Reviews

Planetary Annihilation Review – Death Star!? I’m In!

Planetary-Annihilation-header

Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Uber Entertainment
Publisher: Uber Entertainment
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

After a successful Kickstarter and significant amount of time in Steam’s Early Access system, Planetary Annihilation finally achieved “release” just a few weeks ago. Yet it wasn’t without controversy, with many people on the game’s forums arguing that it was not ready to move to a full release just yet, that it needed more work and was missing promised features. In many ways those people were right: Planetary Annihilation still feels like it’s in Early Access. It’s incomplete and rough and does a lot of stuff wrong, but beneath that lies a fun, fast strategy game with a bright future, and a decent present.

As for me personally, although I do attempt to keep any expectations out of my mind when reviewing any title it was hard not to be somewhat excited about Planetary Annihilation. Total Annihilation was a massive part of my early gaming life, and remains one of my favorite games of all time. Its successor, Supreme Commander, was a brilliant RTS with an almost unprecedented scale. Like Supreme Commander, Planetary Annihilation is not technically a sequel to Total Annihilation, but it’s a successor in almost every other way, carrying forth quite a few of its ideas and infusing them into an interesting take on the genre.

Upon first glance Planetary Annihilation appears to be a relatively straightforward RTS; gather resources, construct a base, build and army and use it to blow the crap out of the enemy. There’s just two types of resource to worry about – Energy production plants can be placed anywhere on the map, while extractors can only be constructed atop specific patches of metal. Both resources are infinite, meaning an energy plant will always produce power, and an extractor will never run out of metal. This means there’s little in the way of detailed resource management, though the acquisition of metal to fuel your growing force encourages you to expand and conquer new territory in order to dominate your opponent economically.

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Indeed, it’s important to understand that while defensive play is possible, Planetary Annihilation is all about aggressive, constant expansion of your territory and base. The more you play the more you realise it’s a game where you should never cease construction, be it more factories, more units, more defenses, more nuclear missiles or more resource production. It’s a game that favors strategy over tactics. If you’re unsure of the difference, strategy is the overall plan painted in broad strokes, while tactics are smaller plans enacted to successfully achieve the goals of the overall strategy. In other words, strategy is the big picture, tactics are the smaller details that make the big picture happen. With its focus on strategy Planetary Annihilation is less about micromanaging resources and individual units, and more about grand sweeping plans. In Company of Heroes, for example, units often have abilities that you must manually activate and use correctly to achieve victory, thus forces must be micro-managed, but in Planetary Annihilation this sort of thing doesn’t exist, allowing you to form a massive army and simply throw it at the enemy. Other than expanding to claim more metal your economy doesn’t need constant looking after unless you try to construct faster than resources allow, while factories can be set to pump out infinite units. It’s all about big armies colliding and warfare on a huge scale.

This does come at a cost, namely that throughout my many games I could never describe Planetary Annihilation as a game that required much thought in comparison to, say, Supreme Commander or the aforementioned Company of Heroes. Having said that the original Total Annihilation, of which this is a spiritual successor, was never a deeply tactical game, either. None of this is to say that Planetary Annihilation is worse off opting to support massive strategy over more detailed, tactical gameplay, just that it will likely appeal to a certain type of RTS player more. If you’re after depth, stick to either Supreme Commander or Company of Heroes or perhaps even Starcraft 2.

On the ground things are relatively normal: you begin with a command unit, the loss of which equals the loss of the game. Your commander can construct the basics, including land, sea and air factories, plus low-level defensive structures like laser towers and AA guns. Your factories can naturally produce the buildings blocks of your army, plus advanced construction vehicles that can in turn build better factories and technology, such as artillery stations and missile launchers and radar, plus improved energy and metal facilities to bolster your growing economy.

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Sounds like standard stuff, thus far, but spin the scroll wheel and the camera will suddenly leap backwards into the air, hurtling upwards to reveal the shocking revelation that you’re not just fighting over some square chunk of land, but rather you’re battling across a globe, a complete planet ripe for the taking. As you can well imagine, fighting on a globe has profound effects on how you tackle any given battle. No longer can you hole up in one corner of the map for better defense, and enemy attacks come quite literally come from any direction.  Playing defensively is possible, but attempting to defend every direction is incredibly hard, and you’ll likely be minced by the enemy as they take over the planet and use the extra resources to simply overwhelm you with a flood of units. And that’s where we come back to strategy: Planetary Annihilation’s sole main strategy is to overwhelm rather than out think the opponent much of the time. Most matches play out much like one another, with some variables naturally depending on terrain and other factors, The other strategy is to be the first to get one of the two big game winning weapons, but we’ll get back to those later.

