I thought I'd just drop into Planetside 2 on Sunday afternoon. Four hours later...
What is perhaps most satisfying about Planetside 2 is the sheer scale of the conflict. The continental maps contain meandering, rolling frontlines, with a continuous ebb and flow of battle that flickers in and out like a forest fire. Sometimes you'll see some brief skirmishes, other times you are slammed beneath a blistering avalanche of advancing enemy units. It's a sort of sprawling, complex hyperdeathmatch, in an arena that covers entire mountain ranges, ongoing and with no time-limit, with dozens of different vectors and variables to think about, or engage with.
What this means is that you can almost guarantee an interesting battle in any given session. It's as if dozens of different public FPS games were all dropped into the same container, and play out across each other, intermingling their lines of attack and firefight objectives. Soloing loners mix with tank platoons. The guy who can drop in for twenty minutes joins a siege that's been going on for two hours.
The RPS Vanu outfit – our gang on one of the three factions - had a platoon running for most of the afternoon. This is a group of squads linked up to allow each other to see their activities on the map, and in the HUD, and it was co-ordinated via the voice comms of the RPS Arma 2 community. The game has its own voice server, of course, but most large groups are finding it best to run their own voice – the quality is likely to be better, and folks have control over it.
A few people have said to me "yeah, Planetside just seems like a mess, I had no idea what was going on." A few minutes later in the chat I realise these folks had not joined squads, had not really co-ordinated with anyone. And I get that, I do. Most of us want to explore games on our own. Drop in, mess about, see what we think. There are few games where that doesn't work, though, and I think this is one of them. Most shooters are very easy to "solo" in on public servers, but realistically, unless you are going to become an ace pilot or a determined infiltrator, Planetside 2 means working with others. Voice comms are the first step into that.
Anyway, within moments of joining I'd checked my medic's loadout, jumped into a scythe (the Vanu's twin-bladed aircraft) and barrelled into the skies over Amerish, Planetside 2's beautiful, craggy and temperate continent. I'm no pilot, of course, all I was doing was leaping into the exhilaration of seeing the map open up beneath me (and I dislike the flight handling) and then plummeting down on top of where my platoon was attacking an enemy base.
Crash-landing on the roof, I ran down into the base, and was immediately greeted with a close-quarters firefight. Green beams flicked out from fellow Vanu who had unlocked one of the faction signature weapons. I hugged the corners and rezzed and healed – I've seldom enjoyed playing a medic or a healer, but for some reason Planetside 2's nudged me into that role. Not sure why, perhaps it's just my time.
After some messy fighting back and forth, and some leaping around with drop-ships, we ended up pushing south, hard, and ended up taking a base not so far from the Terran Republic's warp gate (their entrance to the map), called Auraxis Firearms Corp. What's interesting about this location – one of dozens of geographically complicated capturable positions across the map - is that it's only really accessible either via the air, or across a bridge. It's up on a bluff, with cliffs around most of the edge. Once the platoon had stormed it, and flattened the light resistance, we were cut off by a much larger force. Sealing us into a siege.
What followed was a ferocious defence action that lasted almost an hour.
Once we were in, the enemy advance pushed past us, rapidly, and by the time we'd consolidated our position, we were just an island of purple on the map, a fragment that remained amid expanding lines of red. The enemy line pushed behind us and captured the territory we'd pushed through, meaning we we could strike out if we'd wanted to. But we decided to hold on. Part of the hostile force seemed to continue regardless of us, but a number of squads tried to take back the Firearms hill. As we resisted, so their attack escalated. We were pinned: the enemy had airpower overhead, and placed anti-air beneath our own air-spawn point. We couldn't get aircraft away to break out, and it was all we could do to create vehicles and AA suits to combat being bombed into oblivion.
Our three squads struggled to clear the surrounding forces, shifting focus back and forth continuously from the capture point – which kept falling to enemies who got into the base – and the bridge, which was being stormed by infantry, and pounded by enemy heavy armour, which sat wisely on the other side of the pass. Were we even asking for reinforcements at a command level? I didn't have time to ask. Too many bodies falling, too many infiltrators flickering into the base.
The fight rumbled on, never letting up, and at once point we'd cleared the enemies in the valley surrounding us, and pushed out across the bridge. But it was not to be. Eventually the enemy forced pushes forward and held the bridge. The tanks chose that moment to push, and their additional enormous firepower pushed the defenders back into the buildings. We realised it was over.
We pulled out. Back, back, regroup. Rearm.
Later, then, the flavour of the battle changed: this time we'd rolled south from a large base, where most of our platoon had spawned a vehicle or armour of some kind. We had other squads with us too, as we headed down south through a mountain pass. The front-runners began to report contact with enemy vehicles, and then, with a low thunder of ordnance that was audible on the other side of the mountain where I was, they hit a full-blown enemy column coming the other way.
“Don't worry if you can't see what's happening,” said someone on voice comms. “Eventually the friendly tank in front of you will explode, and you'll be able to fire.”
We piled in, infantry leaping out of personnel carriers, which deployed as mobile spawn points. Snipers took vantage points. Heavies with rocket launchers tried to find positions to drop plasma shells on enemy armour. After an intense ten minute fire-fight across the top of the pass, the enemy column was destroyed, and fell back to two nearby bases. With the opposing force scattered we pressed the attack. It seemed deadlocked, and once again other enemy forces were pushing in behind us, without enough allied resistance to hold them. Things started to come apart.
Suddenly pinged back to the real world, I realised it was time for a cup of tea. Putting the kettle on, I got distracted by yelling at my damned cats or something. By the time I returned the battle had shifted again, with the platoon now attacking another, smaller base. Just as it had arrived, a similar-sized force had come up the road the other way. It was the perfect front-line deadlock: tanks spat at each other from ridges either side of the base, while engineers scurried around repairing them. Both sides had mobile bases deployed under trees, with anti-air units defending them from bombardment.
So it was down the infantry, who legged it through the dust and fire into the base building and swarmed over the capture point in a hail of lasers, bullets, and grenades bouncing and detonating mercilessly on friendly and for alike. It was the perfect pitched battle and – for all I knew – only one of many taking place across that packed server on a weekend afternoon. The game sang.
I healed heroically, throwing myself into firefights with AoE heal blazing, and my shiny new assault rile running our of ammo far too quickly. At one point a small group of us tried to flank the enemy and ended up on a glorious run that culminated in taking down a group of enemy MAX (heavy armoured suits) units, which had pinned our advance. Then we were flattened by a tank. It was a pure digital-death high, glory in simulated destruction.
This is what games do so, so well. We sprang back to life, ready to feast on more sensory overload.
And then the server crashed.
Fortunately, it was also time for Sunday dinner.
We'll do the same again tonight. (Only without the abrupt end, hopefully.)
The game is free. Join us.