"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.
As the battlefield falls into darkness, the combat doesn't cease, though the infantry become at less of a disadvantage. The lightning and sound effects are still placeholder, but this night scene is pretty spectacular to watch, lit by the particle flare of Vanu lasers and NC tank fire. He tells me that they're also planning on introducing a satellite system, including stars and multiple moons. Higby performs a few more stunts, using the new PhysX real physics to good effect to barrel-roll narrowly around foliage, before flying to a new area.
This is a more desert area, complete with canyons, and is much less ground vehicle-friendly; the base here is smaller, mounted atop a mesa, with a road snaking down a ridge to another base. "It blows my mind how much effort it takes to make just a rock in this game" says Higby, "we're doing the exact same process that DICE uses to make Battlefield."
This time, when the column of tanks heads out (with Higby now driving a Vanguard) they have to be very careful not to topple over the edge. The column encounters light resistance as it pushes through a giant natural stone arch, before emerging on a plain with a Terran base in the distance. A few outnumbered Prowler tanks make a last stand, before the tank column rolls up to the base.
As an infantry-only area, the column dismounts and starts fighting from room to room. Higby hits the Auto-Join squad button to get in on the action, and immediately starts earning squad XP from his teammates involved in combat deeper in the base. Higby explains that they've tried to make the close combat as modern as possible, matching the advances of the last ten years of shooting games. True to his word, the combat is rapid and the base is laid out perfectly to allow flanking, and varied levels of combat. Higby, like many of the other drivers, is wearing light armour, which gives him access to jump jets (part of the special functionality unique to the new classes), so the NC spread themselves around the buildings and rooftops as they advance.
There's only one working Max in the game, the dreaded Terran Max, but the team feels he's far too powerful at the moment, so he doesn't feature in the base defense. "They're incredibly powerful, not balanced at all. One Max can kill eighty people... obviously, we're going to fix that." What does feature, though, is the Heavy Assault class, one of whom kills Higby several times while we're watching - Higby later admits to me that the Heavy Assault class is also unbalanced. "I hate it." he says.
Thankfully, a pilot has landed a customised Galaxy nearby, complete with respawn point and weapons terminals, so Higby doesn't have to fly back over from the base, eroding the defender's spawn tube advantage and meaning the NC finally push through the Spawn room and capture the base. The battle is won, temporarily.
"It always blows my mind that there aren't more MMO FPSes" says Higby afterwards. "I think you're going to see a renaissance of MMOFPSes, similar to after EverQuest shipped and there was new generation of MMORPGs... MMOFPS will be the 2013 equivalent of MMORPGs in 2003. Everyone will be making them... and they're really difficult to make, so good luck"