You have a gun when you first spawn in PlanetSide 2, which might inspire a slight amount of confidence. Then you look outside and see a line of tanks at your base’s entrance, all frantically pummeling the exterior with glowing explosive projectiles that light up the night. The sky is a fireworks display of swooping, dodging fighters trying to puncture each other and destroy enemy turrets and transports. On the ground your teammates run and shoot and die amidst a network of small arms fire and healing beams. It’s utter, unrelenting chaos, and for a moment you may feel a stab of panic as you consider the impossibility of ever making a difference. Yet it’s not the kind of panic that sends you screaming away in terror. It’s the kind that sparks fascination, that makes you want to rush to the front lines and pull the trigger even if you have no idea who’s attacking or why.
Play for a few hours more and you likely still won’t have a good idea of what everything is and what it all does. Developer Sony Online Entertainment isn’t interested in telling a story, and the in-game tutorial menus do a poor job of explaining PlanetSide 2’s mechanics. If you play Terran Republic, you know that the red guys are your friends, the blue guys who look almost exactly like you are trying to kill you and so are the purple guys who use way cooler energy weapons. So you fight to control the planet of Auraxis, because if you don’t, the other two teams will keep slaughtering you and your friends, blowing up your tanks and taking your land until you’re pushed into a tiny corner of PlanetSide 2’s three huge, open territories and thoroughly mocked on message boards and social networks. It’s senseless war, yet one that all involved are heavily invested in perpetuating because it’s so much fun to wage.
PlanetSide 2’s power is that all its frenzied conflicts are player-generated. SOE provides the map, the tools and rules for capturing territory, but beyond that the direction of approach, makeup of the attack force and method of assault is entirely up to you and your squad. You could roll 30 tanks through a valley to hammer the side of an Amp Station while 20 Light Assault soldiers jetpack over the base’s outer walls. You could airdrop an attack force right behind the enemy’s front lines. You could sneak into hostile territory with cloaked Infiltrators and hack all of your foe’s vehicle spawner consoles. Or you could give up and go attack a different base. There’s so much room for creativity regarding how you assemble, attack and defend, and so many variables in every fight that keep the action from stagnating, and yet despite the constant mess of explosions and gunfire, the gameplay never feels completely out of control. Victories require not only accurate shots, but intelligent target prioritization, situational awareness and a willingness to work with others and sacrifice personal glory for the benefit of the team.
While that may sound overwhelming, SOE makes it manageable with excellent class design. The basic classes should be familiar to any shooter fan. The Medic heals and revives, the Engineer repairs machines and sets up turrets, the Heavy Assault class gets light machine guns and can use rockets to fight back against enemy vehicles. While that may not sound too exciting, each class is far more versatile than they might seem at first. The Light Assault class’ jetpack, for instance, can lift you over a rock in the landscape to escape incoming fire. It’s also useful for floating down from high ledges without taking falling damage or drifting down to safety from the pilot seat of doomed aircraft or accessing rooftops to crouch down and pick off unsuspecting enemies running around below. You feel like a capable combatant even if you’re best suited to support or snipe defenders from afar. Still, the class designs ensure you need to rely on your friends to make any significant progress, which fosters a powerful sense of camaraderie and makes victories feel all the more rewarding, and losses all the more demoralizing, because of the sheer magnitude of the combined effort required.
Should the demands of battle shift, as they often do, it’s usually no trouble to switch roles. Weapon and vehicle stations are common on Auraxis, and by interacting with them you can spawn four-wheelers or air transports or swap your sniper rifle for a superpowered but slow MAX suit. Within minutes the style of gameplay can change from corridor-style shooting inside Tech Plants and Bio-Labs to long-distance exchanges of rockets and sniper shots as attackers are pushed back from a base and out across a nearby valley or canyon-spanning bridge. While hardly any fighting occurs in the empty, wide open spaces between bases, there’s enough diversity in landscape formations and base designs that fights around capture points never really get dull, especially because the world is open and if you need additional tanks, you and your squad can simply go back to a previously conquered base to spawn them and drive them back.
It certainly helps that PlanetSide 2 actually feels like a shooter. The raw, primal thrill of staring down iron sights and shredding an enemy with a controlled burst of raucous fire from an assault rifle is very much present. Guns sound and feel like they have weight, like they’re not just floating nothings onscreen that deal pure math damage but instead spew out superheated projectiles of sci-fi lethality. Even the Vanu’s energy weapons are exciting to fire, and benefit from an especially neat reload animation of their puck-like magazines. The visual feedback you get while peppering an adversary with gunfire until their shields shatter in a puff of polygons is just as satisfying as pulling the trigger.
Vehicles provide yet another entirely different mode of play. Multi-seat armored transports, tanks and four wheelers are all simple to control, but expect to accidentally smash into mountainsides the first few times you jump into an airborne attack craft. In the fighters you can zip around the skies and dogfight with enemy craft in high altitude chases or dive low and glide around hills, circle bases and use the terrain as a way to escape and gain an advantage. As a team you can also pile into larger aircraft to man multiple weapon systems to harass enemy ground forces or serve as part of an invasion fleet and drop passengers directly into an enemy installation. Like with the class variety, the vehicles add plenty of inventive options for organized groups of players to conquer more of Auraxis.
