Over the last few years multiplayer gaming has indeed become massive, hence the over used term: massively multiplayer. Up until now however, massively multiplayer games have been head to toe in facial hair -role-playing games like EverQuest, Ultima Online or Asheron's Call, were in their thousands, people dress up in cloaks and armour and brandish spells, swords and arcane language in order that they may one day own the most garish robes, swing the mightiest of swords or utter impossible phrases known only to the most powerful of wizards.
In contrast, although it's massively popular, online gaming's other big thing, first-person action games such as Counter-Strike, are hardly what you might call massively-multiplayer friendly. In the case of CS, neither should it be, for if you've ever been caught up in any of the 32-piayer battles, you'll know that Counter-Strike is at it's best with just half that number. No, if it's wide open battles between men and machines you are after, the only game worth considering is Tribes 2, offering as it does fast-paced action indoors and NS out, 32 players on each side, flying through the skies and running around the open, all of whom take great delight in opening cans of what is generally known as whoop-ass. Or something.
In what is a first for online gaming however, Verant, the creator of EverQuest, aims to take the term massively multiplayer and fuse it to that of first-person shooter, creating the world's first MMFPS (work it out) - Planetside. Due for release next year, it will allow thousands of players to fight across huge maps simultaneously. Like Tribes 2 there will be vehicles to drive and pilot. Like Counter-Strike it will offer both fast-paced action and a degree of stealth and, like Quake III, it looks absolutely bloody gorgeous.
Surprisingly chirpy for a man who might normally be close to the edge at having to demo the game for the 30th time that day, Steve George, associate producer on Planetside, seemed more than happy to explain what Planetside was all about, as I asked dozens of similar questions which were probably already answered during the first day of E3, which was once again at the LA Conference Center. Unlike most of those who had been drafted in on other stands to sit for three solid days extolling the virtues of their games to anyone who might be in the vicinity, Steve knew his spuds.
"Each server can hold 3,500 players, set across 13 continents, with each continent averaging 8km square. This map we have here is about 2km square and we can include within one map wide variations in terrain elevation, forcstation and..." He trailed off as another games journalist homed in on the screen.
Happy enough to allow whoever might have been rude enough to interrupt our little tete-a-tete, I watched in awe as the game kicked in and from a ground covered in waving grass and gently fluttering trees, Steve took the camera into the sky, showing off without the need for vocal explanation that the new game engine that Verant had created could easily render an entire island; trees, valleys, rivers and buildings - all without breaking into a sweat and coating the land in a grey rendered mist.
I had in fact been watching the game in action for quite some before I introduced myself, and it wasn't only the great outdoors that impressed. Inside the massive buildings there is as much attention to detail poured into the graphics on the handrails running down the stairs as there is on a blade of grass out in the open. Players will be able to sneak their way through dozens of rooms in a single building, clearing out the enemy and moving on to the next, while outside your forces circle the town. Even more impressive I found out when I reached Blighty, was that Veranr had within days of E3 ending, created a map and like a rich kid with too much Lego, built over 250 buildings across it.
"We can stream real-time video to those by the way..." Offered Steve as he pointed at the in-game monitors. "...Relay mission objectives to players, hints and tips or even advertising messages if we want to." A nice little earner.
The aim in Planetside is simple: There are three empires, all of which want to control the world on which Planetside is set. You pick one and you fight side-by-side with hundreds of other gamers, across continents or islands until the day is ultimately won. However, rather than the battle being fought across one map, then another, and so on, battles in Planetside arc fought simultaneously. While 200 are fighting across one island, hundreds of others will be exchanging fire across many dozens of others, some on a much smaller scale, while hundreds more prepare their assault on a map that might minutes before have been secured by another faction. And it won't be just about huge frontline battles either. Small teams or even lone soldiers will be able to sneak around behind enemy lines, creating diversions and generally causing havoc by taking important buildings or stealing enemy vehicles. As Steve says: "You could throw on a Stealth Suit, infiltrate a base, do some hacking, or just get into the enemy buildings and have a look around."
Buildings won't just be there for show or for hiding in either: "If you own a radar station then you'll be able to locate enemies who may be in the vicinity," comments Steve. "If your side owns a certain combination of buildings then you'll be able to construct different vehicles and different items, so the whole game is really one big territorial conquest where you get advantages from being in control of certain buildings." As well as being the first 'total war' FPS, Planetside will also be the first to introduce a degree of persistence.
