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Halo Fest 2020: Halo 3: ODST

When Halo 3: ODST was shown at E3 2009 I wasted no time preordering it, though I did have some minor reservations. I mean, the game was essentially a standalone expansion pack for Halo 3, a game which reasonably wrapped up the trilogy, and this game wouldn’t even feature the iconic Master Chief! Halo 3 was also 2 years old at this point, despite the undeniable staying power of its excellent multiplayer. Still, the reviews ended up being absolutely glowing, with the biggest criticism being the sticker price. Today ODST is still as celebrated for the interesting deviations it made from the core series as it was at release. On top of everything I’ll go into below, I also fondly look back on it for first introducing the “Firefight” gamemode, a “Horde mode” like cooperative wave survival mode that my brother became particularly enamored with.

Over 10 years later, I was able to easily play Halo 3: ODST again as part of the Master Chief Collection on my Xbox Series X. As with Halo 3’s MCC port, ODST didn’t receive the ridiculously thorough remaster treatment of the Halo: CE and Halo 2 anniversary editions, but the fact that it still looks so stunning today with little more than some upscaling speaks volumes about Bungie’s expertise. They were clearly at the top of their game with Halo 3: ODST, and it ages even better than Halo 3 as a result.

The boys!
“The boys!”

Since so many of ODST’s gameplay elements are related to its story, and this is a side story taking place out of chronological order from the main series anyway, I’ll start by recapping the plot. Unlike Halo Wars, which took place before the events depicted in the main Halo games and has little direct relation to their plots, Halo 3: ODST actually takes place during events depicted in Halo 2. Aside from that, it is still very much its own story, however, and while I’m fairly vague in these plot summaries they absolutely do still contain spoilers, so skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilage.

The story: Breaching Earth’s defenses, the Prophet of Regret’s carrier has taken up position over New Mombasa while Covenant forces terrorize the city streets below. In a desperate move that could help turn the tide of the war, multiple squads of the UNSC’s elite Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODSTs) are ordered to drop onto the ship and capture the Covenant leader. ODST fireteam Alpha-9, led by Gunnery Sergeant Edward Buck, is attached to Office of Naval Intelligence officer Captain Veronica Dare for the assault. As the fireteam prepares to drop, Capt. Dare unexpectedly orders them to adjust their drop locations to land in the city instead. As they drop, Regret’s ship performs a surprise low orbit slipspace jump, resulting in a destructive shockwave that sends the fireteam’s drop pods wildly off course. The members of Alpha-9, now completely scattered, individually make their ways through the wreckage of the Covenant occupied mega-city to regroup. One of the members of the fireteam, picking up Dare’s radio signal and subtly guided by Vergil, the city’s Superintendent AI, locates Capt. Dare as she attempts to infiltrate the city’s underground data center. Upon reaching the data center’s core, Dare reveals the true purpose of her mission: to secure the Superintendent AI. The pair quickly discover that the Superintendent AI has been taken over by a Covenant defector. This Huragok, a rarely encountered species of alien dubbed “Engineers” which the Covenant use as biological supercomputers, could be extremely valuable in learning the purpose of Regret’s attack. Escorting this renegade Engineer back up to the surface and fending off multiple Covenant attacks along the way, they eventually meet up with Buck and the rest of his fireteam and make a hasty escape from the city.

Holding out against a ton of Covenant air with nothing but a huge pile of heavy weapons.
“Holding out against a ton of Covenant air with nothing but a huge pile of heavy weapons.”

Structurally, ODST plays unlike any other Halo game. You initially assume the role of the new member of the fireteam referred to as “the Rookie”. By the time the Rookie wakes up after his violent landing quite a few hours have passed and you’re tasked with wandering the dark, deserted streets of New Mombasa searching for signs of what happened to the rest of Alpha-9. Each of the clues you find results in a flashback mission switching you from your silent protagonist to one of his much more developed (and talkative) squadmates. These missions are structured more like your typical Halo mission and, taking place in different areas and at different times, allow Bungie to really mix up the scenery and the action. Once a mission is complete, you’re sent back to rejoin the Rookie in New Mombasa, with these sections ultimately functioning as something of an abstracted hub area. Very cool.

The Rookie surveying the New Mombasa streets.
“The Rookie surveying the New Mombasa streets.”

The New Mombasa streets area has a couple of other interesting tricks up its sleeve. First, the expansive map is more or less wide open. While you’re guided to the location of each subsequent clue, it’s only by a waypoint, and there will be multiple ways to reach it. You’ll probably end up taking different routes whether you want to or not, as navigating the maze-like city streets isn’t easy, often requiring the use of the in-game map. Along the way you can choose whether to engage the Covenant patrols you encounter or attempt to sneak around them entirely. You can even find the aforementioned clues and play their associated missions totally out of order if you want to.

More importantly, these New Mombasa sections have an absolutely unique tone. As the Rookie, you’re all alone in the dark, rainy city streets. Remnants of the day’s earlier conflict surround you: ruined buildings, destroyed vehicles, and dead UNSC and Covenant soldiers alike. It conjures a lonely, bleak feeling. The Superintendent AI’s poltergeist-like attempts to guide you only add a further creepy layer to this. There’s also something of a light survival feel to these sections, as ammo is scarce; your UNSC weapons will probably be depleted after your first few encounters, forcing you to scrounge for Covenant weapons and ammo. The pacing is altered by all of this too. In the proceeding Halo games you’re shuffled from mission to mission with an urgency that is, I suppose, appropriate to the epic task at hand. You know, saving the planet and whatnot. In the New Mombasa streets, however, there is no such urgency. You’re just one person, completely isolated. It all feels very grounded and very personal.

