GDC 2012: PlanetSide 2 offer multi-role FPS gameplay on an epic scale

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Sony Online Entertainment has some ambitious plans for PlanetSide 2, an expansive, free-to-play massively multiplayer first-person shooter. It’s meant to be a re-envisioning of the game originally released in 2003, dropping players into a planet-wide war being waged between three markedly different factions. The experience compares closest with Battlefield 3, though the epic scale of PlanetSide 2‘s sci-fi warfare dwarfs the EA shooter’s wide-open warzones and multi-role play.

It all starts with selecting which of the three factions you want to fight for. The Terran Republic offers the most familiar array of armaments, a high-tech military force with familiar treaded tanks and bullet-spitting firearms. The New Conglomerate is more patchwork, a fighting force that relies on old, repurposed mining equipment and pieced-together gear. Finally there’s the Vanu Sovereignty, which leans heavily on energy-based weapons from plundered alien technology.

The differences between the factions are more than just cosmetic. Since Terran firearms use proper bullets and tank shells, long-range fire must account for things like bullet drop. The Vanu Sovereignty’s energy weapons aren’t bound by such concerns, but long-range fire is less effective since energy blasts lose stopping power over greater distances. There are also faction-specific tanks and air vehicles, one apiece for each. You’ll use different tactics in PlanetSide 2 based both on which faction you choose and which one you’re fighting at any given moment.

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The game is set on a planet made up of multiple continents, with each continent further divided into discrete regions of varying sizes. Control of each region is tied to a particular building, with the size of the structure changing depending on the size of the region. The largest control areas feature massive high-tech facilities that SOE puts at roughly the size of your typical Modern Warfare 3 map. Wresting control of a region’s central building from one faction or another gives you own faction control of that region and any resources within it.

The focus for each faction should always be on extending those front lines. Not only do captured territories offer bonuses on their own, you can also earn additional bonuses for taking enemy land that is adjacent to your own. The more territory a faction controls, the more resources it has to work with.

PlanetSide 2 is about more than just “shoot dudes on the other team” gameplay. There are multiple combat and non-combat roles to choose from. Classes and vehicles both can be specifically tailored to suit any number of roles. A more assault-oriented class, for example, could be kitted out for more of a leadership role by adding the ability to have squads spawn on his or her location. Similarly, an air vehicle could be set up for close ground support, or for dogfighting, or even for some combination of the two.

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The gear that you unlock through long-term play isn’t necessarily better; it simply unlocks a wider range of options, a more complete toolbox for you to draw from in setting up your soldier and vehicle builds. There’s an in-game store, but it’s largely focused on offering players the chance to apply cosmetic upgrades; the focus for SOE is on never letting real-world spending allow players to “buy” an in-game advantage. Nothing new for free-to-play gaming.

The PC-only MMOFPS looks pretty fantastic running in the developer’s proprietary Forge Light engine. A night/day cycle creates the opportunity for some truly eye-catching spectacles. Even without the constant fireworks of the game’s ongoing war, you’ll see some pretty stunning vistas. Once the game gets cooking, with assault squads exchanging ground fire while tanks offer support and air units circle high above, engaged in their own back-and-forth, you really start to get a sense of the scale that SOE is going for here.

There’s no release date set for PlanetSide 2 yet. The game looks fairly feature complete, but perhaps not quite ready for primetime. SOE put on a good show of demoing the game for its first major public demo, but the action hiccuped semi-frequently even with just 40 or 50 playing on the server (out of the potential “hundreds”). There’s no denying that the core components are here for something impressive; the big question that remains is exactly how long it’ll take to get this ready for a wider audience.

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