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PC Review - 'PlanetSide: Core Combat'

by Mark Crump on March 1, 2004 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

PlanetSide: Core Combat adds a new style of gameplay to PlanetSide with head-to-head urban warfare, testing players’ skills as they react quickly to enemy troops in high-adrenaline fire-fights in subterranean alien complexes. With six new underground war zones, additional weapons, vehicles, and enhanced empire bonuses, Core Combat creates a new dimension for players to master in PlanetSide’s all-hours-of-the-day online conflict.

Genre : MMOFPS
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Developer: Verant Interactive
Release Date: December 2, 2003

Buy 'PLANETSIDE: Core Combat': PlayStation 2

Planetside hedges its bets on one key question: will the hordes of Battlefield 1942 and Unreal Tournament fans shell out $13/month to play a genre they can already play for free? It's a tough question, and in today's world of "business decisions via focus groups and market share" Sony deserves credit for taking the plunge with this idea. This is supposed to be a review of the new expansion, Core Combat, but I've tailored this review to the person who hasn't played the original Planetside and has been thinking of trying it, simply because the expansion has been out long enough that existing customers either own it already or have no plans on picking it up. Don't worry though - we'll spend plenty of time telling you about Core Combat.

The story to Planetside is straightforward. There are three factions: the Terran Republic; New Conglomerate; and the Vanu Sovereignty who are having a serious disagreement over the ownership of some land, and there's no UN around to stop the idea of "land ownership via superior firepower". You can play as any one of these factions and for the most part the only thing that differentiates them is the color of their outfits and some faction-specific weapons; other than that they are pretty much the same.

Planetside's world, Auraxis, is made up of ten continents, on which are bases and towers that you fight for control of. Your job is to defend the ones you own and pry the others from their owner's cold, dead hands. There aren't any cities, towns or industries, which makes you wonder what all the fuss is really about.

In competing MMOG's you spend your early levels slaying rats and snakes, usually dieing several times to these lowly creatures. I've worked near wharves and while I have seen kitten-sized rats, I never had any doubts I would win if it came to mano-a-rato. Here, there aren't any NPC's to kill, all your xp comes from killing opposing players. You gain more xp if you are in a large squad; unlike most MMOG's, the xp for a kill isn't split amongst the members of a group. I frequently found myself too wrapped up in actually playing the game to worry about minding xp - most times the message "You've gained a new Battle Rank" came as a complete surprise. That's a big change from games like EverQuest, where I often broke out the calculator to determine the quickest path to the next level. While Planetside doesn't have a strict class system, how you spend the certification points you receive with every new Battle Rank will segregate you into one of three areas: infantry; armor and air support. If you chose to go the vehicle route, your first skill points will only allow you to drive an ATV, but higher certification levels will allow you to drive the crew-served tanks. The same holds true for the infantry and air support paths--later cert levels will allow you to use the mechanized MAX armor or large airborne gunships. Planetside allows you to untrain all your skill points and re-spend them once every 24 hours so you aren't locked into any spec paths.

Also, the skill of a player matters more here than their Battle Rank. There is no auto-aim like you find in games like EverQuest; your reflexes and aim matter a lot more than if you can use the best rocket launcher. You can forget about "phat lewt" too since most of your gear is just requisitioned from equipment terminals. This makes outfitting after a death easy, and there's not corpse runs like other games.

The tutorial in the game is amongst the finest I have seen in any game. The first set of tutorials cover the basics - how to move and shoot, use the navigation systems, etc. Once you are logged in there is a virtual trainer that lets you to practice using any weapon or vehicle, regardless of whether you are certified in it or not. This serves two purposes: you can see if spending the certification points to fly that plane is worth it; as well as giving you as much practice time as you need to avoid upsetting your squad mates by flying them into a hill. Once you've completed the tutorials and spent your newbie certs it's time to find the action. Thankfully, Planetside makes it easy to get it into the thick of things fast. The quickest way is to just hit ESC and choose "Instant Action" which brings you to a battle near you. Since you don't have any choice in where that brings you, there's another high speed option, the HART Shuttle. This shuttle leaves every ten minutes and drops you at a location of your choosing using drop pods similar to those found in Starship Troopers. The third and least desirable way is to lace up your walking shoes and hoof it. If you don't have a vehicle cert (or just don't have a ride) you could be in for a long, boring walk to your destination (unless of course a sniper catches you). Fortunately, almost all the vehicles allow passengers and gunners, so hitching a lift isn't hard.

