All The Right Elements: Planetside 2

PlanetSide_2_Logo

TLDR Warning.
Jargon Warning.

Full Disclosure: [I’ve been playing Planetside 2 since Beta in early April and currently have two equal level characters on two EU servers (Cobalt and Miller, TR and VS). While I probably didn’t tease out -all- the nuances of the game (as it would involve grinding out ~600.000 CP/faction) I feel that I have a very solid grasp of the game and its mechanics. UPDATE: There was a double XP weekend and patch released on the day this article was written.]

Planetside 2 was advertised as a massive, strategically and tactically layered, combined-arms military warfare FPS.
What was delivered is Unreal Tournament with three ~25km² large maps.

I will not try to “review” Planetside 2 (from here on in “PS2”) in every detail and nuance, I rather want to take a look at the entirety of PS2, its design philosophy.

1. Unraveling The Design

Planetside 2 on first glance is a game about territory control.
Three factions vie for dominance on three massive continents with combined arms (infantry, ground vehicles and air vehicles).

However once the novelty of the massively large map wears off, and the player gets accustomed to the controls, map-layout and objectives, the cracks begin to show.

1.1 Pricing And Progression

Every player starts with a Battle Rank of 1 (BR1) and progressively gains experience to advance in “level” unlocking Certification Points that are used to upgrade a chosen class, buy weapons, as well as unlock perks and items.

Battle Rank is mostly just an indication of how many Certifications (from here on in, “certs”/CP) a player has gained and influence nothing else beyond a title (Private, Major, etc.) and some CP at level-up.

In general, without boosts or a subscription, 500 Experience Points net you 1 Certification Point.
A player kill nets you 100xp, so 5 kills net you 1 CP.
Capturing a facility can net between 250-1000xp (depending on size of the facility), so between 0.5-2CP.

A scope costs 30CP.
Upgrades of vehicle- or class-specific abilities between 50-1000CP (in succession).
A new weapon for either infantry or vehicles costs between 100-1000CP.

Infantry weapons are mostly side-grades, except for the ones that aren’t.
In the current state of the game these are guided missile launchers as well as additional “arm weapons” for the infantry exo-suit, the MAX.

With vehicles, all the secondary weapons are straight upgrades while the primary weapons are side-grades or specialized weaponry.

Example:

The stock Magrider Tank (uncertified) features a main plasma-cannon that deals good damage to armored vehicles as well as a medium splash-damage to infantry. Its secondary gunner turret is the Basilisk, a dual-barreled, inaccurate, close-range, anti-infantry machine gun (this turret is the stock secondary turret for -all- ground vehicles).

The Magrider can now decide to upgrade its main cannon to either HE shells that are mostly anti-infantry and do low damage against armor, or AP shells that penetrate armor but have almost no splash-damage against infantry.

So far so good, specialization and side-grade.

The Secondary turret choices are a fast-firing, ultra-accurate 50cal machine gun (straight upgrade from the Basilisk) for 100CP, a missile (250CP) or a smaller accurate plasma-cannon (1000CP) for both armored and infantry targets (there is also a largely ineffective AA gun called the Walker for 1000CP)

The Basilisk is always inferior to all of these choices. Both the 50cal, missile and plasma-launchers are better at killing infantry than the Basilisk, and additionally give the tank a secondary anti-vehicle weapon.

This is only made more apparent by the choices on the Sunderer APC, where the 50cal returns but also a strong dedicated AV or AI grenade-launcher is available (1000 and 250CP).

A Sunderer with two grenade-launchers is by default a more devastating weapon and highly defensible in comparison to its stock iteration with two Basilisk turrets.

I will also mention that air-vehicles like the Empire Specific Fighter (ESF in short) come only with a primary weapon as stock, but can buy anti-everything Rocket Pods as a secondary weapon for 1000CP.

Now, this in itself would not be a problem as long as the weapons would be only available via CP, but the weapons can be bought with the real-money currency “Station Cash” that gives players that pay a clear advantage over non-paying players.

