From 2004 on could be labeled gaming's "me centered" era. Leaderboards and achievements grew to worldwide prominence, the loot chase took on all-consuming significance, and attention spans shrank as the appetite for raw entertainment, divorced of compromise or consequence, grew. It might have started with FPSs, with WoW, or some obscure influencer people love to talk about on forum threads, but one thing's for sure: it wasn't always this way. And for at least one game series, it was never this way.
"We have a couple of Call of Duty level designers on staff and a lot of Battlefield 3 players," PlanetSide 2 Executive Producer Josh Hackney explained. "It's to the point that PlanetSide 2 is the game they go home and play. They realized that the best stories were about the bridge you held last night all night with friends: they weren't about kill streaks... It's not about 'me', it's about 'us' in this game."
That's not to say that the typical FPS hooks won't make their appearance in PS2: "How well you're doing individually is still important, we'll still support all of that. But the whole community aspect is new and different with a whole lot of gamers who aren't familiar with PlanetSide." Josh noted that SOE will soon add support for squad-level and platoon-level objectives as well. "We want to make the game more player and community driven."
Stepping back from the big picture a moment, Josh walked me through the character creation process. No class choice is necessary, since you can play whichever class you like (and customize your loadouts and certifications within each class tree). PlanetSide 2 offers an impressive array of options - everything from colors and skins for weapons, weapon attachments, armor, and vehicles - in addition to the standard options for customizing appearance. The game has six classes to choose from: Infiltrator (whose special ability is cloak), Light Assault (jetpack), Medic (heal / revive), engineer (deploy turrets and mines, repair), heavy assault (shield), and a holdover from PlanetSide, the Max (dual wield heavy weapons). I usually pick the slowest class to start to get a feel for the game, so I went with the Max. Josh noted that the Max is a solid choice, that platoons could often be found lining ridges, raining death on tanks and aircraft alike.
But the Max has two important drawbacks: 1) this class cannot use vehicles (it's too big!), and 2) the Max cannot capture points. As such, the Max was hard to play outside of a squad, and organization is typically lacking in event demos. I lumbered toward an enemy-held capture point - seen on the UI as a numbered red diamond - and happened upon a friendly (the game uses an IFF-type system - hovering blue triangles are friendlies, greens are squadmates, no or red triangles are enemies). Players can spot friendlies (using Q) to request or give heals and bring up social options (add to friends list, etc.). Pressing Q while targeting enemies marks the target on the minimap and HUD for all to see.
I found out the hard way that there is friendly fire in the game when that particular friendly stretched me out. "There is a grief system we just put in," Josh explained, noting that after a player accrues so many team damage / team kill points, the troublemaker won't be able to fire for a short period of time. If it happens often enough, the CS team gets involved and the banhammer comes down.
Realizing that vehicles were probably where it's at in this particular show demo, I spawned in as a light assault, went to the terminal, and grabbed a Vanguard tank. Vehicles require varying amounts of resources - the polymers, catalysts, and alloys received on an individual basis from faction control of most regions. A fourth resource - auraxium - is needed for store purchases, but ownership of only the largest facilities provides auraxium. Josh noted that a big part of PS2's grand strategy revolves around knowing which resources the opposing faction needs most and depriving them of these resources, either by capturing regions or cutting off the region from the warp gates at the corners of the map.
PlanetSide 2 will include 11 vehicles at launch. Most of these are held in common among the three factions, but each faction will have its own unique aircraft and tank which capitalize on the faction's strengths. The Vana Republic aircraft, for example, is the Scythe, which Josh described as "flying like a UFO... it can stop on a dime," while the New Corporation's tank, the Vanguard, might be a little slower, but can deal and take more damage. Not to leave out TR: Terran Republic's Mosquito fighter is the fastest vehicle in the game.
Controlling tanks and aircraft is definitely a skill. Pointing the tank turret one direction while traveling in another direction takes some getting used to, and all aircraft slowly drop out of the sky without the proper amount of spacebar thrust. As I tried to get my Vanguard unstuck from an awkward slope, Josh explained that vehicle combat side of the game is quite scalable. Josh stated that he was watching about 25 warplanes in a dogfight before I arrived, and went so far as to say that if everyone timed it correctly, every single player (all 2000) could jump into a fighter without bringing down the server. Obviously this is hard to prove, but I didn't see any performance drops throughout my play session. Not only that, but the game loaded extremely fast on spawn-in. I barely had time to take in each loading screen tip before I was soaring downward in a drop pod.
Cruising around in the Vanguard, I got a good look at the terrain and day / night cycle for the first time. The 64 kilometer-sized map, Endar, seamlessly features three biomes, each with it's own unique tactical advantages and disadvantages. I spent most of my play session in the highlands biome, a savannah-like area that offered plenty of cover for infantry. To the east lay a run of canyons for tight chokepoint defense and sniping action. And to the north lay a vast dried up ocean bed that provides the perfect setting for vehicle combat.
As my time drew to an end, Josh spawned a Galaxy armed transport aircraft so I could see how some capture points require an airborne assault. We took a few hits inbound and Josh crash landed the aircraft just in time, ejecting and rolling out of the aircraft just in time. I wanted to play more, but I'll have to wait just like everyone else.
But how long? According to Josh, PlanetSide 2 will "definitely" launch before the end of the year this year, but as far as how quickly beta opens up, Josh explained that the team is adding players in small batches, fixing any new issues, and then adding more folks. If you're interested and haven't already done so, sign up for beta at planetside2.com. Our thanks to Executive Produce Josh Hackney and the SOE crew for sparing us some time at gamescom 2012.