A squadron of Banshees fly by the remains of the space elevator.
“A squadron of Banshees fly by the remains of the space elevator.”

The graphics and sound are a large component of why this all works. The lighting and shading certainly conjure a particular mood, but with ODST’s soundtrack they’ve incorporated a greatly expanded variety of different musical influences, from the more traditional Halo sounding orchestral tracks and electronic ambiance to smoky jazz-inspired, piano and saxophone laden pieces that sell the game’s intentionally film noir vibe. Halo has always had extremely strong soundwork, but ODST is really something else entirely. Anyone who thinks Marty O’Donnell is a one trick pony really needs to stop what they’re doing and go give the ODST soundtrack a listen. Right now!

Gameplay wise, Halo 3: ODST is built directly on top of Halo 3 and plays more or less the same, but it’s hard to mark the game down for that. I mean, that is one damn fine foundation. Some of the few differences between the two games relate to the fact that you’re not playing a literal supersoldier like Master Chief. I recall Bungie making statements before ODST’s release that perhaps oversold that just a little; that as a normal human, you’d be weaker and less capable and that suddenly even the previously laughable grunts would be fearsome opponents. That sort of thing. Instead, there is another new health system, this one feeling similar to Halo: CE’s with a shield-like recharging “stamina” layer and a core health pool that is only refilled with health packs. Unlike Halo: CE, however, these health packs are relatively plentiful. There’s also no hijacking vehicles, no dual wielding, no use of Halo 3’s special equipment, and no radar.

New Mombasa Streets: VISR off.
“New Mombasa Streets: VISR off.”

New Mombasa Streets: VISR on.
“New Mombasa Streets: VISR on.”

Bungie giveth as well. As an ODST your standard armaments are a new silenced version of the submachine gun and, something of a throwback to Halo: CE, a lovely new silenced magnum pistol. There’s also the VISR mode which serves as both a sort of night vision and also highlights friendlies, enemies, and certain objects with a thin colored outline on your HUD. The only negative to VSIR mode is that there’s no real reason to ever turn it off, and leaving it on means seeing only one, lesser version of the game’s lighting.

The VISR mode’s ability to highlight objects is key to ODST’s single collectible system: audio logs. Similar to the terminals of previous games, these logs are hidden throughout the New Mombasa streets. Interestingly, rather than typical voice memo type recordings, these are audio and still images recorded from security systems scattered around the city and tell the story of a single character, Sadie, and her attempt to meet up with her father as the fighting erupts. This story links directly into ODST’s overall plot, giving some insight into the Vergil AI and its fate. While I remember liking these audio logs, I could barely stand them this time around. The script feels unnatural and the voice acting and sound effects come across like a old time radio play. Sadie’s main nemesis in the story, the city’s police commissioner, is a particularly ridiculous mustache twirling villain stereotype that I just couldn’t take seriously.

At least that’s not an issue the campaign has! The voice cast is excellent, with notable TV actors including several of the core cast of Firefly with Nathan Fillion, who Buck is both voiced by and modeled after, and Battlestar Galactica’s Number Six, Tricia Helfer, voicing Veronica Dare. Say what you will about Buck’s sarcastic attitude or he and Dare’s relationship issues, but in the brief time we spend with these characters they express a lot more personality than we ever got from Master Chief, and the strong cast only helps that.

Dutch's level is a total throwback to previous games.
“Dutch’s level is a total throwback to previous games.”

I beat the game on “Heroic” difficulty, and even with the aforementioned lack of ammo and other constraints I found it to be one of the easiest campaigns so far. That’s not to say there weren’t some intense moments. The first time I ran into a Hunter I struggled like hell to take him down, depleting all of my grenades and most of my ammo in the process, only to have his buddy saunter into the room just as I was catching my breath. Sheer panic. There was also a lot more variety in the action than I’d remembered, with missions featuring a tank section, a wide open Warthog-centric level, some Banshee flying including a unique Scarab fight, and even yet another Warthog run-like level towards the end of the game. Even with its relatively short length, there’s definitely enough to make it feel like a full Halo game. While a part of me does have to wonder if you had to have played the previous games in the franchise to really appreciate it to its full extent, I personally think Halo 3: ODST is something of a masterpiece and is easily one of the strongest games in the series.

We are ODST!
“We are ODST!”

Just a quick footnote, but similar to Halo 3’s “Landfall”, ODST’s considerable promotion efforts included the absolutely awesome The Life. This live-action short shows the journey of an ODST from a young recruit to a battle hardened veteran. Compelling and absolutely worth a quick watch if you’re a Halo fan and haven’t seen it!

Planetside (Part 2)

Continued from part one

Auraxis, as it looked before The Bending.
“Auraxis, as it looked before The Bending.”

When talking about how to get to the action in the last article I made passing mention of connections between warp gates and “spheres of influence” so let’s expand on that and go over the all-important map. In addition to those empire sanctuary islands, Auraxis was made up of ten continents of similar size and various biomes. Those continents were connected to each other via the same type of warp gates that connected some of them to sanctuary islands. Each continent was a massive, expansive land of a size and scale that is pretty much unheard of for an FPS game. While it might blow other sandbox FPS games out of the water in size, the world is pretty empty, with the only real points of interest outside of the occasional bridge or bunker being the facilities and the small guard towers near them, which are ultimately what we’re fighting over.

