In recent months some senior figures in the games industry, including the heads of Epic Games and Crytek, have been predicting that the entire industry is heading towards the free to play model.
Free to play, as the name suggests, means that the game in question is available to download, or play in a browser, without having to pay anything. The vast majority of these games feature optional additional content that you can choose to purchase with real world money to enhance the experience. If you’ve ever played a Facebook game then you’ll know what to expect.
Critics of the free to play system often single out Facebook games, such as Farmville and Mafia Wars, as an example of why the free to play model could never produce a satisfactory experience for hardcore games. Enter Namco-Bandai’s Mobile Suit Gundam: Battle Operation, a downloadable free to play online multiplayer game on the PlayStation 3 that looks to be a glimpse of this supposed impossible future: a free to play game that will satisfy hardcore gamers.
Some will be quick to criticise the game as a barebones experience – during our session there was only one multiplayer map and one game mode available – but the fact that we played against other players from around the world, with varying abilities, made for a unique experience each time.
The basic aim of the game is to earn points for your team by completing objectives (in this case capturing outposts), defeating opposing mechs, and destroying the enemy’s base. The game supports twelve players and the map that we played on was fairly small, meaning that battles could get crowded very quickly.
Adding to the chaos is the fact that the only way to capture an outpost is to leave the relative safety of your mech. When playing as a regular human being your arsenal is pretty much entirely ineffective against the mechs, but you do have an ant-like additional vehicle that you can scramble to if you need to make a quick escape.
Of course, if you leave your mech unattended, then enemy players can easily destroy it. This makes teamwork essential, as players that run off on their own tend to do quite poorly. Should a mech take damage, players can venture back to their respective base and get repaired. As such destroying the enemy base is usually a good idea.
The mech is armed with three types of weapon initially and they’re all quite slow firing. The E.F.F team comes with a heavy pistol, a machine gun, and a laser sword, while the ZEON forces have come with a grenade launcher instead of the machine gun.
The points that players earn can be spent on upgrading your mech’s weapons and abilities. During our three game session we just about earned enough points to level up once and spend our experience points on improving our mech’s overall speed. One player we saw seemed to have unlocked the ability to perform a three hit combo with his energy sword, which made him especially dangerous in close combat.
As this is a free to play title there are a few restrictions put in place for the players that are unwilling to part with their cash. The most apparent limitation is a small green bar, called the Sortie Metre, that dictates the number of games you can play in one session. Upon starting the game your Sortie Metre consists of three segments and completing a match takes away one segment. As you level up you can earn more segments, or if you wish you can buy the privilege from the PlayStation Store for a small fee. Each segment will automatically regenerate after two hours, so if you want to get your full three rounds in you’ll need to wait at least six hours between sessions.
At first the idea of having to wait between sessions seemed unappealing, however for those that only tend to dabble in multiplayer getting in three games is more than enough. The prospect of increasing your Sortie Metre also adds further incentive for the hardcore to keep playing (as if the massive list of parts and upgrades for your mech wasn’t enough!)
Currently it appears that there are no plans to release Mobile Suit Gundam: Battle Operation in the West as it is such a niche title. However, for those that are desperate to play the game, it is easily accessible if you are able to create a Japanese PlayStation Network account.
Personally, while I don’t think that the current model of gaming will ever truly go away, it is almost inevitable that in the near future free to play games will become a more significant part of the gaming landscape. If other publishers and developers take a note from Namco and the work they have put into this game then free to play has a bright future.
- Luke Mears