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PlanetSide Review
Muun, 2005-12-20

Instruction was never something I took to. Especially when you're firing fake sounding guns in a VR simulation with targets that don't budge until they're half dead. It's not my kind of thing. I'm more into leaping straight into the party, guns blazing and bullets flying every which way. So I wasn't unhappy when the training was cut short by an urgent husky voice yelling: "All Terran Republic move to Esamir EH eS EH Peeeee".

I was out of the facility and kitted out in my newly acquired gear: Agile armour suit, Bolt Driver Sniper Rifle, Repeater pistol, a first aid kit and a pack of Amerishian Squid balls…

"Is this your first drop?", the bucktoothed, mullet sporting geek sitting opposite me in the HART dropship sniggered and elbowed his half sleeping mountain of a friend.

"Yeah…" The shrill laughter ripped the rest of my sentence to shreds. A dropship full of arseholes laughing at you is not a good way to start a career in the Terran Republic army…

Mullet-man had been right in advising the happy thoughts during descent. The drop pod seemed to be falling for a lifetime. A lifetime of balls-in-mouth, brain plastered-against-the-top-of-my-skull kind of fun. I couldn't decide whether the giant vacuum cleaner was sucking me up or down. Then the jets kick in and the belts around my chest threatened to yank out a rib…

I chose to drop far behind enemy lines, away from the front. The idea was to find a nice elevated hiding place to pick targets from. After half an hour of walking, the fireworks came into view. I was wading around a leech-infested swamp with dense thick trees like golem legs giving me plenty of cover...or so I thought. The sky was lit with missile streaks, gunfire and aircraft blowing up. For a moment I stopped in my tracks marvelling at the dogfights on a background of multi-purpled three-mooned sky. It was beautiful. Like a massive sho…

A shot rang out and next thing I know, I m spinning into the murky waters. My left shoulder pad was blown but thankfully the wound had just grazed me. I put my back to the tree and took out my rifle. Crouching down between the thick roots, I saw a movement to the north and another one behind a tree a few metres left of the first. Two of the bastards. I zoomed in on the tree behind which the leftmost assailant was hiding. He peered out for another shot just as the crosshairs on Daisy go red...

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Three factions, fourteen planets and a couple of thousand players slugging it out 24/7. That, in a nutshell, is Planetside. The first thing that struck me about the game is that - for a change - things make functional sense. Vehicles have trunks which you can put stuff in, to change from driver to gunner's seat you have to go out and back in again from the appropriate side. There are no rules on who or where you can shoot people, friend or foe. Engagements are rarely fair or balanced. You might get an army of a few hundred attacking a facility defended by ten or twenty hardheaded stalwarts. What's more important is that there are no AI characters in the game - no mobs, bots or the like. If it moves it's human controlled, with all the unpredictability and extra blowing-up satisfaction that gives.

Each faction is led by commanders who have proven themselves on the field. When there is a lack of people who take leadership initiative the faction suffers greatly. Coordination of squad, platoon, outfit and faction is critical to the game. Each squad can contain up to ten members with three squads forming a platoon. Being in a squad gives three main advantages. First, you get a portion of experience when any of your squaddies do something worthwhile. Secondly, you can communicate to your platoon and squad wherever they are, whereas normally you can only broadcast to the whole planet if you are inside a friendly facility, or if you have to required command rank (which takes a while to accumulate). Finally, you can see the locations of platoon members on the interstellar and planetary maps, which proves very helpful when coordinating attacks and assisting each other. The reward and communicative rewards that the platoon and squad system provide mean that doing the lone-wolf thing is possible but becomes that much more challenging: if you're out on your own and get attacked there is no way you can ask for help, aside from sending a tell to a specific player. And in Planetside you often need help. A lone soldier is a dead soldier, unless they are a skilled infiltrator or a very good pilot.

The game has a choice of first and third person views but as you might imagine, aiming in third person is almost impossible, especially at a certain distance. The character development system also makes a lot of sense. You are rewarded XP for killing things, fixing things, healing or repairing others and performing a general support role such as providing spawn points through AMSs (mobile trucks that can be deployed and allow players that get killed in the vicinity a place to spawn from). When you help others by repairing or healing them, you get a portion of the XP they get from killing things. Experience is divided into BEP, battle experience points (kills and such), SEP, support experience points (repairing facilities, vehicles and healing people) and CEP, command experience points (acquired through leading a squad to capturing or defending a facility). SEP and BEP count towards your Battle Ranking, CEP counts towards your Command Ranking.

Each battle ranking level gives the user a certification point. Certifications enable characters to use certain types of armour, weapons, vehicle or support equipment. The cost of each class of weapons and vehicles varies from 1 to 4, meaning that characters need to specialise in some areas at the cost of others. Even at the maximum battle rank of 25, characters are still limited by a certain configuration of certifications. The nice thing is that combining different certifications together allows for a huge flexibility of battlefield roles. For example, for two certification points a character can use the Infiltrator Suit. An infiltrator is completely invisible when he is still. The faster he moves the more visible he is. This means that with some care and patience, a character can make it behind enemy lines, and with some skill, right into enemy bases.

