And so we come to Planetary Annihilation, one of the more financially successful Kickstarter projects from the craze of 2012. As the name (and the Kickstarter trailer, which is a knowing homage to the intro) suggests, Planetary Annihilation’s aim is to be a modern incarnation of 1997 RTS classic Total Annihilation, with the twist that the war is now raging over multiple planets in a solar system. Supreme Commander already took a swing at updating Total Annihilation back in 2007, and so Planetary Annihilation was going to have to do a little more than just redo the whole thing in shinier graphics in order to justify its existence. It knew it, too – the first Kickstarter trailer promised a host of interesting gameplay elements such as the ability to send your robot soldiers to asteroids to mine them for resources, being able to fire troops down onto a planet from an orbiting moonbase, and building rocket engines on your asteroid bases to deorbit and launch them at whatever faction is currently pissing you off the most, turning their base into a smoking planet-sized crater. That trailer alone is probably responsible for getting Planetary Annihilation 90% of its funding, but there does tend to be a yawning gulf between what a development trailer promises and what the final product eventually delivers, especially when said trailer’s sole purpose is to part people from their money. Has Planetary Annihilation succeeded in achieving its goals? Let’s find out together.
The premise of Planetary Annihilation, as with Total Annihlation and Supreme Commander before it, is that when a game starts you’re placed in control of a single powerful unit called a Commander. The Commander has basic build capabilities – in Total Annihilation this was explained with some convincing-sounding technobabble about spraying nanobots around that assembled themselves into buildings, and while I have no idea what Planetary Annihilation’s in-universe take on the concept is it uses exactly the same mechanic in game: the Commander stands there spraying magic dust into the air, and fifteen seconds later you’ve got a robot factory. The robot factory can build both construction robots and a variety of tier one battle robots, and so the first thing you do is crank out a few construction robots to build additional base facilities. While this is happening the Commander goes on to build metal extractors and energy generators to keep the supply of raw resources going, the construction robots use these robots to build additional factories, and in a very short period of time you have a fully functioning base. You can then automate your factories to churn out a steady stream of battlebots while your construction units build more advanced base structures, and when you find an enemy base you don’t bother micromanaging your troops to preserve their robot non-lives, you just set the factory rally point to somewhere inside the enemy base and let the battle continue on autopilot while you concentrate on finding a more permanent solution to this infestation of differently-coloured robots – after all, when you’re cranking out a battlebot every second it doesn’t matter so much when an enemy bombing run takes out fifteen of them in one fell swoop.
This, to me, has always been the appeal of Total Annihilation: it captures the nature of robot warfare like nothing else. Robots are expendable by their very nature, and because your factories will continue to build as long as your resources coming in are greater than your resources going out any losses you take are almost immaterial. It leads to warfare on a vast scale, with factory upon factory contributing a steady stream of cannon fodder to a battle that cannot be won by destroying an army – they’ll likely have just built two more while your battlebots were slugging it out. No, in order to win a significant victory you have to cut the supply of enemy troops off at the source; blowing up resource generators works just so long as you can stop the enemy from simply rebuilding them,. but the significant victories are won by destroying enemy factories. They can rebuild those, too, but while they’re doing that you have a breathing space in which you can entrench the ground you’ve taken with a dizzying array of static defences. You get stronger, the enemy gets weaker, and eventually they’ll become so weak they won’t be able to stop you punching through their front lines and blowing up their Commander, which wins you the game.
Now, I wouldn’t have spent two paragraphs outlining the mechanics of a seventeen year old game if it wasn’t relevant to the one I’m reviewing in some way, and the good news — at least as far as Planetary Annihilation is concerned — is that it nails that feeling of total warfare pretty effectively by replicating the Total Annihilation approach wholesale. After about ten minutes into a game there is always something exploding somewhere on the map as two armies clash or a probing force runs into static defences or a bombing raid manages to smash a cluster of metal extractors. It certainly gets closer than Supreme Commander managed – SC invented strategic zoom, which is so integral to most modern RTSes I wonder how we ever did without it, but the combination of the zoom-out with the huge maps rendered its battles too remote to really mean anything to me. Planetary Annihilation’s unique perspective whereby the battles are waged on spherical planets rather than flat maps acts as something of an antidote to that malady; there’s no point zooming out all the way because you’ll only ever be able to see one side of the planet anyway, and this restriction ensures that you always remain at least somewhat close to the action.
