I'll see you on the dark side of the BOOM!
It was just over two years ago at E3 2001 when I saw an amazing demo for a potential geek gem. It resembled the then-unfinished and deceptively ambitious Halo, which at the time was touted as an incredible PC project. Two well-textured and grossly detailed characters were traversing across open, grassy plains, kicking up dirt and tightly bending corners in a stylish two-man all-terrain buggy.
The demo wasn't very robust, but it showed off a stellar graphics engine and a great physics system. The game in question was and still is Planetside, the world's first massively-multiplayer online first-person shooter. Yep, a MMOFPS.
Planetside is a truly one-of-a-kind FPS experience at the typical hefty MMOG price - about $12.99 a month plus an MSRP of $49.99. Though it serves up plenty of fodder for bitching and moaning, at its heart this huge technological undertaking also serves up a surfeit of entertainment.
The game is a tactical squad-based affair emphasizing teamwork and strategy. Players choose their allegiance to one of three empires: Terran Republic, the New Conglomerate and the Vanu Sovereignty.
In essence, you must fight to influence the balance of power on the planet Auraxis by overtaking numerous bases and subsequently whole continents by engaging in the biblical wholesale slaughter of your opposition. To get to the fracas, you must undergo the arduous process of finding and joining a squad via the chat window or buggy voice communication. Then you must coordinate some sort of transportation to get the whole gang to the fight, which can be literally miles from your spawn point.
By gaining experience, players unlock new weapons and customize their character with a bevy of augmentations (such as the cool ability to see cloaked assailants), items (such as the ability to heal and repair things) and "Certifications."
Battle Experience Points (BEPs) are earned by killing enemies, destroying their gear and seizing their compound and facilities. As you gain BEPs, you will go up in Battle Rank. As you go up in Battle Rank you will earn Certifications Points and Implant Slots. Certification points can be spent on gaining access to weapons, armor, support items and vehicles. What's cool is you can 'unlearn' Certifications to free up points for other equipment and such, allowing you to mold your warrior as you see fit.
This system is really sweet. There are literally hundreds of combinations to fool around with, which provide hours of good honest geekery outfitting and customizing your character to gain access to more sophisticated vehicles, heavy armor, infantry items, hacking, sniping abilities and so forth.
If it sounds complicated, it should. This ain't Counter-Strike, or even Tribes 2, for that matter. You'll spend most of your initial time running around aimlessly, dying often and trying to get all of the many on and off-screen interfaces down to a science. I suggest taking the fight to the VR training facility where you can actually gain some battle experience in the numerous weapons and vehicles.
There are more than 15 vehicles, from heavy transports (air and surface), tanks and hovercrafts to smaller one-man ATVs for scouting and playing it sly and sneaky, as well as a few different fighter/assault jets and other aircraft. Most of these babies are easy to drive/pilot, but many of them require high Command Certifications to operate, which my low-ranking ass has not yet obtained. Yes, I'm still a bit green.
One super cool feature is that most vehicles come with some sort of trunk space in which to store extra items, ammo and weapons. It's a great way to transport goods to friendlies who may need them deep in the fray.
Like any massively -multiplayer game, Planetside is not without its share of bugs, and Sony Online has assured the gaming community that Planetside is still a baby to be continually nursed. There have been several updates in the last 10 days alone. Most of these were to address stability issues, but I've also seen some new weapons and vehicles added, which is always a pleasant surprise.
Currently you can find dozens of firearms like various handguns, assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenade launchers, hand grenades, shotguns and more. Controlling them all works much like your garden-variety FPS, so skill lies with you and not some "golden" item or upgrade.
Frankly, my hat goes off to the developers. This had to be a technological mind-bender, and yet they were able to keep things pretty. If you have the rig for it, this life-eater looks really good. Textures are detailed with various colors and nice metallic and other reflective surfaces. The grass and foliage are realistic, and character models and animations are very well done with good attention to detail. The sky and various weather effects are pretty darn impressive as well, although I wish they played more of a role in the actual gameplay instead of just posing as sumptuous eye-candy.
However, a game of this scope cannot go without a few significant shortcomings. The steep learning-curve coupled with the monthly cost goes well beyond what is putatively acceptable for most gamers. Like I stated above, just learning the myriad of functions, trying to organize a group and then arranging transportation will easily eat up a couple hours before you've even fired your first live round at a real enemy.
When you die (which happen easily and often), you get to choose your spawn point. But the safest place to spawn is back at your base, at which point you will have to do the whole regrouping and hitching a ride process yet again. You could walk to the battlefield, but you could walk from San Francisco to Chicago in less time.
And indeed, stability has been a huge issue over the last 10 days alone. I have been kicked from servers and stuck in one place a few times, requiring a system reboot. There have been framerate issues, crashes/freezes and all sorts of technical hang-ups. Much of this has been addressed, but she's far from perfect.
To see and experience Planetside in its full glory requires a Megalodon of a system. In addition to the 3.25 GB of free hard drive space, you will need at least a Geforce 4 or equivalent to get many of the games graphical splendors to run smoothly. My slightly dated Gladiac 920 Geforce 3 card produced surprisingly flat textures. The purported minimum system reqs are much lower, but I don't even want to know what the game would look like then.
Planetside doesn't really do what it advertises. Massively-multiplayer games are typically set in persistent worlds with persistent character development, whereas here you only really get the persistent character development part. The world looks the same time and again. You won't see ruins of old bases or decimated buildings as you travel across the lands. This is because bases are prosaically the spoils of the victor and just go on running under the new leader ship. You don't even get to see vehicle wreckage or a pile of dead bodies.
That also means that the monthly fee is just so you can save your character stats. Unlike MMORPGs that feature tons of items to find, skills to increase and monsters to slay, Planetside's limited RPG depth makes the monthly fee a bit harder to swallow. And considering you can play a game like Battlefield 1942 online for free, the costs don't really pan out.
But with all that said, I must reiterate how much fun Planetside can be. Once a squad has been established and a battle plan has been organized, nothing beats flying into the fray on a player-controlled dropship with several fellow combatants. You fan out, the snipers take their posts, the infantry and hackers do their thing and it's all-out war with no-holds barred fun.
She's got a steep hill to climb, but Planetside will give back a lot of very unique enjoyment. It's not for everyone, but those who are interested and have the funds will undoubtedly be pleased with all the game has to offer.