PlanetSide 2: First Impressions

I made a post a while ago about an MMOFPS/RTS. Turns out, this dream has come true, and it is PlanetSide 2 (it’s free-to-play. go download it right now!)

In the first two hours of play, I was zipping around in a dropship with a squad, capping points like crazy. I was rolling across vast plains in a tank convoy, or running along the ground with dozens of others as aircraft zipped overhead. I infiltrated an enemy compound and disabled a generator. I defended one of our larger complexes from a full-on siege. This game is amazing.

Actually a pretty typical thing to see.

It’s a little hard to get into, as you are just dropped into the action. You have to figure out what the vehicles do, the difference between classes, how the maps are laid out, what you are doing, etc. Basically, you have to figure out how the game works. But after you join an outfit (which are basically clans), the fun blossoms. You run and fight along side your teammates in giant, mile-wide maps. The 24/7 combat goes back and forth across a ravaged landscape. As you cower behind a rock and take potshots at the other factions, aircraft scream over head, blowing each other up. More than once I’ve had a smoking aircraft crash and break apart into a fireball meters from me.

The basic objective is to capture facilities, which are fairly far apart from each other. At the top-most level, the game is a back-and-forth struggle across a territory. The territory is broken in hex-shaped regions, which are linked to the nearest facility. Your platoon (under which there are squads) chooses where to focus their efforts, and then a blitzkrieg spearheads into fortified enemy territory and tears a hole in their defensive line. Overall, the best strategy is to keep a strong front line; if a facility gets isolated in otherwise enemy territory, it is usually much harder to defend.

Each facility has one or more capture points. In order to gain control of a facility, you need to hold all the capture points for a certain amount of time. One in control, facilities can have weapon-change stations, ground vehicle factories, or aircraft factories, depending on the size of the facility (larger facilities have more capture points). You get resources for kills (or assists) and captures. Resources allow you to buy equipment or vehicles. Different facilities give different resource bonuses to the owners.

The actual combat is OK. You can choose between a few classes: sniper, light assault (who gets a jetpack), medic (who can heal and revive people), engineer (who can build stuff) , and heavy assault (who gets a rocket launcher). At a equipment station, you can upgrade to mech-form, for a cost. Death bears little penalty, with only a short respawn and no deductions otherwise. In addition, medics can bring you back to life (for no cost). Each of the three factions gets different bonuses for each class, as well as different vehicles. The ground vehicles are a little annoying to control, and have a strange FOV. Aircraft are extremely hard to control, and I still haven’t figured out the best setup for them. But really the best part of the game is moving with a group of players; you feel like an insignificant part of the combat, not the star.

Really, that is the key part of this game. You understand that you are just one cog in the machine, that the battle doesn’t hinge on you. You also start to realize the scope of the battle raging around you. On the overhead map, you can see which territories are contested. You realize that at each one of those spots, there is a battle as massive and intense as the one you are in. Then you realize that there are two other maps on this server. At any point in time, someone is having a last-stand defense, someone is storming a citadel, someone is cruising over head in an aircraft and shelling ground forces, like an AC-130.

The only problem is that the game is fairly intensive graphically, and has some occasional issues with lag. Also, it is widely believed to have some sort of memory leak. But despite the shaky performance and occasionally flaky servers, this game is still a shining gem in today’s game industry.

9/10

The Future of the Source Engine

Valve’s Source and GoldenSource engines and Epic’s Unreal engines have had a long, acrimonious feud. Both Golden Source and the Unreal Engine debuted in 1998 in Half Life and Unreal, respectively. Both were considered revolutionary games at the time. Unreal blew technical and graphical expectations out of the water. Half Life left a legacy as one of the most influential games in the FPS genre.

Unreal Engine screenshot Unreal Engine screenshot
i2Zan0DmFkTfy Golden Source screenshot

Fast forward 6 years. Valve, in the meantime, has released Team Fortress Classic and Counterstrike, both extremely revolutionary games. The Unreal and Unreal 2 engines (the latter was released 2 years prior) had become extremely popular platforms for game developers, mostly because of the engines’ notable modularity and room for modification.

In 2004, Valve debuts the Source engine with Half Life 2, a ground breaking game that completely demolishes competition and sets a long-lasting legacy in terms of story, gameplay, and graphics. For comparison, Unreal Tournament 2004 was published the same year.

Unreal Engine 2 screenshot Source screenshot

In another 7 years, Unreal Engine 3 has been released and games like Gears of War and Batman: Arkham City have been developed using it. Valve has just published their first widely supported game, Portal 2. The Source engine has been evolved over the years, and many graphical upgrades have been applied along with compatibility with major game consoles.

