Planetside 2, SOE’s hulking, free-to-play MMOFPS, is the kind of game that friends conjure up when they get together and let their imaginations run wild. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” someone might say, “if there was a sci-fi shooter--and you fought over territory, and it was always persistent? You’d go to sleep, and wake up, and all your bases would be captured! And you’d have to fight and reclaim them!” Then you would say, “Yeah... and there would be tons of players! Thousands at a time! And vehicles!”
Those ideas are brought to life uncompromised in Planetside 2. It’s ambitious and visually gorgeous, with the action happening on a scale--up to 2,000 players on just one of the game's three continents--that makes Call of Duty look quaint. It’s also demanding, asking players for precision, timing, and strategy to succeed. However, that reaching scope presents one of Planetside 2's biggest challenges, as reveling in its joys first requires hours and hours of clumsy and frustrating death.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t eventually send shivers down your spine or make you squeal with glee. Because when you and 10 squadmates are plowing through the desert on ATVs, headlights piercing the darkness, sneaking behind enemy lines as a massive tank battle thunders at the front, the only way to describe it is, “This kicks ass,” even if you don’t always know exactly what you’re doing.
Planetside 2 requires patience, but pays off in a big way.
The game’s lore doesn’t matter much: The important story is the one players create. Just know there are three factions and a planet named Auraxis, which has three continents. The factions are trying to control the continents. Being a faction member means your job is to capture and defend the key strategic points around each landmass.
Choosing a faction is important because equipment and weaponry vary vastly between them. The Vanu Sovereignty, for example, uses plasma weapons that remain accurate at long distance, while the Terran Republic uses rapid-fire, low-damage traditional bullets. These differences in weaponry make for sizable mechanical shifts between the factions, meaning it might take you a few different characters to find the style you like most.
As each faction conquers land, they get bonuses to reward their efforts, and a stronger stream of resources with which to purchase vehicles and equipment. The key to successfully taking more territory is teamwork: This is not a great game for lone wolves. Your squad has to function as a unit. Players can switch at will between the game's five classes: jetpack-toting Light Assault, heal-dispensing Medic, ammo-and-turret-providing Engineer, vehicle-destroying Heavy Assault, and the mech-armor-wearing MAX class. Each of these perform a specific function in battle, and it’s players' responsibility to know their roles. Learning is overwhelming and stressful at first, but later, when your squad is firing on all cylinders and the enemy is crumbling, the growing pains are quickly forgotten.
This steep learning curve, combined with a poor new player experience, initially makes the game frustrating and filled with quick deaths. There are optional video tutorials, but otherwise new folks are dropped immediately into the fray to die quickly and pathetically. Fortunately, players always have the option to quick deploy to the under-siege spots on the map, so it’s not hard to get to where the action is (and, in the beginning, hopefully leech a few kills).
War is waged through a combination of land-based vehicles, on-foot soldiers, and aircraft. None of these modes are a cakewalk. The FPS component of the game--when you’re not in a vehicle--is deliberately paced, strategic, and unforgiving. The upgrade from a 16-player deathmatch to a 500-player all-out war feels strange at first. Smaller firefights bleed into each other, forming a messy and chaotic battle. You’ll instantly feel when your team starts to gain or lose ground. Success depends on learning when you should push and when to fall back, when and where to take cover, how to deal with specific classes, and, again, how to work as a group with your teammates. Otherwise, all you do is die.
Still, the shooting mechanics seem too punishing. Those with poor reflexes might have been better served with more accurate guns, bigger and more clearly defined targets, and the ability to take a few more bullets before dieing. At the same time, these mechanics help prevent any Rambo-style exploits, as running solo into enemy forces will only get you killed.
And piloting vehicles is no simple task. They’re easy to take a leisurely drive or flight with, but as far as actually maneuvering them successfully in a high-pressure, frenzied combat scenario? That takes a lot of practice. Even the mounted turrets and cannons take a while to get familiar with. Still, even if you’re clueless, strapping into the pilot’s seat of a gunship while two comrades man its turrets feels great, like starring in your own buddy-buddy action movie.
The game features a straightforward leveling system that can be used to customize your character. Nearly anything you do in the game--killing, destroying and repairing objectives, healing other players, and so on--nets experience points that increase your character’s level, and certification points which can be spent to unlock new weapons, armor, and passive or active abilities for each class. Using certifications, you can easily tweak your class of choice to cover your shortcomings as a player, or accentuate your strengths, but you won’t be redefining how you play the game. This system is also where most of the paid elements of the game come in. You can spend cash to expedite getting better weapons, accessories, and abilities.
$25 was spent in-game for this review, and doing so revealed that while you can get an edge by using real-world money, PlanetSide 2 is not a pay-to-win game. Even if you have the best gun for your class, it doesn’t mean much if you can’t aim for crap, or if you’re approaching a target from a poorly chosen route. However, in a match of even skill, having better equipment makes a huge difference--and the player who spends real money will have a quicker, easier route to the best gear in the game. Those who opt not to pay can still get high-end gear, only slower. Likewise, a paid account (which grants faster resource, experience, and certification gain) helps expedite the character growth process but doesn’t put subscribers in a position that non-payers can’t reach.
With a game this ambitious, technical issues are to be expected. A considerable chunk of players are experiencing problems ranging from low frame rates to frequent crashing. Many of the issues are related to poor performance on lower-end machines, while others appear to be happening regardless of hardware power. SOE remains adamant that optimization and bug-squashing are coming soon.
PlanetSide 2 will make your heart pound. It will make you feel childlike, game-induced euphoria. In a sea of FPS copy-cats, it’s a novel and refreshing experience. Sure, it may crash and stutter, and yeah, you’ll be lost for a while when you start. But sometime between being 1,000 feet above a battlefield dumping rockets on anything that moves, sniping medics from the top of a valley, leading a column of tanks toward an oblivious enemy base, and recklessly hurling yourself, rifle blazing, into a hundred-person firefight, you forget about the bad parts. By that point, you’re just playing the game you’ve been dreaming about.