When it's dark – properly dark – you can look up at the night sky and see a multitude of stars. Stop and consider those stars. Each one is a ball of superheated gas, floating out there in space with its own history. It's a staggering realisation.
Stop for a second in PlanetSide 2 and you'll see a similar thing, except instead of stars, you're seeing people. Real people, just as out of reach in their homes to you as those stars. Stand and stare up at the sky and you might see a Belgian kid hurtle overhead, chased by a Spanish man in a fighter jet. As the Spanish man's rockets connect with his fuselage, the Belgian kid will wink out of existence like a star going out.
Every light in the sky, every light on the ground, is another person. PlanetSide 2 is a massively multiplayer first-person shooter, and although it's identical in concept to the original PlanetSide: three factions wage eternal war on the ground and in the air over a handful of continents, it feels like the future of games. PlanetSide was crippled by 2003's technology; PlanetSide 2 has the benefit of nine years of human advancement.
Hundreds of players fight across three continents. Indar is red and dusty, Mars with a few scrubby trees. Amerish is green, verdant, and liberally coated in dense jungle. Esamir is icy and beautiful, lit by northern lights at night and reflected sun glare during the day. Each continent is studded with bases of varying size that one of three sides - the militaristic Terran Republic, the self-righteous New Conglomerate and the alien-humping Vanu Sovereignty - can capture. Capturing bases bestows resource bonuses that pay out every few minutes. Those resources can then be used to buy vehicles and infantry supplies from designated terminals found around the huge map, all facilitating PlanetSide 2's central tenet: a vast, unfurling war between hundreds of players at once, the largest scale of battle yet seen in games outside of EVE Online's wild space.
I never thought it'd work. PlanetSide 2 is an MMO, it has hundreds of players living on a small amount of global servers – but it also has twitchy combat, bullets based on real physics, and the kind of vehicle fights that demand split second reactions. Few games have combined the two concepts well. The original game used behind-the-scenes number-magic that left weapons feeling toothless and combat floaty.
PlanetSide 2's weapons feel neither toothless nor floaty. They feel like weapons, guns that fire projectiles where you aim them. As a heavy assault class soldier, your bullets will slice through the shield and skin of an enemy at close range. As a sniper toting a powerful enough rifle, a bullet aimed slightly above the head of a long-range target will arc down into their visor to score you a one shot kill.
PlanetSide 2 has five classes, including the snipey Infiltrator, the chunky Heavy Assault, with Light Assault, Medic, and Engineer rounding out the group. Spawn as one of these and head to a re-arm station and you'll be able to play in the clothes of the sixth class: the MAX suit. These lumbering beauties pack a heavy weapon glued to each arm, and act like walking tanks - softer targets than their angry house friends, but able to dish out exponentially more punishment than regular armour-clad types.
Infantry combat isn't perfect. Some intangible element – either developer SOE's inexperience with modern shooters or the sheer size of the game – means that PlanetSide 2's guns lack the raw punch of a smaller scale FPS. Call of Duty has this down to an exact science. There, I can almost feel the bullets piercing the organs of my enemies. Here, it's closer to Battlefield 3, and not quite as powerful in sensation.
Also like Battlefield 3, death is accompanied by pre-canned animation. Snuff it and your avatar flops to the floor, arm out like a bad movie death. Somehow, it makes you feel powerless and frustrated, your own star winking out of existence.
But these are tradeoffs I'll happily make for the game's scale. I've fought shotgun duels in four-foot wide corridors, but I've also lanced someone in the head from five hundred metres away, ending the digital life of a far off francophone. Infantry combat is wild and crazy and freeform in an intoxicating way, taking place at all distances and in all settings.
I find vehicle combat even more exhilarating. No game has ever made my heart beat faster than PlanetSide 2 has. I've spent much of my time in the air, in the exposed bubble cockpit of the Terran Republic Mosquito. The Mosquito - my Mozzy - is a speedy, one-person fighter that I've outfitted as an air superiority craft, dedicated to hunting and killing enemy fliers. I've hurled my red-and-silver steed around crags, and settled in, nose-cannon blazing, behind vast enemy dropships, then escaped under base stanchions to throw off chasing air-to-air missiles. In a mere five hours in PlanetSide 2's air (the game's stat-tracking is exhaustive) I've lived out a lifetime of Top Gun fantasies without having to take my top off and play volleyball.
And this is but one element of the mechanised game. I've flown a lot, settling in with a wingman on my plane's shoulder - Chris, on Skype, calling out targets and bogeys on my six - but I've also been at the spearhead of armour columns. I've participated in tank battles to rival Kursk, and driven a clanking fun-bus through the jungle to sneak spawning troops behind enemy lines. I spend time in the air, but my friends can't fly. I invite them to a squad and fly cover for them as they move across the ground. There's something for them - for everyone - to do, to specialise in, to enjoy in PlanetSide 2.
But when I don't have those friends on tap, PlanetSide 2 becomes a different game. A quieter game. It's still astounding to look at, but it's also a more aimless, frustrating experience. Stand and stare up at the game's lights again. It's a lot less lonely when you can call out some of the lights' names. Play PlanetSide 2 alone and you're a tiny cog in one of three war machines, easily killed and rudderless: a feeling hammered in when the area of map you fought and died over yesterday to turn to your empire's side has fallen back into enemy hands while you were tucked up in bed. War moves quickly, and it'll move without you.
