Ridealong: The Generals of Planetside 2’s Forgotten War

Ridealong is our regular feature where Brendan travels deep into game worlds to meet, question and journey with the inhabitants that dwell within. This month, he visits the war-torn plains of Planetside 2 [official site] and meets the commanders still fighting for prestige, glory and XP in a war that can never be won.

“All right,” says the Captain. “They’re going to be responding soon.”

CaptainCox is the leader of the 1st Terran Rangers, and he is dressed entirely in pink. He tells his men to spread out among the doorways around the cavernous two-floor room. They are capturing this outpost and the enemy is coming.

Someone shouts out on the radio.

“Got a bunch of infantry coming in from the south.”

“Pull back inside,” orders the Captain. “Stay on the top floor.”

He orders another trooper to set up his turret on the staircase but the soldier can’t comply because he has just been shot in the head. The Vanu Sovereignty have arrived. Three “buses” – a slang word for a troop transport – have rolled up outside, full of angry squaddies. There are more enemy soldiers landing on the roof, wearing purple and sporting assault rifles. Altogether, they outnumber the Terran Rangers four to one.

I could say that this is an important battle, a ‘tipping-point’ that the crimson-uniformed Terran Republic cannot afford to lose. “CaptainCox’s last stand”. But that would be an exaggeration. This is a war that has been designed so it can never be won or lost, a war that is meant to be fought until, one day, a games company in San Diego pulls the plug.

Planetside 2 has been around since 2012. It is a multiplayer sci-fi shooter on a massive scale. Hundreds of troops may be fighting a huge battle for a futuristic fortress, while kilometres away battalions of tanks could be circling each other on an explosive plain, all part of the same endless war.

But like any war, there have been losses. Back in 2012, there could have been as many as 28,000 players fighting at once, Eurogamer estimates. In February 2014, the game had as many as 9400 players fighting across all servers, according to this population tracker. In March of this year, the game was only managing peaks of about one-third of that: 3400 active players at a time.  If that’s correct, the losses have been substantial. Three servers have been shut down, or “merged”, just to keep the continents populated with soldiers. The game has been shut down completely in China and South Korea.

But for some, like CaptainCox, the fight is not over.

Meet the Marauders

I’m sitting in the turret of a speeding dune buggy when I tell the commander of ECUS that I can’t fire the gun at hostile soldiers because of journalistic objectivity. The entire outfit’s channel goes silent for a second and then immediately explodes with laughter. The commander, Oberchingus, keeps driving.

ECUS is a small group of about 30 vehicle specialists. This evening, 10 or 11 of them have mobilised to fight for the New Conglomerate, Planetside 2’s blue faction. But they are just as likely to be found fighting for the other factions. In a real war they would be considered mercenaries but seeing as they take no money for their services it’s hard to describe them as such. They are more like marauders. They show up on the desert plains of Indar (one of the planet’s continents) and speed around in buggies conducting hit-and-run raids on multiple outposts. Each faction has it’s own version of this buggy, with a different type of weapon on the top. They are called “Harassers”.

“In the very beginning when I created this outfit I wanted it so that we could be good at every gun in the game for the Harasser,” says Oberchingus, who is also wearing pink.

“I wanted my guys to fight as well as Vanu Sovereignty and New Conglomerate as they did as Terran Republic… because the best way to fight your opponent is to learn what your opponent uses.”

Thanks to this team-switching, these armour specialists can now comfortably roam the hills and wastes of Planetside in any tank. To ECUS, it doesn’t matter who they fight for, only that they fight at all. And that they have a good time doing it.

“I know that we’re very vocal and tight-knit and that’s kind of what we wanted to build,” says Oberchingus. “Just a very small group of people who connect really well and can joke together and even if we piss each other off we can come back and start fresh – it’s really rewarding.

“If there’s nothing going on in the game – fighting – we just goof off a lot. But we switch it immediately ‘on’ if there’s nothing to do.”

I soon see this ‘switching on’ in action. At one moment, the radio channel for the group will be full of swearing and jibes and squad members laughing like hyenas at each other’s mistakes. Then, in an instant, someone will yell about an enemy aircraft, or a tank, and all the coordination of a crack squad of killers kicks in. Military slang starts flying and commands are barked. Within seconds, the enemy is usually dead and the men snap straight back to insulting each other and cackling.

“He’s going to say all these fucking Americans are assholes,” says one of the men about having a journalist along for the ride. On the contrary, I think they’re strangely efficient for such a small unit. One of the squad members has another way of putting it.

