The original massively multiplayer online FPS, PlanetSide, promised competitive first-person shooting on a massive scale. It got the scale right, but tech limitations made for gameplay that was a pale shadow of its more traditional shooter counterparts. With PlanetSide 2 technology has finally caught up to Sony Online Entertainment's ambition.
We've seen large-scale online shooters before. M.A.G. for the PlayStation 3 supported 255 players per battle. Huxley, another PC MMOFPS, once promised hundreds of players per battle but eventually settled on a more manageable 64. It's all about balancing server loads and the number of characters that can be rendered at one time. In other words, it's all about compromise.
SOE doesn't want to compromise with PlanetSide 2. They want 2,000 players on a massive continental map at one time, 666 per faction (with one lucky faction getting 667). They want battles raging for days and weeks, with organised teams of players battling for control of landmass and resources.
That sort of scale wasn't possible back in 2003 when PlanetSide debuted. It did boast hundreds of players per battle, but in order to achieve that the game had to play fast and loose with FPS mechanics. It wasn't precise, it wasn't particularly pretty; it felt like a budget game that just happened to stumble upon a persistent world.
PlanetSide 2 feels like a first-person shooter. It's precise. It's tactical. As I played through a decisive battle for strategic region of one of the game's tri-colored continents, I forgot I wasn't playing on an enclosed map. A beta player shouted instructions through the headphones as we fought for control of three bases in a red and rocky desert setting, guiding us to our objectives and deploying backup where needed.
I played as a sniper, hiding in corners within view of windows, using my scope to take out invaders from afar. I played as a commando-type armed with an assault rifle, never staying in place, always one step ahead of the enemy. I played as a massive tank character, bullets bouncing off my armour as I closed in for a brutal flamethrower kill. I called in an aerial vehicle and crashed it almost immediately.
I tea bagged a member of my own team. I'm not particularly proud of that.
But it proves I was in the spirit of a first-person shooter. Somewhere out there a general is watching a blinking coloured spot on a map, urging us to take the base, cutting off a rival faction from their main force and thus making it easier to mop them all up. I couldn't care less. My battle was between the guy in black that kept getting behind me and filling me with holes.
It wasn't until my SOE handler took the controls of an aerial unit that the sheer size and scope of PlanetSide 2 really hit home. As he flew across the continent the sky changed colours hypnotically. Desert gave way to forest, which then gave way to ice. I was mesmerized. I suddenly felt very insignificant. I longed to get back to the battle, where I knew my place.
That's exactly what I wanted when I first got word of the original PlanetSide. Being a part of something massive without having to think about it too much. It looks like SOE is getting it right the second time around.