Batman: AC screenshot
screenshot-2

However, it becomes readily apparent that the visual styles of these two engines have diverged in the years since 1998. The Unreal line of engines have supported games like Bioshock and Mass Effect, but have also bourn the brunt of AAA games. Such games are known for their muted brown-grey color pallete, uninteresting story, and factory-made gameplay. Unreal Engine games are commonly criticized for having character models that look “plastic” (a result of game developers setting specular too high on materials), awkward character animations, and overuse of lens flares and bloom.

Games on the Source engine, on the other hand, consistently revolutionize some aspect of gaming. For example, Team Fortress 2, Portal, and Left 4 Dead are widely known for innovative gameplay. Unfortunately, Valve has lagged behind in terms of pushing the graphical frontier. Half Life 2 was smashingly good for its time, much in the same way that Halo stunned the gaming world back in 2001. However, every Source game since its debut has looked more and more aged.

Even worse, developers are driven away from using the Source engine due to a set of tools that have barely evolved since they were developed in 1998. Hammer, the level creation program, and Face Poser, the character animation blender, are unwieldy and unfinished; Source SDK tools are notorious for their bugs and frequent crashes.

Conversely, the Unreal toolset is streamlined and easy to jump into. This appeal has drawn more and more amateurs and professional developers alike. The editor allows you to pop right into the game to see changes, whereas the Source engine still requires maps to be compiled (which can take minutes) in order for the most recent revision to be played. Unreal’s deformable meshes dwarf the Source engine’s awkward displacement system.

However, I have a feeling that a couple of factors are going to come together and boost both engines out of the recent stigma they have incurred. The biggest factor is that at some point the AAA game industry is going to collapse. The other critical event is Half Life 3.

Yes! Do I know something you don’t? Have I heard a rumor lurking the Internet about this mysterious game? No. But I do know history. And that is more useful than all the forum threads in the universe.

Half Life was released in 1998. Half Life 2 was released in 2004. Episode 2 was released in 2007. Half Life 2 took 6 years to develop, despite being on a side burner for some of that time. By extrapolation, Half Life 3 should be nearing release in the next 2 years. However, circumstances are different.

The Source engine was developed FOR Half Life 2. Graphics were updated. But the toolset remained the same. In the time between HL2 and now, Valve has been exploring other genres. Team Fortress 2, Portal 2, and Left 4 Dead 2 all took a portion of the company’s resources. In addition, that last few years have been spent intensively on developing Dota 2 (which, by the way, was the cause of the free release of Alien Swarm). The second Counterstrike was contracted out. So Half Life 3 has been a side project, no doubt going through constant revisions and new directions.

However, unless Valve is going to release Day of Defeat 2 or Ricochet 2 (yeah right) in 2013, production on Half Life 3 is going to kick into high gear. There is one fact that drives me to believe even more heavily in this theory.

Since 2011, and probably even earlier, Valve has been pumping a huge amount of effort into redesigning their entire suite of development tools. It had become readily apparent to everyone at the company that the outdated tools were making it impossible to develop games efficiently.

“Oh yeah, we’re spending a tremendous amount of time on tools right now. So, our current tools are… very painful, so we probably are spending more time on tools development now than anything else and when we’re ready to ship those I think everybody’s life will get a lot better. Just way too hard to develop content right now, both for ourselves and for third-parties so we’re going to make enormously easier and simplify that process a lot.”
-Gabe Newell

Because both TF2 and Portal 2 have been supported continuously since their release, they have been the first to see the effects of this new tool development. Valve seems to have used these games as testing grounds, not only for their Free to Play business model and Steam Workshop concept, but also for new kinds of development tools. First, the Portal 2 Puzzle Maker changed the way that maps were made. In the same way that Python streamlines the programming process, the Puzzle Maker cuts out the tedious technical parts of making a level.

The second tool released was the Source Filmmaker. Although it doesn’t directly influence the way maps are made, its obviously been the subject of a lot of thought and development. The new ways of thinking about animation and time introduced by the SFM are probably indicative of the morphing paradigms in the tool development section at Valve.

Don’t think that Valve is going to be trampled by any of its competitors. Despite Unreal Engine’s public edge over the Source engine, especially with the recent UE4 reveal, the AAA game industry is sick, and no other publisher has a grip on the PC game market quite like Valve does. And although 90% of PC gamers pirate games, PC game sales are hardly smarting. In fact, the PC game market is hugely profitable, racking up $19 billion in 2011. This is just a few billion shy of the collective profits of the entire console market. Yet the next best thing to Steam is, laughably, EA’s wheezing digital content delivery system Origin.

Numbers Source

Anyways, here’s hoping for Half Life 3 and a shiny new set of developer tools!

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