Fortunately that’s not all the planet mechanic does for PA. It’s much more than a gimmicky way of looking at the maps – one of the buildings the tier one construction bots can build is an orbital launch station, which essentially acts as a factory for orbital units. Orbital units are launched up to the orbital layer above the planet, where you can build orbital platforms to rain laser fire down onto any enemy units unlucky enough to be caught directly below them, but they’re not restricted to the orbit of the planet they were launched from; they can travel to the orbit of any other planet or moon in the system along pseudo-accurate gravitational slingshot trajectories. There’s an orbital construction bot for building the aforementioned orbital platforms, and a space fighter for wresting control of orbital space away from an enemy player, but the key unit here is the orbital lander. This can transport a single unit from one planetary surface to another, and if you have any sense at all you’ll make it a construction bot since they can construct one end of a teleporter which can then be linked to a second teleporter inside your base, allowing instantaneous transportation from one planet to another. This is how you colonise — and if necessary, assault — other planets.
Planetary Annihilation does a great job of making each system’s collection of planets feel like a coherent whole rather than a disconnected series of separate maps. For example, if you’ve launched an expedition up to the small moon orbiting the primary planet, then when you’re building your initial base structures up there you’ll be able to see the primary – along with structures on the surface and any orbiting satellites — whizzing along in the background. While strategic zoom now goes all the way out to the solar system level, it’s possible to focus in on a single planetary system and still get a sense of the detail. The planets themselves are reasonably varied, ranging from barren planetoids to lava planets to Earth-like paradise planets, and while using the quick navigation options to jump to a particular planet can often result in “Where the sod am I now?” syndrome if there’s more than one type of planet in the system you soon get over it.
As far as the actual gameplay is concerned, though, I feel Planetary Annihilation falls down a little in what it does with its marquee feature. You don’t need to capture other planets for their resources; one planet’s worth is more than enough. It would be very unwise to attempt assaulting a planet from space, too; as far as I can tell loading units into orbital landers is incredibly fiddly (there might be an easier way of doing it than loading individual units one at a time, but I haven’t figured it out yet) and whatever you managed to land would get blown up within seconds by ground-based defences if there was any significant enemy presence whatsoever. That robot cannon for firing units from one planet to another? That didn’t make it into the finished product. You could send over a hundred orbital fighters, take over the planet’s orbital space and build orbital platforms to gradually destroy everything on the surface, but there’s a very effective ground-to-space ion cannon base defence that would make this approach impractical for anything more than establishing a beachhead. How, then, do you go about taking a planet held by entrenched enemy forces? Planetary Annihilation’s answer to this conundrum is simple: you don’t. You just blow the entire planet up instead.
Multi-planet games of Planetary Annihilation end in one of two ways. The first is to strap rocket boosters to a convenient planetoid and drop it on the enemy Commander’s head, but while this is both amusing and satisfying it’s also fraught with risk. First you have to find out where the Commander is, and then you have to hope he stays there long enough for the planet you’ve just thrown at him to hit him. Since it takes several minutes for the planet to get there and there’s a big system-wide warning that says “HOLY SHIT SOMEBODY JUST LAUNCHED A PLANET BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES”1 this is almost certainly not going to happen unless the Commander belongs to the AI. Planetoid impacts don’t destroy the target planet, they just leave an implausibly small (although very large in game terms) crater wherever they impact. This makes it great for destroying things that will stay still, like bases, but less good for hitting moving targets like Commanders. And if it misses you’ve essentially just deprived yourself of a perfectly good planet you had complete control over – if you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have been able to build the rocket boosters in the first place.
No, if you absolutely, positively want to finish a game of Planetary Annihilation you have to take and hold the metal planet. There isn’t a metal planet in every system (and where there isn’t you’ll have to rely on hurling planetoids) but if there is, you should make getting an early foothold there your number one priority. This is because if you get control over the planet’s north pole and build five very expensive Catalyst structures there, you can turn it into a Death Star laser that’s capable of vaporising every other planet in the system in under a minute. I can’t help but feel this is somewhat unimaginative compared to the planetoids, but it’s undeniably efficient; once you’ve finished the last Catalyst you’ve won the game, period. It’s basically an incredibly fitting Wonder victory condition for games that drag on for too long.
