Games of 2012 - Planetside 2

I feel like I know Matt Higby. PlanetSide 2's creative director lives half a planet away from me in San Diego, where he's currently helming development on SOE's second shot at the MMOFPS. But he once flew Reavers for the New Conglomerate in PlanetSide. He piloted a gunship, screaming through the sky over hundred-man battles. He rained rockets down on enemy tanks, he lanced snipers with his chaingun. He's me, in a suntan and a nicer suit.

The Reaver, PlanetSide's air-to-ground dominator, remains in PlanetSide 2. Most of the original vehicles and weapons are returning in spruced-up form. But where I once had to survive hours of combat before I'd earned a battle rank sufficient to be handed the keys to my very own Reaver, PlanetSide 2 will let me jump into any of my faction's vehicle seats from my first minute in the game.

At least, that's Matt's plan: the eventual beta launch may change that. “We may say, 'Hey, you know what? you have to have a certain amount of time in the Lightning before you're able to use a Vanguard.'” The Lightning is PlanetSide 2's light tank; the Vanguard the New Conglomerate's trundling behemoth, armed with a 10ft-long cannon. This progression handily illustrates PlanetSide 2's new skill tree system.

“The Vanguard has a ton of unlocks: different side-graded weapons that allow me to do things situationally. I might want a flak cannon on top because there's a lot of aircraft in my area of combat. A new Vanguard driver won't necessarily have access to all the different kinds of armour and countermeasures – all the different kinds of telemetry and radar systems that someone who's been playing a Vanguard for a really long time has unlocked.”

I ask Matt how much time it would take before I felt totally comfortable strapped back into my Reaver. He counted it out as 10 hours, that time giving me a wide range of unlocks – enough to be dangerous in most situations in my one chosen steed.

But upgrades don't have to be earned with timeclock stamping: players who don't check in every day will be able to climb the same ability ladders as their more diligent friends. Pick one of PlanetSide 2's skills and it'll be queued to learn. Log off, and you'll continue studying how to attach longer range scopes to your Bolt-Driver sniper rifle, get better at hacking enemy vehicles, or another one of the game's multitude of skills.

Players who are online during their skill studies will see them unlock faster, but there are more immediate rewards for those keen to invigorate their learning process, as Matt confirms: “You're able to shortcut your skills by burning resources.”

Resources themselves are earned by engaging in battle against the two oppositional empires: capture an area on one of the game's continents and you'll gain resources. Matt explains further: “You'll also gain resources while your empire holds that territory. So if you are a member of an empire and own 50% of a continent, you will gain resources just for playing on that continent all the time, even if you're not capturing anything new. You can use those resources for doing things like upgrading your weapons, getting new weapons from an equipment terminal, or buying things from the store.”

PlanetSide 2 will be free-to-play, and the store will offer items for Sony's magical pixie version of real money: Station Cash. But Matt is adamant the game's model won't be 'pay to win'. Items that are only purchasable with Station Cash – not resources – will just be cosmetic. Core to this approach is the idea of side-grades: things players can unlock that don't conclusively better their lot on the battlefield, but specialise their abilities.

Choice is built into the game at all levels, meaning players can quickly swap their focus on the battlefield without extracurricular menu tinkering. “Maybe I want to have a scope on my Cycler: I can go up to an equipment terminal and swap out my old weapon for the new one. That might incur some resource cost with it – we're still balancing exactly where we want the resource drain to be in the game. Similarly, if I want my Magrider tank to have an AA flak gun on the top of it, I can bolt it on when I'm dead on the respawn screen.”

SOE plans to include a subscription model for those who fancy access to what Matt calls 'premium features', but I'm already sold on the idea of sticking with my chosen vehicle for the long haul. I relied on my Reaver in PlanetSide, and grew into the cockpit until it became a part of me. I was unhappy with my feet on the ground in Auraxis. The idea of plugging months' worth of advancement into my Reaver, earning cannons and rockets and countermeasures and targeting systems (and all the things I wished I could tinker with back in 2003), is a prospect that thrills me like little else in gaming. Having known PlanetSide, Matt understands me. Now I know PlanetSide 2, I think you'll understand my excitement too.