Obtuse and overwhelming, PlanetSide 2's gargantuan free-to-play MMOFPS arrives on PlayStation 4 virtually undiminished from its PC incarnation. This is still a game that makes few concessions for new players, bombarding you with icons, mission updates and map markers but pretty much leaving you to figure things out for yourself.
As such, your initial time spent in PlanetSide 2 is a real sink or swim experience. There's much more to this game than the basic squad-based Conquest action you might expect from an online shooter, but those first hours do so little to explain or even suggest what lies in store that you may find yourself bouncing off its hard metal exterior.
Part of the problem, bizarrely, is the way the game tries to ease you in but focusses on the wrong elements in doing so. When you first join the game, having picked one of three factions and a server for your character to inhabit, you're automatically spawned on Koltyr, a sort of beginner's zone map which supposedly introduces the game's key features.
With its lower population and smaller map, Koltyr is definitely a gentler start in terms of other players, but it still does very little to explain how the game actually works. Oh, you'll click into the groove of heading to A, B and C capture points easily enough, and the need to shoot enemies in the face is second nature. What the game never fully explains is the wider mission structure, the way each skirmish ties into a larger war being fought simultaneously across the server by thousands of players, and the importance of treating the game as an ongoing conflict rather than a timed round.
That sense of scale is almost entirely abstract at the start - and doesn't become much clearer later on, unless you make the effort to work it all out - so it's understandable that a great many PS4 players seem to be treating PlanetSide 2 as a generic Halo/COD hybrid.
My advice: leave Koltyr as soon as you've got to grips with the controls. You're unable to revisit that novice map once you pass Level 15, but equally you're free to leave at any time as well.
It's only on the game's other continents, ranging from frozen tundra to dense jungle, that PlanetSide 2 starts to really make sense on its own terms. It's here that you start to sense the size of the game, both in terms of player count and the sheer potential of the ways you can play and the things you can unlock. It's where the mission structure falls into place, giving some forward momentum to what can otherwise seem like a random scattering of smaller confrontations, and where you can really start to earn the XP needed to fill up your various class loadouts in your own way.
There are lots of familiar touchstones along the way, with Battlefield as an obvious parallel but those with experience in the genre will also detect elements from Warhawk, SOCOM, MAG and more. The brilliant and underrated Section 8 is another useful comparison.
Unlike Battlefield, you'll need to earn the right to use the fun toys - tanks unlock just before you hit Level 10, flying vehicles are off limits until 15 and above. That means it's not as immediately fun, as it can be frustrating to see others deploying and zooming off in cool vehicles while you tramp around on foot, but it also means that by the time you do get them, you'll have a deeper understanding of the game and won't just zoom off, crash and die. Well, mostly.
One of PlanetSide 2's biggest problems is one it shares with any game attempting to operate on this scale: the more players, the more idiots. In a game that looks like a shooter, but demands a strategy player's mindset, that can lead to frustration. Friendly fire is a real issue, particularly since some players seem to have genuine trouble distinguishing friend from foe, and it's horribly easy to get squashed by allied vehicles. It's also easy to fall foul of it from the other side, clipping a team mate in the middle of a busy firefight, unwittingly causing splash damage to an unseen friendly with a grenade, or just reversing over someone who wasn't looking where they were going. You earn "grief points" every time you cause harm to an allied player or vehicle, and if you get enough of those your weapons are deactivated as punishment.
Despite its initially opaque structure, once the pieces fall into place PlanetSide 2 is capable of being an absolutely amazing multiplayer experience. Battles are even more organic than Battlefield, with crisis points arising through the natural ebb and flow of player movement, and the variety of combat options means that it's rarely as simple as just butting heads over a capture point. Entrenched snipers don't just offer a split-second quickdraw encounter, but can turn into a ten-minute stand-off that demands real teamwork and tactics to outflank. Enemies who dominate the skies change the course of the game in ways that tanks or troops can't. You constantly have to think on your feet and react to what's actually happening, instead of simply sprinting to the mission icons over and over.
The key difference between this and other multiplayer shooters is that this is an ongoing war. Although there are smaller timed mission objectives, and regular "alerts" connected to domination of the map in countdowns that last for several hours, there is no "Game Over" state here. The battle is ongoing when you join, and it carries on after you've logged out. That's both liberating and, eventually, a little wearying.
It's liberating because without the pressure to "win" in ten minutes or less, you're free to take your time and try different approaches. The huge player counts help in this regard as well. There's less pressure to lead from the front when there are dozens of other soldiers to tackle the objectives.
Yet at the same time, the endless nature of the fighting can become a problem. The notion of "victory" becomes abstract from your grunt's perspective, and while a normal shooter always resets the score sheet between games, at least there's the payoff of a binary win/lose to help define your success. Ironically, given the emphasis on teamwork and huge lobbies, in PlanetSide you end up taking a more selfish long term view. There's no way that you, individually, are going to "win" so your motivation is to earn stuff for yourself in the form of XP and unlocks. The result is incredibly addictive for those who commit to this long view, but can also feel repetitive and futile if not.
Tying into this is the fact that you can choose to respawn in several different zones. If you're getting hammered in one area, you can simply drop into another where the sides are more balanced. This can be a relief, but also means that maps can empty out pretty quickly and dominating forces tend to become more overwhelming, not less. On many occasions, I've found myself hopping from objective to objective, "winning" without having to do anything and rising several ranks in the process, just because all the enemies have left.
In technical terms, the game can be a rollercoaster. The frame rate plunges when lots of players are in the same place, and in a game sold on the basis of its huge population that's a real limitation. Even outside of these locations, the draw distance isn't great and graphics are only ever functional rather than stunning.
It's also fair to say that the game is sorely lacking in character. Apart from colour-coded flashes on their armour, the factions tend to blur into one with soldiers and vehicles that all look pretty much identical. Again, with friendly fire this can be a problem.
Even with these somewhat understandable restrictions, PlanetSide 2 is still a multiplayer experience like no other, even if it doesn't do a very good job of making that clear to begin with. There's a lot of greatness locked up in this somewhat brusque shell. Being free to play makes it easier to put in the time to find that greatness, and once you start to see its true shape - beyond the familiar capture points and headshots it opens with - there's a good chance you'll become seriously hooked.
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