So I've been playing this game called Planetside 2. It's a multiplayer thing. So multiplayer, in fact, that it feels a bit like a crowd. A crowd of tanks. Purple tanks. And some of them are on fire. If that's not really your kind of thing, then this probably isn't for you. However, it does feature cataclysmic laser-war, spectacular sci-fi landscapes, and some of the most entertaining fast-paced FPS combat of recent memory. And it's free. So it has a lot going for it.
That's not to say it's without problems. It's chock full of those. But it's also full of stars. And it could be going places. Here's wot I think.
Planetside 2 is a pure PvP science-fiction MMOFPS which encompasses class-based infantry combat, air and ground vehicles, and territory capture. You create persistent characters and level them up. You specialise in different areas, and slowly broaden the combat repertoire of your character. The game has a number of servers, and each one hosts three factions which battle for control of three continents. The battles can involve hundreds of players at any one time, and that means there's an entire periodic table of elements here all underlying a vast possible set of tactical and strategic chemistry. At times it goes nuclear, and the rest of the time it simply smoulders, giving off fumes that some players will find quite fragrant.
I digress. It is a game of large numbers, and of great scale. The maps are sprawling, with immense verticality, and brutal chokepoints upon which the tide of thousands of digital bodies break nightly. Towering fortresses spew hovering aircraft into deep canyons, while glaciers are pocked with bursting shells and popping tanks. It is the best portrait of ultra-futuristic science-fiction ground warfare that we currently have on any system. Yes, it's that good.
There's a critical issue in this model of perpetual future war, however, and it's one that dogged the original. It's this: that there is no win scenario. You push back your enemies and take the critical bases, and then a couple of hours later they've been recaptured. It is a constantly flux, with the actions of players leaving no permanent mark up on the game world. That might change as the game evolves, but right now that creates a gulf of perception for many players. If this is a persistent world, they reason, then their actions should have lasting effects. They do not.
This is a matter of perspective. If you instead regard Planetside 2 as a kind of three-sided deathmatch free-for-all, with no goals other than the pursuit of conflict, the pursuit of points, then it makes a little more sense. You aren't there to complete a quest or to truly capture territory to exploit (in the sense that you might in Eve Online) you are just there to fight.
Take that view and you are likely to be a little more comfortable with what is happening. Join a squad, find where the front line is, and begin your war. Savour the breadth of tactical and strategic play. There's a lot of appeal to that, although it's also clear that a huge number of people are bouncing off the game entirely, and landing back in comfortable familiar genres. Partly that because there's no tutorial and an alarming lack of hints and signposting for beginners, and partly it's because there's just so much going on. SOE says a tutorial is incoming, but I suspect it will struggle to explain the numerous possibilities that the game lays out. [There is a spectrum of choice here, and that is something I love.]
It's not just a case of there being a number of weapons and abilities for the infantry, or a range of possible customisations and variants for the vehicles, it's about the sheer number of ways that you could be engaged in battle: are you using a jetpack to get inside a protected bases, so that you can bring the shields down? Are you driving a Sunderer to set up as a mobile spawn point? Are you providing medical support? Where is your squad? Where should you spawn? Where are the enemy? Who are the enemy?
Then you have to look at all the ways in which you might die: you might be sniped. (You WILL be sniped.) You might get killed by a grenade that bounced in through a window. You might have drive your vehicle over a mine. You might have been hit by a rock salvo from the air. You might even have been run over by a friendly. This represents a catalogue of frustration for the beginner, and provides another reason why many players are throwing their arms up in exasperation and walking away. That's a shame, because with a little persistence you learn to read the game and to stay alive, and to fight back.
But yeah, the fundamental reality of PS2 is that all this stuff I've just gone through equates to a lot of learning, and a proportionate requirement for awareness and UI literacy. It's a big ask, even for a game that is free.
