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Is this the future of gaming? Our look at PlanetSide 2’s beta

SOE PlanetSide 2If you have been following PlanetSide 2 here at DT, then you know we have a bit of a crush on SOE’s free-to-play FPS. To feature thousands of people fighting in multiple areas across a massive world, use familiar shooter gameplay, and then to release it all for free is a wee bit mind blowing. If SOE can pull it off and nurture a thriving online community, this game could be the best return on investment of any game ever, what with it being free and all.

Of course, despite the free-to-play motif, there will be plenty of micro-transactions and ways to throw money at PlanetSide 2. For example, right now SOE is offering a package for $39.99 that nets you 4,000 Station cash (a $40 value), an exclusive “Founder” title and badge, a camo skin, 12 weapon unlocks, and a six-month XP boost. It will also grant you access to the beta. But despite the stream of temptations like these you’ll be subjected to, at its core PlanetSide 2 won’t cost you a thing, and that could make for a big step for gaming. It’s an FPS MMO that thousands of people can play at once, level up for hours and hours, and build social networks without dropping a dime. What PC FPS gamer wouldn’t want in on that? But of course, it all has to work.

After spending some time with the beta — where money hasn’t yet entered the equation — it is obvious there are things that work, and things that might work, but remain to be seen.

The things that work revolve around the gameplay. In execution, this is a traditional shooter in the vein of the Battlefield franchise, with larger areas to fight in and vehicles to either rally to or run for your life from. The controls are standard for PC FPS players, and the game moves smoothly, and as you would expect.

PS2The early going will be rough though. Like most online games of the genre with any depth, there is a leveling system that unlocks through play, and the more time you put in the better options you have to sally forth and kill. The character classes are all relatively balanced, and you can earn points towards unlocking items and weapons in any class easily enough. But cash has a way of upsetting that balance. Those frugal players who abstain from purchasing weapons and equipment with real cash will immediately be at a disadvantage, as high-rolling players will continuously take their metaphorical lunch money.

PlanetSide 2 is built for depth, so playing it to unlock weapons entirely through in-game actions will take a long, long time. This benefit you in the long run as you build your skills, but might make for some frustration at the start as you cling tightly to your moral high ground, self-assured in the knowledge that you are leveling up the “pure” way. That should keep you warm in the cold, dark nights ahead.

Charging for guns is neither unreasonable nor unwarranted for a game that costs nothing – as long as players have the options of earning them the old-fashioned way as well. Besides, even with access to the higher level weapons, you won’t have a game-ending advantage. Some weapons are simply better than others, but it isn’t enough difference to completely ruin the game’s balance. It is more a matter of finding the weapon that best suits your style, but their are clear advantages to unlocking things.

There are six classes to play, each with their own weapons and equipment: Infiltrator, Light Assault, Combat Medic, Engineer, Heavy Assault, and Max. Most of these will be familiar to people that have played class-based shooters before. Each will also have their own unique talents, abilities, and negatives.

SOE's PS2The Infiltrator is the scout/sniper class, with ranged weapons and cloaking gear. The Light Assault is an infantry character with a carbine rifle to start, and also has a jetpack that allows that class to get to areas faster, plus they can move in directions that help them take the best positions. Combat Medics carry an assault rifle and can heal squad mates. The Engineer uses a carbine, and can create equipment like turrets. The Heavy Assault class carries an LMG-like weapon and can use a shield. The Max class features a heavy, mech-style character that is slow, but incredibly strong, and features a speed boost.

Each of these classes is available to all three of the factions you can play in, but each faction puts its own unique spin on it. The Terrans use more recognizable weaponry; the Vanu Sovereignty relies on adapted alien technology; the New Conglomerate uses a mix of scavenged weapons. They are each distinctive and unique, but ultimately similar.

Once you join a game, you can either hook up with a squad of your friends, or randomly join one. Squads are key to the game. The world map features several locations, each with its own territorial points. As you enter the area you are tasked with either defending the specific spots, or attacking. Once an area has been completely claimed, a cool-down period commences and you should move on.

Getting to these contested areas can be done via the map. You can bring it up at any time, and assuming the area is active you can then drop into a nearby point. If your squad leader has the foresight, they can also place a beacon to let you drop into the action at that point. Because the game relies so heavily on squads working together, it will be interesting (and important) to see how the social options work in the final release.

During my own experience with the beta, I spent a great deal of time wandering from location to location. As more people join, finding the contested spots became easier, but I ended up spending a fair amount of time wandering from point to point looking for someone to say hi to, or possibly shoot. After spending a significant amount of time with the same avatar without having to respawn, words cannot express my loss after my character — who had endured several hardships, recorded a few kills, walked miles — was suddenly run over by a passing ship. I respawned and made it my mission in life to avenge myself.

Vehicles also play a huge part beyond just the offensive capabilities. There are tanks that can ruin your day and several fast rides to get you where you need to go quickly, but the most important vehicles will be those that can transport troops. Loading up a futuristic helicopter-like vehicle can not only help clear a path with massive firepower, it can land, drop a dozen troops into battle, and then act as a spawn beacon as well. Managing your credits in order to purchase the right vehicles to use, and in order to counteract your enemies’ strategies, will make the difference in winning or losing.

PlanetSide 2 betaThe PlanetSide 2 beta is just the scaffolding. It shows you the shape of things to come, but it can’t give you a real sense of how the game will play out, at least not yet. The game not only supports thousands of players, it needs them.

Like many MMOs, PlanetSide 2 needs to be played in groups – large groups – to really be appreciated. If the server you choose is fairly empty, you could end up spending a lot of time bouncing from point to point just looking for people to hang out with or annihilate. The maps are so big they can feel desolate. It really is an all or nothing sort of feeling.

But if you log on and find a full server, and get a group of like-minded people together, you will have a great time. The larger the groups get, the more intense the battles can be. A coordinated assault with all three factions, each supporting hundreds of players, will be the stuff that people tell their friends about years from now when reminiscing about their favorite games of yesteryear. Better yet, with the model in place, SOE could continue to add to the game for years to come and continue to keep PlanetSide 2 relevant for a long, long time coming.

It is impossible to accurately judge PlanetSide 2 until it is out and fully populated by real people. The foundation is there though, and SOE may have a huge winner on its hands.