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."
"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
"Infantry coming in."
"Just hold, just hold."
"Heavy assault up top!"
"I'm not going to make it in!"
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."