PlanetSide 2 is a captivating marriage of the persistent world of an MMOG, the free-to-play financial model and the twitch combat of a firstperson shooter. Each of its three continents supports up to 2,000 players, and the scale is dizzying. Infantry and tanks clash on the ground, while aircraft streak across the sky. It’s the kind of spectacle that most shooters rely on scripted setpieces to create, but here every explosion, tank battle and dogfight is a moment created wholly by players.

Three armies – the Terran Republic, the Vanu Sovereignty, and the New Conglomerate – battle to hold territory on these colossal continents, each force’s territory represented on PlanetSide 2’s map screen by a group of hexagons in its signature colour. The result is a complex honeycomb of ever-changing hues as the sides capture and lose military installations, bridges, and more. It’s a world that’s always in motion, changing as players’ actions dictate, not at the behest of planned world events. You can log out with a comfy grip over large swathes of the map, only to return a few hours later and find your faction backed into a corner.

Such scale has certain implications, such as making teamwork absolutely intrinsic to capturing enemy-controlled areas. The flip side of this is that PlanetSide 2 can feel lonely and aimless for a solo player, and there’s a limited amount you can accomplish all on your own. There’s also initially a lot to process and there’s no in-game tutorial to help the bewildered; once you’ve created a character, the game detects the busiest battle on your server and drops you right in the middle of it. Don’t be surprised if you’re shot dead within seconds of your first spawn.

If you find yourself in a tight spot, you can redeploy without the penalty of death or a suicide. Drop pods throw you directly into the action, although the beta saw complaints about using the vehicles as bombs

You can join squads with random players, but it’s rare that you’ll find one willing to discuss tactics. It’s when you’re playing with friends using voice chat that the game is at its best. With enough people, you can ignore the larger conflicts and pick your own targets – perhaps a lonely enemy base in a distant corner of the map. However, the moment you enter their territory, an icon will blink on the enemy’s map to alerting them to your presence, and they’ll be able to drop in and defend it. It’s not uncommon for these small, localised skirmishes to quickly escalate into ferocious hundred-player wars as troops from both sides rush in to help.

Above squads there are platoons. These can be made up of three squads of ten, which makes for some thrilling moments when everyone comes together and assaults the enemy en masse. Larger still are outfits, which are essentially guilds. Commanders can place target markers that are visible to all players in their team and, by advancing through a dedicated skill tree, can drop portable spawn points. But even with this Russian doll hierarchy in place, the action can still feel chaotic, and it’s too easy to lose track of your friends in the hysteria of battle. Their position is displayed on the mini-map and HUD, but there are so many icons onscreen in busy areas that it’s difficult to locate allies at a glance when you’re under fire and need help.

Readability is another problem caused by PlanetSide 2’s size. Despite all the coloured armour, it’s hard to determine who you’re attacking and what class they are – and friendly fire is enabled by default. In Team Fortress 2, the moment you see the telltale silhouette of a Heavy ahead, you subconsciously adjust your tactics to deal with him. Here, the classes all look alike, especially from a distance. That dark spot ahead could be a light assault trooper that you have a chance of winning a firefight with, or it could be a sniper with his sights hovering over your head. With so many players running around, distinction between factions and classes should be much clearer, especially when a second’s delay in a firefight means certain death. Cosmetic armour upgrades and custom vehicle textures only add to the confusion.

The combat itself is vastly improved over the original. Weapons have a physicality to them, with sniper rifle bullet drop and missiles losing momentum the farther they travel. The armoury does feel oddly underpowered, though. You’ll empty an entire magazine into an enemy and their shield will barely take a dent, let alone their health. Even vehicles and the mech-like MAX suit left us feeling flimsy and vulnerable. It’s disheartening to spend Resources – an in-game currency earned at set intervals, or by killing enemies and capturing territory – on a heavy tank only to be blown to pieces in seconds by a passing aircraft. When you lose a vehicle, a timer prevents you from spawning another for up to 20 minutes, only adding to the upset.