And my god, can they drag on. If it doesn’t glitch out (which is unfortunately fairly often) the AI is incredibly good at the game, seizing ground early and constantly probing your base defences from different angles. It knows how to mix units so as to overwhelm a lightly defended base and will constantly overfly fighters and bombers just in case you happened to leave any gaps in your AA coverage. I enjoyed building intricate networks of laser turrets, cannon emplacements and dragon’s teeth in Total Annihilation, but PA takes it to another level; you need to build all of that stuff intelligently because the AI is a robot playing a game about robot warfare and it is better at producing units than you will ever be. The only chance you have is to either snipe the Commander early (difficult considering how powerful they are) or else construct a multi-layered defence system that can absorb its constant attacks. In one game it even managed to push me off my starting planet despite a two-line base defence augmented by minefields; once the second line started to fold I evacuated everything that could move through a teleporter and left it to its fate. Once you achieve equilibrium it’s pretty easy to exploit the AI’s curiously lethargic attitude to orbital space – it’ll send units to other planets, but won’t fortify orbit beyond building a lot of fighters — and just drop lasers on its head until it’s hemmed into its own base, but getting to that point is difficult when it’s not giving you any room to breathe.
Because it’s so aggressive putting down just the one AI on your starting planet can take forty or fifty minutes. Eliminating an entire system’s worth can take up to ninety, and it’s here that certain very strange decisions in Planetary Annihilation’s development process start to sabotage all of the good work that the game has done up until this point. First, Planetary Annihilation is an online only game. I’ve only played skirmishes against the AI (I tried the Galactic War campaign mode, but it was utterly terrible) but I had to be connected to PA’s game network even to do that. There aren’t even any feeble excuses this time around, a la Simcity; it’s not doing anything interesting server side, it’s just making you jump through this hoop because it can. Second is that — unbelievably and bafflingly for a strategy game released in 2014 — there is currently no way to save a game in progress. Let that sink in for a moment: if you want to play a game against eight AI opponents — which could easily take two hours — not only do you have to be connected to the internet to do so, but you had better be prepared to complete it in a single sitting. I sure as hell don’t have that kind of time (not to mention mental willpower) any more, so I’m not sure who this game is targeted at. People who have absolutely no outside commitments to impinge on their Planetary Annihilation playing, perhaps, but there can’t be that many of them in the world.
Even if that were the sole extent of PA’s flaws the lack of save would be an unforgivable omission, but PA sadly doesn’t stop there. It’s more stable than I’d been led to believe from forum reports — chugs a bit when it’s changing view from one planet to another, or when it’s trying to draw 1,000 units on screen at once, but otherwise does quite well — but certain elements, most notably the UI, are bugged to high heaven. There are tanks which don’t fire along ballistic trajectories and which will happily plough round after round into the ground as they try to hit a target hidden by the curvature of the world. Once I tried to launch a planet at somebody and it crashed into a gas giant en route, which I’m fairly sure was not supposed to happen. There’s the aforementioned AI glitches, where it’ll occasionally just build three metal extractors and then suffer a brainwipe and go completely inert. And then there’s the UI bug where if you’re unwise enough to click on one of Planetary Annihilation’s many, many notifcations, the entire screen will go blue and you won’t be able to see a goddamn thing. There is no way to recover from this short of restarting the game, and because there’s no save functionality this will often kill forty to fifty minutes of gameplay stone cold dead. I’m told it’s a graphics driver issue, but mine are bang up to date so I’m going to assume it’s the game’s fault, not mine.
This is a real shame, because I actually like Planetary Annihilation. I feel like if it had been handled a little differently it could definitely have been a worthy successor to Total Annihilation; it channels much of the same feeling while streamlining and improving much that had become dated or clunky in the intervening two decades, while I felt like the planet mechanic did genuinely add to the game, even if it ultimately ended up being underutilised. Sadly the lack of save and the bugs prevent it from being any more than an unusual curio right now; after losing three out of ten games to the UI bug I’m just not interested in starting another game until I can play it all the way through without the damn thing suffering the videogame equivalent of a stroke. A save system may or may not be on the way, but I find it absolutely astonishing that Planetary Annihilation launched without a basic function that was taken for granted in strategy games released twenty-five years ago. You don’t get to do that after your game spends a year in Early Access; you can’t just draw an arbitrary line and say “Okay, the game is finished!” when it’s missing such a fundamental feature. Learn from my experience and do not buy this game until the developers have had at least two or three months to iron out these bugs and add in saves. When they do I’ll play it again, and I’ll likely enjoy it. Right now, though, it just isn’t worth it.
- Possibly not using those exact words. ↩