Far in the future, after SOE's preposterously huge MMOFPS has come and gone, I see myself in a dark bar. I'm old, and I'm sharing the room with other old men and women hunched over drinks, barely illuminated by weak lights. On the wall, a video screen loops in silence. It shows rolling hills and green plains. Russet cliffs and brown, rocky bluffs. A voice behind me pipes up. “That looks like Indar.”
His companion looks up from his drink, leans toward the screen, and grunts. “Aye.” PlanetSide 2's dusty, dry continent – the only one open to beta players as I write – is pockmarked and vertiginous, scarred by valleys and linked by bridges. One such bridge appears on screen. A voice from the back of the bar: “I died there.”
Every death in PlanetSide 2 is memorable. Every kill is important. Moments lodge themselves in your mental logbook, last stand defences or death-or-glory assaults. The game pits three factions against each other – the Terran Republic, the Vanu Sovereignty, and the New Conglomerate – and each is staffed entirely by players. The result is a conflict as vicious and duplicitous and anarchic and tactical as our species can be. PlanetSide 2 – like PlanetSide before it – generates individual and team heroism like no other game.
The once-dead drinker continues his story. “I was New Conglomerate, driving a Vanguard tank when we spotted a column of Vanu Magriders moving along that bridge. My gunner panicked and ran. I held on as long as I could. They got me in the end.
A hush descends as the old eyes around the bar start to recall bridges, bases, places. They've died there too, on that bridge and others like it. They down their drinks in memory. PlanetSide 2 has an incredible way of making the conflict you're part of feel like the most important thing in the world. Get caught defending the Crown – a relatively small hilltop base with commanding views over the tactically important Zurvan area – and it's easy to forget there's another battle going on, with soldiers both friend and foe dying, not more than a dropship ride away. Your job – your duty – whether it's to man an anti-air gun to shoot down Liberator gunships, or to set up a sniper rifle firing-lane along the Crown's dusty track entrance-way... it feels like nothing else matters.
Although the game is still in its beta stage, it works spookily well. There are a few stumbles: base capture and resource systems are being endlessly tweaked, and to witness bullet entering enemy flesh feels less physical than it does in an infinitely smaller scale shooter such as Battlefield 3. But the things PlanetSide 2's beta takes away are nothing compared to what it gives: a near limitless supply of glorious war stories, moments of bravery, stupidity, and the gamut of actions and feelings in between. Here we're going to zoom in on some of my favourites, viewed at the different orders of scale this colossal game makes possible.
Pressing F11 on first spawning into the game will automatically assign you to an open squad. Having done just that, I found my eleven squadmates clustered around the central walkway of the giant Hvar Tech Plant in the bottom left corner of the continent of Indar. Flying to their location would've taken too long, so I elected to drop in on them. PlanetSide 2's drop pods are flimsy casings launched from a mile up in the sky: given some control over where I could aim my pod, I managed to join up with my newfound friends as they bustled around, organising themselves into firing ranks. Below: a counterpart squad of New Conglomerate soldiers. Above: us. Our situation looked tenuous. And then I heard a roar. Another two Galaxy dropships, each easily capable of packing twelve inside their spacious holds, came soaring overhead. Both engaged their vectoring thrusters and came to rest on spare landing pads on Hvar's top side. Our squads joined, a mass of red and black, as we swarmed down the elevator shaft and cut through the now-overwhelmed New Conglomerate squad. Hvar was ours for another three hours.
All of PlanetSide 2's vehicles cost resources to spawn. Each player has a pool of these resources – more are generated by capturing and holding bases – and each resource has a specific application. Polymers enable the spawning of fast attack vehicles like the Lightning tank. Catalysts are for beefy tanks and gunships. Alloys are for transport vehicles such as the Galaxy dropship and Flash ATV, and Auraxium is for in-game shop items which include useful things such as rocket launchers, and less useful things like zebra-print skins. Use a vehicle and get it destroyed too soon, and you won't be able to spawn the same type again for a while. During a battle at the NS Secure Data Lab – a staging post between Hvar and Allatum – the Prowler battle tank I'd just rolled off the parking lot was rear-ended by a low-flying Vanu Scythe gunship. It blew up, and I was reduced in stature: forced to take a tiny Flash ATV into combat, rather than the safer twin-cannoned Prowlers my squadmates were rolling around in. No matter: I switched to the Engineer class and stuck close to my new tank-driving friends to patch up their vehicles.
