PlanetSide 2 has really nice clouds. As they bubble up over the rust red mesas of the Indra continent they occlude the sun, casting undulating shadows in realtime and leaking ghostly, shimmering rays. If you care to hop into an aircraft and point your nose up, you can lose yourself in the fogbank – which may be a hazard or a blessing depending on who's chasing you.
All this may seem like a minor frill for a game that otherwise sells itself on big gun battles, but it goes to the core of PlanetSide 2's remit, and spells out its vital difference from other claimants to the MMOFPS title, such as Dust 514. As creative director Matt Higby puts it, “We're not just building a shooter, we're building a world.”
This would sound like puff if it weren't true. Like the original game, PlanetSide 2 is set on an open world of sprawling, diverse continents. This is the planet Auraxis, contested by the game's three violently opposed factions. And that planet is there for more than just scene-setting – it's as much a weapon as any sidearm. The terrain may look fresh from Mother Nature's oven, but it's been attentively tweaked to break lines of sight, to allow for cover and clever tactics.
“One of our largest development efforts on this project has been hand crafting every single area of those eight-by-eight kilometre continents,” Matt tells me. “To make sure that everywhere you're playing, from a wilderness area to a really dense facility area, all feel like they're custom created to support gameplay. And different types of gameplay: if I'm out in that wilderness area, depending on the availability of cover, the type of terrain, then it might be a field day for air vehicles, somewhere air vehicles can shine. But if there's a lot of cover, a lot of places where infantry can pop out and fire a rocket, then suddenly it becomes a little bit more balanced.”
With a full day-night cycle, new strategies emerge: as the Terran Republic mass to deliver a 200-man hammerblow to a Vanu Sovereignty facility, they might scale an escarpment under cover of dark, flashlights off to give as little sign of their presence as possible. Then, as the rosy fingers of dawn stretch over the hillside to their backs, the soldiers follow the light washing down upon dazzled Vanu guards. Nor is this some canned Call of Duty skirmish, exactingly recycled with every victory – the target has been selected as part of a global strategy, hundreds upon hundreds of players self-organising to determine the time and angle of attack. Squad leaders pinpoint immediate objectives, focusing fire on a troublesome turret or rushing the barrier shield generator to allow aerial bombardment, while dedicated tank guilds roll in to breach the Vanu strongpoint's courtyard. A spec'd up Galaxy dropship acts as a mobile spawn point, spewing out reinforcements as allied Mosquitoes zip and weave in the skies, dogfighting with the defenders' Scythes.
The Vanu commanders will be hurriedly reacting to the assault, too, highlighting the battlezone as a high priority mission for all of their factionmates to see, manoeuvring and plotting, interpreting the repercussions of their loss or victory in the context of an ever-changing frontline. Since capture-time on an objective is based on the amount of peripheral real-estate that is claimed by your faction, real battlefield strategy emerges: pincer movements and encirclements become important ways to shore up a major assault and deny the enemy an easy recapture. The choice of targets may be influenced by the resources they contain. A plentiful supply of metal, nanites, or auraxium enables factions to deploy upgrades, their function varying for each of the three empires.
Denial is as important as acquisition, Matt tells me. “If the Vanu is attacking you and they have railguns on their mag riders, and they are fucking you up, then you know you need to capture auraxium and deplete their reserves.”
But as a mere grunt, that high-level strategy is another's concern – on the ground you are one gun among hundreds, crashing against the walls of a vast facility whose three courtyards are themselves each the size of a Modern Warfare multiplayer level. Energy beams lance out from the defenders and rocketry spirals after targets through the still-dark sky, leaving a trail of smoke that sears bright in the HDR glow of the rising sun.
PlanetSide 2 does big and it does beautiful. To some extent it has to in order to overcome the dual stigma of being both an MMO and a free-to-play game, neither of which are famed for their glitzy production qualities.
“For me it's all about seeing the game as an FPS – and that's it,” says senior art director Tramell 'T.Ray' Isaac. “When we were working on [cancelled SOE game] The Agency, one of the comments we got a lot was, 'It looks pretty good for an MMO.' And that 'for an MMO' should not even be in the equation for me. People should look at it and see that it's got the same level of quality as every other FPS on the market.”
PlanetSide 2 succeeds on that account, and then some – but does it play like an FPS, too? The old PlanetSide's combat was muddied by unseen dice-rolls, not to mention creaking on 2003's hardware specs and squeaking awkwardly through the internet's tiny, tiny pipes. Not so now, says Matt. Not only has technology caught up with the original game's forward-thinking vision, but the devs have a keener idea of what makes a satisfying run-and-gun experience. Bullets go pretty much where you fire them and the guns are not only lethal but feel it, too.
