Planetside 2 preview: Is MMOFPS a viable genre?
Goldeneye 007 is the first multiplayer FPS I ever played, and it was definitely a life-changing experience. Even now I can fondly remember those late night gaming sessions, cursing each annoying proximity mine while fighting desperately for the right to wield the deadly RCP-90. Thing as, as much fun as we had with those 4-player deathmatches, we always find ourselves wondering what the game would be like with more players in the mix, secretly dreaming of a world where we could play on massive Goldeneye maps filled with hundreds of players.
So now, as the world's first 2000 player FPS looms on the horizon, I must admit that the twelve-year-old inside of me is shaking with excitement. However, the ever-skeptical game journalist in me is forced to question whether this ambitious MMOFPS will prove a truly remarkable experience, or simply an interesting but forgettable experiment.
The original Planetside has maintained a relatively stable fanbase since launching in May of 2003, though the game never truly managed to become a major MMO player, overshadowed by the emerging stable of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. Still, the game's success was clearly enough to encourage this ambitious sequel, which will now populate the game's massive overworlds with up to 2000 players, allowing Planetside 2's three factions to fight for control of various bases in a never ending tug-of-war.
It's this faction based warfare which is Planetside's main hook, with each of the three tribes having access to variations on the game's main character classes, vehicles and weapons. The Terran Republic seem to be your standard militaristic "bad guys," looking to crush the various tribes with their notable speed advantage (especially useful when rushing to secure a point). The New Conglomerate are a rebel force defined by their heavy-hitting firepower, which makes them well suited for defending their bases. Then there's the wildcards of the Vanu Sovereignty, using alien weaponry and other tech which makes them a middle ground between the two extremes. What this boils down to is red vs. blue vs. purple, letting players decide which play style (or color scheme) suite best fits their lifestyle, then joining this unending fight for map dominance. Not only will this kind of clan-mentality make for some truly heated battles, but it also promises to lend itself to plenty of marketing opportunities, as evidenced by the surplus of Planetside 2 related swag that was thrust upon myself during my time with the demo (I apparently have a pair of Conglomerate sneakers coming my way, though this Terran t-shirt I'm currently rocking is definitely the hotness).
The gameplay is definitely solid, with a baffling variety of character classes, weapon variations, and thrilling vehicles to pilot. Scattered around the massive continent are a variety of intricately designed locales, each presenting a unique challenge. Some are nigh-impenetrable on the ground, meaning players will want to take to the skies with the game's aircraft. Others feature wide open areas, meaning ambitious foot soldiers will soon find themselves facing off against a phalanx of tanks. I imagine the early months of the game will be a definite thrill, as players discover how each contested section of the map is best tackled, where the best sniper nests are located or how to keep the enemies' seemingly-indestructible M.A.X. mech suits from rampaging through the base (try grenades). It's also likely that the servers will be packed to capacity from day one, as the idea of a free-to-play MMMOFPS is just too novel to not warrant a download. The question is whether the game will prove to have the stickiness needed to retain a truly massive player-base, or whether Planetside 2 will simply hang around as yet another moderately successful F2P MMO.
Sony definitely believes that their game could be the next World of Warcraft, as evidenced by the fact they were willing to pay for me to drag my fat ass out to SOE headquarters and try it out in person. Truth is, though I played Planetside 2 for about an hour, I couldn't help but feel like that playtime was largely pointless. On a server with just twenty other game journalists, the game is a completely different beast, a rather boring trek from the spawn point out to the base we're fighting over, some brief skirmishes, then another long boring trek back out to the contested point. Eventually I just stopped playing, knowing that this minor beta test was in no way representative of the actual Planetside 2 experience, where it will likely be impossible to cross the map without fighting legions of opposing forces. Thus, this play-through actually left me with more questions than answers, the biggest question being: Will a 2000-person multiplayer game prove to be truly thrilling, or simply chaotic?
Thing is that there's just something unnerving about a war with no real consequences, no way to truly "finish the fight." Planetside 2 offers no hook beyond what you see. This is a giant deathmatch game which will never end. You log on, hook up with some buddies, kill some guys, maybe secure a base if you're lucky. However the game is specifically built so that no side can ever truly eke out a meaningful advantage over any other, nor would there be any meaningful reward for doing so. The argument could be made that most multiplayer shooters offers no real conclusions either, an endless series of proxy wars between terrorists and G.I.s which never truly favors either side. Thing is, at least these individual matches at least offer a brief sense of finality, proudly declaring the victor following these ten minute deathmatch sessions. Not to mention that the smaller team and map sizes mean that some very legitimate tactics enter into effect. With so many players, and such huge maps, it seems hard to determine whether you and your squadmates be able to actually plan out some competent strategy, or whether you'll simply wander around the massive environments getting shot at from every possible angle.
The second problem I foresee relates to the game's reward structure. After all, what is the point of Planetside 2. The war itself has proven to be meaningless, by virtue of the fact that it will never end. You control the bases because they are there, you fight over them because there's really nothing else you can do, the only minor advantage they offer being a base of operations from which you can incur kills with more frequency, spawning vehicles and picking off anyone who comes near. Thus the game's true reward structure is nothing more revolutionary than the promise of XP, the chance to drive your character to ever greater heights, earning new skills and gear in the process. Problem is that this reward model already feels rather outdated, with even MMO-titans Blizzard admitting that their over-reliance on Diablo III's constant grind upwards not enough to keep players around. If you're one of those players who's still addicted to the idea of numbers going up, then by all means this is a damn enjoyable way to accomplish that goal. But for those who need more of an incentive to run around and kill people, Planetside 2 seems oddly lacking. I'm really hoping SOE comes up with some ways to add some consequences to this endless war, perhaps unlocking certain content early (new vehicles, enhancements, etc) for whatever faction is dominating a specific base at the end of a month. Currently though, the game is focusing a lot more on the hardly revolutionary FPS gameplay, which though technically (and graphically) impressive, seems lacking in any true incentive to play.
The one glimmer of hope lies in the game's extensive stat tracking system, which will record just about any metric you could possibly think of, including of course your kill counts, base captures and other in-game actions. The Planetside devs were very insistent on mentioning that these stat records will be made fully available to the community, which sets up the very real possibility that some unofficial leaderboards will begin to crop up immediately following launch. Here lies the potential for the Planetside community to craft their own reward system, letting players fight for dominance over whatever stats are agreed upon as worthy for competition. This idea of letting the community handle the ability to distinguish players seems truly brilliant, albeit a bit reckless. In a way, this ensures a fanbase for the game, as it immediately tasks fans with building the means by which Planetside's factions define the terms of their war, as well as their own personal successes. Again, these are intangible metrics, nothing as ambitious as Diablo III's real cash marketplace or Firefall's promise of supported cyber-sports tournaments. Still, it's a definite step in the right direction, and should provide enough of a hook to keep a sizable community invested in this fictional war.
In short, Planetside 2's simple stat based accolades just aren't a big enough hook for players like myself, and though the game is definitely a ton of fun, it's hard to see exactly will make this a true MMO, as opposed to one gigantic unending deathmatch. Though plenty of games can earn a fanbase simply by virtue of being fun, the MMO experience seems to be evolving to a place where players are no longer satisfied simply with the promise of better virtual gear or a chance to be PVP champion. Point is, the game is free, meaning everybody should experience Planetside 2 at least once (heck, grab a Beta key and enjoy the craziness that is sure to ensue before the various base-related strategies become set in stone). Whether Sony will be able to convince those players to stick around?
We'll just have to wait and see.