A weapon can range between 250 and 700SC (2.5-7$).
To unlock the Rocket Pods as secondary weapon on an ESF, you either have to obtain 1000CP (= 500.000XP = ~5000 player kills) or pay 7$.

If you play casually for around 20 hours it earns you ~500CP (25CP/hour median, as different days and engagements might give you more or less/hour)

Not to mention these weapons themselves -also- have upgrades like Infrared/Thermal Optics (very useful for spotting Infantry at any time of day) or extended ammo-clips and faster reload-times (exceptionally useful for tanks) that need to be purchased for CP.
To fully unlock the ammo-upgrades for example (that add ~20% more ammo, depending on weapon) you need another ~1800CP.

So in this example the total you will need is ~2800CP to buff out the Rocket Pods.
The paying customer can hence upgrade his already more devastating weapon while a F2P player first needs to grind out the XP to actually obtain said straight upgrade.

These prices are obvious price-gouging and a predatory business-model.

But what exactly does this mean for the game-design?

Capture

Certification Costs for the Magrider tank, from the Planetside Universe Wiki, not including weapons

1.2 Certs Are Everything

With this pricing, the grind and min-max player-psychology kicks in.

The question isn’t anymore “How do I best complete objectives?” but switches to “How do I best farm XP?” or “What activity gives the best cert/hour”

Designers that cared about their territory-control mechanic would have anticipated this and given objective-play highly increased XP-values to offset the problem.

Capturing a large facility worth 1000XP takes around 15 minutes even when empty (the capture-timers are a limitation).
This leads to the fact that playing strategically nets you 2CP per 15 minutes, and is largely boring (standing around an empty base, waiting till the capture-bar fills up) while the Epic Meatgrinder (the clashing of two faction-zergs) can net you up to 2CP per/minute just because its a target-rich environment.
It’s also a lot more fun.

This is the designers consciously deciding that they do not value strategic play, where territory is of importance.
The attention is put where the zerg (an [un]controlled mass of players of one faction) is, how to net you the most XP/hour and how to best “farm” players.

This is a typical MMO staple and I am honestly surprised that the developer actually went this route.
“Farming” mechanics are -highly- unpopular in the west, especially in FPS games.

Farming kills in multiplayer shooters is often perceived to be exploitative (spawn-camping), but here it’s a necessity implemented consciously by the developer.

[Update] The double-XP weekend exaggerated this problem and made it more visible. I’ve seen whole Outfits consciously leaving objectives untouched and just grinding out kills leading to an epic stalemate on every continent. Defenders don’t want to beat back the enemy as defending grants +15% XP, and with 200% XP it makes even more lucrative to just sit and farm.

1.3 Non-Communication

For any game with a tactical as well as strategic element, communication is tantamount to success.
Planetside 2 provides no tools for mass-communication beyond ingame text- and voice-chat.

Squad-leaders can unlock a certification (100CP) that lets them mark targets, but only capture-targets, nothing else.

To capture a large facility you first have to drop the shields surrounding the capture-point, some other facilities have teleporters that lead directly into the core that need to be taken over, etc.
These can not be marked as targets for your squad or platoon, nor can individual players be marked for focus-fire.
If I spot a tank approaching, all I can do is to communicate their position in text or voice-chat but can not mark their last known position on the map nor communicate to my squad that I want those tanks stopped/gone with a quick hotkey press -> “attack this!”.

There is also a certification where I can request reinforcements (250CP) but all this does is put a tiny SOS-marker on the map. I can’t decide to ask for air-support, vehicle support or other specific support.
Whatever drops in will be my support, if I like it or not.

To effectively communicate with my faction I would need to join every Outfits (the equivalent of a guild in other MMOs) private Team Speak or Ventrillo server.
Joining an Outfit/Squad/Platoon doesn’t really help here, as cross-outfit/squad/platoon communication is as complicated, and any coordination needs to be performed out of game in other voice-chats (since ingame voice only works in squad).