Now if this is combined with hacking certifications the character can hack terminals inside enemy bases to use them for their own needs and more importantly, hack the base control console to switch ownership of the base after a 15-minute period. If on the other hand, he has engineering and combat engineering certifications he can plant remote detonating bombs called boomers that allow him to disable terminals, respawn tubes and the like, effectively rendering the facility useless. Combining engineering and hacking would mean that the infiltrator can get around his drastically restricted carrying capacity by hacking lockers or terminals to get enough boomers to disable the entire facility or pull out the juggernaught MAX armour suit with its deadly weapons to cause carnage from within the enemy base, when they least expect it. Another option would be to plant a teleporter pad inside the facility effectively bringing a lengthy engagement outside the facility to an end by letting troops teleport directly into the enemy base and attack it from within. This is just an example of how certifications can be combined starting off from one just one type of armour. The same can be applied to most certifications, making the skill system in the game incredibly flexible and most importantly functional.

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Most other MMOs present players with a choice of character classes that give, essentially, different ways of achieving the same goal: killing things. A rogue in World of Warcraft for example, can backstab a creature, while a warrior can rush at it head on, but ultimately there are few situations in the game when even a option-rich class like the rogue is indispensable. Most MMOs will allow any class to complete assigned missions in various ways and thus the individuality of the classes is often only pertinent to how one chooses to perform a certain task, rather than being indispensable for certain situations. In Planetside, if a whole platoon of armed to the death soldiers manage to slaughter everything around a base, they will not be able to go in unless someone can hack the doors and eventually the base itself. The roles defined by the certifications change dramatically what one can do in the game. The game allows a character to unlearn one certification every 24 hours, which means that there is scope for re-configuration but this takes some planning and time.

Both the beauty and the downfall of Planetside arise from the fact that situations in the game are largely unregulated. This means that every time you log on things are going to be different. There might be a major battle raging for possession of a bridge on one planet and a desperate effort to hold another planet as long as possible against impossible odds. You might choose to assist the defence, create a new squad and hit the aggressors at a lightly defended base or involve yourself in the bridge battle by infiltrating behind enemy lines and sniping infantry from the back, pull a heavy tank and bombard the enemy or do bombing runs along the bridge… The point is that you chose what you will do in a particular session depending on what certifications you have and how you construe using those certifications in any of the situations that have been dynamically created by other players. There are no pre-scripted quests/aims. You create your own goals. Of course, since other players are doing the same your goals and theirs might clash unexpectedly and thus the stories that a player accumulates are more exciting than completing a quest you know another couple of hundred thousand people around the world have already completed. Planetside is a great example of having limited elements that combine in a multiplicity of ways to create scenarios with emergent behaviour. The developers establish the basic elements and the players do the rest. This creates a sense of needing to be ever watchful and interpreting what is going on around you at all times.

Emergent behaviour creates a different game every time you log on. Every situation is influenced by weather conditions, terrain, other player's plans and actions and so on. A rainy day will ruin your grand plans for sniping the pesky engineers on the other side of the bridge. A lack of mountains or high hills will mean that ambushing the opposition while still behind their facility walls will be impossible as well as making the sniper more vulnerable to being hunted down by ground vehicles. These are just basic examples of how simple game elements influence greatly one's plans and experience without the need for specific elements to be pre-designed into the game, naturally restricting possibilities of action.

On the minus side, sometimes too few people will be online to make a game experience worthwhile, or one faction will be outnumbering the others to such a degree that they will inevitably lose the engagement in the long haul. Some battles favour one side more than the other to such a degree that it becomes frustrating being on the losing side. Last week the Terran Republic (the side I play for with my main character) were trying to defend a base surrounded by sheer cliffs on one side and lava pools on the other. The New Conglomerate had roughly as many players on the planet as we had but by lining the mountains with heavy tanks, artillery, snipers and BFRs (battle frame robotics or Big Fucking Robots) they lay a curtain of fire onto our base walls, which meant that the moment one went out of the inner base building to man a turret, pull a vehicle from the vehicle terminal or take position on the walls, they would be dead in a few seconds or minutes. When the aggressors tried to push into the base they were repelled and the situation went on for a good four frustrating hours (at least for the Terran Republic side). There might be other situations that simply do not suit the certifications one has specialised in, making it hard to have any discernable effect on the events of that particular session.

Another down-side to the game is that the three factions have different weapons and vehicles, which can be advantageous in some situations over others. The New Conglomerate's main weapon is the Jackhammer, a triple barrelled shotgun that can kill an infantryman with one shot at close range. The Terran Republic have the Mini Chaingun as their main weapon, which has a rapid rate of fire and is effective up to medium range but in restricted close distances will always be beaten by a Jackhammer user. This means that to take over an NC base, the TR need to outnumber the opposition substantially and even then the engagement will last much longer than if the opposite were the case.

I must say that overall I found Planetside to be a great game. It does what it promises fantastically. There is no cut off point, which might make players feel like the war simply rages on and on without a long-term climax. This could be addressed by having more regular events or resetting servers after a particular date or string of events. All in all it is an excellent first person shooter with masses of troops each side. Surprisingly, playing on American servers from New Zealand has not affected the playability of the game and even in the most densely populated battles with hundreds of players on each side, the game ran smoothly and I have yet to experience a significant glitch or crash. I would recommend the game to anyone who is wanting to take the single or multiplayer FPS game to a new level or to MMORPG players that want to try something faster, more dynamic and most importantly, inhabited solely by other humans.

The Verdict

RPG Dots:   (8/10)

The ups and downs:
No AI characters or botsOccasional lack of players
Well balanced...can cause faction imbalance
Every battle is differentPlanets too similar
Runs smoothlyCould use more content
Game Overview
Multiplayer: yes
Setting: sci-fi
Combat: yes
Play Time: infinite
Average Reader Ratings: 10 (2 votes)
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