Every hex of Indar's map has at least one capture point that the game's three sides can take. If these points are held for long enough – and your side holds an adjacent hex – then the area turns to your side, affording resource bonuses that can be used to buy vehicles and items. Larger bases have up to six of these points. Allatum Bio Lab's six points – A through to F – are more tightly clustered than most, owing to its strange construction. The Lab stands on stilt-like legs, its open top ensconced by a wibbly blue shield. The shield prevents direct entry, but is transparent, meaning sneaky players standing on top of the base can call out enemy movements to teammates. With my oversized MAX suit armour giving me the bearing and firepower of a walking tank, I was able to direct my squad to capture the points under my stompy feet. When some inquisitive New Conglomerate players dressed in the armour of the light assault class tried to boot me from my roost, I warmed up my cycler chaingun – one of two heavy weapons glued to my robo-arms – and swatted him out of the sky. The Bio Lab slowly came under our control.
A successful base capture is reflected by the capture bar in the bottom left of your screen. As players stand uncontested near an area's named points, they turn it to their side. The more players, the faster the bar fills up for the entire hex, granting increased resources to the capturing side. But the capture bar is also affected by 'influence': if a surrounding area is held by one team, their capture bar will already have a block of their team's influence in it, meaning it takes less time to turn a nearby area to your side. By the same token, it's tougher to strike out into unknown territory on the map: a mild resistance can stymie all but the most dedicated of squads. TI Alloys was a tough capture: its position in the middle of the map meant that all three factions exerted a claim, and Vanu and NC troops could be spotted milling around the nearby buildings and scurrying through fields. Filling the capture bar was a case of scaring off any would-be heroes with bursts of gunfire from my squad's MAX suit-clad heavy hitters. Once the takeover was complete, the Terran Republic was free to push again across the continent.
The Crown is home to a meagre three capture points. It's also the site of some of Indar's fiercest fighting. It sits right at the centre of the map, and offers strategically excellent views of the surrounding countryside: a great place to plan a platoon's next move, or blunt an incoming assault. One such strike under cover of darkness by a Vanu group almost shifted my Terran brethren from the region. The Vanu led with Liberators, the armoured gunships hurling fire from the sky in the manner of World War One artillery chewing up no-man's land. I'm not too proud to say my friends and I hid, keeping ourselves indoors. One brave soul mounted an anti-air gun to spew out some flak, giving us enough time to sprint to vehicle console and scramble our own fighters to clear the air. The enemy Liberators – powerful at range but lumbering in a dogfight – were outmanoeuvred by a half squadron of nimble Mosquito fighters. I watched as my friends cleared the skies and then turned their chainguns on the Vanu land push below. Unsupported by an airforce, their Magriders crumpled and the assault dissolved back into the night.
Each faction has its own aircraft. The Vanu Scythe is a flying saucer, with the ability to stop and turn in mid-air, before scooting out of trouble. The New Conglomerate Reaver is a big and bulky gunship, armed with rockets as standard in addition to an air-to-air chaingun. I've spent a lot of time fl ying the Terran Republic's Mosquito. It's not got the armour, weaponry or agility of the other factions' ships, but it does have something they lack: raw speed. Pressing Shift engages an afterburner. At fi rst, I used it to fl y particularly hard into cliffs; now, I deploy it when my evasive manoeuvres have taken me behind a rock face, or when I'm sure I've shaken the bandit on my six. Air combat provides one of PlanetSide 2's highest spikes of adrenaline, but it also allows for great versatility: sky-types can spend their time battling each other, paying little attention to the ant-men scooting around on the ground. Or, they can equip their vessel with air-to-ground missiles and a punchy, focused chaingun, and pick out tanky targets on flybys. I prefer using air-to-air rockets and teaching the bulkier NC Reavers a lesson about.
Galaxies, when landed, become mobile spawn points, making them essential in the spearhead of an attack. They can also take a staggering amount of punishment. After my Terran friends and I realised where our Vanu usurpers were springing from, we were able to focus all firepower on the offending Galaxy. Amazingly, instead of acquiescing to our gunfire and blowing up, the Galaxy's pilot hopped back into the cockpit, lifted his charge into the air, and fl ew his burning, half-wrecked ship out of trouble. Or, so he thought. The moment he pulled his craft clear of our ground weapon range, a Terran Mosquito dropped into the six o'clock position behind him, its chaingun opening up with a cheery chattering noise. Even then, the Galaxy stayed intact, lumbering like a listing whale. The Mosquito was in turn tackled by a Vanu Scythe running interference for its bigger pal. Successfully chasing the Mosquito off, the Scythe turned in the air and rocketed directly upward; the last I saw of the Galaxy, it was disappearing over a rocky ridge, burning wings just pinpricks of light in the distance.
