PlanetSide 2 review
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.