The ingame tools for coordination are severely lacking.
Would it have been too hard to give Outfit-, Platoon- or Squad-Leaders an RTS-like overlay or hotkeys where they can place markers with notes or different icons for the players under their command?

Savage and Savage 2 as a FPS/RTS-hybid had this all figured out in 2005, even Battlefield 2 had a much better system with its commander-mechanic. The recent Natural Selection 2 also features great commander utilities and lets the people in charge actually coordinate with the “grunts” on the ground.

In effect, Planetside 2 is as obtuse and unfriendly as it gets when it comes to -actually- coordinating players.

2012-12-04_00001-1

So much stuff, so little meaning.

1.4 Player Independence

In similar games like Savage or Battlefield, classes are assigned/chosen on spawn and respawn.
In Planetside 2 from Battle Rank 1 the player has access to all classes as well as vehicles and can change said class at any time at a Infantry Terminal while playing.

This creates severe problems both with balancing and tactics/strategy.
The design creates a situation where every player is able to fulfill every role on the battlefield without penalty (save for resources and vehicle spawn timers, more on their ineffectiveness later)

If an assault shows vehicle-superiority the simple solution is to spawn more vehicles yourself, and since all players are able to do this, it quickly becomes a numbers game instead of tactical or strategic play.

The cooperation between players simply becomes the discovery of a threat and the personal adaptation to it since the game features a rock>paper>scissors balance.
This is quite easy to achieve, and once the players get familiar with what is good against what, they tend to execute this “tactic” on their own without any input or coordination whatsoever.

Example:
You see an enemy APC spawning enemy soldiers, you switch to Heavy Assault with a rocket-launcher or any other class with C4 and blow it to bits, no external input required.
You see a lot of aircraft that make your vehicles unable to advance?
You spawn an AA MAX to counter the air-assault.

Players are encouraged to “Lone Wolf” as the benefits outweigh the drawbacks and it isn’t strictly necessary to cooperate beyond a “situational awareness” kind of way.
The featured friendly-fire system also does not deter this behavior, mowing down your own guys is perfectly acceptable as long as you get the kills (and hence the solo-XPs) since there is no penalty beyond a warning or a brief, temporary, weapons-lock.

Another problem is that players are largely autonomous.
While the Engineer Class can drop ammo-packs and the Medic Class can heal and resurrect, there is no large benefit from those mechanics for other players (except that they create a different avenue to farm XP for those classes).

A lone player can always resupply ammo from Infantry Terminals, as well as certify a relatively cheap 30 – 50CP Healing Pack that will restore most of his health on the go.
There also is no penalty for dying, except a short waiting-period as well as a small setback in distance to your target, so frequent respawns (~10 seconds) provide a new set of health and ammunition as well.
In fact, having a high K/D ratio in PS2 is almost counter-productive for infantry.

I personally successfully fill three roles on the battlefield at any given time. I drive an upgraded Sunderer APC, repair it as engineer, resupply my AA with ammo, heal my MAX units and also defend the APC as a Heavy Assault from enemy armor and heal/resurrect people as Medic around the APC.
All thanks to the fact that my Sunderer APC with an Advanced Mobile Station (AMS, mobile spawn-point) has an Infantry Terminal where I can switch my class at a whim. If I absolutely need to I even get into an AA MAX myself for a while to fend of enemy aircraft, all the while passively gaining XP from all the people that spawn from my APC.

Vehicles, while harder to replenish, are also largely autonomous.
An engineer can heal any vehicle as well as the MAX exo-suit, so most players that spawn a vehicle switch to the Engineer Class and repair it themselves (gaining XP for the task, so its a double-benefit).
Ammo is slightly harder to obtain, as vehicle ammo-stations are only found inside facilities, but those are plentiful and usually in range of a minute long drive, not to mention that most (ground) vehicles don’t survive long enough to need more ammo than they can hold (unless they spam blindly).

