Giant, bipedal war machines stalk through the hills, small groups of tanks roll in determinedly, while around them infantry move up and engineers lay down defences, fix up damaged vehicles. Soldiers select equipment from a mobile re-spawn vehicle, squatting under a shimmering cloaking dome. Overhead, aircraft dogfight, while a dropship, braving anti-aircraft fire, flies over the besieged base and discharges a contingent of soldiers, some nestled inside bulky exo-armour with formidable firepower. Defenders man gun turrets and return fire from the parapet that tops the base's imposing walls. The battle rages. Welcome to PlanetSide.
Released back in May 2003, PlanetSide was yet another bellicose videogame vision of the future. But unlike previous games involving humans fighting a future war, PlanetSide was unique in that those doing the scrapping were exclusively other players. Potentially thousands of other players, working with a remarkably diverse array of hardware to create unprecedented, elaborate gameplay. That elaborate play survives to this day, with much of what PlanetSide offers yet to be bettered by any game, FPS or MMO. Call of Duty 4's multiplayer, for example, may offer diversity in its weapons, but you're still on small-scale maps on servers that only support small numbers of players. PlanetSide is massive. An entire world at war.
Although the massively multiplayer FPS had been born a few years earlier with World War II Online, PlanetSide improved considerably on the formula. It promised to transform the FPS genre. It didn't. But for those of us who got hooked on PlanetSide, it was a landmark in gaming.
Since a peak in late 2003, PlanetSide starting losing popularity, many online gamers forsaking its twitch-based but frequently laggy play for more traditional RPG pleasures. Today, the PlanetSide community is a pale shadow of its former self, purportedly less than a third of the 75,000 subscriptions the game peaked at in late 2003. Playing these days, however, it's hard to even believe there are 20,000 subscribers frequenting the two remaining servers. (The five-year anniversary of the game in May 2008 was marked by an effort to reinvigorate the action by the combining the two North American servers to form the new Gemini. Meanwhile, the European server, Werner, can be deathly quiet.)
And yet, the things that made PlanetSide so remarkable back in the day are still worth writing home about. For those who've never had the pleasure, PlanetSide was built around a simple premise - humanity went through a wormhole, established colonies on the newly discovered planet Auraxis, the wormhole collapsed, the colonies came to blows. These colonies formed the game's three empires: the New Conglomerate, sporting blue and yellow armour and nominally driven by an ideology of fighting tyranny; the Terran Republic, the remnants of the old earth order, clad in suitably fascistic red and black; and the Vanu Sovereignty, who found ancient alien tech (lots of hot plasma, basically) and wear slinky purple outfits. The backstory is hardly relevant though. PlanetSide is about persistent, perpetual combat, not narrative. And about comradeship.
I've never experienced such a sense of gaming comradeship as in the heyday of PlanetSide, when the massed members of your Outfit (the equivalent to a guild) set out with a mission to conquer a particular swathe of Auraxis. The planet was initially made up of ten continents, but after 2003's Core Combat expansion pack it also included caverns, ostensibly designed to offer a semblance of urban combat. The game's setting was altered further in August 2004's The Bending, which saw the continents become planetoids, though that didn't affect the game's dynamics notably. Something that did affect the dynamics, however, was October 2004's Aftershock, which introduced the aforementioned bipedal mecha: BFRs (the acronym stands for Battle Frame Robotics, honest). For many, this hardware thoroughly shafted the game's balance, and in tandem with the release of World of Warcraft caused some serious migrations.
These days, BFRs seem to sit more comfortably in the game's combat. That sense of comradeship may be hard to find, however. PlanetSide was always tough for the uninitiated; the array of permutations and practicalities you had to get your head around on first entry was bewildering. Today, it's doubly harsh for a newbie or rusty player, as the population seems to consist almost entirely of a hardcore of veterans. If you don't have an in, and don't garner buddies who you can coordinate with on Teamspeak or Ventrillo, it can be a lonely experience.
That said, the game offers the lone wolf player plenty of options - to man solo fighter aircraft, snipe or wear light-weight stealth gear and creep into enemy bases to wreak havoc. Indeed, hacking is one area of the game that's had some recent input from the developers, with a February 2008 patch introducing new hacking options, such as the ability to infect enemy hardware with debilitating viruses, which, for example, cause their automated gun-turrets to turn on them. There's a whiff of irony to the fact that in-game hacking was one of the last areas to receive any attention, as one abiding grievance of honest players is the nagging presence of cheats who hack the game itself. Plus ša change...
PlanetSide does have a levelling system, where you accrue points after building up experience from kills or successful hacks. These points can then be spent on character choices - whether you want to sow a road with mines, or fly a bomber, or hack enemy bases faster. Although this ranking up nominally sounds like a traditional RPG levelling system, it's decidedly different. By and large, PlanetSide is skill-based, reliant on FPS skills in tandem with the wider tactical coordination conducted by commanders. It's also a game that you can jump in and out of. As such, it's a refreshing alternative to massively multiplayer RPGs, with their culture of stat obsession, grinding, and getting locked into protracted instance runs.
Instancing might be part of the overall narrative thrust of your MMORPG experience, but it can get tiresome. Entering a battle on Auraxis, or just exploring by land or air, the game just happens on the fly; it's a fluid, ongoing personal narrative. The constantly evolving story of the battlefield may lack plot and depth, but at least it's unique at every turn, especially when you can engage in combat in such a variety of ways: from grunt, specialising in anti-personal, anti-vehicular or anti-aircraft weapons, to tank gunner, to medic, to pilot manning a fighter, bomber or transport ship.
Nothing is done at the behest of an NPC who mutters the same scripted lines ad infinitum, nothing is done as part of an interminable quest chain, nothing is scripted or part of a linear story mode. It's just you and other gamers, in the endless ebb and flow of conflict. This, of course, is both an extraordinary situation, and arguably a failing of the game.
In the glory days of PlanetSide, thrilling base and tower battles, as well as smaller running skirmishes, could be found on several corners of Auraxis. Today, with the dwindling populations, the action tends to be concentrated on just one continent/planetoid, and take the form of one base siege. For someone who played in the old days, it's sad, disappointing. My best ever gaming experiences were in PlanetSide, but today's play can't compare with the memories.
At five years old, with its shrinking populations, aged graphics engine, and ongoing support from SOE that consists of little more than basic tweaks and a few seasonal perks, PlanetSide is dying a slow death. Considering it remains the best ever large scale FPS, this smacks of tragedy. That said, that martial theme tune on the load screen never fails to get the old heart beating. And that one base siege can still be awesome.
7 / 10