Skip to main content

Even after Fortnite, there's still something essential about the MMOFPS

Take a walk on the Planetside

If you're in need of some quiet time - and I certainly am, because the people upstairs are having their kitchen refitted, and the resulting powerdrill noise is literally shaking things off my desk - I recommend a stroll across the plains of Planetside 2. This might seem odd advice, given that PlanetSide 2 is a shooter in which hundreds or even thousands of players fight each other simultaneously, but the thing about planet-sized wars is that they require plenty of legroom, and the thing about crowds is that you can lose yourself within them.

Watch on YouTube

Launched a decade ago, Planetside 2 is an MMOFPS, proud scion of a faded breed of impossibly big-team, big-map shooters, also including Resistance and MAG on console, that became trendy during the noughties, and that have since been eclipsed by open world shooters with looser multiplayer functionality - to say nothing of Fortnite and the battle royale. It's a curious, crumbling road-not-taken of a genre with a distinct vibe. To unpack that vibe, it's worth a quick armchair-designer-rundown of how certain other FPS genres organise player movement - how they shuffle us around, bring us together or lead us on, and how they present us to ourselves as combatants.

At the narrow end, you have Call Of Duty and its ilk - compact, centrifugal skirmishes that, in my experience, trade above all on the absence of a place to stop. Call Of Duty map layouts often feel like a camouflaged figure-of-eight or Penrose stair. The paths roll into each other, there are few walls you can set your back to, and the feeling is thus of being relentlessly chivvied around by the terrain itself, even as you build your killstreak multiplier. You might pause now and then to lay mines and snipe, but those who tread water are placing themselves at a disadvantage. There is always another player orbiting round behind you, even if they aren't really looking for you, and the overriding emotions are thus anxiety and frenzy.

At the other end of the scale, you have battle royale shooters, which start out leisurely, spacious and sociable, a world seen from on-high, and end up claustrophobic, chaotic and vicious. That baked-in match narrative is what makes a Fortnite match so watchable, I think, once you strip away all the building metas and rocket rams and so forth. You know that it's going to come down to a 1:1 eventually. It's all about the transformation of a mildly unruly building sandbox into a game of reflexes and corners, with the option to accelerate that transformation by making a beeline for the choicest drops and defensible locations.

MMO FPS Planetside 2 has overhauled its underwater combat as part of July's Surf and Storm update.

The MMOFPS as I understand it swims between these two experiences. There's something like the anatomy of a traditional FPS at work, with base layouts that consist more obviously of sightlines, flanking routes and chokepoints, but that experience is "opt in". Head away from the killzone and suddenly you're playing a kind of asymmetrical walking sim, or whatever the non-pejorative version of "walking sim" is. You bump into a hostile player noodling around near their HQ and exchange guilty looks, like office colleagues who took the long way back from the snack machine - "I won't tell your platoon CO if you don't tell mine".

In Planetside 2, there's also a peculiar, stretched-out atmosphere born of older graphics technology and the constraints of the massively multiplayer format - that need to conserve computational resources over such a vast expanse of networked terrain. Some areas are more obviously interstitial, canyons, roads and ridges designed to be traversed by vehicle, that are utilitarian to the point of feeling like negative space.

I find the sparseness of the rock and vegetation along the fringes of a Planetside 2 objective strangely hypnotic. There's something about the way the geometry beneath is "allowed" to be bare, rather than being heavily accented with directional flourishes as in Call Of Duty - it's like the part in Neil Gaiman's Coraline when she walks around the underside of the world. I can't get enough of that feeling. And then there's the question of sound. In spacing out firefights over kilometres, Planetside 2 is saturated with the muffled thud of distant artillery and aerial bombardment, a subliminal thunder that lets you know where the heart of the war is and thus, allows you to avoid it - and to be haunted by it.

Planetside 2's forever-war premise is very depressing, when you place it against real-life wars that have carried on for decades. But I have to admit, I find its emphasis on being a nameless grunt among thousands calming. Over the past ten years, the rise of hero shooters and the flourishing of celebrity esports players and streamers has given the FPS a cult of personality, which flies in parallel, I guess, to how social media has taught us all to be self-promoters.

Planetside 2 lets you "personalise" your soldier with unlockable/buyable cosmetics, but each battle is fundamentally a mass movement that doesn't just require teamwork, but invites you to glory in being interchangeable with other troopers. Few PlanetSide 2 players can turn the tide of battle by themselves, and the gameworld is a military satire akin to Starship Troopers that treats everybody like cannon fodder.

Which can be worryingly appealing. Sometimes I play PlanetSide 2 out of an active desire to be one of the poor feckless bastards rushing the breach and getting slaughtered, while the CO bellows at me from a hoverjet. I might only get to play for 30 seconds at a time, but there's no particular pressure to play well, because I'm just here to grease the wheels of the war machine with my bodily fluids. The older I get, and the more jaded I become about online interactions generally (and the more my reflexes deteriorate), the more I like the sound of playing Lance-Corporal Seventh-From-The-Left.

Speaking of "the muffled thud of distant artillery", they've started drilling upstairs again, and now somebody in another apartment has begun to sing. I'll wind up here to stop this becoming a series of expletives. If this article piques your interest, I'll see you in the foothills of Auraxis. Although I will probably try to pretend I haven't. I'm just out for a stroll, after all.

Read this next