Still Playing: PlanetSide 2 – the unheralded online shooter that could take on Titanfall and Destiny
This PC shooter already hosts online battles to compare with much-hyped console contenders. It’s coming to PS4 in 2014.
Your Battlefield is deserted. Your Destiny is uncertain. Those who answer your Call of Duty lack fervour. As you peek over the parapet of a PlanetSide 2 bunker to see an actual army advancing towards you, a hundred scurrying infantry flanking ponderous tanks and troop carriers, gunships and distant bombers weaving between AA fire, before the first barrage hunkers you useless behind the wall, you know that nothing else matches this scale.
The original PlanetSide was released way back in 2003, but its high specifications, laggy aiming and need for fast broadband limited its appeal, despite positive reviews. I imagine the development team built up a wishlist during that time of what they’d do differently, always thinking they’d never get another chance.
But the game retained its players. The variety of roles and weapons and settings and vehicles gave the first PlanetSide massive variety, despite its futuristic wargame setting. It was moreish because nothing else matched its heights – when the server is full and your Outfit (gild) is online, wings of Galaxy air transports are flying and columns of tanks are driving between the battlefields, team-spawning into a full-scale battle is overwhelming. My kill/death ratio in these situations is appalling. But it always provides war stories.
Each continent consists of an array of huge, linked heavily-defended bases.
Even its lows were oddly compelling. I’ve never felt as tense as when I was driving an unarmed, solitary supply ANT to a besieged base, miraculously making it through rough woodland and strafing by enemy pilots, only to find the siege over on my arrival. Or when I’d lugged my anti-air suit to the top of a base antenna, waiting for an air assault that never came.
So they made the sequel, which was released as free-to-play in 2012, and is coming to PS4 this year. PlanetSide 2 feels like those developers got to fulfil that wishlist. It’s like Team Fortress 2, in that it’s a war that’s always waiting for you. It has Team Fortress 2’s Rockefeller-expensive range of costumes and guns, which players preen over and carefully customise until they’re made useless by the next patch.
Thanks to the battle creation systems in place, it also has Team Fortress 2’s immediacy. These days, I mostly play Planetside 2 solo – dropping into wherever the fighting is thickest and auto-joining a squad – and the huge open world makes the arena different every time. I’ve landed on the tops of arcologies from where I’ve watched dogfights below, or into wooded canyons full of infantry, or onto great open plains where tank platoons face off, or into empty bases where I’ve played hide and seek with a single enemy infiltrator. The game will focus you down towards battles that are emerging, no matter how big or small the server is, meaning fights escalate fast.
Only Eve hosts battles larger than Planetside 2 – and they only manage because they slow the entire star system down.
And when my Outfit is online, the feel changes entirely. Now it’s more like Battlefield 4, but your squad is part of a much larger platoon that’s following orders from faction commanders. Coordinated assaults from several specialised squads on heavily-defended bases can take hours to resolve, with careful medic work and respawn platform placement allowing troops to maintain fronts and push them back and forth.
Yet, also like Team Fortress, the game is changed every time I log in, because development never stops. Some changes are small – there are always some new weapons or gadgets on sale, or tweaks to the UI. Some are huge, like the Player Studio that allows players to make their own skins for sale in the in-game store, or the colour-blind settings that allowed me to stop shooting my teammates.
The final similarity with TF2 is more negative – it’s the sense of impermanence. Though the more you play (especially if you subscribe) the more kit you get to play with, it’s the combat that really lures players back. But there’s no consequence to the combat. Yes, grabbing an Air Tower for your faction means that aircraft are cheaper, but next time you log in, it’ll have switched hands a hundred times. Long-term consequence is still a challenge that no MMO has dared to meet since Ultima Online.
Sony is planning to launch PS2 on PS4 this year, apparently ignoring the egregious acronym confusion. In the run-up to that, its internal developer SOE is adding dropship-loads of content, as shown in their public development roadmap. In March alone, they’re planning to update the Liberator bomber, change the death screen and outfit recruitment, add automated missions and 64-bit clients, and allow outfits to capture bases.
PlayStation players will encounter PlanetSide 2 after a the seventh console generation where tiny, slow memory meant that horrible compromises were made between looks, map sizes and player numbers. On PS4, Planetside 2 is going to knock their socks off. It’s due for release sometime this year – if it can come out soon, it’ll make the 12 player Titanfall seem shallow immediately. If it comes out later, it might do the same to Destiny. To threaten one of these is impressive; it’s a tribute to Planetside’s polish and scale that it can take them both on simultaneously.