PlanetSide: Core Combat Review
Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: PlanetSide, Pentium III 1 GHz, 256 MB RAM, 64 MB video card, additional 600 MB HD space, 4x CD ROM, internet connection
Once the wormhole collapsed between the homeworlds of the Terran Republic and the habitable world of Auraxis, the colonists split into three warring factions. Discovery of the technological remnants of the Vanu (an ancient, alien civilization) allowed the citizens of Auraxis to reconstruct their fallen soldiers from stored matrices. War on Auraxis now has no casualties, and has transformed into an eternal struggle for control over facilities and Vanu resources. The remnants of the Terran Republic have battled against the Vanu Sovereignty (which seeks to improve humanity through Vanu technology) and the New Conglomerate (who seek a new political order) in perpetual combat since the collapse of the wormhole. The ability to reconstruct fallen soldiers has kept the war in a continuing state of flux, with any victory or conquest remaining woefully temporary.
Recently, the war has been transformed. New Geowarp gates have opened on the various continents of Auraxis that lead to caverns deep beneath the surface. These caverns are rich with Vanu technology, as well as crystals that broadcast energy and have mysterious powers to heal soldiers and repair equipment. More importantly, the caverns have yielded new and powerful weaponry, vehicles to turn the tides of war, and modules that can be installed in surface complexes to enhance combat troops and improve facilities.
Core Combat is a dramatically different environment in PlanetSide that adds new strategic elements. The caverns themselves are vast crystalline complexes, connected to the surface by Geowarp gates. Within these caverns, combat becomes three-dimensional – crystal-like Ancient-Tech buildings grow off the ceiling and floor of the caverns, filled with terminals that can summon weapons and vehicles constructed from the vanished Vanu's technology. It's as though you're battling inside a flattened, alien geode. The many platforms within the cavern are connected with beams of energy (called "Zip Lines") that soldiers can ride to quickly navigate between buildings. There are even paired transporter rings that will instantly transport foot soldiers between locations. Vehicles can be used underground, but don't have the flexibility of ground troops following the Zip Lines. The vast caverns maintain some of the character of the contents above, ranging from frosty and white to filled with lava, while maintaining a dramatic and alien aspect.
The recent discovery of these vast, underground complexes has opened up new technologies to the forces battling on Auraxis. Both the weapons and vehicles draw power from special energy capacitors which can only be recharged at underground crystals or at specially equipped complexes. The same goes for acquiring the Vanu-based technology. You can only purchase the technology and vehicles at ancient terminals underground or from surface complexes equipped with the appropriate ancient augmentations. In all cases, anyone can be the target of the new weapons and vehicles, but you'll need the Core Combat expansion to deal death with these discovered technologies.
The new infantry weapons include the Spiker, a pistol that can charge up powerful single shots, and the Maelstrom, a heavy assault weapon that can lash foes with streams of energy or fire grenades that inflict damage to an area. The most interesting of the new weapons is the Radiator, which lobs projectiles that irradiate an impact zone, causing damage to anyone in the area over time. These prove particularly effective in large battles both defending and attacking facilities, and are useful for flushing out entrenched defenders.
New vehicles have already been added as patches to PlanetSide since its release, but Core Combat adds three new vehicles based on Ancient-Tech. The Switchblade is a fast-light vehicle that can be deployed as a stationary turret. The Flail is a massive, but mobile, cannon. Once deployed, it can fire destructive energy blasts over long distances. The Router is a mobile, point-to-point teleportation system. Once deployed, it can be used for instantaneous transport over long distances. The Switchblade uses the previously available ATV certification, but both the Flail and Router require users to learn a new certification. So far, the Flail is a popular vehicle, frequently seen in sieges of complexes, and powerful when used in defense against enemy ground vehicles.
At present there are six Core Complexes underground, each of which is capable of generating a different type of module. Modules, if brought to an allied complex, can grant significant advantages. Equipment modules allow possessors of the Core Combat expansion to purchase and recharge Ancient-Tech weapons and reduce the amount of time required to reacquire powerful MAX armor. Vehicle Modules allow the purchase and recharging of Ancient-Tech vehicles. Health Modules allow soldiers spawning in facilities so-equipped to spawn with higher maximum health and regenerate health slowly while in the facility. Speed Modules reduce respawn delays and increase foot-speed while near the facility. Pain Modules create fields that do damage to enemies invading critical areas of the equipped facility. Shield Modules create a force-field that cover facility gate openings and block bullets and enemy vehicles.
Modules add an entirely new (and welcome) strategic dimension to PlanetSide. All the modules can significantly advantage the force that possesses them, and a complex with all six modules can spawn powerful defensive forces. There are challenges, however, in acquiring or transporting modules. Modules can only exist outside of a socket for fifteen minutes. Similar to the Lattice Logic Units introduced in August (that must be taken to an allied facility to take control of another facility), the soldier transporting a Module cannot drive a vehicle, cannot enter aircraft as a passenger, and is identified on the main map. This means that on a busy server, transporting and protecting a module can be a serious challenge. Of course, if there's no one to oppose you, you can just walk modules from the underground regions (where they must be created) to a friendly facility unaided. That's really the problem, right now, with Core Combat. The design behind the Modules, and the high-profile transport of the modules would be a serious challenge in heavy combat, requiring coordinated teamwork. Unfortunately, some areas are so sparsely populated that players can stroll around with powerful modules and meet no resistance.
Fundamentally, the problem in Core Combat is not one of design, and is the same problem facing the surface of PlanetSide. There just aren't as many people battling on Auraxis as there once were. During prime-time (evenings and weekends) it's difficult to find more than one area on Auraxis's surface to fight, and the Core Combat caverns are virtually abandoned. Because the surface populations are low, the continent over a cavern is often completely controlled by one side, so that you'll only find members of one empire in a given cavern, making modules runs more like milk-runs (future patches may change the links between caverns and continents). Rather than a spectacular combat with soldiers riding Zip Lines for tactical advantage, if you shoot someone in the caverns, all too likely they were entirely surprised to see another soul below ground.
The same problem is found on the surface. Battle Experience Points (BEPs) are awarded for participating in large frays, and BEPs are necessary to achieve higher Battle Ranks, getting the player access to better and more equipment. BEPs are not awarded for taking undefended facilities or engaging in the long, lonely walk to create and capture new Modules. This means the entire server population tends to congregate in one location for massive battles, rather than the ebb and flow of battle lines that occurred when online populations were larger. You will occasionally see Ancient-Tech weapons or vehicles if the appropriate modules are nearby, but much of PlanetSide's play is just as it was before the expansion.
PlanetSide (and Core Combat) is still an impressive game, if run on a system that can handle the technical requirements. The many additions since release (especially the expansion) have deepened the game, but until the server populations increase, the full impact of those changes won't be seen. The game itself is impressive and exciting, especially as you coordinate in squads (and now platoons) for massive battles. The problem is that it simply needs more players. It's hard to say if the solution is to combine the populations of existing servers, or find new ways to grab new players, but the many additions to PlanetSide also make it harder for new players to climb the learning curve. This is still not the sort of game you tell your buddy to play with you. This is the sort of game where you get your friend an account, bring his character up to Battle Rank 6 and then play next to him all weekend while you explain the intricacies of the game.
Essentially, Core Combat and the original PlanetSide are great titles, but need a lot of people playing to fulfill their potential. Core Combat adds a lot that improves the original title, and adds substantial content both for owners of the expansions and players of the original. Unfortunately, we won't see the full impact of those additions unless more players materialize to check them out.