Once you’re over the surprise of fighting on an entire planet there’s another little shock waiting for you; orbital warfare. Using the Orbital Launcher you can begin construction of an orbital factory and even weapons platforms, such as the devastating laser satellite which can wipe out the enemy quickly unless they counter it with either ground based defenses or orbital fighters. Orbital factories also provide your first method of accessing Planetary Annihilation’s final secret: you aren’t just fighting on a single planet most of the time, you’re waging war across a solar system, jumping from floating rock to floating rock.

The Orbital Factory allows the construction of a transport capable of taking a single unit to another planet, or you could send an Orbital Fabricator and get it to construct a warp gate which can then be twinned to a second gate built within your base, allowing the near instant transportation of entire armies to other planets. The first time you encounter a map with more than one planet, the mere task of figuring out what the hell you’re doing will probably leave you frustrated and defeated, or at the very least that’s what happened to me. Once you get a grasp on navigating different planets and how to use your orbital units properly, though, invading other planets and claiming their entire circumference for your own within just a few minutes of a match scratches a sci-fi itch. It’s an awesome feeling, although sadly the selection of orbital units is slim, which is saying something given that there’s not many units to choose from in the entire game.

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This planet hopping is Planetary Annihilation’s ace, the big thing that separates it from other RTS titles. It’s also why the game has a steep learning curve. While the game isn’t challenging in the tactical or even strategic sense, attempting to multitask across numerous planets while constantly expanding gives the ol’ brain a workout indeed. It’s easy to get focused on a single battle on the planet you started on, and forget entirely about other fronts being fought on other planets. Even if you remember to provide some vague direction to your troops you still need to remember to jump back to your base and continue to construct new buildings and grab resources where they become available. For newcomers used to dealing with a single, large map the level of multitasking required can be somewhat daunting, but the controls and interface are generally great and before long you’ll be hopping between planets like a lunatic, launching offensives, building orbital networks and upgrading your economy at a ferocious speed.

To help the game provides a couple of things, including a row of icons at the top of the screen which let you flit quickly from planet to planet without having to zoom out to the solar system and then zoom back in to the desired location, which can actually be a tad finicky. Clickable alerts also lets you jump straight to a newly constructed factory or to troops that are under attack, although I did note some occasional problems with the system. There’s even a pretty powerful set of area commands which let you quickly que up orders, like carpeting an entire planet in metal extractors. Smaller details are also a joy to discover, like how you can order a construction unit to build a more advanced extractor over an existing one without first having to destroy or reclaim it. Finally there’s a screen-in-screen mechanic in place that can be set up to do things like let you watch the other side of a planet so that you don’t constantly have to pan round to keep an eye on enemy movements.

No matter what, though strategy and tactics take a backseat to clicks per minute, and simply building a crap-load of stuff all the time before throwing it at the enemy. The name of the game is swarming the opponent through pure economic efficiency. In the singleplayer, that’s okay, but in multiplayer be prepared to have to concede that you just might not be fast enough on the mouse to win, even if you’re the far better battlefield general.

Regardless it’s a lot of fun. The game has a slightly cartoony graphical style, which while lacking in detail looks lovely, and the audio design is solid, the two factors combining to bring the massive battles to life.  There’s a nice pace to each match with little in the way of downtime. There’s always something going on, be it construction work, skirmishes or full-blown attacks using a combination of ground troops, air forces and even orbital units.

So now let’s get to talking about the big showstoppers, because like its name suggests Planetary Annihilation provides two ways of doing some serious damage. The first is via massive engines which can be constructed on certain orbital bodies like moons or asteroids. The icons on the top right of the screen will tell you how many engines will be need to shift the body, in question and naturally building the engines takes quite a bit of work. Once they are constructed, however, you can then choose a target anywhere in the solar system and smash the moon or asteroid straight into, leaving a huge crater in its wake and a grin plastered to your face. It won’t destroy the entire target planet, but anything caught in the impact will be wiped out, making the Halley Engines potential one-hit game winners, although one must always be certain that one’s commander isn’t in the blast radius, and the enemy has not perhaps shifted the location of their own commander to another planet, otherwise you might look like a twat, albeit one that still has a grin.

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The second showstopper is the biggest in the game: the Annihilaser. Constructing this monster is no easy task as it requires you building of five Catalyst’s – massive, expensive structures – on the North Pole of a solid metal planet. Once all five are completed, however, the metal planet is transformed into a vast laser platform capable of destroying an entire planet in a single shot. Clearly the Annihilaser is based upon the legendary Death Star, and is arguably vastly more effective as it can wipe out several planets within just a few minutes. Indeed, currently the Annihilaser is actually rather too powerful, as attempting to stop its construction can prove tricky, especially later in the game when warp gate invasions become incredibly difficult. To stop the Annihilaser a single Catalyst must be destroyed, but they can take considerable punishment. Orbital weapons are probably the best choice to destroy them, but provided the enemy has put up even a few defenses it’s a tricky proposition.