Engineers can deploy anti-armour and anti-infantry mobile turrets as well as repair damaged vehicles for the good of their team.

Even so, vehicles are often the source of the game’s most memorable moments. On the icy continent of Esamir, rows of tanks will perch on opposite ridges of deep, yawning valleys, firing back and forth while infantry clash in the centre. At desperate moments, pinned down in an enemy base with no hope of pushing back their defensive line, the sight of a fleet of friendly aircraft soaring overhead, or a column of tanks rumbling into view, is intoxicating.

Sunderers bring a similar feeling of relief. These bulky armoured personnel carriers might not look like much, but they’re arguably the most important vehicle on the battlefield. They can be driven deep into enemy territory and transformed into mobile spawn points or vehicle repair stations. They’re incredibly thick-skinned and can drive away from danger while players defend them with mounted anti-armour and anti-infantry guns. A strategically placed Sunderer can turn a battle around, and they’re vital to making a steady, relentless push against one of the game’s capture points – but to take advantage of its important mobile spawn feature, you’ll need Certifications, an in-game currency.

It’s all part of PlanetSide 2’s free-to-play economy. Every class, faction, continent, and vehicle is available to all players from the start, but you can buy additional weapons and items with SOE’s Station Cash currency. Certifications, on the other hand, can only be earned through play. These are required for most upgrades, such as scopes and foregrips for weapons. Everything you can buy with Station Cash you can earn by playing, but it’s a grind. A gun costs, on average, 700 Certs, and you might earn 50 in an hour of play if you do particularly well. This makes the £4 to buy it outright seem much more appealing.

The Liberator airship can seat three people: a pilot, a gunner, and a tailgunner. An upgrade allows them to drop bombs as well

You can’t pay your way to victory, though. For one, PlanetSide 2 is first and foremost a firstperson shooter, and reaction times and dexterity will always triumph over what gear you have equipped. Also, every weapon you purchase has a weakness as well as a strength. A new sniper rifle for the Infiltrator might cause more damage, but at the expense of having to reload after each shot. A carbine rifle may make a Light Assault player more effective at medium range, but it holds less ammo. This ‘sidegrade’ system keeps things balanced, but does mean there’s a noticeable lack of variety between weapons, with only very slight stat variations.

PlanetSide 2’s launch was marred, like most MMOGs, with server capacity problems. If you could get into a game at all, you’d often be unceremoniously booted out. Since then, the network issues have mostly cleared up. Occasionally you’ll be shot dead before you’ve even seen the enemy in front of you, and players will sometimes vanish and reappear a few steps ahead of themselves, but in terms of overall stability, it’s much more reliable. There are around 30 servers, split into regions, and you can have three active characters at any one time. Cleverly, you can’t have two characters of opposing factions on the same server. This stops mischievous players switching sides mid-battle to sabotage their own team for the benefit of the other.

Naturally, the game suffers if there aren’t many people online, and weekends are usually the best time to play. During peak hours you won’t have to look far for a battle to join, but on less populated servers it’s difficult to get enough people together to capture territory effectively. Engaged players are crucial to PlanetSide 2’s continued success. You can run around an empty World Of Warcraft map and still busy yourself with solo questing, but teamwork is so essential in PlanetSide 2 that it’s nothing without its players. If the player base dies, so does the game.

For the moment, though, SOE’s MMOG is a remarkable achievement. Games like it often have to sacrifice visual fidelity for performance, but PlanetSide 2 looks stunning, even on medium settings. We’ve never experienced virtual warfare on such a grand scale in a videogame before – even if this isn’t always a good thing. New players are badly catered for, and relegating tutorials to a series of external YouTube videos, rather than teaching you the game’s many complex systems in a more direct way, will put a lot of people off. But as you grow accustomed to the rhythm of its territorial tug of war and find a solid group to play with, few games can prove as exhilarating to play.