Planetside 2’s most expansive firefights might be among the most intense you’ve ever had. The massive first-person battles make you fear every step and celebrate every kill, knowing that one small victory contributes to the greater cause. A number of quality online shooters think big, but none think bigger; you are a small but vital cog in a restless war machine seeking to steamroll the opposition with a few dozen rumbling tanks and a vast swarm of armored soldiers.
There’s no doubting the ambition and scope of this free-to-play massively multiplayer shooter, in which thousands of players vie for dominance across three spacious, persistent continents. Before entering the fray, you choose one of three empires: the authoritarian Terran Republic; the rebellious New Conglomerate; or the techno-cultist Vanu Sovereignty. All three boast faction-specific weaponry but share the same six classes, so whether you prefer playing a supportive role as a turret-repairing engineer or blowing up tanks as a heavy assault soldier, each faction has a place for you. There are no class-based vehicle restrictions: you can drive ground vehicles and pilot aircraft, or hop in the gunner's seat and harass the enemy on the go.
Discovering the ways you can contribute to your faction’s cause isn’t easy at first: Planetside 2 is daunting. There are numerous official videos that describe the game’s ins and outs, but they’re not a proper substitute for an interactive tutorial. When you first emerge from your landing pod, you are both awe-stricken and dumbfounded. Dozens of fellow soldiers rush about your faction’s primary base, armored vehicles ramble across the distant landscape, and the hum of nearby aircraft has you peering into the skies. If you’ve played a shooter before, you know how to aim and shoot; Planetside 2’s structural details, however, are initially elusive.
The learning curve isn’t as steep as first impressions lead you to believe, however. Once you click through the menus and peruse the map, you have a rough idea of what the game expects of you. And then you take the plunge and engage the enemy for the first time, and begin to understand what your faction expects of you. Planetside 2 makes it easy to join others: with the press of a button, you can join a squad, and multiple squads may join forces and create a platoon. You may also join an outfit--the game’s version of a guild--if you seek even more camaraderie. Text chat and voice chat both work nicely, and while you’ll encounter a certain amount of trash talk, the community is helpful. Your fellow combatants want you to succeed, and they understand a newcomer’s wide-eyed wonder and confusion.
And so you roll out with a squad, seeking to gain control of hotspots like laboratories and tech plants in order to receive factionwide bonuses like reduced vehicle costs. Such bonuses, in turn, relate to resource generation and management. These resources allow you to spawn vehicles at specific terminals, or purchase sundries like grenades. While there are timers that limit how often you can summon a vehicle, there’s no waiting around for jets to spawn, and there’s no fighting over who gets to fly them: once youpurchase a vehicle, you teleport to the driver's seat.
At the original Planetside’s launch, you could spend more time getting to the action than you could participating in it. That issue was corrected in time, however, and developer Sony Online Entertainment has learned from that game’s initial growing pains. There is downtime in Planetside 2, of course, as you travel across the landscape to a hotspot identified on the minimap. But you can also deploy immediately to a raging battlefield using the instant action button, though this option, too, is on a timer. There are occasional lulls that will have you wishing for a gunfight to keep your energy levels high, but a few minutes of travel generally rewards you with some proper shooting. Thankfully, you can sprint indefinitely if you don’t have a ride, which eases the journey.
Once you’re pulled into a frenzied battle, however, you may be overwhelmed by its intensity. And when the singular thrills are over, you’ll be left craving even more.
A sample war story: you and your fellow soldiers climb to the top of a hill. From this vantage point, you see one tank after another lumbering ahead, heading towards a bridge that provides some cover from homing rockets. Meanwhile, bombers soar above, dropping ordnance on your sunderer vehicle, which simultaneously serves as group transport, spawn point, and ammo dump. You and your squad slowly push forward, sniping heavies that dare cross your line of sight and focusing fire on heavily armored MAXs. As you gradually climb the ridge, engineers aim their turrets squarely at you while your own light infantry uses jumpjets to find a higher vantage point. You push ahead to fire a few shots, then pull back to reload and receive the refreshing life force of a friendly medic. Whether or not you win this tug of war is almost immaterial: the fun is not just in the triumph, but in the chaos that precedes it.
