There have been so many beautiful and clever games appear in the past two years that I find myself surprised to be saying this: Planetside 2 is my favourite game of the past two years. Sure, I've practically lived off Teleglitch at times, and actually been made to like an adventure game via KRZ, but Planetside's bright and sparkly sequel has truly colonised my PC. Can a sci-fi shooter sequel really have been the game that held my attention for the longest? There have been prettier games, there have been smarter games, games which were more innovative, moving, or simply better designed. But SOE's giant red-blue-purple MMOFPS has been the one for me. It'll be two years old in a couple of months, and I like it more now than I did when it launched.
What's going on?
I've not been playing the game for the entire two years it's been around, admittedly. I had a crack when it started, enjoyed it very much, got buried in work and swore I'd go back as soon as I could. I returned a couple of times, and have thereafter been playing it almost daily since the start of the summer.
The breadth of the game is perhaps what I found most appealing. It is huge in every sense. The maps are kilometres across, which appeals to my love of virtual landscape, as well as helps me avoid the claustrophobia induced by decades of corridor shooters. But it's not really about physical space, it's about the space to muck about with tactics and explosioneering. Planetside 2 is crammed full of stuff.
The character classes are sort of predictably diverse, from the invisibility-cloaking Infiltrator to the stomping MAX suits, but it's when you multiply these by numerous weapon and ability unlocks, and then again by a range of vehicles that it really comes alive. Thanks to the huge scale of things, the inclusion of off-road jeeps, dropships, light assault aircraft, tanks, bigger tanks, APCs (which act as tactical spawn points) isn't just convenient, it's downright necessary. It also means that in a single stretch of a few minutes you can be hurling grenades into enclosed spaces and grinding down chokepoint corridors, and then striking out across rolling valleys to see wide-open tank battles supported by air and infantry.
It is the grandest of combat operas.
It has improved dramatically, too, with SOE burning in new layers of detail to the four continents. While there are some cut-and-paste identikit bases on the unfinished Hossin map, others have grown and evolved to be exquisite puzzles for attack and defence. The odd moment when you find yourself underground, waiting for a force-shield to come down, makes you realise that what Planetside 2 has done is create a huge template which can be pushed and pulled back and forth over a long period of development. I'm hoping it'll see another two years, too, because despite the need for server merges, it is alive and vibrant every evening, with battles everywhere at almost any time of day.
Aside from all this, the game appeals to my "let's just mess about with my loadout" needs. There's something deeply satisfying about tinkering with optimal set ups, or unlocking a new gun and seeing how that fits with my style of play. This, like the best MMOs, provides for a sort of journey within the mechanics. I began as a determined medic, and in time have drifted first into anti-armour specialisation, and then through to experiment with vehicles, particularly enjoying the harasser (a jeep which requires a passenger to man the gun) and its high-speed antics.
There's something about a "flat" level up structure, which just unlocks more stuff - rather than making you unassailably buff - that really appeals to my mechanistic heart. It's a system I wished games would adopt for years, at least when they're dabbling with PvP. It feels less "unreal" than the vertiginous ladder of a million hitpoints.
Planetside 2 has also plugged straight into that bit of my brain which needs team work. Yes, the game doesn't really come alive with random play, as much as I do like to just jump in and run around with the sprawling "zerg" of the front line. What it really craves is a squad, no a platoon of squads, co-ordinated in their actions and even in their class choices. Spearheading an assault as a heavy, knowing you have a sniper covering and medics ready to pull you back to your feet, that's a distinct and rewarding kind of play. Not unique to PS2 by any means, but it's delivered in robust fashion, and two years of tinkering have only made that more focused.
The odd character of PS2's huge, open conflicts means that you face weird mixes and dynamics in the numbers you play against and with. In a game of Battlefield, if there's 32 on your team, there's probably the same number on the other team. Here it may be equal numbers, or it might be that you are ten and they are twenty. What if they are fifty? What if you still win?
It's a fluid sort of thing, and basically unlike anything other than its own original incarnation.
At risk of repeating myself, though: this is sci-fi war on a grand scale. While I do love the moment to moment gunplay, I'm aware that there has and will be better on the precision and "gun-feel" side of things. What there isn't a lot of in other games, however, is cresting a ridge and seeing hundreds of people all engaging at once. Watching rockets fly against lasers, while tanks churn in smoke and dust, and explode in towers of fire and black debris.
But what about the lack of a win state? Well, it sort of has that now - because factions can win "alerts" and capture/lock entire continents off - but for me it's always been about the small victories: the defence of a base, the amazing capture against the odds, the perfect deployment that wins the day. It's an experience, and an overall strategic process, that has benefited from many months of live development. There are still rough edges all over the place, perhaps there will always be. It regularly introduces new bugs, and things don't always work as intended. Balance is... a work in progress. But I can't bring myself to care. I can leap in, and I can immediately find action.
That immediacy is another reason why it works for me. As a young man I would idle in IRC channels to get Quake 3 games when pickup teams formed. I lurked for hours in Eve's silent star systems, waiting for the action to kick off. I am patient, but I also had a lot of time. I have a lot less of that latter resource now, and being able to drop in (and out) without a care in the world (or more importantly without the worry that I am letting team-mates down) has become all important.
Perhaps that's the most important bit, actually. That I've been able to enjoy playing with a team - the fantastic RPS Vanu outfit - and not have to feel like I am shouldering a huge burden. I've relished those burdens in the past - leading guilds and corporations, training with clans on a regular basis - but what I've got with Planetside 2 is candy. Instantly pickup and put-back-downable. And it's delicious.
There are so many reasons why Planetside 2 has brought me back, held my attention, and even seen me spend a bit of money on space helmets. But the most important one is that it's a game that RPSers can and do enjoy on a daily basis.
Feel free to come join in.