War in PlanetSide 2 isn't hell, though your first experience of it probably will be. You create your character and pick a faction. Then you're unceremoniously dropped - literally, from space - right into the biggest battle the game can find, surrounded by enemies and tanks and anything else that happens to be around, with a life expectancy measured in milliseconds.
Somehow beat the odds and things don't get better. You stagger from death to death in a haze of confusion and unexplained icons, not as some elite soldier of legend, but simply one more fleck of gristle in a planet-sized meat grinder that never, ever stops churning. At some point, you will be run over by a tank. Probably driven by someone on your team.
It's nothing personal, of course. PlanetSide 2 is far too busy for that. In most shooters, 16 players counts as a party. More advanced ones might push the limit to 32, or 64. In Sony Online Entertainment's free-to-play massively multiplayer game, you're dealing with 2000 players per continent - thankfully not all on screen at once - locked in a three-way tug of war that doesn't simply take cues from the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield, but has a good go at stealing their thunder.
Those games ultimately win out in terms of feel, but PlanetSide 2 even being comparable is a stunning achievement when compared to the standards of your average action MMO. This is easily one of the most ambitious online games ever - and setting aside some launch issues, one that lives up to its impossible promises.
Fighting in an open world feels strange - not as intimidating as you'd expect, but far more than just a gimmick. For the most part, standard first-person shooter rules apply. Shooting is skill-based rather than reliant on arbitrary levels. If you don't want to be shot, you get behind cover. Returning fire can be done from the hip, but you generally want to take advantage of iron sights and sniper scopes to deal out more accurate shots and hit distant enemies. It's a shooter. You've played shooters before. The twist here is that, instead of existing as isolated maps, battlegrounds emerge organically as boundaries shift. Today, that bridge over a canyon is simply a handy route between outposts. Tomorrow, it might be a sea of tanks, with infantry crawling all over the scenery like ants.
Being in an open world, anyone who wants to take part can do exactly that. There are no lobbies, no queues, no arbitrary restrictions on numbers or how much you're allowed to bring into battle - not overt ones, anyway. An Instant Action button will spirit over anyone who requests a teleport, but you can just as easily spot something happening and head over under your own steam.
"The sheer scale of the battles is stunning - to the point that, while it makes sense for PlanetSide 2 to be a free-to-play game, it takes longer for that to fully sink in."
The longer fights go on, the more people will be drawn to them. Sunderers (APCs) are brought in as mobile respawn points, planes strafe the ground and battle for air superiority, tanks take up positions and all hell breaks loose until one side seizes victory. If you're outnumbered, too bad. Reinforcements may arrive, or not. War isn't always fair.
The sheer scale of the battles is stunning - to the point that, while it makes sense for PlanetSide 2 to be a free-to-play game, it takes longer for that to fully sink in. Sony hasn't so much embraced the model as given it a back-breaking bear-hug, almost to the point of creating a hidden mini-game called "What's the Catch?" Without paying a single penny, you get - deep breath - all five soldier classes and access to mech suits, full access to all three continents, all of the vehicles, no equipment restrictions, as much fighting as you want and the ability to join and start your own guilds (Outfits).
Never are you made to feel like less of a player for not paying a subscription fee or for earning any equipment you need by saving up in-game currency. It's a similar system to League of Legends and Tribes Ascend, only on an MMO scale and with less in the way of boobs/jetpacks.
The most important purchases are, as ever, boosts that speed up your in-game resource generation and guns with which to shoot people in the head for the crime of wearing the wrong colour armour. These are expensive, with new guns costing around £4 each (500-700 Sony funbucks) and each class having several slots to fill up with new weapons.
Your starting load-out is respectable though - and while I'm sure it's not deliberate, any temptation to spend a fortune in the store is swiftly dampened by most of its gear being bland variations on stock themes like 'assault rifle' and 'pistol'. There's nothing as iconic as the Tribes spinfusor, and nothing particularly sexy if you're not into efficiency. In a nice touch, you're allowed to borrow any weapon for a half-hour field test before investing your cash/points.
