Considering that it’s been over two years since Epic has made anything for the PC, it’s genuinely nice to see the developer still showing support for its million-dollar Make Something Unreal contest. The competition, which began way back in April 2008, recently announced the winners of the second to last phase of the contest, one of which is a multiplayer mod called Angels Fall First: Planetstorm.
It’s a total conversion which took third place in the Best FPS category; featuring shiny power armour and even shinier vehicles. Planetstorm plays like a cross between its apparent visual influences – namely Battlefield 2142 and Halo – but the mod manages to set itself apart with a nifty space gametype that combines infantry gunplay with deep space capital ship combat along with controllable fighters and turrets thrown into the mix.
Planetstorm eschews a rigid class-based system in favour of choosing an armor class and allows the player to decide the rest of his loadout. Apparently in the future everyone still uses submachine guns and assault rifles, but because all of those still use bullets, most weapons end up feeling similar – that is to say, standard. More specialized items such as cloaking devices and multiwrenches are available to augment your soldier’s support abilities.
There is, however, a massive problem: outside of a text file that pops up upon installation, the mod offers almost no information on how to play. While the ground gametype is similar enough to other games to be manageable, the space gametype is something of a guessing game. Upon spawning, I almost panicked when I saw nearly a dozen different icons dotting the already cluttered HUD. Upside-down crosses and Blackberry logos – what did they all mean? Planetstorm sure as hell didn’t have an answer.
After walking around for a few minutes and not finding any teammates or enemies, I somehow ended up in my capital ship’s hangar bay. “ENTER VIPER,” read the words on my screen. An instinctive press of the use button and I was suddenly no longer playing a shooter. Instead I was piloting some sort of fighter craft. However, with my new Viper came an old sense of confusion: I still had absolutely no idea what to do. I navigated the asteroid field, trying to find ships to shoot, and eventually came upon a capital ship presumably belonging to the other team. I clicked away, firing streams of small arms fire at it, with a few missiles for good measure. Nothing happened. I flew closer, thinking I could dock. I couldn’t. I rammed into the ship, hoping I would explode and respawn. My ship awkwardly bounced off without making a dent.
By now I was rapidly greying at my temples, but I kept on flying my fighter around the enemy capital ship, furious pelting it with astro-bullets. Luckily, out of nowhere came the message “PRESS USE TO DOCK.” Hallelujah. I mashed the E key and lo, I was docking. Or I thought I was, until I realized my fighter was clipping into the enemy ship. Now there was a new message on screen: “PRESS USE TO ABORT DOCKING.” Frightened, I mashed the E key and lo, I was aborting. Only I wasn’t, and I ended up in the enemy capital ship’s hangar bay, flashing red klaxons and all.
And then for some reason I can’t explain, I launched one of the enemy fighter craft. Yes, after spending the last ten minutes trying to board an enemy capital ship, the first thing I did was launch myself back into space. I’m still kicking myself for it. But being a tenacious bastard, I was going to explode the enemy’s reactor core even if it meant flying around for hours looking for a docking position. I never found it.
There is plenty of goodness here though; the ground portion of the game has been done better elsewhere, yet the space scenarios show plenty of potential – especially if human opponents were involved. Although combining infantry and ship combat has been done (UT2K4’s Mothership map, Eternal Silence mod), it’s a largely unexplored avenue in sci-fi shooters and it should be noted that my complaints mostly stem from a sore lack of guidance. Adding objective arrows, tweaking the HUD and streamlining the loadout menu should be minor changes compared to the mountains of work involved in crafting the mod’s numerous vehicles.
Indeed, the amount of work that has gone in here is stunning with assets brinking on a professional standard. It’s worth a quick visit to the mod’s ModDB page just to see the game’s concept art and renders. The Planetstorm team has clearly created something that, if not completely unique, is still impressive in its scope. Over 1.5 gigabytes of completely original assets spread across a number of maps, ships, vehicles and weapons speak to the sheer enormity of the overhaul.
Planetstorm is fun if not without problems, and unfortunately – as is the case with many multiplayer mods – there is a dire need of players. As I loaded up there was only one server available and while numbers do spike on Saturday nights when the mod team hosts “Smackdown Express.” you are mostly left with the less than stellar AI. Regrettably it has the misfortune of being a mod for the unpopular Unreal Tournament 3 – shame that a mod so rich in features and graphics will likely go unplayed. However, with the release of the Unreal Development Kit, the Planetstorm team is currently hard at work converting the mod for release as a free, standalone game. If the core game were to be polished to perfection, Planetstorm may yet be reborn in the UDK as something special.