When I first landed in a pod in PlanetSide Arena, the upcoming Battle Royale game from PlanetSide 2 developer Daybreak Game Company, chaos erupted around me. Myself and eleven others were determined to win our first match of the playtest, and while we weren’t in any immediate danger, it didn’t take long for another team to find us.
What happened is one of the largest battles I’ve ever been a part of in a Battle Royal game – something that is intrinsically PlanetSide.
Fire came from us from all directions. My team members – reluctant to use the in game voice comms as we didn’t know each other – were holding our own in a structure in the middle of a small valley. Our Engineers set down their turrets while I activated a heal ability – the main ability of the Media. We won our skirmish, and the next, and the one after until only our team remained, victorious in our first round of Squads in PlanetSide Arena.
“Our goal is to recreate a lot of those crazy moments we’ve seen in the PlanetSide franchise over the past decade,” Tony Morton, Lead Designer on PlanetSide Arena, told me in an interview about the upcoming game.
Crazy is one right. Though, if I could summarize PlanetSide Arena in one word, it would be this: chaotic.
The huge battles is nothing any PlanetSide fan isn’t already used to. However, while most battle royale games boast player numbers capping at 100, PSA’s Squad and Teams modes both cap at 300 for the time being. Squads will fight in teams of 12 players, while teams will be a 3-player group. PlanetSide Arena, however, is built to potentially support up to 1000 players in a single match.
Each player before jumping into the fray will choose a class – either the run-and-gun Assault class, the support Medic class, or the stout, defensive class of an engineer. Each class starts with its own loadout as well as special ability that makes it different. An Engineer can drop a turret to defend a location or a wall to provide some cover to hold a position. Assaults can use a dash to help get them into – or out of – danger in pinch. Medics can heal other teammates and help recharge their shield. This was meant to not only provide some structure to players but give each type of player something to do that feels meaningful and contributes in a battle.
“We wanted to make sure we built a game where whether you are an absolute slayer or a complete potato , you feel like you can have some success, and you can feel like you can have a good time.”
I felt this feeling personally – in my five matches I was our team’s most consistent player with a grand total of zero kills (though I did record about 9 assists in one match). However, as a medic I felt like I could still help my team. During prolonged firefights I would revive, heal and recharge shields. I’d lay down cover fire with my long-range rifle. As an Engineer I laid a turret down to cover our rear while we focused on the team in front of us. Again, while I walked away as a potato player in the slayer department, I didn’t leave upset. I was able to make meaningful contributions to my team, and as a result we won three of the five matches we played that day.
“Looking at three classes,” Tony told me, “we felt like we kind of covered our bases, and we were pretty happy with where they came out with. We've been happy so far with how we've seen people using them. Like you stated earlier, you're like, ‘I really couldn't get any kills, but I still felt like I was helping my team. I feel like I was important.’”
PlanetSide Arena isn’t just about the boots on the ground. Combined arms play a role. Tanks, aircraft and other vehicles can dominate the battlefield. In fact, in our fifth match, playing with some other journalists and hardcore PS2 vets, our only goal was to control three to four tanks on the battlefield. And we did. In doing so we were able to steam roll teams on our way to victory.
On one hand this was a lot of fun when we were steamrolling. However, in a previous match we became encircled by a team, caught in a pincer by two massive tanks. It was a hopeless fight and there is nothing like being vaporized point blank by a tank’s cannon. It’s fun, but also frustrating when you can’t do something about it.
This is something the developers have already noticed and the frequency of random tank spawns in each match has already been dramatically reduced.
Using a tank or any of the other specialized drops though can have it’s advantages and disadvantages. We had one match where we found ourselves fighting over a respawn terminal with another team. Throughout the firefight I sat in the gunner’s seat with the tank, laying down suppressing fire with its main cannon. Again – zero kills across five matches – but the threat of the tank was enough to keep the other team at bay while we spent our nanites, a currency shared throughout your team, to revive our whole team.
Other forms of area denial can be the impressive looking orbital drop grenades. We ran into a team that had seemingly been hoarding them, as they used two or three in a single firefight to control the battleground, funneling our team into a killzone where they finished us off. It’s an impressive bit of coordination and provides such a drastically different layer of strategy not found in other battle royale games.
In fact, PlanetSide Arena feels more like a PlanetSide game first, rather than a traditional BR game. While many games have you jump in with nothing, PSA gives you a full kit so you can jump in and go. Other games, such as PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite have you fumbling with resources and inventory, PlanetSide Arena has none of that – no inventory to deal with.
