NVIDIA Free-to-Play Review
Reviewed by: Guest_Jim_*
Reviewed on: February 17, 2013
Price: Free to a good home!
NVIDIA Free to Play Introduction:
I'm still on staff and there are still games to play, so it was only a matter of time before I got another review up for all of you good people to enjoy! (If you're a troll, you can stop reading now.) Last time I reviewed five games in one article, because all five were in the Humble Indie Bundle 7. Now I am only reviewing three and again there is some significance to why it is these particular games; PlanetSide 2, World of Tanks, and Hawken. These three games are part of a promotional bundle recently announced by NVIDIA.
Besides being part of the promotion, all three of these games have something else in common: they use a Free-to-Play model. That means that if you are willing to create a free account for the game, you can play it. Of course if you want to spend money you can, as the games' markets can accept real money for in-game purchases. An arguement can be made that some games using the F2P model are actually Pay-to-Win, but is that the case for these games? Read on and you'll find out what I think.
In case you are curious and have not already seen our news item on it, the NVIDIA promotional that contains content for these three games gives customers $25 or $50 dollars of in-game credit for each game, depending on the card you purchase. A GTX 650 or GTX 650 Ti gets you $25 in each game while a GTX 660 or better gets you $50 in each game. Not a bad deal if you enjoy the games. So, since this review is about whether I enjoy the games, let's get to it already so you can figure out if you may enjoy them.
Big robots, big guns, and big explosions seem to be the 'big three' for Hawken, which has its players piloting mechs of customizable design and armament. Once in your mech you'll mostly find yourself hunting down enemies to destroy, but depending on the game type you may also have to capture strategic points or energy to launch a ship. The first game type you are able to play in is Team Deathmatch, but as you play more matches, you unlock the other types.
Your first mech looks something like an old TV or microwave with arms and legs, but it gets the job done. Still, you'll want to quickly earn enough points to get yourself a new, better looking, and better armed mech. Really though, all of the mechs look good, as does the dystopian environment, thanks to the careful and extensive art design of the game. Buildings, ramps, and the ground itself have been carefully crafted to be full of detail you may not notice as you run around shooting stuff. That is the beauty of screenshots though and having a computer powerful enough to handle the game on 'Ultra' settings, with PhysX turned on.
Unfortunately there are two issues with the graphics that are disappointing. One is that the cockpit (at least of the first mech) is very large and limits your view of the environment. While my screen's aspect ratio is 16:9 or 1.778:1, the cockpit limits the view of the action to a ratio more like 2.5:1 or 3:1, depending on how comfortable you are looking through pieces of eyecandy. Field of view can be changed in-game or through a config file, but to my knowledge, there is no way to reduce the opacity of the cockpit.
The other issue is one I do not fully understand the existence of. Instead of just seeing the world of Hawken in its graphics glory, you are actually seeing it through a filter that adds a film-grain like effect. While I completely understand developers wanting to incorporate certain effects, it's odd that you cannot disable it and that even the cockpit suffers this. It's not as though you are in the cockpit, watching the action on a screen that introduces the grain, your vision itself has this grain effect. Of course, when playing you are not going to notice this, but it is noticeable if you take the time to look.
The gameplay is, more or less, what you would expect from a robot-brawling game. While you do move sufficiently fast to effectively traverse the environment, even without the thruster boost, you do find the screen bobbing somewhat from the large, lumbering steps of your mech. This can throw off the aim of your two weapons, which are always present in the frame. Your weapons have unlimited ammo by the way, but either need to reload or cool down after extended fire. Cooling can be accelerated using a special ability though, or by dropping points into the right optimization. You also have access to useful pieces of gear, such as a shield that blocks all weapons fire, but any mech can enter and exit the shield. Still, the shield lasts long enough that if you need to repair your mech, you can do so safely within it.