Ceryshen's continental map. Mostly controlled by the TR at the moment.
“Ceryshen’s continental map. Mostly controlled by the TR at the moment.”

Like the connections between continents, each facility was connected to at least one other facility on the continent, forming a “lattice” structure. The “lattice links” between these facilities were important in defining the battlefronts – your empire could only attack an enemy owned facility it had a link to, either by facilities you’ve captured, or by a warpgate connected back to your empire’s sanctuary or another continent you control. Thanks to these defined battlefronts, battles were mostly concentrated around these areas, helping keep the player population from being spread too thin. The continental lattice also provided benefits from facilities of certain types under your control. For example, if you were at a friendly facility that was connected to a tech plant your empire owned, you could spawn more advanced vehicle types from its vehicle terminals. This added a little bit more strategic consequence into decisions about which facility your empire should attack, and in what order, whether it be to gain those benefits or simply take them away from your enemies.

As for the sphere of influence, this was simply an area around a facility or a tower that was “controlled” by the empire that owned that facility or tower. This area could not be directly dropped on (as mentioned) and enemy Combat Engineers couldn’t fill them with their own deployable equipment. The area also more generally functioned roughly as a mini “zone” in the traditional MMORPG sense, so things like how experience points for battles over the control of these facilities and the scope of the “broadcast” chat channel were based on these areas. In between these areas was, as mentioned, not a whole lot, but all of this other space was ripe to be turned into massive combined-arms battlegrounds as forces moved between facilities and towers, and the terrain was just varied and interesting enough to lead to some cool battle scenarios. I have vivid memories of battles around Searhus’s massive volcano crater’s rim, and the epic fights around the many long chokepoint bridges spanning bodies of water all across Auraxis are legendary, for example.

A nice, quiet VS tower, just waiting to be taken.
“A nice, quiet VS tower, just waiting to be taken.”

Outside of traveling between them, there were other reasons battles might take place in-between facilities that were directly linked to how taking over facilities worked. Let’s start from the beginning though. Each facility had a relatively small structure called a “tower” just outside of its sphere of influence. There were a few varieties of towers, with some having gun turrets, others having landing pads, but they were all close to identical on the inside. Dominated by a wide staircase wrapping from the basement, which contained spawn tubes and equipment terminals and was protected by a “pain field” to keep would-be enemy spawn campers at bay, up to the roof, with a control console near the top. There was not much to these towers, but they were key in how facility captures worked, as they allowed an attacking force to quickly gain a nearby foothold from which they could respawn and attack the main facility. Unlike facilities, control of the towers would instantly change once the control console was hacked, plus, not being tied to the lattice system, they could be hacked by anyone, at any time. Intense battles in and around towers weren’t uncommon, but they were also some of the more common places for great smaller fights to occur.

Tower fights could be bloody affairs. Get that loot!
“Tower fights could be bloody affairs. Get that loot!”

So, you hacked the door to a tower, made it up (or down, if you decided to land or drop on the roof from an aircraft) to the control console. You hacked it, and control of the tower went to your empire. If there were enemies around, they’d notice this pretty quickly and might immediately begin mounting a response to attempt to take it back from you. In the meantime, you and your allies could you set your sights on the facility itself. While there were other options for tactically deploying around a facility you were attacking, most notably a vehicle called the Advanced Mobile Station (AMS) which could be parked and “deployed” to cloak itself and act as a mobile spawn tube and equipment terminal, ownership of a facility’s tower was definitely a much more solid foothold.

Hacking a VS controlled facility's control console.
“Hacking a VS controlled facility’s control console.”

Taking a facility worked similarly. There were several different facility designs and layouts, but they were all surrounded by high, castle-like walls with turrets which would act as sentry turrets if unmanned, with only a few entrances on foot – either the large arched gates on either side of the courtyard that allowed vehicles in and out, or via the locked backdoor of the facility. This is where a Galaxy dropship is especially handy, allowing a full squad of troops to effectively bypass the outer defenses of a facility, dropping right into the courtyard or onto the upper levels of the main structure itself. Regardless, assuming you were able to make it into and through the courtyard, you’d make your way into the main facility and eventually find its control console room, usually fairly deep within the complex. Unlike the rather exposed control console of a tower, the control console of a facility was in a small, dedicated room that was much more defensible. Assuming you were then able to get in there and hack the control console, you’d then have to wait for a 15 minute timer to tick down before control of the facility finally changed. During that time, of course, you could expect a defense to mount if there wasn’t already one – enemies would drop in via HART from their sanctuary, arrive by various methods from nearby facilities, and enemies killed in their attempts would respawn there. 15 minutes can feel like a damn long time.

Arson
“Arson setting a bunch of Boomers (remote mines) to destroy a generator.”

One strategy that was often employed to help ease the burden of attacking a facility was purposely draining the facility of power. Every interactable device in the facility – equipment and vehicle terminals, spawn tubes, turrets, etc. ran on power provided by the facility’s generator, which was in turn fed by a supply of Nanite Technology Units (NTUs.) This power was drained much more quickly by the facility’s auto-repair systems, which would slowly repair any of these devices when damaged or destroyed. Once a facility was completely drained of NTUs, it would lose power and turn neutral, meaning no defenders could respawn there and it could be hacked freely once power was restored. Another version of this tactic involved blowing up the generator itself which would immediately cause the facility to lose power until it could be repaired, but this would also alert everyone that it was under attack as well as requiring it to be repaired before the facility could be back up and online. Still, it could be very effective to strategically take a facility’s generator down to deprive your enemies of the lattice linked benefits they’d get from it. Regardless, these strategies could allow small, coordinated groups to run special ops style “back-hacks” to assault facilities away from the frontline and take them over without much resistance.

