes in 3 varieties: AA for anti-aircraft, AI for killing infantry, and AV thwarts vehicle threats. All types are slower than infantry but include a run mode that deactivates weapons for increased speed. Turn stalemate into checkmate; each MAX boasts a significant armor increase over reinforced armor and is quite capable of leading the charge. Fear fuels these beasts and by piloting one well, you will witness first hand the power of morale change in Planetside.

Weapons come in small, large and grenade varieties. Pistols are the mainstay of stealth players since infiltration suits have no rifle holsters. Rifles fill the larger holsters and vary from shotguns, grenade and rocket launchers, sniper rifles, guided missiles and machine guns. Spamming rockets, long range head shot practice, slicing energy projectiles, and seeing how many holes you can put into your enemy, are all activities one can participate in. DonÂ't worry ma, thereÂ's no blood and gore here. Planetside, in staying true early video game roots, has enemies flop to the ground and fade out on death. No "holy" hand grenades exist, but they do come in fragmentation, EMP and plasma flavors.

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Vehicle options range from ATVs to transport aircraft. Among the different ground vehicle types are grenade launching jeeps, energy beam heavy tanks that hover, cloaking ATVs and dual cannon transport RVs. There are utilitarian truck-like vehicles that provide energy re-supply or mobile spawn points. Most vehicles are not faction specific, but beware the faction specific heavy tanks. As stated earlier, they are as lethal with their treads as with their cannons.

Flyboys havenÂ't been left out of the mix. There are only 3 types available with one more planned in the coming weeks. If youÂ've chosen the behemoth that flies like a double Winnebago, you would be piloting the squad transport, the Galaxy. It sports the ability to carry a light vehicle as well 10 troops. Anyone fond of sky diving, should not miss the chance to jump with his squad, out of a Galaxy high above an enemy base. If you want to rely on speed and agility, buy the Mosquito scout aircraft. The ReaverÂ's rocket spamming serves to pin down enemies inside towers lest they not have proper anti-aircraft weaponry. A highly anticipated carpet bomber is due to be implemented by the time you read this.

If that isnÂ't enough, Planetside has trade skills too. They may not be carpentry, cooking or cow milking, but they are trades. 2 levels of medic are available and as per every MMO they can heal and resurrect. Engineering repairs armor of all types including vehicles, but Combat engineering starts up the real fun. With a Combat Engineer you can plant automated turrets and several varieties of mines. 2 levels of hacking allow enemy terminals to work for you and increase the speed of the hack. The infiltration suit certification may as well be renamed stealth, since it allows cloaking even while riding one of the ATVs.

Geography in Planetside is broken up into many themed continents. Players vie for domination in the jungle, desert, or snow. ItÂ's not breathtaking but itÂ's varied with nooks and crannies that make English muffins blush. Too bad the Brits never learned to make bread that kept tanks from running you over. Trees and rocks break up the rolling hills and a massive network of roads that connect bases, the jewels of Planetside. Cue segue for next paragraph on bases.

Conquering bases is your primary objective in Planetside. ItÂ's like capture the flag where the flag doesnÂ't move and it fires back at you. Check that, itÂ's like king of the hill times at least 10, depending on the number of bases on the continent. There are different types of bases that have minor ability tweaks but mostly just randomize rooms and (flag) command center. An owned base is a foothold, bringing reinforcements closer to the next enemy base. Some outsiders gripe about the endless washer cycle of capturing and recapturing. However, the fact that itÂ's hard, makes defending worth more if you can hold out for even small amounts of time. You canÂ't compare networked FPS games with Planetside here. You would have to have a map in a networked FPS game for every base on every continent. Planetside is like splicing 100 of these game levels together, with battles stretching across 10 at a time.

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If combat between bases is the Planetside large scale war, then combat inside a baseÂ's sphere of influence is the prelude to these wars. Bases are "protected" by 1-2 adjacent towers. If you can hold the surrounding towers, the base is much easier to defend. However, the towers are very easily overrun and used as Mini Normandy Devices. (MND, remember that term when IÂ'm famous) What to do, what to do? Well, like any other corporate middle manager, you throw numbers at the problem. Because of this, tower battles are the fiercest combat. Quite often, 10-20 soldiers step over 10-20 corpses to battle 10-20 enemies, whose numbers keep replenishing from the spawn chambers in the basement. These narrow stairwell battles encapsulate the epitome of visceral fun from all FPS games.

Performance

The review machine is a P4 1.6Ghz with 512MB RAM, a 128MB Radeon 8500, SBLive MP3 and a 7200 RPM 60GB hard drive. I have DSL internet connection and play mostly on the east coast server Emerald with some time spent on Werner, the European server. Lag is surprisingly not much of an issue especially since I live on the west coast. I do get disconnects a couple times a week and pockets of enemies blinking out around me for a few seconds a couple times a day. These small prices to pay are more than made up by the fact I can squad up with friends in New Jersey, Maryland and Ireland, of all places. Overcrowding can be an issue on Emerald as it is the most populated server. This causes frame skipping but only with 150 players running around.