Overall the game is pretty fun, giving relatively high-paced action, but if you want, you can find a corner to hide in the arenas, which are somewhat larger than needed for the number of mechs within. Of course if the arenas were too small, there would never be a chance to isolate an opponent. Respawns are quick and it's definitely satisfying to see your enemy explode and then dash through the smoldering remains.
Unfortunately I would have to characterize this, to a degree, as a Pay-to-Win game, or at least note that the matchmaking is not ideal for new players. The first mech you receive is a decent machine, but does not have as much fire power as the heavy mechs loaded with rocket launchers, such as the one I just faced off against. From a high position that particular mech was able to rain down high explosives that could do considerable damage with a single hit, and there was just about nothing I could do about it. My guns could not kill it before it killed me, and that mech can repair just as easily as mine can. Perhaps if my entire team had gone after it we would have been able to take out that one opponent, but we were not fighting just one opponent.
Of course having a player on my team with a similar mech or comparably powerful mech would have helped, but in a match with multiple new players in it, that is not exactly something you can count on. Once you reach a higher level though, when you have multiple mechs of your own, this issue will very likely disappear, but for those low level games, coming up against such a powerful adversary could easily dissuade a player from continuing to play.
NVIDIA Free to Play PlanetSide 2:
Not that one word would do it justice, but if one must describe PlanetSide 2 in one word, that word would be 'big,' or one of its synonyms. The game world consists of three continents, each able to hold 2,000 players on it, so one server may contain 6,000 players striving to take over the world. These players are divided into three empires: the Terran Republic, New Conglomerate, and Vanu Sovereignty. Naturally each empire has its own advantages and disadvantages, as well as reasons for fighting. All the empires utilize the same basic classes and machines, which you have access to immediately, that are based on fundamental unit types found in many games, though each empire adds its own flavor to their units. The Terran Republic's flavor is speed; New Conglomerate's flavor is strength; and the Vanu Sovereignty has its own spin on the technology within the game by using energy instead of projectiles. Basically the Vanu have slower and weaker weapons than the Terran's and NC's, respectively, but do not suffer recoil because shots are emitted, not fired.
The ultimate goal of the game, as stated earlier, is to take over the rather large world; toward that end you'll find yourself fighting in a multitude of skirmishes, large and small, or preparing for the next skirmish. Engineers not wanting to directly fight can run around a captured base and repair turrets as needed, which is also an effective way to earn experience, though it can be slower than direct combat. However, it can be worth doing. I have at times managed to hold off small invasion forces with base turrets long enough for more forces to arrive and drive away the invaders.
Combat can be hectic and chaotic with dozens of people all trying to kill each other, some running around healing and reviving, and still others repairing vehicles and the robotic MAX suit, or aircraft that briefly leave the fight. If you do end up dying and having to respawn, you are presented with a screen to select where you want to be spawned. This can be in spawn rooms or from Sunderers, the large and heavily armored troop carriers of the game. In larger fights you may find several of these around the action with players spawning at them and resupplying or even changing classes.
Like just about any other Free-to-Play game, you are able to purchase in-game credits with real money in order to accelerate your gameplay experience. Does this make it into a Pay-to-Win game or did the developers successfully balance it such that PlanetSide 2 noobs and experts alike can stand a chance? I'm going to side with the latter, but with an important qualification. The balance seems good in that anyone can kill and be killed by anyone else, thanks to luck and/or skill, but comparing your killer's weapons to your own is almost impossible. Maybe it is because they had a better weapon that you are dead, but in the time it takes you to think about that, you will have already respawned. Once you are back in the game, then it is back to being able to kill or be killed by anyone. Basically, if you're interested in researching those aspects of this game, you might find something to support a Pay-to-Win accusation, but if you are just playing the game, I doubt you will.
Another reason why I believe this game is well balanced for all players is because there are a LOT of players. Okay, maybe you do not have the best armor or weapons in the game, but chances are many of your opponents do not either. Also, just as many players on your team have that 'great' gear as players on your opponents' teams. Out of chaos comes balance, more or less.