One of Planetside 2’s joys is that even when you’re a novice, you sense that your contribution is meaningful. You could die again and again, but when you are surrounded by a hundred hi-tech troopers, watching your rocket turn a hulking tank into a useless hunk of metal is cause for celebration. Your kill-death ratio isn’t your primary concern: with bullets flying every which way, you expect death, and can only hope to delay it. Coordinating with your squad is the best way to emerge victorious, but there’s room for lone gunmen and solo engineers, because any given action is a contributing one. There’s no heroism in Planetside 2; no one soldier will singlehandedly abolish the enemy and be hoisted upon the shoulders of his adoring teammates. Conversely, your individual mistakes don’t feel too costly, because you’re supported by the positive actions of the rampaging horde.
The sense of immediate contribution in Planetside 2 is important, because it keeps the game from being “pay to win.” You can spend real money on in-game weapons, but you don’t feel like a lesser battlefield presence even with your initial loadout: the one-on-one confrontations that could expose your weaknesses are uncommon, so you don't often experience the common free-to-play frustration of feeling like a peon among powerhouses. Smartly, additions and enhancements like scopes and more effective vehicle armor cost certification points earned in game and can’t be bought with real money. Certifications are arguably more vital to the war effort than weapons themselves, thus staving off the notion that spending money is an easy path to dominance. Just be warned: progress is slow, so it might take dozens of hours before you earn the certifications you most desire.
More important than your weapon’s individual power are the tactical considerations that come to the forefront. Battlefield awareness is one of them: friendly fire is always on, so spraying bullets is not a proper tactic in close quarters. If you don’t exercise caution near ground vehicles, your buddy might inadvertently run you over, and if you go running ahead of the pack, you probably deserve the bullets that riddle your behind. These are complications in other shooters, of course, but when you share the same space with dozens of others, you must take even greater care than you're accustomed to. Another consideration is the tactical positioning of sunderers. Deploy one in an awkward spot, and spawning squadmates might go sliding down a crevasse the moment they appear. Deploy one too close to a well-defended base, and this vital vehicle is laid to waste before it can perform its proper duties.
Planetside 2’s greatest strength is in the diversity and energy that results from such considerations, along with its complex structure, varied terrain, and massive scope. The tools are there for players to lay siege as they wish, and the resulting unpredictability keeps the game consistently engaging. The moment-to-moment feel of shooting and movement thankfully makes core interactions just as entertaining as the broader ones. Certain weapons sound dinkier than you’d hope, and some stiff animations diminish the sense of impact, but by and large, most guns are fun to shoot. Carbines have a delightful zing to them, and pulsars give off a satisfying crackle of energy. Driving a heavy lightning tank across rough terrain gives vehicular action a fun rough-and-tumble feel, and easy-to-grasp arcade controls make taking to the air in a reaver enjoyable off the bat.
Even with its broad RPG-like customization options, Planetside 2 is a shooter to the core; there’s little context for why the war is waged. You don’t know what vital research or terrible experiments are conducted at the Andvari bio lab, only that capturing it improves your faction’s infantry health regeneration. Yet even without typical MMO world-building, the visual design offers a great sense of place. At first glance, the armored soldiers and futuristic architecture make Planetside 2 look like a nondescript sci-fi shooter. But once you cross Esamir’s overcast, icy expanses or watch the sun peek out from behind a monumental watchtower on Indar, you can better appreciate the individual, otherworldly atmosphere.
Unfortunately, Planetsides 2's ambition sometimes comes at the cost of stability. Though server-related lag is thankfully rare, you may still see soldiers rubber-banding across your view, and colossal warzones can bog down the CPU-intensive client. Performance foibles aside, you might fall through the map and into the empty space beneath, and then spawn underground, or perhaps have the game unhelpfully deposit you on a mountaintop when you want some instant action. These aren’t game-defining flaws, but they’re frequent enough to remind you that there is still work to be done on this ever-evolving game.
Occasional woes aside, Planetside 2 is a consistent blast, and a monument to emergent, player-driven gameplay. Battle can take many different forms: intimidating tank invasions, interior infantry shootouts, open air long-range distractions, and more. If you’ve got the patience to learn as you play, then Planetside 2 will reward you with the tools of destruction required to bring its unique brand of chaos under control.