"It's an experience no-one's ever had before" says Matt Higby, Creative Director of Planetside 2. Then he frowns slightly. "well, except for Planetside players." He's just spent 30 minutes showing us impressive running battles across one of the continents in Planetside, with the support of 30 other developers. You can watch the footage here . It's when he points out that these same battles would normally feature between 300 and a thousand players that you blink.
First things first; it's free-to-play, funded by microtransactions. Despite SOE's earlier reticence in announcing this, Higby tells me that he doesn't imagine anyone will ever make an MMO that isn't F2P again; "I can't imagine why they would. It's going to be really hard to compete with this level of fidelity in a free-to-play game. I think most of the big successes in the last five years haven't been paid. The games that you hear aobut all the time are League of Legends, World of Tanks, Free Realms."
So, the in-game store is very much a (reskinned, more user-friendly) version of Team Fortresses - though with a lot more stuff. Like most of these games, it has in-game currency and paid-for (Station) currency, with game-affecting items only purchasable with in-game cash, side-graded weapons (which are minor changes designed to suit your playstyle - such as having a more rapid fire rate but exactly equivalent damage reduction). cost a mixture of in-game and Station currency, and purely cosmetic items (camouflage patterns, decals) are purely purchasable for real money.
But there's no necessity to buy any of this stuff to play the game. A quick reminder of what the game's about; it's a modern reconstruction of the original Planetside from the old team, with all the crap and chaff sheared away. There are no ANTs, no supply runs, no fluid classless system, no HART transcontinental air-drops, no mechs or irritating under-populated underground caves; there's just the core of the game, a variety of amazing-looking continents covered in military installations being battled over by the three factions. Those factions are the professional Terran Republic, the alien-tech Vanu Sovereignty and the bodge-jobbers of the New Conglomerate.
Higby and his team dive straight into a game demo, with Higby's goons mainly piling into tanks, while Higby gives himself the joy of flying his own Reaver. Old Planetside players will remember that the Reaver is the game's gunship, a slower plane designed for ground-to-air combat. It's interesting to note that, not only is Higby's Reaver customised to be hugely more effective against ground armour, but it's also been customised with his clan logo, its own camouflage, and that each faction has its own unique aircraft - which implies that the reaver is the New Conglomerate's airship.
To buy his Reaver, Higby accesses a terminal at his base, which shows the return of the Sunderer ground transport, Lightning light tank, the Vanguard heavy tank, the liberator bomber, and the galaxy, as well as a new small vehicle, the Flash). He lifts off from the base, throwing the Reaver all over the shop; "I do tend to make people puke when I'm flying," he explains. The base is a biolab, one of the many facility types, and is only capturable by infantry, to encourage combined forces when assaulting bases. It looks very much like one of the biomes from Sim City 2000.
To fly ships or wield weapons, beyond the basics, you need certifications which are earned faster during play, but also earned (like Eve) all the time you're offline. They also allow you to further specialise - for example, we saw that you can buy an acquisition-time reduction upgrade for the galaxy air-transport.
As he flies across to an ongoing battle, there's a touch of pop-up (especially on sharper turns) but this is still very early code. The dynamic clouds cast sunbeams and shadows across the landscape too, making it endlessly fluid. The combat we're watching is mainly tanks pounding away at each other in a wooded valley, with occasional infantry types getting flattened by the Vanu's faster floating Magrider tanks - and Higby's devastating gunship runs.