The joy of the massively multiplayer sci-fi shooter Planetside was the war stories. In another life my name was Commander Batsphinx, and I fought for the New Conglomerate. Sometimes when I find myself drinking with old comrades we reminisce - telling tales of war that the younger generation don't seem to understand. The time we defended that vital bridge with hundreds of our brave boys against those bastard Vanu. The time we defended a fort when outnumbered by Reavers and won the day. That time we camped that spawn tube again and again and again.
The perpetual war of Planetside 2 is being built to recreate this heady experience, and on the basis of what Sony Online Entertainment showed yesterday at GDC in San Francisco, it looks set to kindle war stories that will bore grandchildren the world over.
"We've identified a lot of things as 'Planetside moments' that we're trying to encourage." explains Creative Director Matt Higby. "It's always the large-scale co-operative things: a dozen Galaxies flying full of troops and all dropping off in a co-ordinated way, or five Reavers flying over a hill in formation. A lot of games replicate that through a cut-scene. I mean, Modern Warfare 3 from a cinematic standpoint was incredible, you'd see airplanes flying overhead, submarines surfacing and buildings collapsing. You felt part of this enormous fight. Thing is, in Planetside 2 all that stuff is actually player-controlled."
The persistent world of Auraxis is a land of capturable checkpoints - with a frontline that's permanently in flux, being pulled hither and thither as three opposing forces fight to keep their reservoirs of resources topped up. Once the enemy captures a base that supplies a certain resource (generally through an internal battle of point capture, Conquest-style) then that particular tap is turned off.
"Say I'm fighting against Vanu characters, who can equip their Magrider tanks with a Heavy Rail Beam Cannon and can tear the armour on my team's tanks to s**t. They just get annihilated," says Higby. "So one of the ways I can defeat them is by capturing the resource that they use to equip them. So my side can strategically send some Commando units in Galaxies to take over the bases on the periphery of their territory to deplete their supplies." You get bonuses if the outpost of your side's affections lies adjacent to territory you already own - but there's also nothing to stop you and your chums dashing further behind enemy lines if you fancy more of a suicide mission.
Auraxis itself is now a beautiful place. There are grassy, tree-lined hills perfect for chaotic confrontations between infantry and vehicles, forcefield-protected mega-bases and long winding canyons where columns of tanks can be dramatically ambushed by aerial firepower. All of it, meanwhile, is lavishly lit by a day/night circle that prompts night-time tracer fire to light up the midnight sky and sports beautiful dawns and red-skied evenings that no doubt delight surviving local shepherds. Should there be two full moons then nights will be bright, but if there's neither, you'd be advised to pack night-vision goggles.
Overall, Planetside 2 is trying to pitch itself as more of a shooter than an MMO, to the extent that during yesterday's showing, players of Shooter Presentation Buzzword Bingo celebrated the use of the word "visceral" on no less than three occasions. The social aspect is present throughout, however, albeit frequently streamlined. Grouping with up to 10 allies (of the 600 available) can be automated - while unlock systems and guilds also have stabilisers attached to ensnare mainstream-types who've wandered into Planetside 2's den. In fact, Sony is so keen to entice players who prefer to play in shorter bursts that you'll even earn XP to spend that's built up (Eve-style) when you haven't been playing.
Extended play and racked-up XP won't necessarily give you an advantage through upgrades, but will give you more options to 'sidegrade' your character and play-style (SOE's nonsense neologism, not mine). A Reaver gunship, for example, could be kitted out as a dogfighter with air-to-air missiles and flares - or alternatively draped in tech meant to cause disruption on ground level. A Heavy could tote a rocket launcher rather than an infantry-shredding minigun to make him an anti-vehicle specialist, or a stealthy Infiltrator could dispense with a sniper rifle and half-decent cloak in favour of more effective invisibility and an attractive range of C4 and spy cameras.
Seeing as this is a recreation of real battle, meanwhile, the war won't purely be won by the cannon fodder on the front lines. To be successful in Planetside 2, you don't necessarily have to fire a shot - even if it often helps. Logistics are vital to the war effort, so you could, for example, be the dependable pilot of a Galaxy troop transporter that you've sidegraded (sigh) to act as a mobile resupply or respawn point. Patriotic duty like this will earn you XP, just as it would if you were playing as a Medic.
As is increasingly the way of the world, Planetside 2 will cost you approximately zero pence to play. As is increasingly the way of game publishers, meanwhile, SOE is desperate to underline that any cash you choose to contribute to the coffers will not, in any way, elevate you above your fellow man in terms of abilities. Sidegrades, remember?
"With Station Cash [SOE-speak for 'money'] you'll be able to buy things like experience boosters, resource boosters and all kinds of different cosmetic customisations like camos and decals." explains Higby. "After that comes what we call 'Gameplay choice items', they're like the sidegrades - so, for example, a weapon that trades off the stopping power of your weapon for firing range." All sidegraded items (Jesus, they've got me saying it now) can be unlocked through playing the game - it's just that good old dependable Station Cash gets the job done quickly.
Planetside 2 may eschew HART drops and constant spawn-tube camping, but this certainly looks like being a worthy (if belated) successor to the game that dazzled us so many years ago. Seeing it in a controlled demonstration however, without the ebb and flow of real constant battle, means that we still can only imagine what player-driven delights might be opened up as the game limbers up for its beta process and beyond.
The only certainty is that the glorious New Conglomerate will rise again. Death to all those who oppose us.