Naturally I expect some of you are wondering about the graphics of this game and its performance. I can comfortably say both are quite good. The graphics may not be the quality of a AAA single-player game, but that is the price you pay for any massively multiplayer online game. The land is somewhat devoid of vegetation but at the same time surprisingly smooth. Considering the scale of the PlanetSide 2 world and the number of edges your GPU will have to render for that, it's somewhat impressive. Also you don't need to worry much about outrunning the world. At max settings my GTX 570 and AMD Phenom II x3 720 with unlocked core running at 3.4 GHz are able to load the world fast enough that the terrain and textures barely pop in, though some smaller buildings do mystically appear at times. Of course when flying high there is a fog limiting your viewing distance, but it looks natural as terrain fades into view.
If I had to compare the graphics to any other game, the only game in my limited library I can think of is Red Faction: Guerrilla. PlanetSide 2 definitely looks better though, but if you cannot find any good screenshots or videos, and don't trust those in this review, imagine Guerrilla with three more years of technology to drive it (Red Faction: Guerrilla was released in 2009 and PlanetSide 2 in 2012) and more than reds and browns in its pallet.
Performance wise, my framerate is consistently between 50 and 60 frames per second, though at intense times it dropped into the 40s. I rarely notice those drops in-game though, unless I am watching a frame counter. Occasionally the game has lagged briefly on me, but this does not happen often. (Perhaps I am near the server.)
Overall, I have to say I like the game. It looks good, plays well, has a decent leveling system, so time played is not time wasted, and, like many games, is even better with friends. Nothing quite like storming an enemy base with a buddy, poking fun at the stupid things you see other players doing, or that you do yourself. If your friends cannot make it though, you can always show them what they missed using the game's built-in video capture system. It outputs the video at an odd size (for me at least) but recording does not cause much of a performance hit (which is the only reason I was able to record the videos in this review).
Even without the NVIDIA bonus, this game is worth checking out. If you just want a game you can shoot people in, but do not have to worry about story or saving the world, this is it. And, it's free.
NVIDIA Free to Play: World of Tanks
Unsurprisingly, you spend most of your time in a tank in World of Tanks. When you first sign-in you are given six different tanks from six different nations: USA; United Kingdom; France; Germany; USSR; and China. While you start with one medium and five light tanks, the game also has heavy tanks and SPGs or self-propelled guns that act as artillery. Your goal is to work with your team, using these different vehicles, to win games by either knocking out the other team or capturing your opponent's base.
Now we come to my first 'major' criticism of this game. I put 'major' in single quotes because some may disagree with me, but regardless of severity, this is an important criticism to make. The information contained in that first paragraph is actually more information than you are presented with when you first sign-in to the game, save details such as what specific tanks you have and the graphics. From what I have found, there is no in-game tutorial experience or assisted comparison system to even let you know what sets the tanks apart. The stats of each tank can be seen by mousing over them, but you'll have to remember or write them down to compare one tank to another. This also holds true for the upgrade system.
Of course if all you want to do is play the game, comparing the tanks does not matter; you will likely just pick the tank that looks best or the country you like the most. The lack of any tutorial experience though is a larger issue because it means you enter a game with players of various levels of experience, with no idea of how the game works, assuming you have not researched the game before. The two most important pieces of information I would have liked to know are if the shells are affected by gravity and the respawn situation. There are no respawns in this game. When you die, you are out of the battle. That is the kind of information that is good to know going in, because that will greatly affect your strategy.
Shells are affected by gravity, and the game compensates for that automatically, but that is a blessing and a curse. Blessing because that means you do not need to aim above a target to hit it at range. Curse because if you are trying to shoot ahead of a moving tank, the gravity compensation may send it flying past the tank, and on a longer trajectory than a shot aimed directly at the tank. Compound that with a difficulty seeing the shells you fire, and it becomes very difficult to hit a moving target.