“The impact of weapons needs to be felt not just by the guy getting shot but also by the guy who's doing the firing,” Matt says. “I think that gets missed a lot. There's a lot that goes into it – audio, animation, ambient effects on the screen. In MMOs you don't usually spend a lot of time trying to think about what it feels to cast a spell in first-person – you look at the effect of the spell on the person who's getting hit. But we're an FPS first, and we're always striving to be the best possible FPS we can be.”
There's another hurdle: the game has to feel fair, despite the MMO-style character advancement and the customisation system for its six classes, along with their many weapons and vehicles. Not to mention the distinct tactical and strategic difference enforced by your choice of faction. It's one hell of a balancing act, but Matt's keen that new or non-paying players never feel they are outclassed in battle by the equipment of their veteran foes. You don't pay for power in PlanetSide 2. Mictrotransaction upgrades simply re-specialise your class, or unlock different combat options, all of which are available through playing the game and queuing up skills to be trained passively over time: much as players already do in EVE Online.
“You can really spec out in different ways,” Matt says. “You can spec out the Infiltrator class to be a really sneaky gadgety, sabotage-focused guy, and bring a bunch of C4 and motion detectors and sneak behind enemy lines, stab people and blow up their tanks. Or you could spec him to be a dedicated wilderness sniper character.
“We have six different infantry classes,” Matt continues, as he uses a debug command to unlock the camera, swooping in on character models to show the astonishing, and quite possibly needless, level of detail.
“Light assault is basically the 'glass cannon' character. He can do the most damage the quickest. He's very agile, but it's also very vulnerable. Because he can get to places very quickly, he can overextend himself very easily and if he doesn't have support backing him up he can get crushed.” Matt moves the camera along. “This is our engineer. He can place barriers and gun turrets, and repair vehicles. But he can do a lot of offensive stuff on top of that. Our gun turrets aren't automated, they require a player to actually man them. And then the engineer can go throw mines down and destroy vehicles
“Our heavy assault character again has a dualistic role: he can either be very much an anti-infantry character or very much an anti-vehicle character. You can go play a medic and not really focus on being a combatant, but medics can be very much an in-your-face infantry fighter, too. MAX [mechsuited soldiers] are definitely making a comeback. Unlike PlanetSide 1 where there was a specific MAX for each role, our MAX is configurable, so that you can put an anti-infantry weapon on one arm and an anti-vehicle weapon on another arm. Like everything else we're allowing for a really wide range of customisation with each one of these classes.”
You're never class-locked in PlanetSide 2, either. Equipment terminals let you leap instantly into another class's skin, and then there are the vehicles too, which the devs essentially treat as extra classes. They're just as customisable: a Mosquito can be loaded-out for aerial combat, or air-to-ground as the situation demands.
Some of this customisation comes from the equipment and weaponry – guns are modular and nearly every bit can be swapped out and replaced, altering the weapon's range, rate of fire, sound, scope, capacity, or even the shape of its muzzle flash, while rebalancing other variables to ensure no all-round advantage. But a lot of a player's abilities also come from skills they can train or buy – certificates to use vehicles and aircraft are an obvious one, but there are also more subtle boons: an ability to allow players to spawn on you as squad leader, or inside your dropship. Every compartment of the game has its own skill-tree, it seems, from pilots to squad leaders, commanders and the factions themselves.
The scale of the world, and the battles in it, is breathtaking enough. But the challenge of balancing the complex weave of variables, and fitting it all into a robust MMO social framework, is as colossal a task as you are likely to see in game development. This could be why there aren't that many open-world MMOFPS knocking about. The reason that SOE have done it, and no one else, comes down to the gradual accumulation of tech and expertise over the eight years since PlanetSide 1. During that time they've developed and iterated upon Forge Light – a suite of backend magic that not only spits out PlanetSide 2's dizzying landscapes and player numbers, but also holds together the servers and communication infrastructure of the game.
Despite this technology on hand, PlanetSide 2 remains a huge undertaking, but one that SOE hope will be pay off over many years – after all, PlanetSide 1's servers still ring to the sound of gunfire today, nearly a decade after release. The developers have a huge number of features they plan to add to the game, post-release, from the ability for players to drop and construct their own bases, to the addition of AI wildlife, or possibly an AI faction. All of which will be decided with a good deal of consultation with the players themselves. For all its stunning draw distances and vast landscapes swarming with legion after legion of soldiers, PlanetSide 2 isn't just about a being a big game, it's all about the long game too.