In a straight fight between two players of equal skill and time played, it's true that the one who's paid will usually come out on top - if only because upgrades can only be bought with in-game credits, and outright buying a gun leaves many more of them to spend there. The sheer scale of PlanetSide 2's battles does a lot to prevent any slide into pay-to-win territory though. Whatever your gear and however many upgrades you have, you're only ever one soldier in a rock-paper-scissors throwdown - where paper and scissors are represented by the sniper over on that hill and his friend in a tank.
Whatever role you're playing, the action is very solid - a touch floaty perhaps, and made a little stop-start by the way PlanetSide 2's body armour usually makes tissue paper look like mithril dipped in adamantium, but more than adequate. Its only significant failings are in accessibility and readability. There's no tutorial, for instance: just a link to an hour or so of YouTube videos in the launcher and a UI that comes across as a mess of unlabelled icons, blinking lights and labels apparently harbouring an active grudge against the colourblind. It's a staggeringly bad new player experience for a game that does have a tricky learning curve, but whose raw basics really aren't that complicated.
"As a mix of shooter and MMO, PlanetSide 2 is nothing short of a triumph."
Similar confusion sneaks into the graphics. Textures are often very busy, which combined with the oddly muted faction colours can make it hard to spot enemies at even mid-range, or to react fast enough to sudden threats. The Vanu are particular offenders here, with their purple colours blending into much of the scenery, though the Terran Republic's combination of powerful red with murky grey comes a close second. (If you play Terran, they also earn bonus confusion points for internally using red to flag up enemies. Cognitive dissonance can kill, people!) I'd like to have seen PlanetSide 2 take a few more cues from the likes of Tribes Ascend and even Team Fortress 2 in terms of its general readability, colour choice and silhouettes.
Back to the war itself. Out in the field, combat unsurprisingly varies dramatically depending on your class - which you can change at will, either at reload stations or between lives if you get bored or your team needs something. A Heavy Assault soldier's life is one of explosives and endless streams of hot lead, while Infiltrators work the shadows with sniper rifles and Light Assault troopers bop around on jetpacks. The more points you put into each class and its gear, the more efficient you get with it, so it pays to focus.
Lone wolf players are likely out of luck, though not entirely. It's certainly possible to play solo. You can join pick-up groups as you travel, be added to squads at the touch of a key, and contribute to base assaults and defence along with everyone else. PlanetSide 2's epic-scale battles put tight limitations on what any individual can accomplish, though, and being a cog in a silent machine is rarely a rewarding career. To make the most of PlanetSide 2, you really have to gather some friends over voice-chat and set your own goals. When your group single-handedly kicks all kinds of arse by air, land and at least APC, you get more than just smug satisfaction from a base capture - you get a war story.
Long-term, of course, the novelty of PlanetSide 2's scale will wear off, and it's too early to guess how well it will adapt and evolve. Right now, players are still advancing their characters to the point of being able to take command, and it remains to be seen to what extent emerging leaders will get to to run their factions instead of simply fight for them. As the action moves away from simple massed battle, there will need to be a much more interesting metagame or progression system than the current feuding over hexagons in an inherently unwinnable campaign. There's a limit to how often victories can be unceremoniously reset before they start feeling hollow.
PlanetSide 2 is much like Guild Wars 2 - a game that will live or die based on its ability to keep its server populations buzzing. For now though, give or take some nasty server problems, it's worth putting those fears on the back burner. There'll be time enough tomorrow to worry about the grand game and its future.
What matters today is that as a mix of shooter and MMO, PlanetSide 2 is nothing short of a triumph: not quite the best of both worlds, but certainly the best attempt anyone has ever made to fuse them together. Alone, it's worth checking out just to witness its epic scale for yourself - and with the right friends by your side, PlanetSide 2 is an unforgettable experience.