That's right, at least for me, I cannot see my shell until it has traveled practically half way across the map. Any closer and I have no idea of the path it takes. Now, this is does not appear to be the case if the camera is in third person view, instead of the zoomed-in sniper view, but I find myself sniping most of the time to make the most of my shots. Regardless of range though, you don't always know if you hit or miss your target. Damage indicators appear whenever a shell hits a tank, regardless of where it came from, and if you miss, you may not be able to see just how much you missed by. The SPGs do not have these problems though, thanks to their overhead artillery view, which ensures you see where impacts are. Also the two dimensional nature of the overhead view removes any issues with gravity compensation.
Another issue I have with this game is its game options. I am playing it solo and I do not know of any friends playing it, so I cannot make or join a team. The game, however, seems to be completely designed around teamplay as only 'Team Training' and 'Random Battle' appear to allow you to do anything without knowing other players. The training lets you visit any map, but you gain no experience for what you do there, and Random Battles are random. Until the map starts to load, you don't know what map you are on. That may seem trivial, but perhaps there are some maps I like to play on and others I don't like. Perhaps I have been spoiled by the server lists of other games, but it still would be nice to know what I'm getting into before I get into it.
Another piece of information I would like to have explained in the game is the crew. Each tank requires so many crew members and it appears they gain experience as you play; they become better at operating the tank. Exactly what this translates into, I don't know. I also don't know the purpose of the barracks that you can send them to. Another tidbit I am mystified by concerns tank radios. According to the tech tree, you're able to upgrade them for better range, but I don't understand what the purpose of the added range is. I am going to guess that friendly tanks use their radios to transmit enemy locations, so greater ranges mean you can send and receive more enemy information, but I can only guess without researching it outside of the game.
Going back a few paragraphs, I mentioned that you don't respawn in this game, so when your tank explodes, there is nothing left to do… in that battle. Remember how you have six tanks to start? You are able to exit an ongoing battle you have died in and enter another with a different tank, so depending on how long each battle lasts and how quickly you die, you could be dead in six battles at the same time. Leaving battles like this does not cut you out of experience though. The report of the battle still comes through, but as a message you have to click on to view the details of.
The best way I can think of to describe the graphics is dated. Considering the game was first released in Russia in 2008 though, that's not altogether surprising. While it is certainly possible for a team of developers to improve the graphics in that amount of time, there are many other, more important things to spend their time on. Besides, it's gameplay and not graphics that should determine what you spend your time playing.
So far I have spent a decent amount of time telling you what annoys me about this game and what I wish was different. Now I'm going to tell you what I think about the game, beyond all of that: it's actually quite fun and I find myself still playing it. The gameplay is fun as you sneak around trying to find good places to hide and shoot. Once you are in a good spot you then peer around to spot enemy tanks… sort of. You don't actually see tanks across the map, unless another player is close to them. The tank upgrades are somewhat lost on me as I don't readily see what benefit some of them offer, but it's always fun trying to work to the next tank level, as the next tank is typically bigger and just more fun looking.
Basically what it boils down to is this: there is a definite learning curve to the game and you have to figure it out on your own either by playing or by out-game research. The gameplay itself is enjoyable and with its active player base, there are always battles to join. So long as you can climb the curve or just ignore it, there's a decent chance you'll enjoy the game.
It also appears that this game should not be described as Pay-to-Win. At least in my limited experience, I have not seen anyone in my battles with a high level tank. That could simply be because of the matchmaking system, which would be good because the lowliest tier one light tank should not be in the same battle as a massive tier ten heavy tank. Also, if this is the case, I'm not sure if buying better tanks is necessarily a good idea, because if you skip to the higher level tanks, you also skip to opponents with similar tanks and potentially more experience than you. You may be able to accelerate your progress in the game, but that will not make a poor player better.
