Free-to-Play Shooter Playtest: Conclusions

When the ammo is spent, the battlefield smoke clears and Mum calls us in for tea, what can we say we learned from this playtest? Final conclusions on our rigorous idiot-proofing of Planetside 2, World of Tanks and MechWarrior Online.

When the ammo is spent, the battlefield smoke clears and Mum calls us in for tea, what can we say we learned from this playtest? 

Planetside 2, World of Tanks and Mechwarrior Online – three games which have much in common, but also distinct differences. They all have no financial barrier of entry, with free-to-play models which give the player access to the full game content. Each game may appeal to a slightly different audience, but they all essentially deliver an exciting and polished combat experience.

Aside from aesthetic differences, the distinctions between the three games lie in the pacing of the action, the complexity of the game and the degree of world persistence. A closer look at those elements may offer some clarity.

Pacing

In terms of action, both World of Tanks and Mechwarrior Online deliver a similarly paced game experience, with fixed-length combat rounds segmenting battles into distinct win-loss scenarios. These bite-sized chunks of game time are great for the casual player, although small groups may find the fragmented flow a little irritating as they wait for others to finish. The cat-and-mouse opening minutes of each battle tend to lead toward a frenzied or tense finish.

Planetside 2 has a vastly different approach, with the ongoing persistent world battles linking all the action together with natural peaks and troughs in engagement intensity. This creates a far grander, epic feel to the combat, but it requires the player to set his own personal goals and victory conditions in a much more freeform combat environment. This is both a strength and a weakness for Planetside 2.

Complexity

World of Tanks is clearly the easiest of the three titles to get to grips with. A simple control system, identical across all vehicles (except artillery) allows for player skill and tactical nuance to play a much more important role earlier in the player's game experience. I definite case of being easy to learn, hard to master.

Planetside 2 straddles the middle ground here. The client has many menus, interfaces and maps that are easy to get lost in, but they are also easily ignored until the player is ready to delve into them. It is quite possible for the player to get involved in the action quickly without worrying about additional equipment, certifications and battleranks. The instant spawn-kill-die cycle is readily available, but the depth and wealth of options to embrace specialisations, formulate strategies and organise offensives is all there, just under the surface.

MechWarrior Online suffers from the highest barrier of entry with regard to complexity. It is very easy to get lost in the baffling information presented by the launcher interface and once in the game itself, the controls and visual displays are not particularly intuitive (unless you're a fighter pilot by trade, in which case you're golden). Undoubtedly, the rookie MechWarrior pilot would benefit from some pre-battle research. However, this more technical approach is certainly immersive and offers a feeling of authenticity the other titles lack.

Persistence

By persistence, I mean the elements of the game that give the player's contribution meaning and purpose and encourage their continued involvement. What makes a player bother to take part in another battle, beyond a love for explosions?

All three games offer some kind of personal progression, with goals to work toward through skill certifications, tech tree advancements, modular equipment slots and so on. This is the central conceit of the free-to-play/freemium model, with various kinds of currency allowing such progress and advancement to be made more quickly, as well as vanity products such as Planetside 2's vehicle camouflage or MechWarrior Online's amusing cockpit decorations.

Planetside 2's persistent massively multiplayer world is significant, with each personal victory influencing the surrounding world. It is very well implemented, although the relentlessness of the war becomes almost PTSD-inducing after a while. A similar continuity is lacking in both World of Tanks and MechWarrior Online, although there is scope for far more world persistence with both titles.

I noted with interest that World of Tanks has a Clan Wars mode which goes some way toward addressing this, but the 15-player minimum team size makes it an exclusive element inaccessible to the casual majority. However, Wargaming.net has ambitious plans in this regard and when the eventual confluence of their upcoming World of Warships and World of Warplanes occurs, Planetside 2's sole claim to the MMOFPS crown might be challenged.

Final Thoughts

Our first playtest exposed as much about our comical gaming skills as it did any of the three titles we played, but I like to think this puts us firmly in the category of 'average gamer'. Not everyone can be a battle-hardened semi-pro, some folk just want to log on and unwind by merrily shooting digital targets in the face/turret/cockpit.

For my friends and I, each one of these games has something unique to offer and I am more than happy for them all to occupy space on my hard drive. They all provide a platform of entertainment which deserves to do well and if you enjoy one, it is likely you'll find the others rewarding too.

In this new age of triple-A Free-to-Play games, we consumers have the luxury of being able to install multiple titles then pick and choose how we devote our financial resources. Personally, I'm a little nervous about this new payment frontier, combining my video games addiction with an open-ended payment scheme could be financially ruinous, but with all three games being so impressively entertaining and finely crafted, the temptation is certainly there.

So my advice? Try ‘em all. What’ll it cost you?

 

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Featured Columnist

Broken paramedic and coffee-drinking Englishman whose favourite dumb animal is an oxymoron. After over a decade of humping and dumping the fat and the dead, my lower spine did things normally reserved for Rubik's cubes, bringing my career as a medical clinician to an unexpectedly early end. Fortunately, my real passion is in writing and given that I'm now highly qualified in the art of sitting down, I have the time to pursue it. Having blogged about video games (well, mostly EVE Online) for years, I hope to channel my enjoyment of wordcraft and my hobby of gaming into one handy new career that doesn't involve other people's vomit.

Published Jan. 9th 2013

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