Planetside 2 First Impressions – It Feels Like a Virtual War (Really!)

I have some fond memories of the original Planetside. For a long time, that was an out and out addiction for me – an FPS game that not only offered experience gain and fairly deep character customization (especially for its time), but also was truly, honestly massive in scale. So when I heard that Planetside 2 was not only on the way, but was launching as a straight up Free-to-Play MMO, I was set. Barring disaster, I knew this was going to be one of those games I put on my Steam Favorites list and kept there as I alternated between playing it like a fanatic, and merely playing it now and then. I finally found some time to jump into the game and experience the launch product first-hand – and while I’d like to get a fuller review of this one written up, I just couldn’t wait to offer up some impressions. The short version: fantastic and engaging, but a little buggy. The long version? Well, that’s after the click-through.

First off, the character creation mode in this game is about as bare-bones as you can get. You pick which of the three empires you want to fight for, pick your gender and your name, and that’s that. No selecting skin tone or selecting from one of a number of eye-shapes to adorn your character with – really, no one’s going to look at you for any length of time in this game, save to figure out what class you are and whose side you’re on, and the only business anyone will want with your head is either saving it or putting a bullet hole in it. After selecting the urinal-using sex and the Terran Republic (they have the coolest looking flag), I picked my server and was dropped into the Planetside 2 tutorial.

Speaking of the tutorial, let me sum up just what happens: you get a very brief side-specific introduction to the war, reassured that even if you die they can resurrect you with nanotech, and with that… they simply drop you square into the middle of live combat. I don’t mean some cutesy faux-combat tutorial mode where your commanding officer will yell at you to move forward and backward using the W and S keys. No, you get launched out of the sky and right smack dab into the middle of whatever’s the most populated, dangerous battlefield at the time, and it’s entirely possible to hit a plane and die before you even hit the ground. After that, you’re on your own – the only instructions you get are basic tooltips while you play. As a guy who’s been playing FPS games for over a decade now, I’m fine with this. If anything I admire Sony Online Entertainment’s stones for daring to make THIS the introductory experience any new player has with the game. They’re clearly aiming for FPS gamers who know what they’re getting into in advance and who would likely just get impatient with an exceptional amount of hand-holding.[singlepic id=9989 w=320 h=240 float=right]

After taking a moment to get my bearings, I started in on trying to help my new Terran Republic comrades capture the base they were currently working on. There’s several classes in Planetside 2, but I started off with the light assault class. Pretty straightforward class, of course – their standard loadout includes an assault rifle and a pistol, along with some limited jetpack (or were they rocket boots?) capability, with an accent on hitting hard and being mobile. I ran around shooting at whatever enemies I could find, scoring a few kills but mostly getting blown away on a regular basis. There’s all kinds of threats in Planetside 2, ranging from the standard array of infantry threats, to tanks and APCs (vehicular combat absolutely abounds in this game) and, of course, the very maneuverable airborne enemies who can either strafe or bomb you. All that plus turrets. On the bright side, these are all the ways YOU can attack people as well. Even as a complete newbie, you have access to all of the game’s various classes and the ability to hop into both land and air vehicles straightaway – a nice change from the original Planetside, which I recall required you to pick a class and stick with it for a while.

I’ll also point out that Planetside 2 is a beautiful game. The architecture is imposing and threatening, having that great sci-fi feel of the sinister and sterile about it, while still looking intricate and complicated. The screenshots you’re seeing should emphasize that in particular – the game is big not only horizontally (huge, huge maps) but vertically (towering structures to invade and defend). That’s not just an aesthetic point either: those huge structures have interiors, and some very frantic gun battles can and do rage inside of them. I found myself in one bad situation where my empire was getting pushed back by a major offensive, causing us to pull further and further up in the levels of the structure we were defending, trying our best to hold out before reinforcements could arrive. Ultimately we pulled it off – I’m not quite sure how – but it was an immediate contrast to the sort of wide-open combat that I experienced outdoors, complete with strafe combat or one side chasing the other down. Actually, one thing I distinctly remember is peeking up over the top of a hill, taking potshots at enemies, and then running my ass back towards safety in a desperate serpentine pattern. Good times.[singlepic id=9993 w=320 h=240 float=left]

Good times, in fact, sums up my first impressions of Planetside 2. I enjoyed hopping into the gunner position of a aerial vehicles, blasting gunfire into the ground and even blowing up a fighter that was tailing the ship I was on. I felt excited when I stumbled on a trench filled with enemies, tossing a grenade into their midst with my dying act, only to see my screen light up with experience gain and kill notifications thanks to that parting explosion. Perhaps the most pleasing moment I had – the moment where I knew this game was going to really be taking a special place on my favorites list – was when I was flying far overhead after a successful base capture, watching as a column of allied vehicles moved in tandem towards the next objective. Really, there were moments in my game that seems so visually pleasing it was hard to believe I was playing the live game itself, and not watching some pre-choreographed AI put on a show.

I’m only scratching the surface here – I’ll save greater detail for a full review. There’s two more things, however, I want to touch on. First, the game offers a considerable amount of customizability, both on a per-class and per-vehicle basis. Customization comes in the form of unlocking certifications – basically, unlimited rights to use certain abilities or weapons. Light assault, or instance, can get certifications to use longer-lasting jumpjets, or carry more ammunition with them, or various other enhancements. Vehicles, likewise, can have certifications purchased to enhance their armor, use new weapons, etc. The certification points you gain during gameplay are general-use (meaning they can be applied to any certification, rather than being locked to the class or vehicle you gained the points with), but the certification themselves are vehicle and class specific (upgrading armor on one type of vehicle does not upgrade armor on another type of vehicle.) Finally, each of the three empires gets some empire-specific certifications, particularly when it comes to vehicles. Certification points are earned through the course of gameplay, but accrue a bit slowly – not a total surprise, since there’s a cash shop method for unlocks for those who are truly impatient. No matter what, the system encourages a fair amount of specialization: even though you can technically play any class or drive any vehicle, depending on where you spend your points, chances are there will always be some particular class or vehicle you’re exceptionally fit to use.[singlepic id=9991 w=320 h=240 float=right]

Second, I just wanted to point out that I did experience some bugs while playing this game. Nothing that hampered my enjoyment of the game too severely – they were few and far between – but I did have a couple of client crashes. Considering the game’s not even out a week as of this writing, that’s hardly a mark on the record. Most of my Planetside 2 gaming time has been a very smooth affair, not to mention fun.

Anyway, while this isn’t a full review, I hope I’ve said enough here to convey some of what’s really going on with Planetside 2. If it sounds like something you’re interested in, remember: it’s a free to play MMO, and it’s up on Steam right now. Give it a spin.

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