As the two most popular genres to play online, Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games and First Person Shooting have been begging for a good game to cram them together into one incredibly addictive package. The original PlanetSide was fairly successful at this in 2003. Ten years later, Sony Online Entertainment has brought out PlanetSide 2 with updated graphics and a modern free-to-play model, without touching what made the game popular way back when. However, like most MMORPGs, PlanetSide 2 is an initially frustrating experience that requires a major time investment and a group of like-minded friends to fully enjoy.
In a nutshell, PlanetSide 2 is a very large online shooting game that never ends. The initial character creation and faction selection feels like an MMORPG, but once you’re in the action, it is pure team-based shooter.
Auraxis, the world of PlanetSide 2, is divided into three continents (maps) which each hold up to 2,000 players at a time. These continents are dotted with bases, outposts, and other facilities that players can capture to win resource bonuses. These bonuses allow the winning team to spawn more vehicles and deploy themselves in wider swathes of the map. Strategic points are captured in the conventional video game way: run inside the base, squat next to a terminal, and wait for the bar to turn your team’s color.
Killing enemies, capturing bases, and otherwise helping your team grants experience points and certification points. Certification points are the currency used to buy upgrades for your armor, weapons, and vehicles that you spawn into the world. Skills specific to the different playable classes are also completely upgradeable. If you spend a lot of time as a medic, for example, you can spend certification points to make your “heal gun” heal more quickly, or to resurrect dead players with more health. True to the free-to-play nature of PlanetSide 2, you can also purchase “station cash” and buy these skills and upgrades with real money.
Teamwork is definitely the emphasis of PlanetSide 2. Even when I encountered higher level players with tricked out weapons and armor, they weren’t doing any good on their own. At the starting level, it takes only a few bullets to get killed. Working together with a squad is key if you want to make any difference in the global conflict.
PlanetSide 2‘s visual strength is in scale. Nothing quite compares to cresting over a hill to see dozens of lazers and bullets whizzing through the air as soldiers from multiple factions jump out of aircraft to the world below, all while a platoon of tanks barrels past. When it comes to large scale conflict, PlanetSide 2 offers an incredible depiction of battles that are measured in hundreds of players.
What looks amazing in full view, however, doesn’t look that great up close. Auraxis’ three continents are gigantic and have the typical video game environment tropes (ice level, desert level, etc.), but when there is just a vast expanse of nothing in front of you, the environments look bland. Only when the area is populated with soldiers does it begin to look remotely interesting.
PlanetSide 2 is also a demanding game, hardware-wise. My 3-year-old rig runs the game just fine on medium settings, but the loading in between spawns reaches into the upper 30 second range if I’m going in to a big battle. When I initially load the game, The UI doesn’t become usable (or visible, for that matter) for a good minute. Lag, a score of visual glitches, and a few random crashes rounded out a technically frustrating experience.
Like many other games in the MMORPG genre, PlanetSide 2 needs a good bit of time for all of its gameplay systems to make sense. However, Sony Online Entertainment has made no effort (or, perhaps, too much effort in the wrong direction) to explain these to the player.
Upon creating a character, you are shoved into the action with zero direction on where to go or what you should be doing. Big battles cause sections of the world map to flash, but there is no explanation for what is gained if you capture the point, or lost if you fail to defend it. And dropping straight into action as a beginning player usually results in a quick death. The “transport to active battle” option can only be used every few minutes, so if you transport to an active battle and immediately get pulverized, you have to trudge through a barren landscape to get back to the action.
Sony Online Entertainment maintains an official site with YouTube tutorials for new players, but the site contains 11 videos that add up to over an hour, and not all of it is immediately useful. And even after watching all of these videos, I still have no idea where I should be going, or what I should be doing when I get there, when I log in to PlanetSide 2.
The only way to see the best that PlanetSide 2 has to offer is to play with a group of 2-4 friends, or spend the time finding a clan full of people you enjoy playing with. While those two situations certainly aren’t impossible, it makes your enjoyment of PlanetSide 2 highly conditional. I played with a group of 3 friends for a few hours one night, and we had a blast. But as soon as I wanted to play PlanetSide 2, and they didn’t, I went back to not having fun again.
Even if the above conditions are met, the concept of a team-based first person shooter that never ends will vary in mileage with different gamers. Within the confines of a “round”, other multiplayer shooters endow the player with some sense of accomplishment. Even after a big loss, there is always the next round. In more traditional MMOs, completing dungeons or arena matches gave me some kind of personal reward. In PlanetSide 2, loss is fleeting, but victory is too. Imagine spending hours assaulting a valuable resource, capturing it, going to bed, and seeing it in the hands of an enemy team when you wake up. It is also entirely possible that you will spend an entire session of PlanetSide 2 throwing yourself at an objective only to never get it, or run around trying to help your faction and never really accomplish anything.
PlanetSide 2 is a hard game to sum up. It’s a beautiful, solidly built shooter that presents large-scale conflict like nobody else in the business. The rest of the game’s enjoyment, however, is entirely up to you. If you can dedicate the time to learning the systems, decoding the cumbersome UI, and finding a group of people that you like playing with, PlanetSide 2 will be a blast.
But generally, shooter fans won’t find the same degree of satisfaction offered by traditional “round-based” shooters, while MMO players will lament the lack of direction and narrative purpose for doing anything. There is something to be said for the game’s sense of scale, and the feeling of being one small part in a large army, which the game captures very well. Most of the time, however, you feel not small, but insignificant.
Of course, the game is free, and the microtransactions are not disgusting. If you don’t believe me, try it out for yourself. If you have a beefy PC, it is worth the download to spend an evening watching large battles, if nothing else.