“You ever see like a 15 pound dog just jump on top of a 50 pound dog and go to town?” he says. “That’s pretty much how we do.”

The men laugh. I can see why they see themselves this way. For 30 minutes we roam the sands and canyons of the continent. The men are laying waste to anything they see, like the War Boys of Mad Max. It doesn’t matter how big the enemy force is – the squad always starts brawling. One fight they pull out of because they are killing their enemies too easily.

“This fight blows,” says one of the men, as we drive away.

After a while, Commander Oberchingus pulls up alongside the other tanks and vehicles. Finally, we have found a quiet spot for a group photograph. The men are lined up perfectly, they almost look professional. Suddenly, an enemy aircraft appears overhead – a UFO-looking ship called a ‘Scythe’. The guns of every vehicle swivel to greet the ship and they all fire in unison. The aircraft explodes and debris showers down behind the men. Nobody is interrupting this photo shoot. They are gleeful at their weird invincibility. One of the men bellows.

“Don’t fucking come near me with those shitty fucking Sythe toaster-fucking things!”

I ask the guys to line up and settle down. Just as I’m taking the photograph, everyone hollers at once and starts laughing. I have been killed by a cloaked enemy. The men of ECUS think this is hilarious.

But this is only one of the outfits you can join in Planetside 2. These are essentially clans that fight side-by-side. I have heard that there is conflict between outfits, even those on the same side, making each faction more tribal and disunited than it first appears. I ask Oberchingus if this is true.

“I’m going to say yes. There’s drama and conflict in that sense.”

He tells me about the outfits of the purple Vanu Sovereignty, who he describes as ‘zerg’ outfits. They rush bases with a huge force of troops and overwhelm the enemy simply by outnumbering them.

“Zergs make things slow,” he says. “If you’re trying to drive your vehicles from point A to point B and there’s a massive traffic jam in the way, they’re that. They are the blobs.”

They are the traffic jam?

“They are the traffic jam. When we think of them we think of ‘blob’, ‘zerg’, ‘traffic jam’. Uncoordinated, just sort of there, very very casual. But casual in an apathetic way… because they’re part-time players.

“So yeah, there’s a … I wouldn’t say ‘animosity’ because animosity is going too far, but immediately you start to generalise – who are the outfits you’re going to take seriously and who are the ones you’re not going to take seriously and when it comes to the zergs on this server, you don’t take zergs seriously, you walk [over] them, you laugh at them on Reddit, they’re all over the place.”

The Zerg

“I don’t want to move anywhere until I get confirmation from command. They were talking earlier and now they’re all quiet.”

ColonelBriggens pauses for a moment.

“I think they’re all dead.”

The colonel is leading an outfit called DaPP, fighting for the Vanu Sovereignty, in the middle of a dry desert. They have just dropped three aircraft worth of purple troops into an enemy base and are wreaking havoc in a nearby valley of dunes. Tracer rounds cross the sands and enemy planes hover around, never daring to come close to the base itself for fear of anti-aircraft fire.

The colonel’s force is known for leading large numbers of chaotic infantry and attacking the enemy en masse. It sounds (and looks) exactly like the kind of thing the commander at ECUS was describing – a ‘blob’. But ColonelBriggens already knows all about their reputation.

“Our outfit is often described as a ‘zergfit’, which is the idea that in a battle there’s no coordination going on and that there’s just a mass of people and the numbers will persevere over actual skill level… It’s interesting because those people have never been in our outfit, usually. They don’t really know what’s going on.”

DaPP are ‘combined arms’. This means they don’t specialise in anything in particular. Instead, they fight with anything the occasion calls for, be it armour, infantry, or aircraft.

“We don’t say ‘we’re exceedingly proficient at this type of vehicle’ or ‘we’re really good at destroying tanks’ or something like that. We’re just a bunch of infantrymen who try to get good at doing everything in general.”

At the same time, the colonel also has a lot of respect for specialist outfits like the hit-and-run road warriors of ECUS.

“I think when the game first came out most people had the idea of outfits as infantry or combined arms, as you’d call it. The idea that someone could make an outfit based on a specific vehicle, or just vehicles in general, I think that’s really interesting.”

This respect is sizeable enough that the leaders of this ‘zerg’ even extended an invitation to one of the marauders of ECUS to come along and host a “battle school” to teach some of the Vanu troopers how to use the mercenary group’s beloved Harassers. I didn’t see any of the buggies out there on the sands but if I had, it might well have been a War Boy-in-training.