An ANT refilling the NTU silo at a neutral facility
“An ANT refilling the NTU silo at a neutral facility”

One really cool element of the whole facility power system was that if a facility did run out of NTUs, it could be refueled. There was a special vehicle called an Advanced Nanite Transport (NTU) which could be driven out to a warp gate and deployed to fuel its tank, then driven back to a facility and deployed near its NTU silo to refuel it. Making NTU runs after a facility had been drained wasn’t usually too exciting, but making an emergency run during a huge battle could be edge of your seat intense. There were various ways to lessen the chances of your ANT run ending in a glorious, extra-large explosion, such as driving with an escort or even a whole convoy for protection, or using a Galaxy or Lodestar to haul one around in the air, but regardless, a well coordinated assault OR defense often involved accounting for the availability of NTU refuels.

Similarly, there was also a system added early into the game in which some facilities had a special device called a Lattice Logic Unit (LLU) which needed to be physically carried to another facility after a successful hack to complete the change of control rather than waiting out the timer. There were all kinds of conditions and limitations to who could carry the LLU and how – what vehicles they could ride in, etc. The LLU was, of course, a bit of a MacGuffin. It’s real purpose was to generate more battles outside of facilities similarly to those that could take place around ANT runs. While I don’t know how successful this ultimately was, I do recall being involved in some particularly intense battles that revolved around trying to protect or assault an LLU carrier.

A squad of NC Lightning tanks engaging.
“A squad of NC Lightning tanks engaging.”

As a quick aside, both of those systems seemed to be there to introduce more opportunity for fights to happen outside of facilities and, of course, using numerous vehicles. While it was common to use vehicles of all sorts to travel between facilities, which is when the most epic vehicle battles took place, and using certain vehicles like Galaxy dropships for infantry drops, AMSes to setup spawn points, and ANTs for refuel runs were very specific but common use-cases, running vehicles that required multiple crew members, like main battle tanks and the fearsome Liberator bomber, along with running multiple vehicles together, tended to be something more of a distraction to my outfit. Something we did for fun, but not something that often felt like it was contributing meaningfully to most battles. Likewise, running the lighter Mosquito and Reaver aircraft seemed like it was used for more quick transport and scouting behind the lines, and solo hunting of enemies. While all of these vehicles could be effective in combat in the right circumstances, due to the way facilities were structured and facility capturing worked, their effectiveness as “force multipliers” was limited.

So, as mentioned above, once you controlled a facility, the lattice link to other connected facilities opened up, expanding the front and allowing you to move on to more facilities. This went on (often involving struggles between all three sides) until eventually one empire controlled the entire continent. This temporarily locked all of the facilities on the continent from being captured, so efforts would usually move to one of the next connected continents. So on, and so forth. Honestly, this larger strategic part of the game was one of the weaker areas of Planetside in my opinion. There wasn’t any real purpose to taking over a continent, or indeed all of Auraxis. Unlike similar MMORPG territory-control based PVP systems, you’re not establishing your own strongholds where you can build housing or shops, or new areas to craft, hunt, or run dungeons, and there’s zero permanence to any of it. Planetside, it seemed, gambled on the fun of the actual fights being enough to inspire players rather than any end goal or rewards. This couldn’t have helped Planetside’s subscription base – it really only took a month or two of playing the game to have seen everything and have it totally figured out, and unlike most MMORPGs, there simply wasn’t enough variety of other diversions to keep players who were bored or just needed a break from cancelling.

A massive TR force gathers at a warp gate.
“A massive TR force gathers at a warp gate.”

I didn’t really mention the concept of “zerging” at all, and I should, because it comes up a lot in discussions around Planetside. The “zerg” was an obviously Starcraft-inspired term used to describe the largest masses of players, and “zerging” was the act of joining one of these groups and following them from enemy facility to enemy facility, overwhelming enemy resistance with sheer numbers. Most of the time these huge forces would inevitably meet, meaning that on every contested continent, there was usually at least one incredibly huge, lag inducing, ridiculously chaotic battle. Following the zerg was a way to guarantee access to Planetside’s largest fights, and more importantly, the experience points that came with them, but to many of us this was less exciting than smaller fights, special ops missions, coordinated vehicle runs, and numerous other experiences the sandbox nature of the game could provide. Getting online and following the zerg every night was the entire game to some people, and unsurprisingly, many of them quickly grew to consider Planetside as rather repetitive and dull.

A group of NC Lodestars hauling Vanguard main battle tanks behind enemy lines.
“A group of NC Lodestars hauling Vanguard main battle tanks behind enemy lines.”

That about wraps up my lengthy overview of Planetside’s gameplay. As mentioned, I played the game pretty steadily for its first year or so. In that year, development felt a little slow, especially given the monthly fee we were paying SOE for the privilege, but in reflection it wasn’t too bad. The Liberator bomber was added, along with a dedicated anti-air vehicle called the Skyguard. The aforementioned LLU system was added. They expanded hacking. They added platoons, which could be used to combine 3 squads into one larger unit. They also added the Lodestar, which I’ve mentioned a couple of times now. I do have to wonder just how many of those additions were holdovers that didn’t quite make release, but regardless, content is content. Actually, looking back, one of the issues I think Planetside’s development team had with adding new content to the game is that it was essentially already fairly well designed and balanced upon release. Anything all that interesting that they added to the game was sure to irreversibly alter that balance. Speaking of…

Core Combat's caverns looked like nothing else in the game.
“Core Combat’s caverns looked like nothing else in the game.”

