Planetary Annihilation was my second kickstarter project I donated to and something that I’ve wanted for a long time: A return to macro heavy RTS gameplay. Uber Entertainment who created the Monday Night Combat series was also made up of former team members who worked on the epically named titles Supreme Commander and Total Annihilation.
After a very successful kickstarter with all stretch goals met, Planetary Annihilation is about ready to be unleashed and it’s time to see if the game has met its lofty goals.
(The following analysis is based on the near final release build for Planetary Annihilation. Screenshots and impressions here may not match subsequent versions of the game.)
For those who missed the kickstarter, Planetary Annihilation is a spiritual sequel in design to Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander. Instead of focusing on diversified units and micro-oriented combat like Starcraft, these titles focused on generic units fighting very large scale battles with an emphasis on macro oriented play.
It’s not about who clicks the fastest, but who has the better army and economy will win out. The basic gameplay around base building is as follow. You have two resources: Energy which comes from building certain structures and metal which requires you to setup extractors on specific points.
Unlike traditional strategy games where unit costs are automatically deducted from your reserves, Planetary Annihilation like Supreme Commander features a scaling economy. In which resources are drained out of your pool as opposed to one time lumps. This allows you to queue dozens of buildings and units and only have to worry about the rate that resources are coming in vs. what is being used.
Currently there are five types of units: bots, vehicles, navy, aircraft and orbitals. Each type is built from their respective factory and you can also build advanced factories to build stronger units of each type. The units are generic in the sense that you don’t have the uniqueness of something like in Starcraft and each serves specific purposes and meant to be produced in the dozens if not hundreds.
The main bullet point of Planetary Annihilation and what certainly helped get it funded was the scale that Uber was promising. You’re not fighting battles on continents but in entire solar systems.
This goes with the final type of production you can build — orbital units. If games go on long enough, you can start producing space transports that can carry units to other bodies in the system. Allowing you to construct bases and resources without any threat, or use an asteroid or moon as the means to wipe out the enemy. Battles can go from one planet to another leading to some epic matches.
Besides skirmish, there is the “Galactic War” mode. The premise is that you have a randomly generated galaxy where you’ll wage war on specific planet clusters to acquire tech to unlock new units and spread your domain across the entire galaxy.
It’s an interesting idea but you’re still fighting skirmishes against the AI, the only difference is having limited units this time around. All in all, Planetary Annihilation appeal is in its overwhelming display of scale, however little things do add up to some big problems with accessibility.
As I talked about in my look at Rise of Nations’ UI, a good UI is essential for macro style RTS play because you have to watch and keep aware of multiple areas at the same time. While Uber has redone the UI since the beta phase, it’s still far from what I would like to see from a game of such scale.
Some kind of mini map I feel would help out a lot in terms of not just figuring out where the enemy was, but what’s going on with your troops. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed as you start ramping up production to have multiple factories going on, fabricators building all over the planet and of course if things spread to multiple worlds.
I just don’t see how someone can keep track of it all given what Uber has currently in place unless they are playing at the competitive level.
The UI is a far cry from being able to manage the intensity of the game. There’s too little information shown and what is displayed won’t make sense unless you spend a lot of time playing.
For instance, the little unit icons have no in game legend to help you understand what you’re looking at when zoomed out, your only way of knowing is memorizing the icons on the factory menu.
The game seems to want you to focus more on learning hotkeys, but you still need good on screen information to help learn from and provide that first step towards mastery. However the hotkey system is a mess: There is no way to look at hotkey commands during play, the hotkeys that are there are all over the place and is just a complete 180 from the elegance of Rise of Nations.
It makes the game feel more micro oriented than it should be, considering the scope of the game. While trying to learn how to play, it felt like my hands were going all over the keyboard to try and hit the commands I wanted. Again I return to the Rise of Nations UI and just how well designed it was at providing vital information readily to the player. An important area that Planetary Annihilation is surprisingly quiet on unit stats and counters.
While Rise of Nations spells out exactly what counters what and unit statistics, that information is currently hidden in Planetary Annihilation. I’ve watched my army just tear up the enemy like it was nothing and other times they were wiped out by a smaller group and either situation didn’t present me with any information to learn from. Because we’re not dealing with historical units but code names for bots, it makes it hard at a glance to tell what units are what.
What’s worse however is the despite the scale and all the stretch goals, Planetary Annihilation still feels thin in the gameplay department.
Not a Bang but a Whimper:
I think my main issue with Planetary Annihilation’s gameplay at the moment is the gameplay just feels a bit too samey between matches. Due to the limited number of unit types in the game currently, it’s very easy to set up specific build orders and strategies making the game very mechanical. One of the things I liked about Rise of Nations was that there was enough diversity in the game to make matches play out differently each time, even with the limited number of unit types.
With Rise of Nations, the resources on the map and your actual faction dictated your strategy and made sure that each play was different. With Planetary Annihilation being a successor to Total Annihilation, there is far less in terms of changing strategies.
The different planet types don’t radically change your play style in the sense that unique units or strategies are locked to specific planet types.
You’re still going to make use of the same buildings, same units and just try to take your opponent out. And to make things worse, once you start dealing with multi planetary battles, the complexity and management needed multiplies without having a UI to keep up with it.
As Uber continues to build on the game with later patches and hopefully add in more units, this problem should go away. But at the moment, despite the different planet types, they don’t change how you play the game or your strategy with exception to planets with oceans will let you use navel units.
Planetary Annihilation is an interesting game and a rare take on the RTS genre in this day and age. At this point, it’s not really newcomer friendly due to UI complexities and a lack of adequate learning material.
More and more, it feels like Planetary Annihilation was made for the super competitive crowd like Starcraft 2, but there needs to be both gameplay and UI considerations for new players who want to learn. Right now, I can’t see someone new jumping in and not getting lost and frustrated. Especially with so much of the fan base who have been playing it for the last year while in alpha/beta.
I’m glad that it was made considering the lack of RTS games these days, but I’m still disappointed with a game that promised a huge scale, has little problems that undermine it. The developers are still working on the game after release and I remember that Supreme Commander 2 went from one of the worst to one of the best RTS after patches, so there is still hope yet.