SOE’s excellent map system ensures finding these battles is never much of a problem. The map displays active combat zones and lets you fall via drop pod into besieged bases. Since launch there’ve been plenty of players online so finding a fight with more than 50 per side is easy, and sometimes you’re treated to truly colossal encounters as all three factions converge on a single point. Capturing territory isn’t solely for pride, either, but gives your faction benefits like additional vehicles or turret heat reduction or boosted resource allocation, so strength comes not only from having more territory, but also having the right territory.
You’ll also use the map to select a respawn point when you die, which is a critical element of any battle. It’s tough to keep the pressure on an enemy base if you have take a two minute ride back to the fight every time, so SOE provides ways to activate additional spawn markers around an active combat zone. You’ll rarely find a battle without a few parked Sunderers — transport vehicles that can be deployed as spawn points and class-switching stations. The presence of even a single deployed Sunderer can have a significant effect, and along with squad spawn beacons, is yet another way for the priorities of a fight to shift only the fly. If the defenders are paying attention they’ll emerge from hiding to blast any Sunderer in range. The opposing team’s Engineers must then dedicate their short virtual lives to blasting their repair guns at the Sunderer’s armor to ensure continued access to easy reinforcements. It’s yet another eddy within the larger maelstrom of battle that adds variety and rewards coordination.
As tends to be the case in many online shooters these days, the more you fight, the more you unlock. PlanetSide 2’s extensive progression system lets you modify classes, weapons and even the vehicles. Though there’s always a danger free-to-play games like PlanetSide 2 could turn into aggravating pay-to-win experiences, SOE has built a system where it’s simply not possible to immediately buy the best all-around character. New guns for classes and weapons for tanks and vehicles can be purchased with real money, but are all also purchasable with virtual currency earned by playing the game. It’s going to take many, many hours of play to earn enough virtual currency to afford new weapons, but even so, the weapons available to each class for free are still extremely deadly in combat.
In another smart move, the upgrades for every class and weapon are only purchasable with virtual currency, so there’s no way for a rich player to log in, drop a huge amount of cash and instantly gain access to everything. There’s also no way to directly purchase virtual currency, though there are several ways to boost the rate at which it’s earned. In this way, playing without paying doesn’t feel like you’re at an unconquerable disadvantage, and many of the upgrades force you to give up something useful in order to take advantage of them.
Though there will be statistical discrepancies across classes depending on purchasing decisions, the huge scale and scope of PlanetSide 2’s battles serve to keep the playing field level. Even a tremendously skilled and upgraded sniper isn’t going to have much luck staying alive once the opposing team counters with sustained fire from ten tanks. Individual skill will always be overruled by superior teamwork, but even so, it never feels like you’re completely worthless if you’re not part of a highly organized outfit (PlanetSide 2’s term for guild). You’re also given experience for assists, heals, repairs and captured territory so progress isn’t only possible for scoring kills, which makes teamwork feel more worthwhile even if you don’t join a squad.
In addition to continuing to unlock upgrades for your class, the sheer spectacle of the PlanetSide 2 experience is a strong incentive to keep logging in. SOE’s generic sci-fi art style isn’t going to impress anyone, but when the setting sun’s light shines across the slopes and rocks of Auraxis’ varied topography while aircraft zoom overhead and columns of tanks stream in to reinforce an attack, it instills an irresistible excitement. The swarming, exploding insanity of war is constant in PlanetSide 2, and deeply affecting because the scenes are not pre-programmed routines, but the results of unpredictable human decision-making. Moments like these make it easy to insert your own imagined stories of galactic conquest and perseverance against ruthless foes into the narrative void left by SOE, so that afterwards you’re nearly bursting with the need to share your tales of conquest with friends.
It’s too bad, then, that PlanetSide 2 still suffers from polish issues. Weird bugs like floating health beams and jittering player models and glitchy animations can interfere with play, and considering how fast and frantic the action is, any spikes of lag can really mess up a firefight. Though the bugs can be irritating, they never ruin the overall experience, and are certainly worth putting up to enjoy everything PlanetSide 2 does so very well. I tested PlanetSide 2 at cranked up settings using a 580 GTX and it ran at an acceptable framerate, which was surprising considering how much can be going on onscreen. It’s still not the smoothest experience, though, so hopefully SOE will push out updates to address some of these issues in the coming months.
The scale of PlanetSide 2’s battles is often breathtaking, as lines of tanks fire at bases while aircraft light up the sky and hundreds of players fill the scene with healing beams and lethal weapons fire. With versatile classes, deep progression systems and various styles of air and ground vehicles, there’s no shortage of ways to contribute to a fight, and on a coordinated team in PlanetSide 2’s open environments, Sony Online Entertainment’s game of nonstop war can be a truly incredible competitive experience. While there are still some polish issues to work out, PlanetSide 2 is one of the best online shooters you can play.