Game Released: November 20, 2012
Review Published: November 28, 2012
I wrote this game review for The Western Front. It won 1st place in the “Editorial/Commentary, Arts & Entertainment” category of the Washington Press Association’s 2012 Communications Contest.
PlanetSide 2 is a game that shatters the online FPS mold. While other shooters box off their player populations into thousands of segregated matches with finite beginnings and ends, Sony Online Entertainment’s PC-exclusive (a Mac version is in development) and free-to-play PlanetSide 2 divides all of its players into three opposing teams and pits them all against each other at once in a never-ending fight for dominance on three interconnected Skyrim-sized maps. Massively Multiplayer Online First Person Shooters are a rare breed of game, but given how well PlanetSide 2 works on so many levels, this could be the future of online shooters with an impact on the genre comparable to Call of Duty 4.
The online futuristic warfare of PlanetSide 2 takes place on the planet Auraxis, a world populated by three warring empires: the Vanu Sovereignty, the Terran Republic, and the New Conglomerate. Players assume the role of a soldier in any one of these empires and, after a quick video tutorial, are deployed onto the planet’s surface from an orbital drop-pod directly into an ongoing fight between real players. Players can choose from five distinct infantry classes and a host of ground and air vehicles to navigate the world with. All three of PlanetSide 2’s maps, appropriately named “continents,” contain approximately 80 bases for up to 2000 players to capture and control in a huge variety of environments. Think of this like several dozen colossal Battlefield maps all connected to each other and featuring a day/night cycle that never ends, and you may understand the scale of PlanetSide 2’s universe.
The core gameplay mechanic in PlanetSide 2 is a never-ending game of territory control. Control of territory will give an empire additional resources to spend on land vehicles, aircraft and infantry equipment, and some territories will provide empires with special boosts to soldiers such as regenerative health or the ability to purchase heavy tanks. Territory control is also dictated by a system of influence, where the more territories an empire has next to a territory they wish to capture, the easier the capture will be. The territory influence system works well to prevent constant skirmishes inside an empire’s front lines, but also allows for an ever-changing battlefield across each continent.
As a shooter, PlanetSide 2 provides almost nothing new to the genre. Aim down sights gunplay? Check. Specialized classes including a player-healing medic and a stealthy sniper? Check. Customizable loadouts with upgrades earned over time? Check. As solid as PlanetSide 2’s gunplay and leveling-up mechanics may be, they are unlikely to impress anyone who’s played the latest Battlefield or Call of Duty. The big difference with PlanetSide 2’s combat is the size of the battles and the number of players involved which passively introduces new gameplay elements. For one, players who shun working as a team will find themselves respawning miles away from the location of their last death and unable to sustain themselves for long against literally hundreds of enemy players. PlanetSide 2 does not actively punish players for separating from their teammates, but the size of its gameplay passively provides an environment where playing as a lone wolf is exponentially more difficult than in other shooters.
As a result of this teamwork-oriented gameplay, PlanetSide 2 players can form a list of friends and join clan-like outfits in addition to joining 12-player squads, which act as fireteams of players working together inside the larger army. Members of a squad will be able to differentiate each other from other friendly players on their HUD, and squad commanders (usually the person who formed the squad) can lay down waypoints for their squad so everyone can coordinate on specific locations. Up to four squads can merge together to form 48-player platoons, and commanders of platoons can speak directly with each other over a special communication channel, so empires as a whole can work as a coordinated army of players rather than a mob of individuals or even a cluster of segmented squads.
The size of PlanetSide 2’s player population, when combined with the scale of its environments and the coordination tools available to squads and platoons, allow for truly epic battles that no other shooter can provide in either online arenas or scripted single-player campaigns. In the several weeks that I’ve played PlanetSide 2’s Beta and the full release since November 20, I have participated in massive land battles between dozens of tanks in frozen wastelands, helped my platoon light up the night sky with a hail of gunfire when we witnessed a fleet of yacht-sized troop-transports fly over the base we’d just captured, and commanded my own squad for four consecutive hours as we worked together to defend our empire against overwhelming odds and encircle and claim an enemy stronghold. In a sense, PlanetSide 2’s best moments are akin to participating in the epic battles of The Lord of The Rings, or James Cameron’s Avatar. The major difference is nothing is scripted, and every player is a cog in the giant machine that decides an outcome in these enormous clashes. PlanetSide 2 shines its brightest as a game during enormous battles, and it delivers an experience that most other shooters can only wish they could provide.