In fact, invading any planet later in the game becomes incredibly hard. Building a warp gate on an enemy controlled planet is next to impossible at times. And despite your vast technology the orbital transport is only capable of carrying a single unit at a time, making invasions using them a time-consuming and annoying process. Matches with several planets can often devolve into a stalemate as players opt for the idea of merely throwing a lot of stuff at a planet until a crack finally shows.

Planetary Annihilation does many things right, and yet at the same time it does so much wrong, ranging from the small and forgivable to the much larger and more noticeable.

We begin with the poor singleplayer mode titled Galactic War, a name that conjures up images of waging war across an entire galaxy, capturing planets, developing worlds and generally attempting to conquer everything within site. To begin with you start with a limited selection of technology, and by conquering map acquire more to play. You’ve got only a few slots to pop tech into, though, so until you stumble across an expansion of those slots you’ve got to choose what technology you want to take into the field, be it artillery tech or naval units or the full gamut of tank technology.  It’s a way of providing a small sense of progression throughout the campaign, and also means new players don’t have to deal with everything at once. As the first stop-off for many players the singleplayer should also be the perfect place to learn the ropes and become accustomed to how Planetary Annihilation plays, especially important here given how steep the learning curve is with orbital weapons and multi planet gameplay. To a small degree it succeeds as the AI is gentler than it sometimes far more brutal Skirmish counterpart, but since you’re left to your own devices with no tutorial it’s a poor method of introducing the game to a new player. Nor is there any storyline to speak of, although for some this may be a small blessing given how weak the narrative is in many other strategy games.

Another problem that irks with Galactic War is navigating around the galaxy map. To move you need to click on a galaxy and them click on the button that pops up. It sounds okay, but to move from one side of the map to another you need to click on every individual solar system along the way, slowly progressing from one spot to the next. As for the progressive technology idea, it works decently enough, but since you don’t really know the makeup of the planets you’re going to be fighting on there’s no reason to even remotely consider what you’re taking into battle. Even if you could see what was coming there’s no way of changing the technology you’re using to combat it. Thus you might find yourself getting beat-down by an AI using plenty of planes, and there’s no way of retreating in order to scour for technology elsewhere. Furthermore Galactic War really is nothing more than a series of skirmishes linked together, after all it doesn’t matter where you move or when since it has no impact on the game. There’s no enemy commander attempting to navigate the galaxy, either, trying to capture your planets, so ultimately what’s the point of having a map to move around?

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Fighting on globes is certainly a damn fine idea that forces you think a little differently, and yet this has come at the cost of less interesting battlefields. The planets you battle on are all strangely flat, removing the need to consider terrain height. Likewise they tend to be devoid of much else. Chokepoints are sometimes formed by small oceans or plateaus, but much of the time you’ll find yourself waging war on flat, lifeless balls formed by the game’s randomization systems. Occasionally it speaks out something more intriguing, but the best remedy is to venture into the system builder and construct an entire set of planets by yourself.

Scale is also a bit of a problem,  a surprise when you consider we’re talking about a strategy game that takes place across multiple planets. The way the game is designed means you’ll be pumping out huge amounts of units in very little time, but for the most part each planet can be navigated by a scout a mere 30-seconds, or perhaps a few minutes on even the largest bodies created specifically for size. Travelling to other planets likewise takes almost no time at all. It all creates the sensation that despite the humungous hulking commanders, orbital platforms and ability to conquer entire planets Planetary Annihilation doesn’t feel all that big. Indeed, playing one of Supreme Commander’s vast maps feels much more epic.

The included tutorial is actually an embedded Youtube video that doesn’t do a very good job of explaining the foundations of Planetary Annihilation, likely leaving new players frustrated as they attempt to figure out how to travel to other planets, or what certain things actually do. Furthermore the video itself is over a year old at this point, and many aspects of the game have changed in that time. What? RTS games demand and deserve detailed documentation that can be used to gently guide new players, and as a bible by the more dedicated gamers out there, yet what we get is a poor Youtube video that is out of date, and no detailed unit information. Information, tips and guides by Youtubers and other websites are always a great resource for RTS lovers, but the game itself should also be capable of explaining its core concepts in a  concise manner.

Furthermore the imbedded video is indicative of a larger problem: there’s no offline mode available. Admittedly in this day and age such things aren’t usually a huge problem any more. After all, if you’re reading this we can safely assume you have an internet connection, but those connections cannot always be relied upon, and it seems baffling that despite having a singleplayer mode there’s no way of taking Planetary Annihilation offline. The developers promised an offline mode in time for the game’s full launch, but this feature has been delayed and currently there’s no ETA.