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The Numbers

Graphics 78%

Pros - The textures for the different factionsÂ' many types of infantry armor are intricate and well done. The futuristic vehicle designs imitate the styling of Mechwarrior, with its bulky beveled corner designs. The free fall animations have good immersion with a real sense of speed. Watching the orbital drop pod scream towards the ground, only to fire its retro rockets and unfold to let you out, is a really nice touch. The burning husk, that was once an aircraft, plummets head first towards the ground and explodes.

Cons - Who are we kidding? This game is designed around performance and rightfully so. Almost everything about the graphics is decent and just flashy enough to distinguish itself. The weapon effects are nice, with a few gems, but never over the top. The rolling hills landscape is adequate to break up the monotony of the large distances between bases. Trees and rocks are present in some continents with just enough variety to add to the color themes to give you the feeling you are in a different place. Bases are similar with some major room changes but they all have the same texture set. Player death animations are a grand total of 1. Another disappointing animation, is dead vehicles that change from bright and shiny, to completely destroyed in ~1 frame.

Gameplay 83%

Pros - On a well populated server gameplay is a 95%. You would be hard pressed to find a base with less than 20 people in and around it. That doesnÂ't always guarantee a fight, however, since the 20 could be of your own faction. Planetside is a shining example of balanced yet distinct factions. 90% of the weapons have a true purpose and situational role. The stealth implementation is outstanding. Gunning in vehicles and driving over infantry are among the highest highs. To continue that happy trend, take your squad in a Galaxy transport and bail out amid fire over hostile territory.

Cons - Servers with half or less populations cause gameplay to plummet to 70%. On these servers, most busy bases have at most 30 people in them. It takes a concerted effort to find a fierce fight. This game deals its best rewards when the targets are plentiful. If you are forced to run around fighting one-on-one battles every 10 minutes, you might as well play Rocket Arena. In populous servers, the sparse overcrowding causes unwanted frame rate dips.

Sound 90%

Pros- Nice themes change with the circumstances. An angelic, triumphant, voice melody echoes when a base is captured. The weapon sound effects are distinguishable to the trained player and provide clues as to whatÂ's around that corner. Veterans can triangulate the position of the weapon that fired and also determine the faction that fired it. That is excellent sound design.

Cons - There is nothing negative to comment about. I reserve better than a 90% score for the few classics like the Diablo Series with excellent score, sound design and voice acting.

Total Average Score 84% with a Reviewer Recommendation

If you donÂ't mind spending monthly fees, if you enjoy the rush of a good frenzy, if you want to take part in the strategies of holding the line or pushing it, if you want to go postal on anyone not in your faction, and if you want a game that does in a half hour what other games take weeks to do, what are you waiting for? Pick up this game! The varied gameplay and persistent world are well worth the monthly fee. Kudos goes to the development team. They created a MMOFPS! Planetside is the foundation of good things to come and a nice jolt to the static auto-attacking combat of MMORPGs.

- FangBlackbone

{ed. Thanks Fang!}

Comments

Great review!! I really agree with Fang. I just wish the game was more tatical. It is still really fun.

Great review Fang, highly informative!

Excellent review and anyway I'm biased 'cause I love it! But it's always nice to see someone else thinks that the games good and also that they think it's balanced, as opposed to the legions I see writing crap like "Teh Jackhammer SuXXors! Nerf it" I personally think that the games balanced just right. Now then what to do with this spare 5 minutes I've got....?

I was in the exclusive beta for this game quite awhile back, and after playing for a few months, trying out all the weapons & vehicles, and playing musical bases (before the lattice was implemented), I just plain got bored. I never really felt like my side was making progress towards a greater goal. There wasn't enough content to justify $13 a month. That being said, I may pick it up again if they offer new content - but I'm not holding my breath waiting when SoE is involved.

I'm enjoying it still... but I really feel they need to take care of a lot of the technical problems with this one that are there... If lag and, especially at large battles doesn't start to improve (very high end system) I probable will got back to BF and other free ones. there is a lot to like in PS, bu t so far I really don't feel they are earning my monthly fee as much as they are collecting funds to finish beta testing.

Excellent review, Fang! I totally agree with your changed ratings for fluxuation in server populations. When there's a ton of people the game is a riot but sometimes... oh man... it's a pretty mediocre walking/running/driving game.

 

Top notch review. I wish I had understood some of those gameplay aspects when I tried out the beta.

I don't know if its faux pas to post a comment in you're own review but I'd like to address the concern about tactical gameplay.  As more and more players are climbing the ranks in CR, they are starting to use some of the features it offers.  Its amazing what a simple thing like faction continent chat will do to the larger scale war.  CR squad leaders can give instructions to troops all over the continent and are always listened to since if you've spent the time to earn that CR rank, you know what you are doing.

More tactical elements are planned for ways to spend both CR certification points and the points earned when you gain experience for your outfit.  If they expand the trade skills in addition to all these enhancements, the tactical nature of the game can only grow by leaps and bounds.