DaPP, the ‘zerg’, has over 2000 members, making them one of the largest outfits in the game. And to see them rampaging across the map and dropping out of Galaxies (an airborne troop transport capable of holding 12 soldiers) is a fearsome sight. But even a force as big as theirs has trouble. On the distant, swampy continent of Hossin, far away from the sands where the purple DaPP troopers are swarming the battlefield, a small, elite squad of opponents have captured a vital base and cut off the local DaPP forces, leaving them with no choice but to fall back several kilometres. The giant has been stunned. And this is not the only time it will happen tonight.

“It’s up to the leaders to be quick on their feet and to be checking the map consistently to make sure that doesn’t happen,” says ColonelBriggens. “Because if they successfully capture that territory behind us, that cuts us off and then we have to retreat and that’s a big disadvantage for us. It means that all the work that we put into capturing that territory is for nothing.

“There are times where a small, maybe twelve-man, squad will come in and they’re highly skilled players and they’ll cause a huge problem for even a platoon of 48 people. But that’s the interesting challenge of being in a larger outfit.”

The swarming tactics of his outfit might earn him some disdain, but the most important thing for the colonel is to keep their policy of openness. The group allows anybody to join their cause, not just for the sake of numbers, he says, but to encourage newbs to keep playing.

“You know, just because we don’t have high requirements for joining the platoon or the outfit doesn’t mean that we don’t care. It’s the opposite, really. We are the ‘new player experience’ that the game doesn’t have for itself. We don’t force anybody, and we don’t say ‘hey if you’re not good enough, you can’t be here’.”

He also says he believes strongly in the principle that anyone can make their way up the ranks from nothing. Just like he did.

“I remember when I first played this game, I didn’t have an outfit, I just played by myself and it was a really horrible experience, it was really negative. I didn’t have a lot of fun and I stopped playing the game.

“And then I came back and I joined DaPP… And I started being more vocal with my microphone, I started being more active in the platoons and they promoted me up a rank and then the more I played the more they promoted me.

“Now six months later, it’s come full circle. I’m the highest rank in the outfit, I’m one of the leaders. And I feel really proud about that, and not just proud as an individual but proud to be part of an organisation that allows that sort of thing, that allows promotion from within, not based on kill-death ratio, not based on how good you are at the game, or whether you’re a tough kind of guy who’s really mean and aggressive and thinks he’s the best MF-er in the whole goddamned world.

“We care about players who care about the outfit.”

CaptainCox’s last stand

“Kirby’s down!”

“Infantry coming in.”

“I’m down.”

“Just hold, just hold.”

“Heavy assault up top!”

“I’m not going to make it in!”

“Hold it.”

The room is ablaze with shots and explosions. I’m following CaptainCox, leader of the 1st Terran Rangers, as he sprints around the room, reviving his troops and giving orders. Vanu troops are somewhere outside the doorways, firing in and strafing out of sight. Miraculously, the Rangers are fending them off. The ticker for control of this base counts down as more of the men fall and die. I am briefly shot and killed myself, before one of the Rangers starts reviving me.

“Get up, Brendan!” he says.

I stand back up and look around. I can’t even see where the shots are coming from, or who is firing. The whole thing stinks of Vietnam and my whole reason for being here stinks of war correspondence. This is not The General Goes Zapping Charlie Cong, nor is it Generation Kill. But I reflect, as I crouch amid the bullet casings, that it is the closest I will ever have to get to real war reporting. This is probably a good thing.

Then the Captain gets hit.

He collapses on the ground. I dash over and start reviving him with some kind of medical device I have equipped. He stands back up. His life is back, my journalistic objectivity is gone.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a fight where it wasn’t 1 on 4,” one of the men contemplates, bullets flying.

“It makes you better,” says his squad mate.

“It makes me dead.”

Finally, the group see what they want to see. A giant splash on their screens, telling them the base has been captured. Outnumbered four to one, the Rangers have done it.

Straight away they are ordered to disperse and leave the area. Even if they can’t technically hold this point, the 1st TR have still done their jobs. The Rangers are known for getting to places quickly, they always have to be on the move.

“That’s been a big thing for us for years now,” says the Captain. “Our original thing was being mobile infantry. Dropping in Galaxies and Valkyries and point-holding.”

As their commander, the Captain was running around playing the medic. But outfit leaders often have to pay close attention to the map. Why doesn’t the Captain simply give orders from afar?

“Where’s the fun in that? I don’t get to shoot anybody.”