That freeness is interesting, too, because what SOE are offering here is genuinely a game that you can play, and reap the rewards of, without paying a penny. Their shop is basically offering things on the principle of temptation: it's tempting to get that skull-mask helmet so that you look cool. It's tempting to pay to get the other rocket launcher rather than waiting to earn the points. It's far from pay to win, as some people have suggested, more like “pay to get some extra things, if you want, meh, you probably don't”. And it's that lack of insistence that I find a little perplexing. I put in £30 for the review and still haven't spent it all. After getting a couple of guns and a couple of cosmetic bits I couldn't really see anything else I wanted.
I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised or disappointed, because the game has only just launched, and why should I want to spend money? But I also feel baffled that there's not a huge variety of toys to choose from. The XP boosts and other vague bonus things seem vapid and vague, and totally fail to inspire me to part with money. If on the other hand there had been more weapons, more vehicle mods, more cosmetic choices, I would probably have parted with more cash. Hell, if I had been SOE I would have made it a priority to launch with loads of stuff and price it at half what stuff is currently priced in the game. As a player I would have gone on a shopping spree and kitted my character out with cool stuff from day one.
Shopping in PS2 does not feel right. I should be able to spend money freely, and I cannot. Is that a criticism? Honestly, it has me confused. It's not the right kind of exploitative? What am I saying?
What I am saying is that if you want to spend money, then this game does not offer a genuinely compelling way to do so. That does little to detract from the strengths of the game (or to amplify its weaknesses) but it's worth considering.
As it is I think SOE are throwing away the initial excitement of their audience. If we'd been able to spend loads on cool stuff in the throes of our initial infatuation with the game, they might have been looking at serious profit. Instead, I feel the cash shop is the most under-developed aspect of the game. Perhaps it doesn't matter. I feel like it should.
There are other issues: annoying wait times for free accounts, huge CPU and 3D card demands making it ugly and jerky on lower end systems. Then there's the balancing issues, mechanical quibbles with numerous items, and the fact that a bunch of the certs (skills) seem to have no real effect in the game. These are all patches in the making, but they are things that gnaw at the seeds of this game's longevity and success, and need to be addressed with haste and intelligence.
There's also been some criticism of both the “gun feel” and the flight model, and I have some sympathy with both of these grumbles. The flight model isn't fatal, but it is weird, and it doesn't support sticks – peculiar for a PC-only game. People are having some success using 360 pads, but it still feels very awkward and unreal, with baffling physics and strange handling.
The gun-feel thing is less of a problem, in my mind, simply because there are so many different guns across the three factions and they all feel so different. It is interesting to see, though, how Planetside 2 manages to capture the large scale acoustics and rumble of battlefield warfare, but haven't really made the close up and personal effects all that meaty. Its as if they've been able to mimic the strategic level roar of war from Battlefield 3, but not capture the critical light and noise of weapon impacts at a personal level. There's no suppression, and getting killed can feel quite weightless.
Nevertheless, Planetside 2 is a game I am playing every day. Every day. This is in part because RPS has a voice server and great bunch of players who play every evening (Euro time). That means I can guarantee that I am not just tagging along with a disorganised zerg, but actually getting involved in orchestrated and organised actions. That too is an odd demand for enjoyment of a game, but the truth is that it takes grit and patience to solo in PS2, and you are much better off in the backseat of battlebus with someone else who knows what they are doing.
But there's a deeper reason than simply enjoying a game with like minded comrades. My eagerness to pour hours in arises because Planetside 2 presses critical buttons in the control room of my gaming desires. I want to play with and against other human beings. I want a game that is not set in the desert of our real world. I want multitudes, and it's here, despite all those problems.
Planetside 2 races between up close and personal duels with an infantryman I met alone in a corridor, to the breath-taking bliztkrieg of tank columns meeting on the open field. It is leaping out of a dropship, it is holding a single fortress, cut off in enemy territory, against all the odds.
Planetside 2 might not contain true satisfaction in the sense of persistent or narrative victory – and accomplishments might feel hollow as a result – but the raw sensory revelation of glittering sci-fi obliterations are usually enough.
This is complex game design, and they have not quite made gold. It's close enough. And its still developing. I am going to continue to enjoy the ride.