The Terran Republic has been pushed all the way back to its Warpgate when I arrive. Here, behind our indestructible walls my fellow red clad soldiers are massing for a counter attack. Fighters and gunships buzzer over head as Prowler tanks and APC’s gather together and prepare to burst forth onto the battlefield. The energy here is electric and I can tell everyone is eager for payback. I grab my trusty carbine and jetpack, unwilling to be left out of what will surly be an intense battle. A Liberator Gunship touches down close to me, looking to take on a few gunners for the coming battle and I jump on board. When the pilot takes off I can see for the first time the scale of what’s about the unfold. I’m awestruck. A column of hundreds of soldiers bursts forth from the Warpgate’s protective shield in tanks, APC’s, jet fighters, quad bikes and on foot. I watch from my Liberator’s belly gun seat with a mixture of pride, excitement and fury as each Prowler’s twin linked main cannon thunders to life. The surrounding New Conglomerate troops begin to turn and run as their Vanguard tanks explode and the line is broken. The siege is broken.
I’ve been playing a lot of Planetside 2 recently. Probably more than is healthy given my school/work schedule. But almost every time I play the game I get one of those ‘wow’ moments that engages me in a very real way. Planetside makes me feel like I’m part of something big, something intense and something real. It’s got me thinking about what makes a game feel realistic. Medal of Honor, a game that’s actively promoting its realism, doesn’t feel real at all. Yet, Planetside 2, a game that takes place on a distant planet in a far, mythical future feels more real than MoH ever could. Why is that? What does Planetside have that MoH and all the other gritty ‘realistic’ shooters don’t?
The pilot of our Liberator brings the gunship to a hover over the routing NC and I manage to cut down a few rebels with my quad linked machine guns. Underneath us a massive column of Terran tanks and light armor rolling down the road to the nearest NC base. A long running battle commences. My gunship circles over head as the battle unfolds providing cover fire here and there while trying not to get shot down. A few times we make a landing at a friendly base to rearm and refit but every time we return to the battle I’m again struck by the immensity of it all. The Terran column is constantly pushing towards the New Conglomerate’s Warpgate, stopping briefly at each base along the way to capture it and take on more tanks, troops or aircraft. Smaller platoons break off from the column to take strong points spread out along the countryside and engage in fast and brutal skirmishes.
I think Planetside’s realistic feel is thanks to a few key things. Firstly the player has to feel like they’re part of something that’s much larger than themselves and their immediate surroundings. This is especially true in a war game as the illusion will start to break down if the battle doesn’t feel massive. Battles are big, often engrossing entire countrysides and cities. It should be apparent to the player that other engagements are being fought besides the one you’re in. Not that you can’t make a compelling war game out of smaller skirmish battles but it should still be apparent to the player that what they’re doing fits into a larger plan.
Finally our column runs into its first big obstacle. The Crown. A nearly unconquerable fortress poised on the top of a mountain, overlooking the surrounding countryside. It bristles with flak cannons and artillery. Lines of tracers stitch seams in the sky from its walls and the windows of its surrounding buildings. Our column’s once furious momentum grinds to a halt at the feet of this massive obstacle. The anti-air fire is too much and on the second circle of The Crown my gunship explodes in the sky.
Realism in games hinges on creating an environment for the player that feels like it could, and is, happening. Too many “gritty, realistic” shooters provide the player with situations that feel only miraculously survivable. Either by sending hordes of enemies at the player or subjecting them to helicopter crashes or even nuclear explosions. Don’t overload the player with an excess of explosions, kills etc. or the game will start to feel unreal. Additionally, gun’s and other hardware need to feel believable and manufacturable. This is more applicable with futuristic and fantasy weapons but I think it’s important to note since Planetside hit’s this one out of the park. Weapons should feel rugged and real. In short:
I try to make my way up the hill, rock to rock, on one of the approaches but the sniper fire is too intense and I can hardly get from one rock to another before a heavy gauge round cuts through my shields. Squad leaders chatter to each other trying to come up with a strategy to break the stalemate. I make my suggestion: Galaxies. A few minutes later my whole platoon is loaded into two Galaxy transports and hurtling towards The Crown at full speed. As we close in on our objective we’re greeted with a hail of bullets. With nothing but the skill of the pilots keeping us safe we somehow manage to get to the target more or less intact. My Galaxy touches down directly on the fortress’ rearming pad while the second transport circles around to another pad on the other side.
If you want to create realism in your game the player has to have full agency over what they want to do, how they want to act and where they want to go. The temptation is to lead the player around by the nose and show them how realistic you’ve made the game but, in doing so, you’ll make the game feel too scripted. If you restrict where the player can go they will begin to see that the world outside their immediate surroundings doesn’t actually exist and the illusion will break down. But if the player has the agency to go where they want the game world will feel more real and fleshed out. Much more of a three-dimensional experience.
The bullets begin to fly almost instantly as my boots hit the landing pad and the resulting fire fight is fast and brutal. Squad leaders throw down their beacons and drop pods quickly begin to fall from orbit, slamming into the ground like massive hammer strikes. Our landing has sent the defending rebels into chaos and, sensing the opportunity, our forces still pushing up the slopes of the hill break cover and charge forward. The rebels try to counter attack but are pinned down on the east bridge while respawners, fresh from the rebirthing matrix, are hemmed into their spawning room. After about ten minutes of intense fighting victory is finally ours.
Realism in games like these is essential for the experience to engage the player on a base level. That’s not to say that unrealistic games aren’t fun but, especially in a war game, if you want to get the player’s blood pumping you need to make the whole experience feel real and engaging. Create a three-dimensional world that doesn’t overload the player’s senses and allow them to move around it in freedom and you’ll have a good start at least.