While specific certifications for the Sunderer APC can be obtained to resupply ammo and health of vehicles, the act itself generates no XPs, and is therefore skipped in favor of other more useful certifications like the AMS or armor upgrades.

Another nail in the coffin of interdependent play?

Two- or three-seat vehicles are exclusively certified and upgraded by the person driving them, even though they will never experience the thrill of gunning from the upgrades.

A prime example of this is the Liberator Gunship that has a pilot, a main gunner and a tail-gunner. Only the person that spawns the Liberator is able to fly it, hence will get the pilot seat, but must pay for the gunner-upgrades anyways. This leaves the problem that nobody wants to actually pilot a multi-seater planes because there is no “fun” in it, conversely everyone wants to be the gunner, because then you get to play with the new toys the pilot paid for (IR optics, Dalton Tankbuster, etc.)

So instead what is happening right now, everyone is switching to the one-seater ESFs with Rocket Pods as they are comparably efficient at Air-to-Ground combat but don’t require you to “sacrifice fun” and your hard earned XPs for upgrades you will never see in action.

ESF with Rocket Pods

1.5 Logistics? Strategy? Tactics?

This kind of instant class-switching and endless spawning, combined with the AMS makes it impossible to formulate any sort of strategy or even obtain tactical superiority.

Example Anecdote:
I was hunting enemies as an MBT paired with another Heavy Tank.
We found a lone Sunderer (the HUD said 1/12, so 1 person inside the APC driving it) with a Light Tank escort.
We made short work out of the Light Tank in seconds as we had the first shot (Lightning tanks are essentially made out of paper)
The Sunderer APC, instead of running, stopped and deployed its AMS (its instant).
This introduced us in seconds to around 10 enemy Heavy Assault soldiers and 4 anti-vehicle MAXes out of nowhere, and now -we- were on the run from one APC!

The mobility of troops, and with them the vehicles (since vehicle-spawns are in facilities and provide instant spawns) is quite frankly, insane.

One can run into a situation where one Sunderer APC can spawn half of the opposing faction, at will, as long as the players are in its very generous range (~2 regions).
There are no logistics for vehicles as all vehicles can be spawned directly at the front-line (almost anywhere) and don’t need to drive further than maybe 500 meters.

So the only logistics involved are: “How do we get the players as quick as possible to the front-line?”

Fret not, Planetside 2 has you covered here as well without the input of other players!
Every 10 or so minutes a player can deploy from orbit directly into a “hot zone” at the front.
But if that is too slow for you, just hop into one of the fighter jets that you never use, and afterburner to where you want to be at 300kph, suiciding into a building (death is inconsequential).

While the Galaxy Dropship exists (a large lumbering 12-man air-craft) they are essentially death-traps. Everyone sees them coming from 2 kilometers away and will focus fire on them to get the juicy 12x kill and bonus XP for the craft itself.

These mechanics quite frankly make any sort of strategy completely meaningless.
The second you “cut off” an enemy force, it can deploy reinforcements, at will, to any point of the map anyways.

The game becomes solely a numbers game, where the faction with the most active population at the time wins every engagement, since they have more people to reinforce or cover a larger area.

1.6 Resource Irrelevance

All vehicles, as well as certain consumable items, cost resources of the three categories:

Aircraft (air vehicles)
Vehicle (ground vehicles)
Infantry (grenades, medpacks, C4, mines and the MAX suit)

These resources are automatically generated during your play-time dependent on specific regions held by your faction on the continent.
Vehicles also feature an acquisition-timer that can be reduced by certifications and one vehicle-type (the MBT – Main Battle Tank) can only be spawned if you hold a specific facility (the Tech Plant, of which three exist on each map)
Resources are also only gained from a region if said region is connected to your faction and warp-gate by other controlled regions (isolated regions do not provide resources and appear a darker color on the map)

This concept sounds extremely juicy on paper as one would imagine that territory-control would be of great significance.
Unfortunately the design only sounds good and is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

First of all, the MBT restriction only applies to spawning a tank on the FRONT, so the faction that has lost its Tech Plant can still spawn MBTs at its Warp Gate (its invulnerable starting-base on that continent).

