Planetary Annihilation builds on some of the best old RTS experiences to create a very compelling new one.
By James Pinnell on October 4, 2013 at 2:04 pm
I have a confession: I never really got into Total Annihilation. Sure, like every other PC gamer in the late nineties, I picked it up and dabbled with the ridiculous number of vehicles, weapons and the enormous maps. But its sheer size, and ambition, dwarfed my ability to feel in control of my army. I never felt like I had a grip on the plethora of units that swarmed my sprawling base, piling out of my factories like clowns exiting a Toyota Yaris, nor any idea how to use them effectively.
Then there was the commander, my Achilles Heel, lumbering clumsily into the line of fire and towards an embarrassing defeat. Less than a year later, StarCraft released and I completely abandoned Total Annihilation for Blizzard’s tight, focused and meticulously balanced competitor. StarCraft offered solutions to almost all of the concerns I had with our robot busting predecessor.
Supreme Commander was different somehow — the ability to zoom out to map level drastically reduced my concerns around control and tracking, in turn making the sheer scale a lot simpler to handle. The small, gradual changes to AI, resource management (clustering was brilliant) and the ability to decentralise bases was a breath of fresh air from the tight, rigid structure of StarCraft. Basically, it arrived in the right place at the right time, suited perfectly for extended multiplayer sessions with friends.
Sadly, it also happened to feature one of the most volatile pre-LoL communities I have ever faced, full of angry French and German players offended by my (completely irrelevant) 200ms ping times. Unfortunately, someone forgot to inform them that RTS titles are able to handle latency with a lot more finesse. Alas, I was booted from far too many lobbies. All I can say is, thank you Chris Pollock.
Planetary Annihilation takes almost all of its influences from both titles, with the shoulder chips provided by the original alumni themselves — Jon Mavor and Steve Thomson, both design and dev leads on the aforementioned older siblings, and partners on the new developer at Uber Entertainment. Funded by an overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter, Planetary Annihilation was built from the ground up in an almost stupidly short period of time, moving from funding complete to beta in just over a year.
The alpha was a mind-blowing 6 months long, with the engine and art assets built up from scratch. What’s been presented for our viewing is a phenomenal success in crowd-funded development, beating both Double Fine and inXile Entertainment to the punch by almost a year. It was the scale of Supreme Commander that made me excited for multi-planetary combat, especially after I saw the ability to strap rockets to moons in order to plow them through my enemies.
I opted for beta as my alpha experiences were less enjoyable: I generally don’t have the tolerance for game breaking bugs or utterly dreadful performance. It turns out I made the right choice — loading up my first game brought me straight back to Supreme Commander, although the new cel-shaded style took some getting used to. But thankfully, the standard Steel(Mass)/Energy paradigm was still in place, and it didn’t take me long to wrangle my resources into a calm equilibrium. There are air, sea and ground units. Defense platforms. Artillery. Radar. All of these functions, including the texture to icon map feature as the view is dialled back, are still there. Units perform just as they did in Supreme Commander, patrolling areas and completing checkpoints while following strict wayfinding points as they should.
At present, however, there isn’t a lot of variety to your defensive posture — there aren’t any stealth/tactical/strategic missile systems, and while there are nukes (and counters), they aren’t really much different to how things were. I figure much of this will come over the next few months.
Planetary Annihilation has also stuck onto the original fabrication bot system to produce buildings, allowing for stackable building with increased resource draining. In fact, the more I played the more I discovered why the development was so short — almost all the early game mechanics are straight out of the Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander playbook. But don’t think this is in any way a negative — it’s not. Supreme Commander‘s systems were great then and are great now, and Planetary Annihilation‘s spiritual relationship to it was largely in order for Uber to introduce another dimension to play.
Many people have called this a remake, and I’m open to some level of agreement here. Using much of the existing, working, structure is what Blizzard did with StarCraft 2, and it helped to reduce time spent on risky trials to reinvent the wheel. The backers didn’t want that — they wanted the next level.
Before long, you’ll start building advanced fab bots and unlock the Orbital Platform. This is where things turned awesome — I ramped up my energy and steel production and started building everything: solar orbiters for significant energy generation, orbital fighters for protection and a devastating cannon to wreak havoc on my enemies. Orbital units tend to hover on a slight angle in retrospect to ground units, so it’s obvious they are sitting *above* the atmosphere. They can’t be engaged by standard air/ground units and, in most cases, they can’t engage them either. It was fun to use the orbital ships to scout the original planet, to the anguish of my newbie opponent, who, frustrated, began asking me for help in chat.
After a few games it’s obvious that space is the new frontier. Getting into orbit is a game changer, not only for the ability to transport across various planets, but to dominate the one you started out on. The various moons that inhabit the small area of space you are battling in can indeed be used for nuclear style attacks. Strapping a powerful rocket pack onto its rear and directing it onto your opponents base is not entirely realistic; whether its a beta restriction or not, it tends to create more of a large hole than a planet-ending apocalypse. But it’s fun. Oh so very, very fun. What’s clever is how the game gradually introduces scale, starting from your small starting patch, to region, to continent, and then to planet — depending on what level of technology you have researched.
For a beta, the performance is mixed, but Uber have promised almost daily updates to repair the damage multiple feature additions have created when they were added at the end of alpha. It shows: a mere two patches after launch, the game is already smoother with a few resource exploiting bugs repaired. But what impresses me is how stable and feature rich this game is after a year — it feels like a title that’s been under development for years, rather than months. Uber have certainly delivered almost everything they promised, on the scale, budget and deadline they aimed for.
All signs look good for this focused group of RTS fanatics to complete the title they aimed to create. Check back post-release for our full review.
Planetary Annihilation is currently on Steam’s Early Access for $59.99.