In their downtime, all Planetside veterans can do is tell war stories. “On Oshur, the Battletechs crushed us quicker than the AMS could spawn us.” “In the forests of Hossin we hid from Reavers, while the squad leader screamed on the command channel for air cover.” “My AI Max was the last survivor of a downed Galaxy on a remote Searhus tower, holding off Barneys until the ammo ran out.” Very few people played the first game but, if you got past the crazy lag shooting and the ridiculously high system specifications, you never stopped talking about it.
And Planetside 2… is the same game. It’s the same massively-multiplayer shooter set on several huge continents that each hold up to 2000 players. Though Sony has in fact rebuilt the game and changed many features, it has rebuilt it using modern tech on exactly the same lines. This lack of perspective is the game’s blessing and its curse. It means SOE has learned exactly what worked and didn’t work over the nine years since the first game, fixed it and polished it – so the lag-shooting has gone and the system specifications are believable. On the other hand, it means that it’s making their decisions on the basis of a vocal hardcore community – and that it’s not always aware of what the new, huge free-to-play community wants.
For example, when you first join the game, you have no idea what’s going on; unlike the equally impenetrable Eve, though, Planetside 2 should be accessible – it’s just that SOE seems to have gone out of its way to make it difficult. For example, unlike Eve, there’s no tutorial. New players are hot-dropped straight from the (very restricted) character creation into the thickest battle on the planet. Like most starting players, we lasted four seconds on our first drop. Veterans learn to watch for the swarm of landing pods and finish off the disoriented newbies, who were expecting
such unreasonable things like a guide to the controls or a key to explain what all the floating icons mean. For colourblind gamers, it’s even worse, as enemies and friends are indistinguishable. (If you are colourblind, some good advice is to play as the Terrans – at least the other factions are the same colour.)
Even once you’ve learned where your weapons are and who the enemy are and how they’re not always flagged as such and what all the different classes are and how to change them – even then, the wider game can make no sense. It’s not obvious how to capture facilities or what the many different resource units are or where they’re coming from or how to fly the multiple aircraft effectively or what most of the buttons do. Auto-joining squads is often no help as they’re full of newbies like you.
Yet, push through that disorientation and join a well-crewed outfit (the game’s equivalent of a guild) or a group of friends, and the game changes completely. Suddenly, you’re corralled into a squad and given targets. You have people to work with, balanced squads you can lay plans with – all hopping into aircraft or tanks to capture an isolated air tower, say, so your faction dominates the skies in a region behind the frontlines and the enemy has to fight on two fronts. You can also make sure you’ve got a medic and engineer around to patch up troops and vehicles, and suddenly your survivability shoots up, along with your kill-death ratio. And as you gain expertise, you realise the combat is fun. Sure the weapons feel light. But the mix of the landscape, your loadout, the facilities you’re fighting over, the size and make-up of the forces on either side; all these make it the most variable combat you’ll come across. And when you’re pinned down deep in a base and the whole building is shaking from a gunship barrage… the weapons don’t feel light any more.
As you rank up by killing and capturing objectives, you also slowly gain certification points, which you can use to unlock upgrades and new weapons. These are best saved for scopes and the like, as weapon unlocks (and sidegrades) can be bought with real money. It says something that a lot of players have spent their own money buying in-game weapons, upgrades, skins and camouflage – both because you have to, to get the most of the game, and because you want to.
It also has to be said that Planetside 2 is simply one of the most beautiful games around, without the usual low-poly and closed area limitations of an MMO. Night on Auraxis is truly dark, the day is clear and bright, and it feels like a real world. The three continents take you from snowy steppes to wooded canyons to arid mountains, all studded with arcologies, crashed spaceships and alien structures straight off the cover of a pulp Fifties SF novel – but they don’t feel out of place. We’ve never played a shooting game where, in the middle of a heavy firefight, you see people typing into local chat “Have you seen that sunset?” and you have to look, because it’s too pretty to miss.
Apparently, there is a plot behind the revised Planetside, but no-one playing has ever seen it. Not that it matters, because you make your own stories in this game. Many people’s stories are going to be that they tried it, didn’t understand what was going on, and got killed more times than Kenny. For those who push through, this will be an all-consuming experience, with the satisfying-in-itself combat of Team Fortress 2, without that game’s hats or anarchy. But with many, many more war stories.