Where it's the case that in all first-person games played online, when you die, you respawn fit and healthy, in Planetside death has a cost and success has its rewards apart from short-term victory. As you complete missions your character may pick up new skills or just become more accurate at firing by taking out more of the enemy.
"Your rank will go up," says Steve. "You have skilisets that you can advance in and implants you can put into your character. As your soldier goes up in rank he'll gain certain abilities. If I was playing and a colleague dies, if my medical skills are high enough then I could revive them in the field without them having to respawn somewhere else." Though there are no player classes, unlike those you would recognise from something like Team Fortress, the idea in Planetside - as with Tribes 2- is to create your own role within the game, using the same single character you created when you started playing. "I could jump in the game one day and be a gunship pilot," emphasises Steve. 'Then play the role of medic the next day, or make my role one of defending the base - all using the same character."
Though not as immediately stunning as Halo, Planetside has a similar look and feel and certainly far greater appeal as a multiplayer game. The design of the vehicles, uniforms, weapons and buildings are all contemporary, very Starship Troopers - unlike the shoulder pads and sleek '90s designs Trybes and Quake. "Our character animations are really interesting," says Steve as the camera moves to circle his on-screen characters. "As well as seeing soldiers running or crawling, you'll be able to see characters reloading their weapons. Most importantly you'll be able to tell at a glance what equipment and weapons people are carrying across their backs, as well as what they have in their hands..." Duly demonstrated, Steve continues "...so if you are driving a tank, you'll be able to tell if any enemy troops ahead arc carrying any anti-armour weapons just by looking at their characters. Unlike Quake where a guy can pull a bazooka out of his pocket, in Planetside you'll know if he's got something like that on him by looking either at what's in his hand or slung across his back." By this point a small gang of Planetside fans have congregated behind us, pointing up to the screen far above, which shows Steve's actions to a greater audience.
Baseball caps pointed arsewards, T-shirts with backprints and the obligatory Xbox sack stuffed with free keyrings, biros and press releases tell me they are American, but in our appraisal of what is on show we are for once on the same planet. Rudely butting in and narrowly avoiding loosing a fine set of fluorescent white Californian teeth, the one who smelt of onions asked about the weapons in the game.
"We got mini-rocket guns, plasma cannons, smoke grenades - pretty much standard first-person shooter weapons," answers Steve. "We decided to take the best of everything from our favourite games and make them distinct to Planetside. Right now there are about 30 plus weapons in the game, which will come down to about 15 when we finally ship. It's really easy to add new weapons to the game, so you might see a new weapon come into the game every month, or a new vehicle..."
Drive Me Crazy
Unfortunately - and wouldn't you just know it - only one vehicle was evident in the build on show in the cavernous main hall, that being the jeep, where once a driver is in place, another player can shoot his load from the passenger seat while another may want to sit in the back and operate the vehicle-mounted heavy weapon - all of which were demonstrated superbly by Steve as his Verant chums sat across the way playing across the same server.
"When we first started developing the game it was just soldiers and guns," says Steve, during a lull in the action. "But when we added the vehicles it totally changed. I like the way you can just go in the game and do whatever you want. You can create whatever role you want for yourself and play it through; climb inside a gunship, fly it about and give some support to the guys running around below. It's the teamplay aspect that is best thing about the game, especially when you can have so many people playing across the same map."
Hopefully when we next see the game, perhaps at ECTS in September, Steve or one of his colleagues will be able to show off more of the vehicles we are promised; tanks, bikes, buggys, gunships and dropships - the latter able to accommodate 12 armed passengers. However, it's not the vehicles, weapons, or the animations that concern us. Already the game looks stunning, as good, if not better than any first-person game we've seen this year. All that concerns us is how on Earth hundreds of troops, vehicles and buildings, plus the odd tree, will all make it into one single map?
"There's always congestion whatever you do online, we can't avoid it completely," admits Steve. "We found, however, that from our other games, such as EverQuest, people tend to spread themselves out as long as you give them enough room to play in.
We have a portal system for the buildings that can accommodate 100 guys in the same building no problem. If they're all in the same room there could be some issues, but by then we'll have a system, an aggressive level of detail model in place that will take care of that." And so, perplexed and with essence of onion infusing my clothes, I wander off towards my next meeting. Through the loud music I hear Steve begin again, I guess for the 32nd time that day, "...each server can hold 3,500 people...".
And there's still two days of E3 to go. Whaddaguy...
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