Posted: October 12, 2014
This is Opinion-based, so don't go on writing something *ahem* "explict ;)
War in PlanetSide 2 isn't exactly hell, though your very first experience of it might. You create your character and pick a faction. Then you're unceremoniously dropped literally, from space, right into the biggest battle the game can find, surrounded by enemies and tanks and anything else that happens to be around, with a life expectancy measured in milliseconds.
Somehow beat the odds and things don't get better. You stagger from death to death in a haze of confusion and unexplained icons, not as some top-of-the-line soldier, but simply one more fleck of a gristle in a planet-sized meat grinder that never - ever stops churning. At some point, you will be run over by a huge tank. Probably driven by someone on your team.
It's nothing personal, of course. PlanetSide 2 is far too busy for that. In most shooters, 16 players counts as a party. More advanced ones might push the limit to 32, or 64. In Sony Online's free-to-play multiplayer game, you're dealing with at the most 2000 players per continent - thankfully not all on screen at once - locked in a three-way tug of war that doesn't simply take cues from the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield, but has a good go at stealing their thunder.
Those games ultimately win out in terms of feel, but PlanetSide 2 even being comparable is a stunning achievement when compared to the standards of your average action MMO. This is easily one of the most ambitious online games ever - and setting aside some launch issues, one that lives up to its impossible promises.
Fighting in an open world does feels strange - not as intimidating as you'd expect, but far more than just a gimmick. For the most part, standard first-person shooter rules apply. Shooting is skill-based rather than reliant on arbitrary levels. If you don't want to be shot, you get behind cover. Returning fire can be done easily from hip-fire, but you generally want to take advantage of weapon sights and sniper scopes to deal out more accurate shots and hit distant enemies. It's the basic rules of a shooter. The twist here is that, instead of existing as isolated maps, battlegrounds emerge organically as boundaries shift. Today, that bridge over a canyon is simply a handy route between outposts. Tomorrow, it might be a vast ocean of tanks, with infantry crawling all over the scenery like ants.
Being in an open world, anyone who wants to take part can do exactly that. There is a loading screen, but no queues, no arbitrary restrictions on numbers or how much you're allowed to bring into battle - not overt ones, anyway. An Instant Action button will spirit over anyone who requests a teleport, but you can just as easily spot something happening and head over under your own steam.
The longer fights go on, the more people will be drawn to them. Sunderers are brought in as mobile respawn points, planes strafe the ground and battle for air superiority, tanks take up positions and all hell breaks loose until one side seizes victory. If you're outnumbered, too bad. Reinforcements may arrive, or not. War isn't always played fair.
The sheer scale of the battles is stunning - to the point that, while it makes sense for PlanetSide 2 to be a free-to-play game, it takes longer for that to fully sink in. Sony hasn't so much embraced the model as given it a back-breaking bear-hug, almost to the point of creating a hidden mini-game called "What's the Catch?" Without paying a single penny, you get - deep breath - all five soldier classes and access to mech suits, full access to all three continents, all of the vehicles, no equipment restrictions, as much fighting as you want and the ability to join and start your own guilds (Outfits).
Never are you made to feel like less of a player for not paying a subscription fee or for earning any equipment you need by saving up in-game currency. It's a similar system to League of Legends and Tribes Ascend, only on an MMO scale and with less in the way of boobs/jetpacks.
The most important purchases are, as ever, boosts that speed up your in-game resource generation and guns with which to shoot people in the head for the crime of wearing the wrong colour armour. These are slightly expensive, with new guns costing around £4 each (500-700 Sony Points) and each class having several slots to fill up with new weapons.
Your starting load-out is respectable though - and while I'm sure it's not deliberate, any temptation to spend a fortune in the store is swiftly dampened by most of its gear being bland variations on stock themes like 'assault rifle' and 'pistol'. There's nothing as iconic as the Tribes spinfusor, and nothing particularly sexy if you're not into efficiency. In a nice touch, you're allowed to borrow any weapon for a half-hour field test before investing your cash/points.
In a straight fight between two players of equal skill and time played, it's true that the one who's paid will usually come out on top - if only because upgrades can only be bought with in-game credits, and outright buying a gun leaves many more of them to spend there. The sheer scale of PlanetSide 2's battles does a lot to prevent any slide into pay-to-win territory though. Whatever your gear and however many upgrades you have, you're only ever one soldier in a rock-paper-scissors throwdown - where paper and scissors are represented by the sniper over on that hill and his friend in a tank.
Whatever role you're playing, the action is very solid - a touch floaty perhaps, and made a little stop-start by the way PlanetSide 2's body armour usually makes tissue paper look like mithril dipped in adamantium, but more than adequate. Its only significant failings are in accessibility and readability. There's a basic tutorial, a UI that comes across as a mess of unlabelled icons, blinking lights and labels apparently harbouring an active grudge against the colourblind. It's a staggeringly bad new player experience for a game that does have a tricky learning curve, but whose raw basics really aren't that complicated. The developers explained this.
Similar confusion sneaks into the graphics. Textures are often very busy, which combined with the oddly muted faction colours can make it hard to spot enemies at even mid-range, or to react fast enough to sudden threats. The Vanu are particular offenders here, with their purple colours blending into much of the scenery, though the Terran Republic's combination of powerful red with murky grey comes a close second. (If you play Terran, they also earn bonus confusion points for internally using red to flag up enemies. Cognitive dissonance can kill, people!) I'd like to have seen PlanetSide 2 take a few more cues from the likes of Tribes Ascend and even Team Fortress 2 in terms of its general readability, colour choice and silhouettes.
Back to the war itself. Out in the field, combat unsurprisingly varies dramatically depending on your class - which you can change at will, either at reload stations or between lives if you get bored or your team needs something. A Heavy Assault soldier's life is one of explosives and endless streams of hot lead, while Infiltrators work the shadows with sniper rifles and Light Assault troopers bop around on jetpacks. The more points you put into each class and its gear, the more efficient you get with it, so it pays to focus.
Lone wolf players are likely out of luck, though not entirely. It's certainly possible to play solo. You can join pick-up groups as you travel, be added to squads at the touch of a key, and contribute to base assaults and defence along with everyone else. PlanetSide 2's epic-scale battles put tight limitations on what any individual can accomplish, though, and being a cog in a silent machine is rarely a rewarding career. To make the most of PlanetSide 2, you really have to gather some friends over voice-chat and set your own goals on the vast battlefield.