The Firing Line: The pleasures and pitfalls of PlanetSide 2

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|01.06.12

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The Firing Line: The pleasures and pitfalls of PlanetSide 2
The Firing Line - PlanetSide 2 trooper opens fire
My time in PlanetSide was a blur. It's also a ways back in the rear view mirror, and I've played so many MMOs in the interim that I can't even remember exactly when it was. The game originally shipped in May of 2003, and I was entrenched in Star Wars Galaxies from its June 2003 launch going forward. That would put my six week (de)tour with the Terran Republic somewhere circa 2004, maybe? I forget.

The point I'm getting around to, though, is that regardless of hazy dates, PlanetSide stands out as one of those seminal MMO experiences that showcased the possibility inherent in this particular genre. The upcoming reboot, then, should be pretty spectacular and deserving of some fanboi adulation, right?

Well, yes and no.

PlanetSide 2 - first person view
The good

If you're new to all things PlanetSide 2, I'll direct you to both the official site and the oft-updated PlanetSide Universe, which serves as the series' premier fan portal. In a nutshell, the game is an open-world MMOFPS with persistent elements, traditional MMO progression, and combat that takes place on foot and at the controls of various air and ground vehicles.

The word "epic" gets tossed about far too often in gaming circles, I think, but it's actually fitting for some of the engagements I witnessed in the original PlanetSide. Sony Online Entertainment is gunning for an even more impressive virtual battlefield for part deux, and the company says the game will support thousands of simultaneous combatants thanks to its new Forgelight engine.

If it supports hundreds, I'll be happy, since I've never forgotten what it feels like to ride a drop-ship into a hot zone and watch fellow players whizzing by in their fighters and laying down covering fire, nor have I gotten over the rush inherent in jumping out of the troop carrier and storming an enemy base surrounded by dozens of friends and foes.

I died, of course, early and often, but it was a blow-away badass experience that's never been replicated in another shooter, online or off.

PlanetSide 2 - Reaver chase
The bad

Why did I ever leave the original PlanetSide, then? Well, SWG's sandbox siren call was the primary culprit, but it's also worth mentioning that I simply got bored. I'm not a real-world combat veteran, but I know several of them, and to a man they describe their experiences as weeks of mind-numbing boredom punctuated by a few moments of sheer, unadulterated terror.

PlanetSide was quite like that, albeit with chest-thumping nerd excitement replacing the unadulterated terror bit. In between the occasional massive sortie, there was a lot of solo grinding and fumbling about in pursuit of certifications, a lot of aimless wandering, and repetitive terrain for miles on all sides.

Don't get me wrong -- there's nothing I like better than an open-world MMO that doesn't saddle its players with grade-school progression paths and cookie-cutter classes. The open world needs to have some life and plenty of purpose, though, and the original PlanetSide lacked both in spades. Yeah, there were always bases to take over, but no matter where I was on the world of Auraxis, it was the exact same base. Bland doesn't really begin to describe the repetitive design at work in the original game, and what I wouldn't have given for a city to inhabit or a tavern to frequent, anything that might point to Auraxis being a world I could invest in rather than a larger-than-usual team shooter map.

SOE purportedly has plans to remedy some of this boredom via PlanetSide 2's mission system. Veteran players can basically create content for their low-ranking compatriots, and when you couple that with a class system and traditional progression elements, you have what theoretically sounds like a winning combination.

The wildcard is PS2's persistent elements, and SOE has been incredibly coy with its information to date. We've heard plenty of patter about faction lore and pretty uniform colors but next to nothing about how bases will work (or why we should want to keep taking the same bases over and over again for months on end). Can we actually win this war? Is there any incentive for doing so? What exactly are we fighting for (other than SOE's recurring revenue)? The devs have dropped hints about resource control that, frankly, sound rather awesome. If I have my way, PlanetSide 2 will be a ground-based EVE Online in that regard.

PlanetSide 2 - Vanguards
The worrisome

I mentioned class systems above, and again, due to the absence of in-depth information, I can only speculate at this point. It does concern me that SOE is scrapping the flexible multi-role system of the original title for a class-based approach. Yeah, you had armor restrictions in PlanetSide, but you could basically fill any role on the battlefield (or create a new one) at any time. The only reason I'm not totally facepalming here is the fact that you will be able to switch classes in PlanetSide 2 at equipment terminals and respawn points. Supposedly this will give you complete access to all of the game's roles and equipment (at least for your faction) whenever you want, provided you've attained the certification requirements.

My other main concern is the business model. SOE is the new king of free-to-play, and PlanetSide 2 is shaping up to be the first of the company's titles to actually launch with a freemium model. I know I'm in the minority when it comes to preferring a subscription, but it is what it is: I love all-access-for-one-price, and it irritates the ever-living bejesus out of me when I pay a sub and then have to pay extra for items in the cash shop.

I've also heard rumors about store items being "unlockable" via in-game progression, but whether that means they're obtainable through playing or purchase or they're available for an additional fee once you've met the in-game requirements is up in the air at this point.

All those concerns aside, I am pretty stoked for PlanetSide 2. If it weren't for DUST 514, PS2 would be alone at the top of my most anticipated shooters list (and it's in the top five of my most anticipated games of any genre, regardless). There are still a lot of potential pitfalls, though, and I look forward to seeing some definitive information from SOE regarding game mechanics.

The Firing Line's Jef Reahard has a twitchy trigger finger, a love of online shooters, and an uncanny resemblance to Malcolm Reynolds. OK, maybe not, but at least if he ever kills you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing him, and you'll be armed.
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