We move onto the next fight and I think about the Captain’s answer. That’s the appeal of it all – getting to fight alongside your troops. 3400 brothers all fighting for the same scraps of earth. Despite the dwindling numbers, Planetside 2 is a game with a lot of life left in it, especially for its veterans. And the scale of some of the battles I have seen, even as a witness and not a participant, have been awe-inspiring. Even if more servers shut down, even if the population suffered more losses, this will always be an incredible battlefield. How long will the Captain keep fighting? Without hesitation, he answers.

“Until the server dies.”

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32 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    Logged in over the weekend for the first time in about two years and got handily wrecked. Had a fun time though, and had no trouble finding large-scale battles to uselessly die in.

    • brucethemoose says:

      That’s PS2’s biggest problem. With all the veteran players and lack of a way to segregate newbies, the game has an insanely steep learning curve.

      Outfits used to help train new players, but there’s less of that these days.

      • Premium User Badge

        gritz says:

        I don’t know that learning curve is the way to describe it, because it hasn’t changed all that much from 2 years ago (except everyone is pink now for some reason). It’s more of a combination of skill and organization.

        I hadn’t forgotten the mechanics of the game, I just didn’t have the aim or the reaction time or the situational awareness, and my pickup public platoon couldn’t compete with the organized tactics of long-established outfits. That adds up to being farmed, but I still had a good time doing so.

        • wz says:

          > “I hadn’t forgotten the mechanics of the game, I just didn’t have the aim or the reaction time or the situational awareness”

          Daybreak are doing a massive content addition, which includes a lot of things that don’t involve killing. So players who are rusty, or who want to do other things can get their feet wet (there’s an huge amount of non-combat activities already).

          The upcoming content adds starcraft like resource harvesting with storage, and player constructed bases/outposts with subsystems like shields, defenses, auto repair modules, bunkers, devices that generate victory points.

          All these subsystems give vehicles and infantry objectives within bases to disable, sabotage or destroy, in addition to escorting harvestors and defending harvesting operations. This is on the test server, right now and is close to release on Live servers as Phase 1. Devs will subsequently add more buildables and systems.

          Video of a playtest at a player constructed base (no video of the very latest PTS additions): link to youtube.com

          • wz says:

            There’s is a helpful guide showing some of the things new players need to know, including links to videos here : link to reddit.com

            Wrel is a player turned Planetside 2 developer, and his youtube channel has lots of useful guides for new players and useful information for older players : link to youtube.com

      • Premium User Badge

        gritz says:

        That’s not to say learning curve isn’t an issue for new players, it just isn’t an issue for someone with 200+ hours returning to it years later.

  2. Cooper says:

    This is your usual reminder that RPS still has an active Planetside 2 community.

    We use the RPS Mumble. Whilst we’re not as big as we once were (no outfit in PS2 is…) there’s still a squad (~12) on most nights, with Wednesdays still being our most regularly attended nights.

    Many of us (myself included) seem to be waiting for the construction update (player built and maintained bases). So expect a surge of interest once that update comes out.

    • Bent Wooden Spoon says:

      I’ve just started playing again after 2 years and other than Wednesday evenings it’s rare to see more than 3 or 4 other people from the outfit online. My headset’s gone walkies after a move, so I’ve stayed off mumble.

  3. MiniMatt says:

    I’m still somewhat amazed that PS2 remains really the only large scale shooter. 4 years on and nothing comes close to cresting a hill and seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of troops, tanks & planes fighting in the valley below.

    32v32 shooters seemed so very limited after that.

    • brucethemoose says:

      Same.

      I love PS2, but with all of its issues, there’s room for competition there.

      • jellydonut says:

        CCP is going to announce the first and only PS2 competitor in about 2.5 weeks from now. It’s gonna be interesting.

        • Rizlar says:

          Orly?

          It does indeed seem like a relatively untapped idea, would be excited to see more games really go for it.

        • brucethemoose says:

          What game would that be?

          I haven’t really kept up with the EVE devs, but they could certainly do an MMOFPS right.

          • jellydonut says:

            It doesn’t even have a name yet. All we know is that they are (finally) shooting Dust in the head and making a proper PC-only shooter, and that it will ‘build on’ the Project Legion concept they talked about a couple of years back, which was an interesting concept.

            It does not look like we will get any solid details at all before Fanfest, which starts the 21st of this month.

      • manio22 says:

        I thought Warhammer 40k Eternal Crusade would be something like Planetside 2? Or am I wrong?

    • Premium User Badge

      Mungrul says:

      The nearest comparison I can make is now unfortunately dead: MAG on the PS3. When the servers were lively and you and your crew would get a slot on one of the 128 vs. 128 maps, that game was spectacular. It was also something of a technical marvel, but even so, I would love to have seen it grace PC. Playing skill-based, twitchy first person shooters on that scale with a gamepad is painful.