NVIDIA Free to Play Conclusion:
With three games in one bundle, and one review, the most obvious question to ask is which game is the best. All three, Hawken, PlanetSide 2, and World of Tanks are fun and enjoyable games, but they are each fun in their own ways. So which is fun and enjoyable in the best way? I believe that game, of these three, is PlanetSide 2. When you first sign-in, if you have any FPS experience you'll hit the ground running and quickly learn the abilities of the different unit classes. Also the graphics and performance are quite good for a truly massive online game and it's well balanced by the nature of the massive and well-designed gameplay experience. New player or old, paying player or not, you'll be able to jump in, score some kills, capture some points, be killed, and lose points.
World of Tanks is second in this contest, but that is primarily because of its poor design for new players. Even with FPS experience (technically World of Tanks is not an FPS, but FPS experience would definitely be applicable to its gameplay) when you sign-in you'ill hit the ground standing still or crawling, assuming you haven't researched the game beforehand. Ideally a game doesn't need a manual because it should be designed such that when you sit down and start playing, every answer to every question you may ask should be there, ensuring that you have a successful first battle; a good first impression of the game. Instead, due to things such as the gravity compensation and lack of information on shots after you have fired them, you could come out of that first battle confused as to how you could do better in the second. Once you get past that initial and potentially bad experience though, I suspect you'll find yourself having a fair amount of fun. Essentially it's the out-game or out-battle experience of World of Tanks that prevents me from giving it a more positive review. If I were to consider only the in-game or in-battle experience of this and PlanetSide 2 though, I would have a much harder time picking the better.
Now to conclude with Hawken, the game I feel is the worst of these three. Like the other two, it's a fun and enjoyable game, but it is, in my opinion, less fun and enjoyable for multiple reasons. The graphics are easily the best of the three but at the same time your ability to enjoy all of the eyecandy is limited. The gameplay tugs on the stereotypical desire of 'big booms,' but other players are able to get such bigger booms that you feel impotent when fighting them, making your only option to flee. That I covered in its own review, but here I get to compare it to the other two games. In PlanetSide 2 you immediately have access to the classes and vehicles with the bigger booms and in World of Tanks the matchmaking system appears to prevent weaker tanks from coming up against much stronger tanks. Also in World of Tanks, with just hours of experience, I have already unlocked two new vehicles; a tank and self-propelled gun. In Hawken though, it would take more time and more matches to earn enough for me to unlock a new mech, and that is with a promotional 5000 credits unrelated to the NVIDIA promotion. This required investment of time to match those who may have made an investment of money puts Hawken on the Pay-to-Win spectrum, in my opinion. This lack of balance and somewhat typical 'big boom' gameplay makes this decision to put Hawken behind PlanetSide 2 and World of Tanks an easy one.
As I said earlier, all three of these games are enjoyable and fun because they are. They're also different games, so naturally they are enjoyable and fun in different ways and for different reasons. PlanetSide 2 I feel is fun and enjoyable in what I feel are the most important ways, of these three. World of Tanks is also fun and enjoyable, but is lacking in design elements that I believe are important for the experience of any game. Hawken seems to exist as a manifestation of our desires for big things and big explosions, which does make it fun and enjoyable, but almost relies on that instead of a solid gameplay experience, like what you get with the other two games.
I guess that I should comment on the NVIDIA promotion as well, since that is why I'm reviewing this particular group of games. Before that though, I want to state that I actually haven't benefited from that promotion. All of my experience with these games is without any monetary investment in them, indirectly through the F2P bundle or directly through transactions with the game developers/publishers. That brings us to the heart of the comment I intend to make about the promotion. Do not scoff at the promotion just because the games are Free-to-Play, because that's not what you are getting. You are getting in-game currency, something you may already wish to purchase to support the developers' work, and is what drives future development of the game. You're also likely getting it at a discount, though how much of a discount is almost certainly hidden behind non-disclosure agreements between NVIDIA and the other companies involved. If you want to support the developers of these games, either because the games look fun or because you already play them, go ahead and use a new video card as an excuse to help them out. For the most part, I doubt you'll regret giving the games a chance.