The game’s first and only paid expansion, Core Combat, also came out at around this time. Core Combat added several huge underground cavern maps to Auraxis. These could be accessed via warp gate-like areas called “Geowarps” that were limited in their availability. The main appeal of these caverns was a shift to more CQB-inspired infantry combat, as the caverns featured a lot of cramped areas, a lot of verticality, and relied on teleporters and ziplines for traversal since vehicle usage was limited. While most of my outfit mates were excited about the concept, I don’t think I was alone in being fairly underwhelmed by the cavern-based combat experience. There was at least a reason to go down to the caverns, and that was the new facility module system. You could obtain and charge-up a “module” in a cavern which could then be brought back to the surface and installed at a facility, giving it a particular new benefit, which also extended to any other connected facilities your empire controlled. These benefits were things like adding an energy shield to the otherwise open gate entrances in the walls of your facilities, granting players faster movement speed and reducing spawn times to a facility, and allowing them to pull some of the new “ancient technology” vehicles added with expansion, such as the extremely useful Router (a deployable teleportation system) and the Flail (long distance artillery) from the facility’s vehicle terminals. I totally appreciate a lot of the ideas they were trying to implement with Core Combat, and cavern runs could be a fun diversion for smaller squads, but it ultimately felt like too much of a distraction from the core systems of the game, and a bit of misstep.

A TR BFR stomping across the battlefield.
“A TR BFR stomping across the battlefield.”

Still, even more was added later into the game’s life. Beyond things like bug fixes and numerous UI enhancements, they added new vehicles, such as the Fury ATV and new empire specific versions of The Deliverer troop transport. They added a merit/accommodation system and other improved ways to view and track your stats. There was “The Bending” patch that replaced one of the continents (Oshur) with several new smaller “Battle Islands” which each had its own special rules and restrictions, which was kind of neat for variety’s sake, but they also made each continent its own planet, changing the global map to a interstellar map in a rather stupid move. Then, in perhaps the most controversial thing to ever happen in the game, they added huge mech-like vehicles called BattleFrame Robotics (BFRs) which absolutely shook the game to its core. I had mixed feelings about BFRs myself. I mean, the panic instilled by being on foot when a towering BFR stomped onto the battlefield, leaving a path of destruction in its wake, was a totally new addition to the dynamic of the game, and was only topped by having a friendly BFR show up shortly thereafter and watching them go toe-to-toe in an epic scrap. Regardless of how much SOE “nerfed” and otherwise altered BFRs after first introducing them, a vocal part of the community completely hated their addition for reasons ranging from reasonable concerns about the balance and indeed the entire overland combat meta being altered, to simply hating the idea of “unrealistic” mechs being added to their sci-fi vidja game. Boy…

There was more after that, of course, as the game stayed online in one form or another until 2016, but the last time I stepped foot onto the virtual battlefields of Auraxis was around the time the BFRs were finally close to resembling being balanced. I’ve said it before, but Planetside was a special game to me – one where I got really into gaming with a community, and where I made friends I still have today. It was a unique game too, that, like so many online-only games, is sadly now gone to us outside of some unofficial preservation efforts. It’s also survived by Planetside 2, of course, and while Planetside 2 was influenced heavily by the first game and does a good job of respecting what it established, they’re also very different games. It may end up being quite an effort, but I’m hoping to compare and contrast those two games, as well as talk more about Planetside 2 in general, in a future article here. Stay tuned!

Pictures taken from my old NC outfit, The Praetorian Guard’s, archived website, JeffBeefjaw’s Imgur album, which looks quite similar, but from the TR perspective, and some newer pictures acquired while playing around on the PSForever server. Unfortunately the two former sources don’t really show any ACTUAL combat, as few people captured full time back in the day so most screenshots were of points of interest, outfit photo ops, and just dicking around rather than normal gameplay. I also had to grab the original world map, the Core Combat cavern, and the BFR pictures from wherever I could find them.

Planetside (Part 1)

I’d been in the MMO mood again recently and while looking for an appropriate new diversion I ended up jumping back into Planetside 2, this time with the goal of joining an outfit and coordinating with other players again. Just like the good old days!

It’s actually those “old days” I want to write about today. I’ve written about Planetside a couple of times before now, but thinking a lot about the differences between Planetside and Planetside 2 since diving back into it led me to realize I’ve forgotten quite a lot of the specifics about how the first Planetside actually worked. For a game that was so important to me, this simply won’t do! When I wrote this little tribute to the game years ago, I was actively avoiding going into the gameplay too much, but now, for posterity’s sake, that’s exactly what I aim to do. That said, having mostly only played it hardcore for its first year, I’ll be focusing on the state of the game at that point in its existence.

Planetside! I always thought it was odd that the logo from the title screen isn't the same logo used on the box and everywhere else.
“Planetside! I always thought it was odd that the logo from the title screen isn’t the same logo used on the box and everywhere else.”