In spite of the size of these battles, which can sometimes involve well over a hundred players within a square kilometer, PlanetSide 2’s dedicated-server gameplay runs very smoothly with minimal lag at even moderate broadband connection speeds. But, the game itself does demand some beefy hardware to run optimally. Running the game through Windows 7 on my 2011 iMac, which has a 3.4 GHz i7 intel processor, 12 GB of RAM and an AMD Radeon HD 6970M 2 GB GPU, I was able to obtain a moderately consistent 30-40 frames per second on medium settings which dipped down to 20-25 with graphics on high. That might sound like poor performance, but because excelling in PlanetSide 2 is more about working with your teammates than the lightning-quick reflexes demanded in other shooters, I found the frame rate to be very acceptable. The only major performance difficulty I encountered was a significant drop in voice chat quality during battles with especially high player counts, and plenty of texture and geometry pop-ins when the game first starts up.
PlanetSide 2 is also an astoundingly beautiful game. On highest settings, it sports visuals that could easily compete with Battlefield 3 and Crysis 2. The environments themselves are extremely static, but they come alive from dust kicked up by tank treads and smoke and sparks from crashed aircraft. The huge open environments are also home to some breathtaking sunsets, and indoor environments glow with beautiful lighting while outdoor environments dazzle the eyes with flashlight-guided firefights.
While PlanetSide 2 is a free to play game, its business model is something of a mixed bag. Like other free-to-play games, it features two currency systems; one earned through gameplay, called certifications; and one earned by paying money, called Station Cash. An average player could easily spend hundreds of hours acquiring the more expensive items with certifications, or buy them quickly with Station Cash, but not all items can be purchased with Station Cash, and many of the items that can are purely cosmetic. Players can also try out certain weapons and equipment for free before they purchase them with either currency. Sony Online Entertainment also allows players to sign up for a premium membership, where $10 per month will provide players with experience point boosts, 500 station cash per month, and place them first in line when joining an over-loaded server.
As robust as this business model is, players should be aware that Station Cash, experience points, and all accumulated benefits like new weapons and cosmetics are locked to the empire and server they are acquired on. Players can create as many accounts on different servers and in different empires as they like, but the weapons and experience points they’ve gathered in one account cannot be transferred to another, which really locks players in to whatever empire or server they select when they sign up. This can make playing with a friend in real life or deciding to fight for another empire difficult for players who’ve invested any amount of time or money in one particular server and empire.
PlanetSide 2 also comes with a moderate handful of bugs such as terminals and vehicles that take too long to allow access, and the medic’s healing tool will often uselessly target players at full health. The method for transitioning from a battlefield on one continent to a firefight on another is cumbersome and requires passage through several loading screens. The game itself is also largely devoid of tutorials, which could be very useful for new players to explain things such as how to fly aircraft and how to capture certain complex bases. As beautiful as the game’s environment may be, they are also incredibly lifeless and devoid of any interactivity other than objectives and other players. Even the grass and the trees don’t sway. PlanetSide 2 is also a game that really should be played with a full-sized keyboard due to the huge variety controls and commands that can intimidate players new to PC gaming.
Despite its flaws, PlanetSide 2 is still an extremely satisfying game, and a magnificently fresh take on online shooters. The fact that the game runs along with such a high player count while maintaining minimal lag is worthy of praise alone, but PlanetSide 2 also draws players into an engaging universe of its own and proves that free-to-play shooters don’t have to be pay-to-win like Blacklight: Retribution. Sony Online Entertainment has also promised extra continents to be released in the future and has a relatively robust network of technical support available for players to tap in to. PlanetSide 2 delivers gigantic battles in perpetually active open-world environments, where the transition from one firefight to the next requires little more than hopping into a tank and driving there rather than waiting for a score screen and another match to start. It mutes the impact individual players have on a battle’s outcome and instead hands victory to the most coordinated team. It’s also free to download and play to your heart’s content, so if you want a change from other shooters and think your computer’s specs are up to the test, get online and join the war.
To see this article as it was published, follow this link to The Western Front’s website.
Easily the hardest thing about writing this review was getting over how much I loved it. PlanetSide 2 felt like a game I’d been waiting to come out my whole life. Army-sized teams of players fighting a persistent war in a massive open world was amazing enough, but the free-to-play model and exceptionally receptive developers who continued to release new content and adjustments to gameplay were just the icing on top of an already delicious cake. PlanetSide 2 remains one of the very few video games where communication and teamwork are essential to the gameplay, and this social interaction and camaraderie I was able to share with others was much more immersive than any advanced graphics.
However, my deep love for this game did cloud my sight during the review. I glazed over its lack of a tutorial and the occasional difficulties in finding a squad that was actively talking (although I solved the later problem by joining an outfit). I also neglected to recognize just how steep the system requirements for this game were and how advanced my computer was. One of the most common things people tell me when I suggest this game to them is they tried it once but couldn’t get it to play very well because their computer wasn’t powerful enough.
Ultimately, I did at least end up receiving a first place award from the Washington Press Association for this review. The fact that my game review won in a category much broader than that for the entire state of Washington definitely encouraged me that one day I should at least try to become a gaming journalist one of these days.