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GDC 2012: SOE's PlanetSide 2 gunning for the big time

Jef Reahard

Our PlanetSide 2 bootcamp didn't start on the war-torn planet of Auraxis. It started on a plushly appointed hotel terrace in the middle of downtown San Francisco. Sony Online Entertainment brought its A-game to GDC 2012, and though its MMOFPS sequel is still undergoing internal alpha testing, the demo was striking enough to make us feel like battle-weary soldiers returning from the front.

Executive producer Josh Hackney kicked things off with a short spiel that touched on what made the original PlanetSide unique (truly massive combat, ambitious open-world design, and a passionate/enduring community, in a nutshell). Hackney then turned the microphone over to creative director Matt Higby and a team of SOE devs who proceeded to wow the gaggle of game journos with an hour of pure awesome.

PlanetSide 2 - foot soldiers
Higby led off with a quip about motion sickness, and as he climbed into the cockpit of a New Conglomerate Reaver and started doing all manner of aerial jukes and jinks, we realized he was only half joking.

For the uninitiated, PlanetSide 2 is a marriage of traditional MMO staples like character advancement and personalization with the visceral combat of the first-person shooter. Oh, and there's air combat, ground vehicle combat, and infantry combat, all of which takes place in a real-time, persistent environment.

Higby switched to a third-person camera on the Reaver and banked into a slow circle around a sprawling biolab capture point. The structure was a massive labyrinth of platforms and sci-fi heavy metal, and PlanetSide 2's scale became immediately apparent as the Reaver then headed off into the highlands surrounding the base.

If you're looking for a size comparison, Higby said this one capture point was the size of a standard Modern Warfare map, and of course the biolab is only one structure in one hex on a continent that can hold dozens of hexes (and there are three continents).

PlanetSide 2 - night fight
As the Reaver left the biolab behind, infantry and tank forces clashed nearby on the surface, and Higby fired a few well-placed rockets while circling the fray. SOE's ForgeLight engine, an internal piece of tech designed specifically for PS2, really strutted its stuff here, as highly detailed terrain, brush, and rock formations whipped in and out of focus with the movement of the Reaver, and a kaleidoscopic lightshow of tracer fire lit the whole scene with a deadly beautiful glow. Since the lighting in the game is deferred, each round lit up the environment as it passed through the landscape, making an immersive experience that much richer.

Higby also sped up the game's day/night cycle, and we got a good look at how different -- and tactical -- night-fighting will actually be (night vision goggles and weapon-mounted flashlights, yes please).

We also got quick looks at the Reaver's custom loadout screens as Higby crashed, burned, and respawned, and those new to PlanetSide will want to know that each of the game's dozens of vehicles is configurable in this manner (Higby's Reaver was specced as a ground-attack gunship). We got an eyeful of the game's physics here, too, and PlanetSide vets will be pleased to know that SOE is adding extra bells and whistles that weren't possible in the original game. You want to barrel-roll your Reaver? Go right ahead.

PlanetSide 2 - two guns
After our aerial combat crash course was over, we got up close and personal with both tank and infantry combat. All of this went off without a hitch in terms of performance, with very high framerates and very little texture pop-in or errant artifacts. The demo team consisted of appoximately 50 devs, some at SOE's offices in San Diego and some joining Higby on the dais at the front of the PlanetSide 2 press area.

SOE says the game still has a lot of bug-fixing and polishing ahead of it, but most of the textures, animations, and gameplay in the current build were sufficiently jaw-dropping enough to make us want to open our wallets prior to the end of the demo.

While we're on the subject of payment schemes, SOE is launching PlanetSide 2 as a free-to-play title. Cash shop items are limited to cosmetic effects (desert camo paint-jobs, New Conglomerate-specific paint and markings on your assault rifle, etc.) and something called sidegrades. While we weren't able to compare stats on sidegrade gear vs. items earned via gameplay, Higby was adamant about the fact that these are not pay-to-win items.

Finally, we got a brief look at the game's impressive stat-tracking abilities. Character performance is charted for a number of skills, stats, and accomplishments, and we even glimpsed a handy graph application that allows you to view your performance over time. All of this is in-game, too, and SOE is also providing external data feeds for third-party websites, mobile apps, and its own PS2Players web portal, so there will be no shortage of crunchable data on your PlanetSide 2 characters.

PlanetSide 2 - TR soldier
After our hour-long demo, we managed to corner senior art director Tramell Isaac for a quick sit-down. Isaac reiterated SOE's desire to sell cosmetic items in the cash shop and also said that the PS2 dev team will be constantly adding new items on a regular basis, much like EverQuest II's frequent station cash marketplace updates.

Even more interesting were Isaac's hints at SOE's five-year plan for PlanetSide 2 (a plan that includes AI enemies and extensive content updates). It's clear that the game is both a labor of love and something of a risk for one of the MMO genre's heavyweight publishers.

PS2 has a certain hardcore feel about it (and the pre-release community is anything but casual), but Higby nonetheless mentioned that the dev team wants the five-minute player to be on equal footing with the five-year player. Ultimately, while many games in this genre purport to be massive, PlanetSide 2 truly is (and as such, it will need a massive amount of players to bring its considerable potential to light).

Though SOE isn't ready to grant any hands-on time with the title just yet, we can tell you without a doubt that PlanetSide 2 is one of the most ambitious MMOs we've seen in a number of years. Even if you're not normally a fan of shooters, you may well find something to like about this one.

Massively sent four resolute reporters to San Francisco to bring you back the biggest MMO news from this year's GDC, the largest pro-only gaming industry con in the world! From games like The Secret World to PlanetSide 2, we're on the case, so stay tuned for all the highlights from the show!

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