“That’s that, then,” said the squad leader, as he scrolled around the map screen, “We’ve lost this fight.”

The words crackled in my ears as I stood opposite my commanding officer’s stationary avatar, watching it jostle the weighty minigun to get a better grip. We’d been on this continent for five hours already, observing the front line of battle sweep one way, and then the other. PlanetSide can be cruel with your fortunes, as a convincing advance can turn into a frustrating back pedal and leave you wondering when the hell it all suddenly changed. Maybe a few squads-worth of soldiers decided to abandon the fray and find another continent to get their simulated future war kicks, or maybe they just decided to log off and do better things. Either way, for those left it’s a slow, painful death through attrition.

At some point the majority of the remaining task force retreats from the battle altogether and goes to fight somewhere it can win. It’s not a shameful admission to say that my outfit’s normally part of that majority. We spawn in the safety of our sanctuary and take ten minutes to re-tool, get some vehicles, maybe take a piss and then wind up the war machine once again, putting it down at the entry-point to a new continent and letting it thunder off across the map.

While this is going on, if you take a look at the satellite image of that place you just ran from you may be slightly surprised to see hot spots – little blobs of light indicating gun fire being exchanged between friendly troops and hostile forces – still flare up. Call them cantankerous, or plucky, or gluttons for punishment, but there’s always a few guys unwilling to accept their losses and get out of Dodge. Most times I figure they do it to share their frustration with their enemies, making them fight for every inch, wasting their time chasing after a few guerrillas. There’s definitely no incentive provided by experience points, because the best way to harvest those is to stick yourself to the underbelly of your team’s offensive juggernaut.

So today I stood looking at the idle animations of my squad leader as he peered at the map’s global view to find greener pastures for his platoon. Around us our allies were evaporating, teleporting back to sanctuary and starting the entire cycle again. Our squad had been here since six, we’d spear-headed this attack, and now it was eleven and everything we’d committed our evening to was being shrugged off by those who’d followed us in. There was a general feeling of discontent in the ranks. We wanted to stay, not up sticks and join someone else’s party. Maybe this is why there are always those hot spots left; the guys who started the fight want to be there to finish it.

Plus, everyone else was going to a snowy continent. Game environments full of ice always make me feel cold.

So we didn't go. As the exodus became a trickle, our platoon – made up of three almost-full squads, nearly thirty fighting men and women – quickly consolidated our position. This was our last base on the continent, our last spawn point. If it fell, we would be curtly shown the door back to our sanctuary. We had a specific allotted time to set up our defences: the second-to-last base we’d just retreated from had a countdown before its capture was made official, and the body of the enemy forces would remain within it to catch the bundle of experience points the game drops when the clock hits zero. Then they’d roll on over in bulk.

Were this a movie, what happened now would be expressed in a motivational montage. We all got to work preparing to withstand the onslaught: combat engineers sprinted around our perimeter throwing down mines and sentry turrets; infiltrators – agile stealth operatives in optical camouflage suits – carefully laid lines of remotely-detonated explosive charges; a few of us stood around scratching our arses, our guns loaded and with nothing to do until we got mobbed. This wasn’t a heroic act of suicidal bravery: we had a great defensive position, our base surrounded to the south and east by unascendable mountains; the north and west bordered by low-lying forest unfriendly to marauding tanks and personnel carriers. The assailants would be funnelled down two roads leading from the south-west and south-east. In addition, our base was untypical for lacking a partnering observation tower, the normal initial objective of any invaders as it provides a reliable spawn point.

We finished fabricating our line and stood waiting. The outer wall surrounding Fort Stubborn bristled with heads, lithe snipers crouching down beside towering MAXs, the nine-foot tall robot suits that can shoot spikes from their heels to anchor into concrete and provide a stable stance to rain explosive hell onto anyone unfortunate enough to be within fifty yards. Troops clambered into the mounted base’s wall turrets, engineers squatting behind them with their glueguns – oversized tools capable of rapidly repairing structures – at the ready. Somewhere at the back, three people jumped on each other’s heads to try and form a human totem pole while a fourth took a screenshot.

