When PlanetSide was first announced, some people figured that the bigwigs at Sony Online Entertainment had finally gone crazy. Since so many other first-person shooters can be played online for free, who would be willing pay a monthly subscription fee to play a massively multiplayer shooter, even if it had been developed by some of the same designers responsible for the team-based shooter Tribes 2? But PlanetSide has a lot going for it: It has a persistent world with persistent goals that give players real incentives to work in teams, and it has an extremely strict system for dealing with "grief" players--unruly players who shoot up their own teammates just to spoil their fun. And when you have everything set up ideally--when you're on a good squad with skilled teammates who are focused on the mission--PlanetSide offers an experience unlike any other. However, the game currently has a lot of issues that can get in the way of that ideal scenario, so that the game can sometimes end up being less interesting and more tedious than it should be.
PlanetSide is a futuristic online shooter that lets you play as a soldier in one of three powerful factions: the Terran Republic, the New Conglomerate, and the Vanu Sovereignty. The three factions are involved in a worldwide struggle for power that involves capturing as many bases as possible across the world's many continents. In order to capture a base, you generally need to take it by force with a squad of teammates who have various skills, including hacking (to unlock enemy doors and eventually capture an enemy base's control center), medical training (to heal and revive wounded allies), and vehicle certification (to pilot vehicles for scouting, head-to-head combat, or squad transport). You face tough decisions when developing your character's skills. In fact, PlanetSide is easily the most complicated shooter ever released--you'll likely spend most if not all of your first few sessions in the game trying to figure out its many interface features for certifications, squad and outfit options, inventory, and chat. By gunning down enemies, capturing bases, and successfully performing other tasks, you're awarded experience points and battle ranks (PlanetSide's version of character levels) that let you purchase certifications to use new weapons, armor types, support gadgets, and vehicles. But once you get used to the game's interface, you'll be able to quickly and easily outfit yourself with whichever weapons, armor, and vehicles you like, since the game lets you save your own personalized settings.
These different weapons, vehicles, and armor all look and sound fairly good. PlanetSide's graphics are generally decent, and in some cases they're quite good, especially in its dynamic skies and sweeping outdoor landscapes. However, neither the landscapes nor the game's character, weapon, or vehicle designs are particularly inspired. They all look decent enough, but you, your teammates, and your enemies all look like futuristic soldiers wearing futuristic heavy armor, driving futuristic vehicles, and using conventional weapons, kind of like what you might expect from just about any sci-fi themed game. PlanetSide's music is sparse, and its sound effects for weapon fire are decent enough, though they're not spectacular. The game also features support for real-time voice chat to help you coordinate with your teammates, though this feature doesn't work particularly well. The voice chat often ends up being garbled, drowned out by static, or cut off.
Though the game's different factions have slight differences among their high-end weapons and armor, they're functionally identical--it's less important to choose one side over another than it is to make sure you and your buddies all play on the same side and the same server. As you might expect from a game developed by Sony Online Entertainment (the creator of the group-focused online RPG EverQuest), PlanetSide puts a tremendous emphasis on teamwork. The game takes place in a persistent world, and you play as a character who gains experience points that can be used to buy the above-mentioned certifications, but in order to have any chance at all of really advancing your character, you need to make sure you're in a good squad at all times.
This is because solo players really don't stand much of a chance in PlanetSide, since most of the action takes place in and around bases guarded by, or attacked by, groups of enemy players--and no single character can stand against concentrated enemy fire for very long. PlanetSide does offer an "instant action" option that lets you immediately jump to a hot spot where players from your faction are currently fighting with enemy players, but even if you do manage to get a few kills, you'll receive far less experience than you would if you were in a good squad of players, so you'll want to try to be in a group at all times.
