The war for Auraxis has begun. After months in beta, constantly teasing us with the scope of its massively multiplayer battles, SOE's free to play contender has rolled out in spectacular fashion. Carl is already working on our comprehensive full review (we have to take our sweet time with progression-based MMOs like this), but now that we've spent nine days enlisted in glorious Terran Republic, we can tell you that it's one of the most ambitious free to play games on the market. Since my CO is currently slaving away on delivering our final judgement, it falls to the Planetside noob - the Freaking New Guy - to start explaining why.
MMO launches rarely run smoothly, and Planetside 2 was no exception. Right from the off, the European client simply refused to work for 24 hours... and then the lag began. EU servers became slideshows for many players over the first few days, with Miller especially attracting a huge and vocal player outcry. Oh, the humanity! Oh, the latency!
But Sony Online Entertainment were quick to address their mistakes, and over the last week, we've been spending all the free time we can spare in Planetside 2's enormous, sprawling, organic battles. As a tiny part of a titanic war machine, players choose a faction and swap classes to push across the continents; ground pounding, joining armoured convoys, hurtling through the skies or smashing through enemy lines in drop pods alongside thousands of others. Battle lines flow and ebb, factions rise and fall and - most amazing of all - casual fairweather gamers fight shoulder to shoulder with veteran outfits. Thanks to the versatile class system and quick respawn times, it's easy to get involved and start helping with little in the way of prior experience.
In short, Planetside 2 is absolutely astounding, because it lets you play things you'd only ever see in cutscenes elsewhere.
You'll take part in enormous dynamic engagements that embarrass the biggest scripted set pieces from any console franchise you could name (Halo and Killzone pale in comparison), involving thousands on troops on all three sides. You'll watch literally dozens of tanks, APCs, aircraft and foot soldiers secure hard-fought objectives, perhaps leading the charge yourself, repairing the column or or hanging back as a sniper. You'll chase foes over hills only to see a massed enemy army waiting in ambush. Playing Planetside 2 feels like being part of a conscripted future war, with some skilled squad leaders knowing what to do, and other brave yet inexperienced players following them into death or glory.
That said, it's also incredibly confusing if you're an FNG like myself. Having spent very little time with the original Planetside, I was dismayed to find that the game offers very little in the way of backstory or tutorials (without relying on some third-party videos), and worse, hides what is effectively the biggest ever game of Domination under an inordinate amount of brain-killing junk. Carl took me under his wing to explain most of the mechanics and progression systems, but there's still a lot I can't fathom. Why can't we capture this particular point? What do we have to do first, then? Why can't I deploy my Sunderer APC... oh, wait, I have to certify what now? How do I best spend these certification points in these labyrinthine menus anyway? What am I supposed to be doing?
As a piece of advice, if you don't have some experienced friends to help you out, I'd heartily recommend starting out as a medic and randomly joining a squad (F11 default) once you've learned enough to survive. So long as you can shoot straight and help out the team, most players will be willing to fill you in on the rest - so long as they're not in the middle of playing the objective.
Critically there's a niche for everyone, and gadgets to help you get it done. Regardless of your preferred play style, there's somewhere for you to slot into the war machine: whether its leading a squad or healing them up. Rolling thunder or flying right into the danger zone. Sniping, shotgunning, rushing or camping. All of the above, or none of it. Though the action can become slightly homogeneous during base captures due to the prefabricated buildings and reliance on spawn camping, there's always something new to do and a feeling of real camaraderie that's hard to find elsewhere. As a loyal member of the TR, I've come to hate and fear the other two factions with passion, while treating everyone wearing red as a long lost friend. Right up until I accidentally kill them when they run over my vehicle pad.
At this stage, I'm also not entirely sold on Planetside 2's subscription model. £8.99 p/m only nets you priority server access, a bit of premium cash and some buffs, none of which seems to really justify the expense so early on. However, due to the glacial speed of certification point (unlock) delivery and the massive price of most weapons, dropping some money on a bit of Seven Cash here and there will probably be the order of the day for most semi-serious players. If SOE decides to let Members swap characters between servers, however, things will be very different - since the lack of global progression is one of the only things holding back this F2P funhouse.
There's plenty of room to grow, and much to improve upon. More continents would be nice, as would more variation in the existing ones in terms of scenery and prefab bases. The aforementioned inability to move characters between servers is utterly heartbreaking (though I admit that it's probably designed to make membership more attractive in that you'll have to wait in line or pay up rather than switch to a less busy server). I sometimes feel that, despite the epic scale of the battle, it never quite comes together into a full-blown war. It's an eternal struggle with no real victory to strive for. Can this setup realistically sustain years of play?
If the first week is anything to go by, probably. Making the most of some downtime, Carl and I deployed into a pitched battle to defend a facility the other day, fighting in claustrophobic, tight spaces to repel the invaders from both factions. The fierce fighting raged throughout the night, but in the morning, the TR had stood firm and the interlopers retreated. Sallying forth in an armoured convoy, we randomly ended up in a climactic fight for The Crown (a key facility on the Indar continent. With Carl driving a light tank and myself hitching a ride with a crew of engineers on an APC, we engaged in one of the biggest and most visceral action scenes I've ever witnessed in a videogame: literally dozens upon dozens of tanks and aircraft raining death on a towering fortress as swarms of footsoldiers swarmed the entrance. None of it was scripted. It just happened. Indeed, it's not a set piece: it's business as usual.
What started out as a quick blast became an afternoon, and one well spent. Though Planetside 2 has much to prove, I hope (and fear) that this will become the case more often than not.
Look out for our full Planetside 2 review soon.