“Unlike traditional BR, you actually drop in with a kit that you want to go in with, according to Tony. “You don't drop on the ground with absolutely nothing. You have shields. You have jet packs. You have two primary weapons. You have a sidearm, and you have a personal vehicle as well as your ability and your utility. So, the kit that you have is pretty robust in allowing you to, one, helpful a class role, but two, just kind of be ready as soon as you hit the ground. Once you're on the ground, and you're out there exploring the map, looting up, another thing than that we opted out of was anything like inventory management. We didn't want you to have to worry about different sights or scopes or grips or stocks or barrels and how you would put those things together in the field.”
Each weapon and ability can be upgraded as well, either through terminals placed in structures where you and your team can spend your collected nanites found throughout the map, or via upgrades found while exploring the area. Whereas in other Battle Royale games you’ll be staring at the ground quite a bit trying to find an item, PlanetSide Arena has put those items and upgrades on a pedestal, meaning that , in theory, your eyes should always been on the horizon.
Each upgrade feels meaningful – upgrading my weapon brought with it a scope or a underside-mounted rocket launcher for anti-vehicle attacks. Upgrading my kit brought with it more powerful shields, more powerful versions of my abilities and even more fuel for my jetpack.
Movement in PlanetSide Arena feels so good as well. Each class has a jet pack, something the team wanted in order to add a while new element to the fighting. Verticality plays a role in combat, and more often than not I felt like I was back in TRIBES, brandishing my Spinfusor. It’s a great feeling knowing that essentially if I could see a place where I want to go, I could do so.
The verticality, and the improvisation was on full display when I was actually dead. Go figure. A teammate was the last on our team to be alive, and the playzone had shrunk enough to where the nineteen or so players left were in one tiny area. Our teammate, not wanting to be discovered yet, decided to go hide in a tree.
Not just behind the trunk of a tree, like you might in PUBG, but rather he flew up into the tree branches and waited until he couldn’t any longer. This type of gameplay is only possible once you add in that third dimension of travel. It was so cool to watch the wild improvisation by this player. Sure, he had no chance of winning, but by doing this he was able to take another two players with him before finally being found out.
Firefights themselves in PlanetSide Arena can erupt at any moment. These massive fights sprawl across a field, cliff face or city structure and can be, again, chaotic when they do start. These major fire fights make up the bulk of the excitement in PSA, something the team wanted to ensure that no matter what side of the firefight you were on, you’d enjoy the thrill of the experience.
“[L]ooking at the BR games that are out there and the experiences that we've got,” Tony mentioned. “this is going to sound probably kind of unconventional, but in a shooter, it's kind of a known that shooting somebody needs to feel good, right? In a way, it feels rewarding in itself, because you've acquired a target, and you're shooting at them. But, getting shot at actually needs to be more engaging and more exciting than shooting somebody else, because that's when you really don't have control of the situation.
“So, through the ability to have movement and really control and flank and do these things to kind of give yourself the upper hand in combat is what we try to keep in mind when we design some of these scenarios. It's really what PlanetSide Arena has been built around, was the fact that shooting somebody doesn't just need to be exciting but being shot at and the ability to move. Whether you're using your jet pack to try to get height advantage, or you're hopping on your personal vehicle, which every class has to get away or to rotate around, it really is about the movement and the moment to moment and understanding where you can go and what you can do.”
The PlanetSide Arena playtest wasn’t without its frustrations, however. Again, the reliance and rushing to fill your team with vehicles can make the experience feel one-sided if you’re not the ones with the tanks. Additionally, in two of the five matches we experienced a bug where a player was set to God Mode – something hopefully that will be rectified before the Early Access launch on September 19th.
But, PlanetSide Arena feels different than the other battle royales on the market right now. While it’s thrilling to be in a firefight in PUBG, there was something about coordinating the defense of a ridge with eleven other people, calling targets and painting tanks with rockets from afar. Spending a good two hours with my eyes firmly on the horizon and not scouring the ground for more gear kept me even more engaged.
And the large scale battles bring something the genre hasn’t really seen before. Sure, 100 players is impressive, but its likely you can go a full forty minute match and the only players you see are the last remaining before you claim a chicken dinner. PlanetSide 2 becomes chaos right away, from the moment your character steps from their landing pod you’re geared and ready for a fight. And at times, when under a constant barrage of fire, slowly planning your way to pincer the enemy team and sprinting to revive an ally, it can be a crazy fun affair.
And that is something the team wants to embrace fully.
“We want to embrace the crazy.”