"It is impossible to make an anti-war film"
"Francois Truffaut said it is impossible to make an anti-war film, because films tend to make war look exciting." - Roger Ebert
Planetside 2 does not aspire to be some grand statement about the futility of war. Yet this is exactly what it accomplishes.
Upon starting the game, you’ll be treated to an exciting if rather passe FMV sequence of people being shot to bombastic music, to acclimatise you to the kind of heroic skill you might display playing Planetside, I suppose. However, the reality of Planetside is far more interesting. Far from the typical 12 on 12 round based FPS, Planetside takes the form of an MMO, with 2000 player servers and a somewhat persistent landscape.
In some aspects, it plays a lot like Battlefield. Iron sights are certainly not optional and the most infantry weapons, due to the effectiveness of modern weaponry, feel fairly homogenous in their ability to drop anyone in a few seconds. The class structure is almost identical to that of Battlefield, with the exception of a jetpack class.
How the game feels completely unlike Battlefield and quite possibly anything that has come before it is in its scope. Hundreds of people fight over an entrenched position for hours, until one side finally pushes through or the attacking force loses morale and evaporates. Although the game takes place on three distinct maps, each a continent that would take a good hour to walk from one end to the other of, much of the action is focused around a few strategic points.
The most nefarious of these points is a base called ‘The Crown’, which is the centermost point of the Indar map, where the three factions would naturally converge. As its name implies, it’s situated atop a tall rocky mesa, making the tower incredibly difficult to assault. Indeed, it’s unusual for a siege of The Crown to take less than two or three hours, as the attackers slowly push their way further and further up the its corpse laden approach. You dash between boulders, trying to get a good firing position on an enemy for some experience points. Dead.
You run up again. Dead. You follow a group of five other men up a short ravine, only to be cut down by a turret set up by some enterprising engineer. A tank rolls up that central path, so you use it as cover for your advance. Three missiles shatter the poor tank and leave you open to the snipers. Next tank you see, you hop in its turret, but the games AC-130 equivalent, the Liberator, hits you from just below the cloud layer and your armoured steed is no more.
So spawn a thousand meters away from The Crown at The Crossroads, where you can spawn a fighter jet of your own to swat that pesky gunship out of the sky so your team can advance unmolested. Alas, as you approach The Crown, some bastard on an AA gun tears you to pieces. You respawn back at The Crossroads and instead spawn an APC, which you can deploy as a mobile spawn point. Recklessly driving it halfway up The Crown’s debris littered approach you set it down, grinning as twelve people spawn on you in about five seconds.+2 XP pops onto your screen so fast you don’t know what to do with yourself.
Thirty seconds later, your APC is a smoldering wreck, but by that point your side has entrenched themselves amidst the rock and with that foothold, you slowly push your way up that damn hill, over the course of ten or fifteen lives.
Then suddenly you’re in the base and all hell breaks loose. Caution is abandoned as every one of your comrades sprints madly through the facility trying to get to those juicy little packets of XP that are your opponents heads before someone else does.
And maybe they want just a bit of revenge for the last few hours of deaths. After the facility is cleansed of foes, everyone surrounds the enemies spawn room, which is protected by a shield until the facility finishes capturing, which usually takes a few minutes. Occasionally someone will run out of this spawn room, dreaming of glory, only to die in less than a second. The ferocity of the spawn camping is quite something to see and can feel kind of macabre.
As an experience, it feels epic beyond anything else. The time and emotion invested in taking this fortress of a resource point is an experience beyond words, despite my verbose effort. Once you finally lock that hill down, you certainly feel a certain martial pride. In that instant, the game absolutely delivers on the military power fantasy so many games seek to instill.
Satisfied and exhausted, you bounce out of the game for the night. When you log back in the next day, you are horrified to discover your side has lost The Crown overnight and what’s more your team has pushed up to the base of its thorny, barbed wire hill. It’s D-Day 2 and you’re starring as the grunt who gets shot twenty times.
You’ll find yourself running up this hill, over a week of play, over and over and over again and after a while you can’t help but wonder to yourself “What is the point?”. Well, the hill represents resources, you earn Aerospace money faster with it captured.
Except, you always kind of have enough Aerospace bucks. Unless you’re constantly spawning nothing but aircraft, which the game’s cooldown system makes almost impossible to do, you really won’t ever run out of points. And you will come to realise, in the most systematic way, going to war over resources is simply not worthwhile when you really already have enough back home. The human cost is high and your quality of life really doesn’t change much, win or lose.
You just die a hundred times. It feels utterly futile. For the next twenty minutes, killing will feel rather vulgar and you’ll stop playing. Is this all there is to war? For the first time in your life, you have some idea of what it must have been like in World War 1, just another cog in the machine to be grinded into dust.
However, somewhat perversely, this probably won’t be your last experience with Planetside 2. In the search for meaning, you wonder if there mightn’t be something hidden in the upgrade system. Yes, if you just had another 500 certs you could unlock Rocket Pods on the game’s fighter craft, a more powerful jetpack or perhaps a shotgun.
Somewhere out there, in the shop, there must be a way to unlock that magical feeling of taking The Crown and keep it. Be the badass you were born to be, dominate the battlefield. There must be some way to rise above your current insignificance.
This can’t be all there is to war. Everyone knows you can be a hero.
Thing is, I feel that to some extent, Planetside 2’s representation of war is mechanically sound enough that you can’t really be a hero. You’ll have moments,of luck and opportunity, but that’s not what the game is about. SOE President John Smedley once described people who didn’t pay for items as “content”, “enemies to be shot at” insofar as the game’s business model goes.
In Planetside 2, you play a person who gets shot at. It's a really powerful experience.