Planetside was a 2003 MMOFPS released by Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) who were most well-known at the time for their landmark MMORPG, Everquest. They’d follow Planetside up in short order with Star Wars Galaxies, a game that has achieved something of a legendary status amongst MMORPG aficionados, and yet Planetside is rarely part of the conversation. I believe I first found out about Planetside via a news blurb about the game going into beta testing in the pages of a PC Gamer or Computer Gaming World magazine. Already a fan of MMOs thanks to games like Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, and Asheron’s Call 2, and of “combined arms” competitive FPS games thanks in large part to Battlefield 1942 (which I spent an absolute shit ton of time playing in 2002) Planetside sounded right up my alley and I managed to nab a copy on release day.

Far less notable back then than today, still not far removed from the original crop of MMORPGs, Planetside required both a full-priced retail purchase and a monthly subscription to play. I don’t think many people would argue with me when I say that the subscription was likely one of the main reasons Planetside wasn’t a lot more popular. It seemed to me, even at the time, that the Venn diagram of players who loved online, competitive first person shooters and those who wouldn’t mind paying a monthly subscription to play one had to have a fairly narrow overlap indeed. Hey, at least SOE wasn’t bilking us for microtransactions, right?

Creating a new character. Ahhh, these were simpler times...
“Creating a new character. Ahhh, these were simpler times…”

In typical MMORPG form, your first steps into Planetside involved picking a server and creating a character. Customization options were limited to picking a gender, a face, and a voice, but the most important thing was selecting a faction. Planetside featured three factions (or “empires”) all fighting for the domination of the planet Auraxis:

  • The Terran Republic (TR) represented what was left of Earth’s original occupying force and its remnant government was portrayed as an oppressive militaristic regime. They favored high rate of fire weapons and were identified by a red and black/gray color scheme.
  • The New Conglomerate (NC) were a rebel faction fighting for freedom from the Terran Republic’s tyranny. They favored slower but harder hitting weapons and had a particular affinity for shotguns. They were identified by a blue and yellow/gold color scheme.
  • The Vanu Sovereignty (VS) were a faction who believed in embracing the technology of the Vanu – the ancient aliens who once inhabited Auraxis. They used energy weapons and “MagLev” hover vehicles. They used a purple and teal/cyan color scheme.

I won’t go any further in talking about the story of Planetside as, let’s face it, it didn’t matter. In real terms, apart from some empire specific weapons and vehicles, there was no practical difference between the three factions. This of course meant that balance issues were limited to only those empire specific items, with everything else being shared between all three groups. The forums were filled with complaints about the NC’s “Jackhammer” and the VS’s “Lasher” (a couple of notable examples) all the same. I originally chose (and stuck with) the New Conglomerate because I liked the idea of being a rebel fighting against an oppressive regime, and I dug their more rugged, sci-fi militarist aesthetic, which was something like the UNSC marines from Halo but rocking a far less practical color scheme. That said, I was always a little jealous of the TR as their faction specific equipment always appealed to me.

Me cheesing the third person camera. Apparently it was working too, judging by the enemy backpack on the ground.
“Me cheesing the third person camera. Apparently it was working too, judging by the enemy backpack on the ground.”

Once you finished that up there were some basic tutorials to complete. I have to say, the combat itself was fairly bad compared to a lot of its contemporaries in the FPS genre. I never loved the way weapons, especially vehicle weapons, felt. I think for most of us the tradeoff was worth it for Planetside’s uniquely huge battles and open battlefields. Another artifact of its time, there was also an absolutely insane “cone of fire” associated with weapon accuracy. I personally never hated the idea, but I know some people have an extreme dislike for it, and Planetside’s implementation was pretty vicious. There was also a third person view that could be toggled and zoomed in and out, and yes, even outside of vehicles! This mode was garbage for actually playing the game, so it was mostly used for peeking around corners. Since everyone had that ability I never considered it unfair exactly, but definitely open to abuse and could lead to some pretty shitty deaths.

Some dirty TR scum hanging around Sanctuary.
“”Some dirty TR scum hanging around Sanctuary.”

Anyway, at some point you’d find yourself back in your empire’s sanctuary. The sanctuaries were small islands that represented each empire’s headquarters on Auraxis. From there you could access a VR training area where you could try out weapons and vehicles, various terminals to train and equip your character, use the HART (High Altitude Rapid Transport) shuttle to take a drop pod to wherever you’d like on Auraxis, or use a warp gate to warp to another continent. They also seem to have been intended as social hubs to some degree.

Back to your character. There were 20 “battle ranks” (BR) which were levels you progressed through as you gained experience by participating in facility captures, killing enemies, and destroying enemy vehicles and equipment. With each level-up you’d gained certification points (CP or just “certs”) which you could use to spend on a variety of skills or “certifications”. Certifications allowed you to use various equipment – armor, weapons, special devices, and vehicles. How many certification points each certification cost varied, but you could typically unlock some decent equipment by the time you completed the tutorial, and by the time you reached BR 20 you’d have quite a few of them selected. Apart from a few cases of advanced versions of certifications, this wasn’t some complicated tree with prerequisites and branching paths. As you can imagine, this meant that higher level characters had more options than lower level characters, but it didn’t necessarily mean they were any better. It was more of a horizontal progression, in other words. You also had the option of “forgetting” certifications, though only one at a time, and this was on a timer so it was more for correcting mistakes and failed experiments than a total “respec” of your character.

Using Nano Dispensers to try to save a damaged Vanguard. I think she's dead, boys!
“Using Nano Dispensers to try to save a damaged Vanguard. I think she’s dead, boys!”