Second, resources stored cap at 750 points/player each, and are generated at varying rates, but usually as quick as you can spend them (an MBT for example costs 250 Vehicle Points and will survive long enough for the 250VP to regenerate passively).
If your faction ever gets into a situation where the players don’t get any more resources, you have already lost since your complete continent already belongs to the opposition.

A strategic capture of one or two regions does not impede resource generation, as the regions provide only between 2-10 resource points each. To efficiently cripple another faction, you essentially have to take over all their territory anyways and if you can do that, you are obviously stronger so why not just crush them conventionally (by zerging).

If we look at the situation reversed and try imagining to strategically lock the attacker at your Warp Gate from his resources and repel his assault, it becomes largely ineffective as well.

You would have to take over a swath of land close to his Warp Gate to cut of resource production, right at his doorstep so to speak and thats an impossible task.
The re-deploy mechanic can send any player back to the Warp Gate, immediately, without needing to traverse the map at all.
The Warp-Gate can simply spawn half the faction in heavy tanks and crush your little strategic incursion right at their door-step and then merrily go back to nuking the front-line 3 minutes later as if nothing ever happened. It’s not more than a temporary disruption and will not stop a larger force in its tracks.

Since only -one- vehicle depends on a specific facility to be spawned (on the front lines), the whole vehicle denial doesn’t really work. The faction can still spawn their MBTs from the Warp Gate anyways, so who cares.

If all items and vehicles were tied to specific facilities it would be easier to work with true strategy, crippling important supply lines for example. You might need to decide if you want to defend the facility that spawns Flash ATVs, the one that spawns Sunderer APCs or the one that spawns Light Tanks.

Strategy would become interesting as outfits would need to work with limited resources in the field.
How about an ATV-only assault on an heavily fortified base because you don’t have access to any tanks?

The resource mechanic right now has little to no impact on the game and the -only- resource that is worth denying is the Acquisition Timer, and that is achieved, again, by flat-out murdering the opposition in a ratio larger than 1:1.

Contrast this with another RTS/FPS hybrid that recently opened its doors for beta testers: Heroes And Generals.
Its a WW2 themed FPS with an RTS layer.
In H&G locations are connected by “roads” and players can send their forces from their original production facilities to enemy locations. These forces then provide spawn-points in that region for that particular type of infantry/vehicle in the FPS section (to spawn tanks, you need to send tanks to that location on the strategic map).

9552Heroes_And_Generals_Map_view

Sending a light armor division from place to place takes both time and resources, and if that division is cut off because the enemy took all locations connected to the one you are in, you can’t just redeploy at your tank-factory and try again. You have to deal with the consequences of tactical or strategic superiority and either fight your way out or watch your units being destroyed.

In PS2 it is meaningless if you get defeated behind enemy lines, just redeploy one region further back and try again in the endless meat-grind.

Add to that the fact that three separated/independent continents exist on each server and it becomes apparent that the territory-control is largely irrelevant, since it quickly devolves into all players of a faction piling on to one continent and taking it over.

The current “strategy” is to have long drawn out stale-mates during the peak-hours and capping all territories on a single continent during the night when less people are online.

The reward, if you can call it that, for conquering a continent is a 10% cost reduction in resources for your factions vehicles. Hardly an incentive at all with resources meaning so little in the first place. I can get an MBT for 225 VP instead of 250 VP, whoopdie-fucking-doo.

2. Summary

Planetside 2 is a game that has little to no reason for coordinated play.
Its mechanics are largely tuned to the Lone Wolf demographic and the TDM playstyle of quick kills and quicker respawns.

With all things being equal, like skill and familiarity, a player in an organized Outfit, Platoon or Squad will not do any better than a Solo Player just happening to log in casually for an hour.