Tawrich is a large facility on the border of Terran and Vanu territory. When the New Conglomerate push south into Vanu lands, they often leave Tawrich lightly defended: making it a perfect prize for a mildly organised group of Terran Republic types. I assisted in one such push, a smattering of air vehicles supporting a larger ground group that I was a small part of. En route, our flyboys spotted a lone Liberator, setting off from the south and heading north to support a Vanu thrust elsewhere on the vast continent of Indar. Before he could bring his powerful belly gunner to bear on us squishier sorts down on the ground, our organised Terran pilots shot him out of the sky in their nippier Mosquito fighters. I watched the dogfight unfurl through the scope on my Infiltrator's sniper rifle as I stood next to Tawrich's point E. By the time the Vanu's Liberator was molten slag raining to the ground, we'd nabbed half the base, splitting off in groups of two or three to capture a point, before reforming to move efficiently across open ground. Squads moved together to different corners of the base. Then came the Vanu fightback.
Tawrich is similar to many of PlanetSide 2's main facilities: it's huge, multi-layered, and a bit confusing to run around. Tubes and jump pads provide a quick way around the staggeringly big facility areas, but there's no guarantee of where they'll lead without testing them yourself. Some will carry you downstairs, others take you directly to the facility's outbuildings. Some of these outbuildings exist way out, half a kilometre or more from the base they're servicing. Others are much closer, antechambers to the facility proper. Tawrich's D point is in one such building, and is often the preliminary staging post in an attack – or a successful defence. Point D provides shelter and space for infantry to hole up, as the more open spaces around the feet of the game's facilities are usually swarming with tanks and hot projectile doom. In this example, both the ground around and the skies above Tawrich are quiet. Too quiet. I flick open the map and check Indar's hotspots. Glowing exclamation marks light up the space to the north and east of Tawrich, meaning the brunt of the Vanu counter-attack will be here soon.
Tawrich's point G and F are the facility's centrepoints, and the fi rst places the Vanu concentrated their defensive counter-push. Dressed in the stealth suit of an Infiltrator, I phased out of the visible spectrum just before a Vanu taskforce barrelled around the corner, ducking behind a computer as the purple-clad scum tried to resecure their lost base. My suit's power dying and the enemy standing in state, I was in trouble. Steadying my rifle, I brought it to bear on the nearest enemy's head. In stealth mode – activated like most of PlanetSide 2's class-specific abilities with the F key – players can't shoot. But I was about to run out of juice. The second I heard the fizzle effect that signified my visibility, I squeezed off three rounds at my target's helmet-clad face. He dropped like a bag of alien-worshipping bricks, and the errant rounds that whistled past his descending corpse hit his friend. A third enemy killed me in a few shots, but it was a second before he too was knocked out of action by a resurgent Terran squad. I was revived by a hero medic, and the Vanu gains at point G were scrubbed from the map.
As if on queue, a squad of Vanu troops turn up. I'm loosely grouped with two dropships-worth of Terran forces, and these Vanu are our purple and green mirror images. I hop into a MAX suit to try to even the odds a little. The MAX can swap heavy weapons depending on the situation: here I stick antipersonnel chainguns – heavy cyclers – onto both of my hands. I stay at the top of a wooshy golden elevator with my squadded-up friends. Together, we kill a stream of Vanu, but it doesn't stem the tide. Eventually, after a short lull in the massacre, a brave soul pops from his vantage point near Tawrich's point F, and finds a Vanu Galaxy dropship wedged between pillars a step below one of our own transports. The act of flying to get the vehicle in there without any of us noticing is worthy of an appreciative nod, but this is no time to be congratulating: the enemy have infiltrated our newly taken base, and it'll take a concerted effort to flush them out. Vanu MAX suits – sleek where the Terrans' are bulky – pour from the Galaxy as it serves as a spawn point. My friends and I pour as many bullets as we can in their general direction.
The Terran Republic held Tawrich for another ten minutes before the purple Vanu tide overwhelmed us. The New Conglomerate had refocused its efforts in the north, hitting Terran territory over Vanu areas, leaving the purple forces free to repel smaller pushes like ours. I came back the next day on a reconnaissance run in a Mosquito, and the area was deathly silent. Connected by one hex to Terran land, I landed my aircraft in a quiet bit of desert and hopped out. I was at capture point C. To take it would be to draw attention to myself, to drag the gaze of an entire faction onto my own head, without a squad to back me up. But I had my Mosquito outside, the fastest escape option in the sky. I took a look at the capture point, and headed inside to turn it to the Terran Republic. Three minutes later, the point having fl icked over to Terran control, I was shot by a sniper who'd responded to reports of problems in Tawrich base. Three hours later, and the whole place belonged to the Terran Republic again. They say war never changes, but PlanetSide 2's wild, varied war is one fi ght I'll gladly sign up for.