Friday, June 19, 2009

The Lament of PlanetSide

What is PlanetSide you may ask?

It was an ambitious foray by Sony Online Entertainment to meld FPS gameplay into the MMO genre, namely an MMOFPS of the like that had not really been seen to that point.

It was basically an online tug of war between three factions, the Terran Republic, Vanu Sovereignty and the New Conglomerate over various continents and bases on those continents, and the reason you may not have heard of it was because it was released back in 2003.

At its height PlanetSide boasted about 75,000 active subscribers, not amazing numbers but certainly something to build on in a genre woefully under-used with no real competition from any other similar games. Unfortunately Sony dropped the ball pretty hardcore on it, and released a sub-par expansion called Core Combat a mere five months after the vanilla game's release which helped people leave the game rather than attract them to it.

PlanetSide
was a lot of fun to play. I personally logged countless hours with my outfit ("guild") in various roles. Multiple vehicles and classes were available, anything from stealth play to heavy mech-type suits to aircraft to tanks and then some. It was a lot of fun and something that had not really been done before and hasn't really been done since. It had the potential to be the Next Big Thing but Sony decided instead to run it into the ground. Core Combat sucked, as already mentioned; intervals between updates became longer and longer as Sony pulled support off the game and many of the original dev team left and some technical issues were left un-fixed, to the point where newer PCs actually ran the game worse than older ones.

I can only think that PlanetSide was just ahead of its time. Its vision exceeded its grasp and unfortunately, despite extremely positive reviews from the gaming press at the time, it never really took off in the way that it could have done. Over the years the vast majority of the population left, to the point where now it has perhaps 15-20,000 active subscribers and servers have been merged multiple times in order to at least facilitate the illusion that something was happening somewhere, you just had to look very hard to find it. I'm honestly surprised that Sony hasn't pulled the plug yet. By all accounts the dev team and GMs are a couple of guys in the janitor's closet at Sony HQ.

But is there hope on the horizon, perhaps some others who will pick up the mantle of a large open-world MMOFPS in a similar vein and style? Well, both yes and no.

There are three games currently in development which could be said to fit the MMOFPS genre. Those three are MAG (a PlayStation 3 exclusive being developed by Zipper Interactive for Sony), Huxley (a PC for sure and possibly 360 game as well, coming from Korean developer Webzen and in the US published by NHN) and Global Agenda (the first project from rookie developer Hi-Rez Studios). Since MAG is only being released on the PS3 I won't be discussing that here since this is a PC gaming blog, but Huxley and Global Agenda are worth investigating.

Huxley has been in development for what seems like decades now. It initially promised PlanetSide-style gameplay with updated graphics and less Sony suck, but as time wore on and release dates slipped without any comment from Webzen then press just dried up for the game. Suddenly in the past few months we've seen some action, and a release date may not be far away. The game is currently in beta in Korea (open or closed I could not ascertain) and in the US the first closed beta phase was held earlier this month by publisher NHN via their portal at www.ijji.com. It seems likely that a 2009 release date will finally be realised, but whether the game will actually be worth playing is another story entirely. Gameplay details are very thin on the ground to the point where much of the information you will read is likely outdated by now.

Global Agenda is the initial project of upstart developer Hi-Rez Studios. Based on the Unreal Engine 3 it is visually more appealing than Huxley, but again there is not much known about its gameplay. There are said to be four broad class types (melee, stealth/recon, healer and pet/utility) with the focus on PvP combat (with PvE content available).

The big problem with both of these games is the scale. In PlanetSide you would pick a server, make your character and login and that was it. You were placed in an open world where there were (at its peak at least) hundreds of others all in the same world as you. There was no instancing, everyone was just duking it out. This made for both lag (sometimes) but also extremely epic fights. Having 100v100 gargantuan struggles over a single base was something you simply could not do anywhere else. Some of those fights were the best single experiences in any online game I have played to date.

Unfortunately neither Huxley or Global Agenda are going this route. Combat will be instanced, and likely limited to 12v12 in GA and possibly more in Huxley although this information may be outdated. In regards to Huxley, Webzen did at one point discussion large scale combat areas with dozens of players catered for, but whether or not this is actually going to make it into the final game years later is frankly anyone's guess.

If someone could please pick up PlanetSide from Sony, improve the graphics to current-gen visuals and fix the lag and technical problems I would be very grateful. Anyone doing so would have a virtual hit on their hands, guaranteed. While both Huxley and GA do show potential, neither one really seems like it is going to be the elusive PlanetSide 2 that many twitch gamers want to see.

One more standout feature of PlanetSide was its music. Right from the login screen the music was some of the best I had heard in any game, to the point where I re-installed the game only last week on my new machine just so that I could make a copy of the music folder so it was available anytime I wanted to listen. You can hear a sample of this on YouTube below, this clip being the Sanctuary (home base) theme for the New Conglomerate and probably the single-best piece of music in the game:

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