A few certifications applied to special equipment, which was more akin to learning a new skill in a traditional RPG:

  • Medical Applicator – Allowed the use of a medical applicator, which was a pistol like device that allowed you to heal nearby friendly characters, or yourself. The advanced version of this certification allowed you to revive a dead friendly, which was a particularly powerful ability when playing closely with a squad.
  • Engineering – Allowed you to use a Body Armor Nano Kit (BANK) which worked similarly to a Medical Applicator to allow you to repair the armor of a nearby friendly character, or yourself. It also allowed you to use a Nano Dispenser, a larger device which let you repair vehicles, turrets, terminals, and other devices, which was damn handy for vehicle crews to keep in their inventory, by the way.
  • Combat Engineering – The advanced version of Engineering was so much more advanced it requires its own section. It made repairs quicker, but it also allowed the player to use an Adaptive Construction Engine (ACE) which let them construct various devices including mines, motion sensors, and automated “Spitfire” turrets. There were limits to how many of each of these you could have deployed at a time, of course.
  • Hacking – the normal Remote Electronics Kit (REK) was a pistol-like device that allowed you to hack IFF locked enemy doors and tower and facility control consoles. Pretty much essential for everyone to carry at all times. The hacking cert allowed this device to hack some enemy terminals, and to hack much faster. Advanced Hacking allowed even more types of terminals, notably equipment and vehicle turrets, and even unoccupied enemy vehicles in rare circumstances in which you might come across one. Powerful stuff!

Another subtle but neat thing about battle rank was that your character’s appearance changed as they ranked up through BRs. New Conglomerate troops, for instance, started with blue armor with some minor yellow highlights, and ended up being entirely yellow with some minor blue highlights. It didn’t take too long before almost everyone in my outfit looked the same, of course, but it was a nice touch.

Meatnog's blue coloring indicates that he's below BR7 while his two shinguards and wristguard indicate that he's CR3.
“Meatnog’s blue coloring indicates that he’s below BR7 while his two shinguards and wristguard indicate that he’s CR3.”

There was also “command rank” (CR.) Command rank was leveled up by experience gained as the leader of a squad and each CR would unlock special abilities that could be useful in organizing and participating in large coordinated battles – things the ability to talk in a special command chat channel, place waypoints for your squad on the map, or at later levels, powerful, limited-use abilities like the ability to reveal enemy locations on the map, or order EMP blasts and orbital strikes. As with battle rank, your character’s appearance would be altered slightly with each new command rank gained by having their armor adorned with some additional accessories. Pretty cool stuff.

Using an Equipment Terminal to create a loadout.
“Using an Equipment Terminal to create a loadout.”

The next and arguably most important thing about your character was your inventory. Planetside featured a full old fashioned, RPG-like grid-based inventory system. You could use your inventory to store additional weapons and ammo and the aforementioned special devices. The amount of inventory varied widely depending on the type of armor you equipped:

  • Standard Exo-suit: Your basic starter armor that provided very little protection and a 9 x 6 inventory. No certification required.
  • Agile Exo-suit: Light armor that had more protection, a second pistol slot, and a 9 x 9 inventory. This is the armor that was most often used by vehicle pilots but also allowed for faster movement than “Rexo” armor. I rarely used Agile while on foot myself, but did have a loadout which paired it with a “Sweeper” shotgun for speedy CQB assaults.
  • Reinforced Exo-suit: Also known as “Rexo” armor. Included yet more armor, a second rifle slot, and a 12 x 9 inventory space, but traded this for a slower movement speed and was restricted from driving in many vehicles. Most infantry used this armor for extra flexibility and protection.
  • Infiltration Suit: This suit provided no protection, and only included a single pistol holster and a tiny 6 x 6 inventory. The trade-off was an even faster movement speed than Agile and a unique cloaking ability, however. This obviously lended itself to some very specialized roles and playstyles.
  • Mechanized Assault Exo-Suit: “MAX” armor was more like a mini-vehicle than normal armor in some ways. Included built-in weaponry and abilities, a ton of protection, and a huge 16×12 inventory. Like Infiltrators, MAXes played more of a specialized role. I’ll talk about both later on.

Vehicles also had trunks which could be used for additional storage, but the practical uses for these were pretty limited. Likewise, there were storage lockers found at the facilities which were almost exclusively used for looting empire-specific weapons and ammo from fallen enemies and stashing them away to play with on a rainy day. Looting, as a whole, was a fairly unusual addition to the game, honestly.

Finally we had implants. The number of implant slots increased as you leveled up, eventually ending with 3 available slots. Implants granted some special abilities like the ability to run faster, to see cloaked infiltrators, or to hide yourself from enemy radars, for instance. They were typically toggleable rather than always passively enabled, and drained your character’s stamina in addition to requiring activation time after first spawning. While their usage was limited, they were still pretty powerful – the ability to see cloakers with “Darklight Vision” for instance, was fairly invaluable to me.

An NC column consisting of a Sunderer, 4 Vanguards, and a Harasser gather at a warp gate.
“An NC column consisting of a Sunderer, 4 Vanguards, and a Harasser gather at a warp gate.”

As mentioned, there were a number of vehicles available. You had to have a certification to drive / pilot most of them, and some required additional players to man some of their weapon positions. Most notable of these were the main battle tanks, in which the driver only drove and a second player controlled the main turret weaponry. Ground vehicles included one man ATVs, small armed buggies, a one person tank in addition to those main battle tanks, group transport vehicles, and the all important AMS and ANT vehicles (more on those later.) Air vehicles included a fighter / scout craft, an air to ground attack vehicle, a bomber, a massive troop transport vehicle, and later on, a vehicle transport.