A keen-eyed sniper with his view distance ramped up higher than anyone else called out that an aircraft was incoming. Soon it was in all our sight ranges, a small reconnaissance jet sporting friendly colours, which we’d sent out a few minutes ago to take a look at the opposition’s status. Behind him roared several others, whose colours weren’t quite so friendly. Our scout was searing over tree-tops like a dart, but he was matched for speed, and the pursuing fighters’ machine guns tore away at his plane’s armour. He reached the fort and bailed as his ride exploded above him, landing with a thump amidst us. As a rain of gun fire and shoulder-fired missiles chased the hostile aircraft away, the pilot reported to our squad leader over Teamspeak. They were coming, a column of tanks rumbling up the south-west road, flanked by dune buggies and rocket-equipped trucks and shepherded from above by Reaver gunships. And, thanks to their fighters, they knew we were here.

The pilot dashed away to spawn another jet, and our own convoy, three fast, lightly armoured Lightning tanks, sped out of the gates to break up the enemy formation and cause some chaos. The event window soon recorded their destruction and the drivers’ deaths. The attackers appeared between the hills and started firing on the base, tank shells exploding against our turrets and bullets peppering the walls. The sheer volume of ordnance quickly obliterated the base’s main turrets, but barrages from our hand-held rocket launchers made scrap metal out of the main battle tanks not long after. Our snipers pelted rushing infantry with projectiles and cloaked infiltrators sped between trees executing hostile sharpshooters from point-blank range while our commander ran up and down our line trying to prevent their infiltrators from doing the same.

The fight was furious, a cacophony of fireballs and tracers putting the server under pressure until we all felt the lag pull at us. Every time I died and respawned I found our lines had retreated. First we held at the forest, destroying advancing troops and ferreting out mobile spawn trucks, then we were fighting off soldiers atop the base’s walls, then we were pushed back through our inner courtyard and inside the doors as the weight of the foe’s numbers made itself felt, pouring through every entry point at the gates and back door. The volume of gun fire directed at us focused individual roles, people kept their heads down fixing up a MAX suit’s armour from the safety of its shadow while it dropped untold numbers of grenades at bottlenecks in corridors, others busied themselves reviving fallen comrades with medical kits, and those unable to fit in the hastily assembled front row tried to flank around and stir up a little havoc with their miniguns.

There are three key areas within a base crucial to its protection, the energy generator, the spawn room and the control console. If any are taken then it’s game over, man. Within the cramped corridors of the base’s bowels overwhelming numbers don’t count for as much head-to-head, there’s simply not enough room to swarm anything above a skeleton crew of hold-outs. However, numbers count when people start dying. One of theirs falls, and someone immediately steps up to take his place. One of ours falls, and there’s a gap in our line. The bitter engagement was pushing us closer to our three vital organs.

And so we reach the present. We’re close to the brink. Throw hails of bullets, grenades and rockets in the general direction of the bad guys. Throw the god damn kitchen sink, too. Deaths are coming fast, now. There’s only twenty-five of us but the spawn room is still crowded, freshly animated troops barging each other for the equipment-dispensing computer terminals. The squad leader is urging us on, to summon every last drop of fire power and saturate the bastards in it. He’s got good reason, too. He’s been watching the situation globally, the war taking place in the snow. Our guys are steam-rolling them, and he knows that if we’re still holding on when they’ve won the continent the juggernaut’s next destination will be right here.

I’d like to say that it will all work out that way. We’ll fight tooth and nail, down to our last, and just when it seems hopeless, the onslaught will stop and the constant supply of enemy infantry will cease, cut off above as our air force screams overhead and the mighty armoured divisions of the Terran Republic rumble through the gates. But I’m shooting and dying and spawning and shooting and dying, until one time my avatar lets out a pain-filled cry, falls and I am not able to go back. The spawn room has been breached, enemy MAXs have stomped in, cut down newly-spawned soldiers and destroyed the spawn tubes. I am shown the door and resurrect inside the clean, quietly humming spawn room of the sanctuary. Flick open the map, just in time to see the capture countdown start in Fort Stubborn, to a soundtrack of swearing on Teamspeak.

Heading out into the daylight, the first time I’ve seen it since the initial waves of assault half the virtual world away, I am greeted with a massive array of destructive toys. The juggernaut’s in town, and they want to go back in. It’s not our fight, we were there and we were thrown out, but we can follow someone else’s fight. The line of tanks heads to the battle-scarred fields we just left, and ejects the bad guys minutes before the capture clock hits zero. The battle lines sweep upwards once more, and as I’m charging down the claustrophobic tunnels of a base the other side of the continent several hours later, the battle nearly won, I recognise a few names that a little while ago were squeezing us out of existence in the south. This time it's their Fort Stubborn, and they're not going to let go of it without a fight. Good on 'em.

PlanetSide is a war story-generating program that I haven't played since 2004, but still miss on the cold lonely nights.

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