The battles are very intense, and easily eclipse the conflicts in other FPS games. One memorable fight I participated in was for control of a key bridge, and there were easily 100 people per side with plenty of air and armor support. At the conclusion of the battle my adrenaline was flowing like it hasn't in quite some time and I was hooked on the game. The downside is, other than the entertainment value and being the purpose of the game, the battles don't mean much in the long run. Taking towers and bases doesn't bring any tangible benefit, save having a place to respawn and get equipment. The developers have some things planned to change that, so check out the "In Concept" pages at the official site

Up until the introduction of Core Combat all of the action took place above ground in the fields and rivers of Auraxis. Core Combat brings the fight to six ancient subterranean caverns and reveals the remnants of the Vanu civilization. The expansion also introduces Ancient Modules which can be installed on special nodes on surface of Auraxis to provide large-scale benefits, such as providing a shield that covers the openings to your bases, or being able to requisition the vehicles new to Core Combat.

Traveling between the Core and the surface continents is done through specialized warp structures known as Geowarps, located on six of the ten continents. Within the caverns are an additional two transportation methods called ziplines and transporters. Ziplines act as one-way horizontal and vertical people movers, actually feeling like something from a Disney ride, but increase your movement along them significantly. You can shoot and be shot while on a zipline, so keep alert. Transporters, working in linked pairs, instantly transport players between them, and are the fastest and least dangerous method of travel. Navigating the caves can be tricky, it's easy to get lost even with the overhead maps. I'd also rather the ziplines and transporters weren't there, since they make getting through the caves too fast, and would have preferred a slower pace that would have emphasized squad-to-squad combat. Getting to the Geowarps is a pain since they are frequently out in the sticks.

It wouldn't be an expansion if there weren't neat new toys to play with, and Core Combat offers up three new weapons and vehicles. For vehicles you have the Switchback, the Flail and the Router. The Switchblade is a single person hover cycle that can transform into a hover turret. The Flail is a siege engine that cannot fire until deployed. Once deployed, other players can "paint" targets for increased accuracy. The Router is a transport vehicle that allow you to teleport between the router and a linked Telepad, but beware your enemies can use it also. The new weapons are the Maelstrom, Radiator and the Spiker. The Maelstrom is a dual-purpose heavy assault weapons that can fire en energy stream or launch grenades. The Radiator fires energy canisters that release radiation. The Spiker fires a single projectile that can be detonated in midair by the player. For the most part though, these new additions aren't all that interesting, and being limited to only requisitioning them from bases with the proper module installed, or from the Core itself, means you won't see them in use that much either.

The big strike against Core Combat is that the player base is largely ignoring it right now. The modules all work on timers, and while once the timers run out there's a flurry of activity most of my trips "down under" have been as eventful as a walk in the park--and not Central Park at 1 AM. Right now, there just aren't a lot of benefits to going spelunking. The dev teams have been listening and are in the early stages of doing some revamps to make using Core Combat more appealing. Also, only two of the six caverns are open at one time, with the closed ones on a rotation scheme when one of the open ones closes.

Graphically, Planetside still holds up quite well. The game is a joy to look at, with fantastically rendered water and landscapes. Each of the ten continents has their own look, ranging from desert to artic themes. The Core Combat areas look nice, although they does ring of a certain "Unreal Tournament" influence. The lighting effects of the crystals themselves are well done and I was impressed with how they looked. The game sounds awesome as well, taking full advantage of surround sound systems. The control system is typical FPS fare, using the WASD keys for moving. Unfortunately, the game handles joysticks poorly forcing you to use the mouse to fly with, which is a royal pain in the heiny. The game is stable, but large fights can become a lag-fest as the game tries to resolve all of the polygons quickly. I got acceptable performance at 1024x768, but as soon as I jumped to 1280 the game became a slideshow.

I've been a big fan of games like Unreal Tournament and Battlefield 1942 for a long time and there's one thing about those games that hard to work around: hooking up on the same server with your friends. The other night I was trying to play Battlefield with a friend of mine and after 30 min of waiting for a spot to open up on the server he was playing on I gave up in disgust and logged into Planetside instead. For that reason alone, if you enjoy team based PvP combat but don't want to deal with the hassle of figuring out where your friends are playing, Planetside is worth the monthly fee hands-down. On the other hand, if you favor a role-playing game, where you spend your time building up your character and acquiring better weapons and armor through quests--or simply hate PvP combat, Planetside will never be the game for you. Taking part in battles with several hundred players is a blast, and makes the 64 person battles in Battlefield look small. While I wished the Core Combat expansion was in use by more of the player-base, I'm confident the devs will perform the necessary tweaks to draw more players in, because the idea of the subterranean combat is exciting and Core Combat provides a great foundation. If you're looking for a new online game, you can get the original Planetside and Core Combat on Amazon for $19 each, which is a pretty good value for your money. At the end of the day, I had a blast playing Planetside and look forward to more of it.

Score: 8.8/10

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