      I keep meaning to get in to PS2. Maybe I’ll give it a download in the next couple of weeks.

      • Oranje says:

        God damn MAG was good. I was a huge PS1 player, and MAG felt like a comfortable homecoming before PS2 came out. Would love to see another pass at it on PC or modern consoles.

        Before MAG, I played some Joint Operations on PC. It was more in the Battlefield-vein than Planetside/MAG, but since servers supported 150 players there were pockets of the emergent gameplay seen in Planetside. There was more experimentation with large-scale multiplayer shooters back in the early 2000’s, I just hope we’re due for another bout of titles once the MOBA trend settles.

  4. RebeccaMilan says:

    nice story

  5. Kyuurei says:

    Reinstalling it now, it’s been a while since last time, this made me want to check it out again. Reading this stories is just amazing, like reading about EVE.

  6. brucethemoose says:

    ColonelBriggens is a great platoon lead, I run with him in DaPP pretty regularly.

    Also, I sincerely hope RPS covers the construction update when it comes out (which should be very soon). It’s one of the biggest additions to the game ever.

  7. Cassius Clayman says:

    What a great article. Reading about all these people and their complex in-game lives was very entertaining, it really kept my attention throughout.

  8. chauncy50 says:

    Haven’t played this game in a long time. I got frustrated that many of the problems I had with it were never fixed, which sucked because it had a ton of potential. Some big issues I had were that often times you find a good fight going on. Another big problem was that often times, as stated in this article, numbers just crushed regardless of how good the other sides planning or skill level was. This led to situations where you couldn’t do anything because of how fast you got overwhelmed. Maybe my biggest problem though is that the maps seem like they are designed for smaller scale games. In urban combat it was extremely hard to find alternate routes if there was a big fight going on. It could be two sides fighting over a single room for twenty minutes with no progress. This made it so that the individual foot soldier couldn’t really, you know, play the game without getting shot when they poked their head out. Finally, I think that the “persistent” aspect of the game needed some major work. Any gains that one side made didn’t seem meaningful because as soon as the players hopped off the server all the territory would be lost to the counter zerg. The war never felt like it changed or evolved over time. Also the territory bonuses were pretty crappy and didn’t give incentive to think about where to attack.

  9. El_MUERkO says:

    As a PS1 veteran PS2 was a game I was ultra-hyped for and to begin with I really liked it, but the draw distance nerf trashed it, just trashed the game, it was unforgivable. I uninstalled and never looked back.

  10. bedel says:

    I played in TR years ago, so great they are still around!

  11. aterriblesomething says:

    (articles like this are why i read RPS, and why i think it is great)

  12. MrUnimport says:

    1TR, ECUS, DaPP. What a great spread of perspectives.

  13. RIDEBIRD says:

    Really good article, interesting and well written.

    PS2 is still one of my favorite games ever, very much so because of the great RPS community. Sadly I still feel no real pull to come back. It’s just not the same, especially so when the size of encounters have decreased so massively.

    • brucethemoose says:

      Emerald still has some sizable battles, especially during primetime.

  14. bamjo says:

    I absolutely love these kinds of articles. There are so many interesting communities in PC games, it’s very interesting to hear about them in this fashion.

    Many people bemoan the shrinking playerbase, but I am not convinced that bigger battles always equate to more fun. As an old PS1 and WW2OL player, I jumped in on the PS2 beta as early as I could. I remember the fights in those big domes (Biodomes?) being huge and completely chaotic, close quarters bloodbaths. But they were so fast and deathmatch-y, there seemed to be little opportunity for fun tactics. It was just the COD like loop of spawn -> die, maybe shoot a guy or two. Totally unsatisfying.

    Granted, the game was new. Maybe we were all doing it wrong, or they changed it up some. But it kind of soured me on the whole thing. I got the same tactical vibes from old PS1 and WW2OL that I get in ARMA, Project Reality (and now Squad). PS2 never had that for me, even though I played with some of the same outfits across all those games.

  15. grff says:

    Nice write-up, but why not join in with the existing outfit on your community boards as has happened with previous CtA’s?

  16. JustAchaP says:

    Too bad the Australian server never had that kind of teamwork. Outfits would always finish up whenever my friends and I would hop on. The only plan ever was to just zerg rush a base. Terran always won.

  17. Rob Lang says:

    Superb article. Spurring me to get back in. NC [MACS] brainwipe reporting for duty.