Whole command structures exist within the game: outfits are guilds, housing hundreds of players. Down from there, platoons encompass a set of squads - squads themselves have up to twelve players. This structure allows for some ludicrous levels of strategic group motion, especially when an external program like Teamspeak is involved. Eschew this structure and there's almost no overt guidance about what to actually do in this eternal war. The only concession to the baffled is a quick-deploy option found on the main map that puts you in a drop pod and launches you into recently contested territory. It would, I found, just as often plonk me in the middle of an enemy-held base, no friendlies around for miles.
PlanetSide 2 is sorely lacking in new player guidance. Joining a squad is easy, but public groups are usually scattered, short term marriages of convenience rather than love or necessity. The game's three continents provide a tremendous amount of real estate to fight over, and it's too easy to pledge your life to a lost cause: either a base long-overrun, or one miles from the real action. The only way past this stumbling block is dedication, and the block is big and positioned near your figurative feet. Many won't make it past.
They should, because the experience on the other side is unlike anything else in gaming, but also because it's free to play. PlanetSide 2's payment model is microtransaction-based, but all players can use all vehicles and fight on all continents without needing to cough up cash. They can also use all weapons: everything bar cosmetic options - skull masks, daisy decals, giraffe-print camouflage at the sillier end of the spectrum - is unlockable with certification points. These are earned through play: kills, assists, base captures, and so on, as well as passively over time.
But cert point prices are high. An averagely successful hour of intensive play might net you 50. A new weapon usually costs around 1,000, necessitating grind for your gun. The real money option will set you back, at a rough average, around four pounds for a rifle. It feels closer to the pricier end of acceptable in the free to play market, but there's a half-hour preview option that lets you play with your potential pickup before purchase that salves the sting to your wallet.
Fortunately, few weapons feel like stone-cold necessities. SOE use the word 'sidegrade' to explain their purchasable arsenal, and the concept translates well to the game. I dropped fifteen of my own pounds on the game and bought myself a hefty sniper rifle. It was three times as powerful as the Terran Republic Infiltrator's standard weapon, but unlike that quickfire semi-auto gun, my new toy needed to be cocked between every shot. Reloading, too, was glacially slow, meaning a target miss would put me at the mercy of any nearby enemy. Not an empirically better choice, then, but a different one. I adapted my play style accordingly. Before, I'd use the ten-shot standard rifle to send weakened enemies packing from mid range; now I'd enable the infiltrator's cloak - which comes as standard with a press of F - get behind enemy battle lines, and pick off players with carefully considered headshots. I used a pool of certification points to unlock a longer-range scope, and took the same approach, but from further away.
Cert points can also be used to unlock skills and attachments for your vehicles, guns, and classes. It's these points that provide the strongest draw to the game. Bases come and go under allied control, continents are captured and recaptured by different sides, but as in other more traditional MMOs, your character will always progress. Certs can be plugged into an array of things: from increasing the speed a repair tool will repair vehicles, to attaching a heat-sensing scope to a light machine gun. Cert prices run the gamut: it costs a mere one point to increase your health by 10 percent with an armour boost, but you're looking at 500 - and the many hours that entails - to unlock an ejection system for your aircraft. SOE have space to wiggle these prices, and I'd suggest they do with a few of them. The Sunderer's spawn attachment, particularly, should be cheaper than the 50 cert points it currently costs: the battle-bus vehicle lets other players spawn on the frontline when tactically deployed, and is vital to successful pushes or defences.
Just as vital to those pushes is game stability. PlanetSide 2's servers have been acceptably steady in the weeks since launch, but too often I've found myself at the tip of a concerted advance only for the server to unceremoniously boot me out. On reconnection, I'm back at a spawn point miles from my previous location and the platoon I was rolling with has thrown their hands up and logged off for the night. For now, I'm willing to forgive the interruption, especially as the majority of these reboots are apparently to fix specific server problems.
Less forgivable are lag issues. Some sectors of gaming society have had specific problems with game-breaking delays that make PlanetSide 2's FPS combat untenable. I didn't experience these issues personally across three different PCs, playing on high, medium and low settings on both wired and wireless connections, but the reports are too widespread to discount. To their credit, SOE are hammering these faults down quickly: my first day with the game, I'd spot friendlies and foes flitting in and out of buildings. The next day, people stayed where they were meant to. A quick straw poll of the PC Gamer outfit found the fix's effects were fairly universal. Hardware's a more permanent issue: PlanetSide 2 is a big, pretty game set to stick around for years. As a result, it hoovers up CPU power like few recent games, and I'd be wary about approaching it with a processor more than a few years old.
But for those with the machine to handle it, PlanetSide 2 is never anything less than staggering. On your own, it's a spectacle. Stand far enough back and you can almost take it all in, but there's just too much there to focus on. With teammates, the picture comes into glorious focus. Dogfights in the frigid air, gunfights among the trees of a dense jungle, tanks duelling across the plains of a red desert: like stars in the night sky, PlanetSide 2 is beautiful.