It's Sunday evening when you get the call. You're putting out the bins, ready for rubbish collection, when your iPhone gives an urgent beep. It's the PlanetSide 2 app, telling you that one of your bases is under attack, that Vanu tanks are within firing range, that your squad has swung into action. A few taps of the screen tells you which squadmates are already en route. A friend messages you, urging you to join them because, hell, you're the most qualified Prowler pilot they've got. You rush to the PC, and you fire up the game.
The squad leader's already barking out orders through voice over IP. That's funny, you say, you thought she was on holiday. She tells you she is; she tells you she's issuing orders from her hotel room, tablet in hand. She tells you things won't be quite so funny when the Vanu capture those vital resources and turn them against you. She's squinting at a battle map that fills the tablet's screen, trying to anticipate the enemy's attack, and she has instructions for your deployment.
You do a quick background check on the incoming forces, because you swear those custom decals are familiar. Yeah, that's right, you tangled with this unit back at that research facility, about a week ago. It didn't go well, but since then you've unlocked a few more certifications on the Prowler, a few more surprises to stuff up your sleeve. The tank's engine roars into life and the moment your gunner climbs in, they've auto-joined you on voice chat. "What's our orders, boss?" he asks, and for just a moment you stare out the window at your neglected bins. "It's time," you tell him, "To take out the trash."
At least, that's the vision that Sony Online Entertainment has for PlanetSide 2, an MMO that can reach far beyond the confines of your computer, and something that's as much about engaging with and co-operating with your fellow players as it is pretty, pretty explosions. You can think of it, says Creative Director Matthew Higby, as a little bit like fishing.
"If this is your hobby, we want you to be able to connect with it as many different ways as possible, not just from sitting in front of a computer," he explains. "If you like fishing, you don't just fish when you're at the lake. You watch the fishing channel, you go to Wal-Mart to look at fishing rods. There's a lot of different things you do around that hobby besides just that moment when you happen to be fishing, so we wanted to have a lot of different ways that you could connect with PlanetSide 2."
Of course, the technical challenge presented by seamlessly integrating so many real-time applications and modes of communication is no mean feat, but SOE demand this level of interaction, this immediacy. "We don't just want a library app where you can use a build calculator, or something where you look up players' stats," says Higby. "This has real-time connectivity to the game server, so you can see the map, the areas that are being captured, if your squad members are there." Wherever you are, PlanetSide 2 can come to you, and still give you some way to join the action. "You can be sat in Aruba with a wi-fi connection, just yelling at people."
Playing through a very early beta of the game, I don't enjoy anything quite that exotic, but I'm only scratching the surface of what will hopefully become a far deeper experience, and much of what Higby calls the "glue pieces" of the game are not yet in place. These include many of the organisational elements that will bring order to the chaos of the 2000-player battles, and they include various squad command features, context-sensitive voice over IP and the "Wall of Data", an enormous, publicly-accessible body of information about almost everything happening in the game that can be mined, shared and used in all sorts of ways. Still, what I am playing is starting to look and feel very much like the graphically-impressive first-person shooter that the original PlanetSide could only dream of being, clearly out to rival every one of the established shooters that it'll go up against at the end of the year.
As Will said earlier this year there are day/night cycles with multiple moons casting different levels of light over the landscape, but there's also all sorts of weather and environmental effects. Morning fogs hug the ground or fill canyons, hiding their bottoms from view, while overcast skies blot out the real-time sunbeams that just moments before were dappling the ground in front of me. Enormous buildings, hand-crafted by the designers, tower above, while whole settlements sprawl in the valleys below. Everything is glossy, everything is pretty and everything is big.
Very big. The continent I'm fighting in one small corner of is 64 square kilometers in size and, since I'm playing a beta, I decide an appropriate vehicle to go for a drive in would be a little buggy. I think I'm funny, and very quickly I've got myself lost. Ten minutes later I've only explored a tiny fraction of the map, but I don't care because I'm having too much fun enjoying the surprisingly responsive off-road experience. But for the few of us in the beta, this is our own private playground, and it's almost impossible for me to imagine all this lush terrain crowded with thousands of players, not without some sort of performance hit, surely?
"The biggest technical challenges have been providing the kind of triple-A graphics that we have with the number of players we want to supply," says Higby. "And being able to have back-end systems that support thousands of players, chat systems that support thousands of players, those sort of things are old hat if you're an MMO developer. We're pretty much exclusively making MMO games [at SOE], so we have a really good handle on what sort of network stack you can have to be able to support all these dudes moving around at once, but in PlanetSide 2 we have an extra factor. Rather than just being able to kill you at sword length, I can shoot you from 800 meters away and my bullet ballistics need to be tracked. We also have real-time physics for all our vehicles, all that kind of stuff needs to be tracked and authenticated on the server and that is a massive challenge."
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That said, Higby's so confident of the game engine and back end that he believes it can continue to impress in ten years time. Given that EverQuest is still going strong after more than a decade, I don't call PlanetSide 2's longevity into question, but can it really be future-proof, and will it really seem so pretty in 2022?
"The engine right now has options that we can't even turn on," he says. Crikey. "Our goal has been to build a scaleable engine, something we can continue to add features to seamlessly, without having to do an engine revamp like we've done for several of our other games." He goes on to explain how the engine is prepared for much higher resolution textures, for far greater draw distances, for more detailed environmental effects. "It's impossible to be future-proof because who knows what the future's going to bring, but the ability to have graphical features that are going to be relevant in the future, that's something we've included very intentionally."
Right now, PlanetSide 2 looks good and it plays as well as any, twitchy, deadly FPS. It needs more player feedback, more of a sense of the power of its guns and the weight of its explosions, but of course it's a work in progress; the closed beta looms, and I'd be foolish to draw such early conclusions. Not least because I know SOE have so much they're going to bolt onto (and underneath) this game over the next six months, and if those "glue pieces" set correctly then PlanetSide 2 could offer a whole lot more than just guns and gloss. It has the potential to be the MMO that really connects its players, in so many new ways.