PlanetSide 2 hands-on preview: soaring over a free-to-play wonderland

I'm standing on the hood of a one-seater ATV while my driver, GamesRadar's Lucas Sullivan (here's his side of the story ), recklessly shuns roads and opts to bounce over hills. I don't fall off. In fact, as an engineer, I'm able to repair the vehicle while apparently gripping onto the hood with my toes. It's stupid and it's fun, and it reminds me of the nonsense I used to get up to in past Battlefields.

A minute later we catch up with our third squad member, GameSpy's Dan Stapleton (here's his take on our adventures ), who's waiting for us to help capture a desert outpost. Lucas gets out of the vehicle. I get in. I run both of them over.

I'm laughing at my griefing, and then Dan squishes me. He falls out of the sky and squishes me. Now he's laughing. Spawning on a squad member in PlanetSide 2 releases you into the upper atmosphere in a metal drop pod. You don't have much control, but enough for revenge.

Free-to-play with friendly-fire

Creative Director Matt Higby tells me that friendly-fire is on to prevent grenade spam and encourage tactical gameplay. He assures me that griefers will be dealt with rapidly. Fine, sorry . I hope they are, though: how players play will ultimately determine how much fun we have in PlanetSide 2.

We've talked a lot about the game's ambition : it's hundreds of players in three empires fighting for territory across massive, persistent continents. It's a playground filled with toys like hover tanks, sniper rifles, and drop ships, but it's up to the players to fill it with strategy, tactics, and massive battles.

First of all, it needs loads of players to work, so SOE made it free-to-play. Cue "pay-to-win" skepticism. According to Higby, however, no one is going to throw down cash in return for super-bullets that vaporize your ribcage on impact. Instead, he repeatedly brings up "sidegrades."

"The whole idea of 'pay-to-win' as a pejorative term for free-to-play games is something that we're really, really trying to avoid," says Higby. "So, things like new weapons you can always unlock through gameplay. You could get the Station Cash, which is our in-game proprietary currency, but because none of them are actual upgrades to each other, you're never really buying an advantage. You're just unlocking a different playstyle by using Station Cash to get those."

"And things that actually do give you power, like a grenade which makes me stronger than I was without a grenade—it's just a straight-up power-add—you can't use Station Cash to buy that kind of thing."

Higby explains that he wants players to always have room for character growth and a large selection of tools for their chosen job. A tank, for example, can be fitted with an anti-air gun and skyward-facing reinforced armor. It'll be weak against anti-armor specialists, but a welcome guest at a base vulnerable to air assaults. It isn't more or less powerful, just suited for something different. Ultimately, Higby says he wants to maintain a maximum 20 percent difference between the most and least powerful characters.

Flying purple people shooters

Even if PlanetSide 2 is full of players, however, it'll be wasted potential if it's inhabited by hundreds of lone wolves independently sniping insignificant targets. SOE heavily emphasizes the importance of joining a squad and eventually an outfit (a clan). Unfortunately, we'll have to wait for the large-scale beta to give that a real go. If you can't tell from the earlier hood-riding and team-killing, organization and coordination are limited while I'm squadded up with Lucas and Dan.

It's tough to play the game right when you're not playing for keeps. With so few players compared to the expected numbers at launch, we have to artificially focus the war on one region. Additionally, we have unlimited resources with which to purchase vehicles. If we were really playing, we'd have to fight for territory together to earn those resources, and we'd probably be drafting attack plans instead of trying to surf on hover tanks.

So, we're trying to surf on hover tanks—Dan's not bad at it, either. We just want to try everything we can, so I suggest we form a fleet of flying purple attack claws (Scythes, if you want to use the proper name) and attempt to fly in formation. We spawn at a distant base and buy our Scythes. On the way back to the action, Dan accidentally ejects. A few seconds later, Lucas ejects too.

I don't know what was wrong with them (maybe they spent too long standing in the San Diego heat outside of SOE's complex), but I kept flying. Scythe's are good newbie vehicles: they're fast, maneuverable, and capable of hovering, which lessens the chance that I'll end up plowing dirt as the world's most inefficient farmer. I'm surprised when I manage to take down an enemy aircraft.

In Battlefield 3, it took me over a week to fly a helicopter with even a smidgen of competency. One lucky shot isn't indicative of PlanetSide 2's total learning curve, but I'm glad I can at least stay airborne. I'm still crashing a lot more than I'm destroying, though, so I'm well-convinced that this is an "easy to pick up, hard to master" deal.

Circumnavigating the continent

Since I'm probably not going to lead the Vanu Sovereignty to ultimate victory alone, I decide to break off from the combat and go for a tour of the continent. Scythe's are speedy little things, so I'm able to circumnavigate the giant landmass pretty quickly.

There will be three unique continents when PlanetSide 2 launches. Each will have it's own theme (the Scottish Highlands were brought up a few times), and the location I'm exploring is largely rocky deserts and deep canyons. From up high, it looks like an RTS map, all carefully carved up into high and low-ground to create tactical challenges.

I'm experiencing a lot of pop-in as I fly, but it's a small price to pay for the ability to jet across such an expansive and gorgeous landscape without ever stopping to load anything. At one point I hit a fog bank and assume it's land's end only to discover that the cloud cover is just obscuring another deep canyon with more bases to capture. I'm conditioned to assume that maps shouldn't be this big.

My favorite area is in the north: a dried-up tropical seabed scattered with alien coral structures. What strikes me the most is the “hand-crafted” feel. As I fly I can see how each base looks like it was built by someone who had a good reason to put it there. These aren't prefabs plopped down on randomly generated height maps: natural formations have been carved to create tactical scenarios and the bases have easily intuited defensive strengths and weaknesses.

A base built into a deep crevasse, for example, might be well-defended from tanks, but is vulnerable to air attacks and troops on the high ground. A base in a foggy, forested area, however, might be better avoided by aircraft as sneaky anti-air soldiers can be hidden below the canopy.

After my tour, I return to the action and crash into the side of a tower. Again, I'd have been more careful if I attached any value to my Scythe, but I'm playing the game like it's Saints Row 3. The beta's starting soon, and I'm looking forward to seeing what a massive, organized team can actually pull off. The first thing I want to do is get as many players in the air as I can to orchestrate my very own blitzkrieg (you always remember your first blitz, I hear). I want to darken the sky, rain fire, all of that, just to see if it's a viable tactic. Bonus points if the enemy sees it coming and bolsters anti-air support to make it trickier.

Tyler Wilde
Executive Editor

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley during the '80s and '90s, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on early PCs. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now, and PS1 classic Bushido Blade (that's right: he had Bleem!). Tyler joined PC Gamer in 2011, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. His hobbies include amateur boxing and adding to his 1,200-plus hours in Rocket League.