After several months since launch, Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer revisits SoE's resilient MMO shooter.
It's a shooter box, I'd argued dismissively. A scaled up version of Team Fortress 2, without the hats and grim humor. It won't have any lasting appeal, I’d persuaded myself, when there are so many other established multiplayer shooters. There's nothing new here at all.
I was wrong. Planetside 2 is possibly the natural evolution of the modern shooter. By swapping small maps that support 8 players a side and replacing them with giant landscapes that contain thousands, it reflects the ebb and flow of war in swirling, chaotic glory. It is by no means perfect, but it is incredible to experience.
My initial assessment was borne out of frustration; unlike other MMOs, playing Planetside 2 alone varied between tedious boredom and annoyed frustration. Deploying into an on-going conflict could rapidly deteriorate into a cycle of spawning, being swamped by overwhelming enemies, and spawning again. In a game where the players are the content, it was easy to feel like you're just part of someone else's kill streak.
It was a similar story with vehicular combat. Jumping in a scythe for some airborne action brought back fond memories of X-wing vs TIE Fighter, but the inadequacies of a fresh fighter without any upgrades frequently saw me shot out of the sky. I’d end up waiting at the warpgate for a painfully long acquisition timer to wear off. Tanks seemed to vary between the long drive to get to the battlefront, and the difficulty of finding a target I could actually hit. The lesson it taught me: defaults are dull.
Any war needs organization; else it becomes a meaningless brawl. A squad of gamers with a common plan can hold back a platoon of ill-disciplined invaders. A platoon of players acting in concert can halt a zerg in its tracks, turning the tide of war around and pushing the offensive. In Planetside 2, the best weapon isn't the gun that you hold, it's the outfit you join. This was what started to change the game for me; not something SoE had built, but an entity the players themselves had created.
In previous MMOs, guilds have been about recruiting the most dedicated raiders or smartest PvPers. With Planetside 2 the dynamic is different: point a gun and follow orders, and you're in the outfit. Your best asset is dedication, putting the hours in and playing as part of the team.
There is always a place for shooting skill. Snipers will find their sanctuary behind a long range scope. Close quarters fighters will hop between Light and Heavy assault, getting around with either jetpack finesse or rocket-launcher force. But Planetside 2 is a game of layers. Medics can heal and revive allies. Engineers can pin down infantry and armored columns with deployed turrets, or drop ammo packs to resupply others. Those roles become increasingly vital in a good group, where keeping squad mates up and shooting is as important as pumping lead.
Those layers stretch beyond the moment to moment gunplay, opening up new roles that only exist within the outfit. The tactician, looking down on the battlefield with a mind’s eye, guiding units of players around particular objectives. The scout, probing for gaps in the enemy front line that could be used to launch a flank or feint. The squad commander, leading a small group to an objective and keeping it secured while the capture timer ticks down. The man-at-arms, tracking what upgrades and unlocks each player has, to ensure a good mix of capabilities.
I’m not suggesting that Planetside 2 is perfect; although it’s offered as a free to play game, almost all weapons can be unlocked quickly by opening your wallet and buying Station Cash. After spending some time with each of the six classes, it’s worth picking out a favourite and tooling up with a tailored arsenal. All told, I ended up spending about $20 on my first class, although it’s possible to save a bundle and stalk the daily sale until something you want crops up. It’s the same deal for vehicles, with several must-have specializations available for a few dollars.
That said, it is possible to grind your way to that top-tier rifle or tank-mounted rocket launcher, simply by accruing certification points. Depending on your skill, points can roll in at a rapid pace - get to the front lines of a conflict, rack up the kills and capture facilities, and you could be unwrapping that sweet upgrade in next to no time. SoE also offers regular double XP and double Station Cash promotions for those looking to ease the burden on their time or their plastic.
It’s also fair to say that Planetside 2 is all about the shooting. If you’re looking for an immersive storyline that extends over months of narrative, you won’t find it here. While you’ll likely share stories of how you and five friends held back two platoons at the Crossroads, don’t expect Saving Private Ryan in sci-fi form. Your first quest: shoot people. Rinse, repeat, in as varied and effective a way as possible.
Since I started playing Planetside 2, I’ve had two fears on how the game would evolve. The first is about the game becoming stale, but it’s a slippery slope that SoE has largely managed to avoid. Part of that is due to the constant evolution of tactics and counter-tactics; at one moment armored columns with supporting troop carriers might be a viable tactic, then counters might emerge using squads of engineers to mine more common approaches. The game itself is also constantly changing, with weapon changes and additions, map changes and vehicle rebalancing creating a constantly changing environment.
My other fear is that Planetside 2 loses its humor. The beta was marked by players doing crazy things, like stacking aircraft on top of each other or dropping tanks from impossible heights. As war between the three factions intensified following server mergers, I hoped that outfit leaders would still find time to laugh. If YouTube is any indication, gamers are still making their own fun, with one enterprising individual strapping C4 to his quad bike and using it to obliterate enemy vehicles. Here’s hoping that such explosive imagination continues for a long time.
At the end of the day, Planetside 2 is still a shooter. But, while games like Team Fortress 2 and Counter Strike focus on two teams duking it out, Sony’s creation offers a much wider and more persistent experience. It’s like playing a Control Point map, with dozens of points spread out across a two kilometre square, and close-knit squads rolling out to attack or defend them. It adds the best parts of the MMO community into a finely honed shooter, becoming something much greater in the process. And even though I’m not there every day, it remains my go-to FPS of choice.
See you on the killing fields.