Angry Joe from the Angry Joe Show said in his review that PS2 is worse when playing alone, and I agree to the extent that its easier to “get into” for the first time if you have an organized squad that teaches you things (as it lacks any form of ingame tutorial).
But once you figured it out? You can merrily play solo with no problems whatsoever, even better, since you don’t have to take orders.

The certification prices force you to grind and disregard any strategic or tactical objectives in favor of solo-XPs and actually make you play worse as you rush to get the kill first instead of cooperating.

Resources and territory-control are largely meaningless in favor of giant XP meat-grinders and the “cinematics” of thirty plus tanks driving into each other and FLAK lighting up the sky.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a sight to behold when two faction-wide zergs clash into one another, but it is entirely meaningless beyond a pretty spectacle and getting quick XP gains while being largely “safe” in numbers.

Having played Battlefield 2 extensively I don’t get the same feel from Planetside 2, and while BF2 obviously wasn’t the most tactically or strategically engaging game when playing random solo games, it lived up to its potential when playing it competitively, with an organized squad on dedicated quality servers.

PS2 throws you into the meat-grinder and wants you to have fun for an hour, but the novelty of 200+ players per engagement quickly wears thin and any semblance of tactics and strategy disappears in a puff of smoke right before your eyes.

Usually, for games with strategic and tactical play, by this point, and with veterans like me that played the beta for well over half a year now, a meta-game would have emerged.
“Meta-Game” refers to a set of strategies and tactics that would evolve from the game at a certain point due to a “best of” analysis by theorycrafters and veteran players passing on their experience.

The meta-game in League Of Legends for example dictates what types of champions perform best in what lane and how to approach the game emerging from its mechanics (1-1-2 jungler setup, solo-top picks, carries, ranged support, jungle-routes etc.)

Planetside 2 does not have any meta-game to this day, and that is a dead giveaway that something is wrong with the strategy/tactics portions of the game or that they are non-existent.

Unfortunately SOE and the lead developers seem largely unconcerned with the rather obvious problems and issues. The evidence for this is a recent Developer Interview where Higby, the Lead Designer told a player that questioned the balance of Air-Vehicles:

[Paraphrased] “If they are so overpowered, why don’t you use one yourself?” [time index 16:00]

If this is the representative philosophy of the designers, I see a bleak future for PS2.
Especially with the new update promising a new weapon, instead of fixing balancing issues with the current weapons (they exist) it feels like SOE just wants your money and creates imbalance by design to goad you into spending some 7$ on a nicer toy from their store.

Planetside 2 had all the right elements but squandered them on carrot-on-a-stick mechanics instead of emergent strategic and tactical play.

Addendum

While this is a harsh critique/analysis of PS2, I intend to keep playing it.
The game has great potential and sometimes, albeit rarely, creates a truly epic feel of emergent cinematic greatness that can not be reproduced by smaller more focused games like BF3 or the scripted sequences of single-player CoD.

Planetside 2 isn’t a bad game by any stretch, it’s just incomplete and bogged down by a rather questionable, but fixable, design.

The experience is currently a lot of downs and a rare epic high.
I hold out the hope that the developers will bring the experience more in line of the highs in the future.
Who knows, maybe one of them will even read this.

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One Response to All The Right Elements: Planetside 2

  1. Gnalvl says:

    The Unreal Tournament comparison seems to give PS2 too much credit, as PS2 doesn’t even have any interesting weapons. I thought about giving it a try, but when every strategy video only seemed to spend time “disecting” tiny recoil and rate of fire differences in various identical hitscan spray weapons, it killed my interest.

    By comparison, Tribes Ascend and Firefall at least have some useful single-shot projectile weapons (i.e. plasma cannons) that are fairly interesting, in addition to jetpack-based movement mechanics. They ALSO fall prey to bad XP grind/free to play/pay to win BS, but at least you’re not just fighting with the same old generic assault rifles.

    I’d rather just play Unreal Tournament 3 than all 3 other mentioned games, against bots if necessary.

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