Unfortunately, putting together a good group and actually coordinating a successful assault can take a lot of time. Essentially, you'll stand around doing nothing, or next to nothing, and shouting on the broadcast channel to get invited into a squad. Then you'll wait as the rest of your squad forms, wait for transportation to your destination if you yourself can't pilot a vehicle, wait to actually arrive at your destination, and wait for everyone else to arrive. In the worst possible case, with no vehicles available, you may end up waiting for your teammates, or your own character, to finish walking all the way to your meeting point. You have the option of using a universal transport known as the High Altitude Rapid Transport (HART) to travel directly to your destination, but unless everyone in your squad takes it, your group may end up divided on arrival. Basically, you'll encounter a surprising amount of inactivity--especially for a game that's supposed to be a fast-paced first-person shooter--as you wait for everyone to assemble. You can join an outfit, PlanetSide's version of a persistent player "guild," and while chatting with your fellow outfit members can help get you into a squad faster than randomly shouting for a group, it won't make coordinating an operation any less time-consuming if no one has their act together.
But if you can put together a good squad of skilled players, PlanetSide can offer an exciting and highly distinctive first-person shooter experience. You may have played other multiplayer shooters with team-based objectives such as attacking or defending certain positions, but you've probably never played one in which your character's next permanent experience level (and his next set of certifications) is on the line. PlanetSide makes a few feeble attempts to get you interested in the story of the war between the three playable sides, and you can actually help your faction take over entire continents, but this control really only means you can travel through those territories safely--there aren't any really meaningful incentives to continue to defend a particular territory, and you'll often find that control of various territories changes hands between the three factions regularly. However, you'll find well-organized battles to be exciting enough on their own. Successfully surviving heavy fire, putting down your enemies, and hacking their base can net you an extra battle rank and new certification points, while getting shot down often means a long walk back from your last spawn point. Better still, if you're the leader of a squad, you also stand to earn command points that can be used to increase your rank as a commander within your faction. Increased rank currently earns you perks like the ability to set in-game waypoints and even send broadcast messages to an entire continent, though the command rank feature itself will likely become more important as the game (and its players) mature, and as Sony Online Entertainment expands on it.
It's these potential rewards and losses that really help distinguish PlanetSide's battles from what would otherwise be standard sci-fi first-person shooter firefights. Depending on which certifications you choose, you'll be able to use assault rifles, grenade launchers, miniguns, sniper rifles, and others, and these weapons behave much like they do in any other first-person shooter. In addition, you, your teammates, and your enemies may acquire certifications to wear heavy combat armor or stealth armor and to lay traps for your enemies in the form of mines and grenades.
PlanetSide uses the same sort of lenient physics used in arcade-style first-person shooters, so any skills you may have developed in other games should transfer over to PlanetSide intact, as should any team-based skills you may have developed as a medic, pilot, or driver in other team-based games. The different armor types, weapons, and vehicles collectively add a good deal of variety to PlanetSide's battles, which are, at their best, at least as interesting as those in other popular team-based games such as Battlefield 1942 and Counter-Strike.
Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to truly enjoy PlanetSide's battles because of the game's occasional but exceedingly annoying stability problems. The game currently suffers from periodic bouts of lag that can at best break up the action and at worst get you killed by enemy fire while you remain rooted to the spot. PlanetSide also currently has some problems with crashes and disconnects (or "going linkdead"), which can break up a squad and, in rare cases, thwart a last-minute attempt to recover from a failing attack or defense effort--if you're on the verge of losing a campaign, having some or all of your squad get disconnected can very well mean certain defeat, despite your best efforts.
PlanetSide was clearly the result of a lot of ambitious planning on the part of some very talented designers, but as it stands, much of the game experience depends on technical stability and the performance and skill of other players. In terms of stability, PlanetSide isn't where it needs to be yet--the game still suffers from annoying lag and disconnect problems that need to be fixed. In terms of player skill, you'll find that although the game's strict handling of "grief" play helps encourage players to work as a team, your enjoyment of the game will largely depend on how experienced, skilled, and focused your teammates are. The less organized your team is, the longer you may have to wait for it to assemble, deploy, and formulate a plan of attack at your destination. However, if you think you can surmount the game's learning curve and whip a squad of like-minded recruits into shape, you'll find that PlanetSide offers a unique and potentially very enjoyable challenge.