As for putting all of this stuff together, most players would elect to join a squad, whether it was made up of friends or outfit mates or just other random people fighting in the same area. Squads were extremely useful for coordination as you could monitor your squadmates’ locations and status and communicate with text and even a half-decent built-in VoIP implementation, and as an added bonus allowed squad members to share experience points. Infantry squads would usually be made up of mostly soldiers in Rexo armor running whatever combination of certs and gear they preferred. I typically carried NC’s standard Gauss Rifle and a few Decimator dumbfire rocket launchers for the occasional run-in with MAX units (for which they excelled at handling) or vehicles. I’d also carry a Medical Applicator and a BANK for quick self-heals and repairs, along with healing and reviving of squadmates when necessary, and a REK for hacking the doors on enemy controlled structures and, of course, the structures themselves. I’d also pack some medkits for emergency heals and some frag grenades where I could squeeze them in. Oh, and of course, you’d have to account for extra ammo!

Me and my fellow NC MAX homies kickin' it.
“Me and my fellow NC MAX homies kickin’ it.”

How often MAX units would supplement squads really depended on the individual player – some people loved using MAX armor as much as possible, while others actively avoided it. Still, there were occasional strategies which involved attempting to overpower defenders (or less commonly, out live attackers) by massing MAXes. This was also known as a “MAX crash” due to the tendency for these groups of MAXes to charge into a room or through a chokepoint, as well as the strategy of “dropping” a large number of MAXes on a tower or a facility via a Galaxy dropship. Infiltrators sometimes supplemented a squad too, providing uniquely useful hacking and scouting support. More often than not, Infiltrators preferred to sow the seeds of chaos by playing solo though.

A cloaked NC Infiltrator about to backstab a VS soldier about to gun down an NC soldier about to hack a VS tower's command console.
“A cloaked NC Infiltrator about to backstab a VS soldier about to gun down an NC soldier about to hack a VS tower’s command console.”

Beyond those, probably the other most specialized infantry role was that of the Combat Engineer. Certain players gravitated hard to this role, and “maining” as a Combat Engineer was indeed a unique playstyle that concentrated on strategically placing, repairing, re-placing, and supplementing deployables like mines and Spitfire turrets, usually in a defensive position. Again, whether or not your squad had anyone playing as an engineer usually came down to personal preference, but I’d often see Combat Engineers playing solo or as part of small special ops squads fighting away from the main battlefronts.

Let’s take a quick step back and talk more about actually getting into the battle.

Planetside allowed you to get from your Sanctuary to the contested lands of Auraxis in a few different ways. First, although there was a timer on its use, “Instant Action” was only a keypress away. This feature would send you plummeting down to the earth in a drop pod to a “hotspot” – a location on the map where combat had recently occurred. Oftentimes this would bring you to one of the larger battles currently in-progress, although occasionally it might bring you to a small fight and maybe one that had already wrapped up. It also made no guarantees about landing you in a safe place, and might even send you into the middle of a battle that your allied empire wasn’t even involved in. This feature was interesting and could be super convenient for new and solo players, but most veteran players rarely used it since it was more desirable to join up with squad and/or outfit mates, or at the very least, strategically pick which fight you wanted to join.

An NC drop pod plummets down near a facility.
“An NC drop pod plummets down near a facility.”

That’s where taking the HART comes in. As mentioned before, the HART (High Altitude Rapid Transport) shuttle could be taken from the Sanctuary every few minutes and could drop you (again, via drop pod) to almost any location in Auraxis outside of an enemy facility’s sphere of influence and, of course, an enemy empire’s Sanctuary. Despite having to physically go to the shuttle terminal and wait on a timer between flights, it could take you to wherever you wanted to go, quickly and accurately, and was by far the most common way to join the action.

A huge squad of NC Lightning tanks gather at a warp gate.
“A huge squad of NC Lightning tanks gather at a warp gate.”

Finally, for the more organized players, there were “warp gates” that directly connected the Sanctuaries to specific continents. A player could walk into a warp gate and activate it to teleport to a warp gate on the connected continent. Of course, you wouldn’t want to actually walk – the continents in Planetside were huge and relatively barren. Instead, warp gates were primarily used for transporting coordinated vehicle pushes such as armor columns, air squadrons, or platoons of infantry preparing to drop from multiple Galaxy dropships. Given that they only went to specific places, these would most often be used when attacking directly connected continents since anything else required a lot more travel time – driving or flying from one warp gate to another, although that certainly wasn’t unheard of. In fact, one vehicle, the Lodestar, added late into the first year, seems to have been purpose built with that in mind, allowing you to fly a larger ground vehicle such as an AMS or a main battle tank around as well as serving as a potentially useful battlefield repair station. As an aside, warp gates were also safe zones, which sometimes made for some interesting meet ups with enemy forces. In fact, this was sometimes combined with the looting and advanced hacking systems to facilitate empire-specific weapon and vehicle trades.

In part two I’ll talk more about how the map works and the mechanics of taking it over, and wrap up by talking a bit about about how the game changed.

Pictures taken from my old NC outfit, The Praetorian Guard’s, archived website, JeffBeefjaw’s Imgur album, which looks quite similar, but from the TR perspective, and some newer pictures acquired while playing around on the PSForever server. Unfortunately the two former sources don’t really show any ACTUAL combat, as few people captured full time back in the day so most screenshots were of points of interest, outfit photo ops, and just dicking around rather than normal gameplay.