Another incredible piece of stupidity is how the developers don’t allow players to save their game mid-battle. During matches with just a few planets victory occurs fairly quickly, but if you decide to set up a game with numerous planets and opponents there’s no way of saving your progress, meaning you better have a spare few hours. What happens if I’m three hours into a massive battle and an unexpected visitor arrives? Or what if the match simply takes longer than expected and I must go do other things? In short, what twat decided that being unable to save mid-match was a good idea?

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As for the units within the game, they are all a little bland and soulless. Considering how Total Annihilation featured an array of distinctive visual designs for its units it’s disappointing to see that Planetary Annihilation’s selection doesn’t have much flair. It doesn’t help that you’ll be seeing them a lot since every commander uses the same very limited pool units. Although more units have been promised, at the moment factories can only build three or four units apiece, and out of those I generally found one or even two that I’d largely ignore. There’s no difference factions to choose from here, either, each with their own strengths and weakness to learn and counter, so it’s not like you can swap sides when you get fed up of using the same stuff over and over. On the other hand this does mean each player must work with the same tools to achieve victory, creating an even playing field, but there’s no denying a wider assortment of distinctive units is needed.

And then there’s the navy. I don’t know why, but personally I’ve always been fond of having massive battleships, and given the opportunity will usually try to use them where possible because there’s just something inherently awesome about bombarding an enemy base from the safety of the ocean. Yet naval units seemed to be largely useless within the game as planets with sufficient amounts of water are a rare commodity. Mostly there were puddles with rarely enough liquid to warrant the building of a naval factory and the construction of warships. Planes and tanks remained the better option.

Likewise bots seem slightly pointless in their current state. The idea is that a bot factory offers a cheaper, quicker alternative to producing tanks in the land factory, a solid concept in theory, but in practice I found that sinking even a small amount of resources into their production simply wasn’t worth it as tanks provided the better bang for the buck, so to speak.  It might be worth pumping out a small army of bots to harass the enemy within the opening minutes, but after that pursuing advanced bot tech wasn’t very appealing, however I do concede that other players may have found viable strategies with them.

Much of these faults vanish to the back of your mind when battling human opponents, though. Of course that’s assuming you’re willing to run the gauntlet as much of the online community is made up of players who have been with the game for some time through its Early Access time, and are therefore very experienced, unleashing a devastating barrage of clicks. The lack of matchmaking is also a slight turn-off, leaving you to trust the players that label their servers as “casual” and such. Survive the initial raping of your RTS soul, however, and playing with other people is a blast, especially in vast games with numerous players and loads of planets. Yes, the flaws are still present and you might find the match dragging as people struggle to invade worlds, but the sheer joy of watching huge armies collide makes it worth while. If only there was massive spaceships as well so that we could bombard the enemy and enjoy epic space battles, too.

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Such huge matches are assuming you have the power to run them, of course. Planetary Annihilation has some substantial system requirements, and the simple fact of the matter is that the recommended specs pale in comparison to what is really needed to run a multiplayer or AI game that spans vast solar systems. Indeed, although my own computer is above the recommended specifications even smaller games struggled to maintain a steady framerate at times, and thus I actually turned down the graphical settings in order to keep things smooth. A quick study of the forum indicates I am far from alone in this, indicating that the game’s optimisation is currently a bit iffy and could do with some work. Prepare yourself for some long loading times, too, as the randomization system takes a while to construct even a few planets.

Naturally you can fire up a singleplayer skirmish as well, should you think facing the AI is more your kind of thing. However, more problems await. Most of the time the AI either attacked madly in the first few minutes, or seemed content to simply sit there and churn out loads of units that it placed haphazardly around its base in little groups and did nothing with. When it does manage to work it can perform rather well, providing a good challenge, but far too often the illusion was shattered when I found I could slowly pick off the enemy has he/she/it continued to build loads of planes that were never used and make pretty patterns with them, even though they probably could have crushed me with such an impressive force. I also discovered many instances of the AI simply doing nothing, or even getting stuck on terrain. In one brilliant case I found the enemy commander trapped between structures it had built.

Like many games today it’s clear that Planetary Annihilation was never truly intended to be finished at launch, but rather a continuing project, yet I would argue that this game simply wasn’t ready to be released from Early Access just yet. The lack of a proper tutorial, missing offline mode, questionable AI, small unit selection and weak singleplayer all point to a game that wasn’t ready to be officially launched. Planetary Annihilation isn’t finished yet. Many more things are planned for the game, and who can say what it will be like even a month or two from now. But here and now it’s a fun RTS that has some serious flaws holding it back from being everything that it could be.

The Good:
+ Conquering planets.
+ Nice pace.
+ Crashing a massive chunk of rock into a planet.

The Bad:
– Lack of a decent tutorial.
– Poor singleplayer.
– No saving in a match? What?
– Long loading times.

The Verdict: 3.5/5 – Good, bordering on great.
Who doesn’t love conquering planets? Flawed? Yes. Fun? Yup. Finished? No. Potential? Loads.

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