There are a fair number of games floating around today that have pedigrees so long you’d think they were show dogs. You know the ones I’m talking about. Call of Duty. Battlefield. Halo. Anything by Blizzard or EA Sports.
This can be both good and bad. Just like with dogs, too much inbreeding can make for really shiny, well groomed exteriors that cover up rather disturbing flaws like stale, repetitive gameplay, broken mechanics, and stories full of holes. On the other hand, sometimes building on predecessors gives a game focus and allows the game to do things that, because of the technical limitations of the time, their predecessors couldn’t.
Planetary Annihilation has a little of column A and a little of column B, to be frank.
On the one hand, Planetary Annihilation is virtually a remake of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commanders 1 & 2. On the other hand, the sense of scale that the other games tried to imitate has finally been achieved by Planetary Annihilation. And you get to fling planets and planetoids at other players.
For example, in Starcraft 2 an army of 20 units can be a game winning army, unless you’re talking zerglings. In PA, if you don’t have that many combat units in the first 10 minutes, you’re probably in big trouble.
That’s what PA is all about: gigantic battles raging across the depths of the solar system, commanding armies big enough to put small nations to shame, and smashing planets into one another.
On its most basic level, though, PA is just like most other RTS’s, and a good deal simpler than most. You have an economy with two types of resources: energy and metal. You produce energy from power plants, but must mine metal from nodes around the map. There are no different factions; everyone has access to the exact same units. The terrain is, for the most part, incidental, unless your enemy is lobbing mortar shells at you from behind a mountain, in which case your units will happily blast away at the mountainside while explosive death rains down around them.
The economy in PA is fairly simple at first glance. You have two types of resources, like I mentioned before. Energy and Metal. To get Energy, you build one of two types of power plants: normal and advanced. They both do the same thing, but one is much more expensive than the other and provides a whole lot more power.
Energy is never spent directly, though. Instead it’s consumed at a flat rate whenever a unit or structure enters combat or starts building something. Some structures, like radar towers, will draw on energy unless you deliberately turn them off.
Metal, on the other hand, can only be obtained by building mining structures on randomly placed nodes on the map. These nodes will never deplete, but will give you a certain amount of metal per second, depending on whether you built a normal or advanced metal extractor on the node, or both.
Turns out, not so much.
Unlike most other RTS’s, you have a limited storage capacity for both of these resources. Any excess that you produce is simply wasted. Of course, you can increase the amount you can store with both metal and energy storage structures, and it’s usually a good idea to start off with at least one of each.
Not only that, but the way you pay for things is fundamentally different from other RTS’s as well. Instead of paying for something up front, you pay for things over the course of their production. How much energy and metal you spend per second depends on the type of unit or structure that’s doing the building. For example, most normal factories can spend around 10 metal per second and consume around 700 energy per second while active. This means that it takes a typical factory around 15 seconds to build a unit that costs 150 metal, with the cost of the unit spread out over the course of the entire build period, and you’ll end up spending nearly 11,000 energy. Advanced factories, of course, are able to spend a lot more metal per second, but also consume a lion’s share of energy.
Additionally, you can speed up production by throwing more fabrication bots into the mix. Your fabricators can not only assist one another in building structures, but they can make your buildings churn out units faster as well. This can put a big strain on your economy, though, so you have to make sure that you have the income necessary to maintain such accelerated building rates or your economy will be in trouble.
The last thing you have to worry about is Efficiency. Where most RTS’s will simply stop production if you run out of resources, in PA your efficiency drops. How much your efficiency drops depends on how much you’re overdrawing at the moment, which is represented as a percentile value. If you’re just a little bit short, for example, then you’ll be running at 80% or 90% efficiency, meaning it takes just a little bit longer to build everything. On the other hand, if you’re spending twice as much as you’re bringing in or more, you’re likely to be running at 50% or lower, meaning that everything you have in production is taking at least twice as long to build. This can be a real killer, especially since there’s no clear way to tell a building to, you know, stop building, which means you pretty much just have to wait it out. This can be the difference in getting the reinforcements you need to keep your Commander alive and losing the game.
PA has all the normal unit types: infantry (bots, if you’re picky), vehicles, air, and sea. These units, for the most part, behave just like you’d expect. Infantry are fast, but weak. Vehicles are tougher and more expensive, but slower. Air units are death incarnate on gossamer wings; fast and deadly in the extreme, but the moment something with anti air capabilities so much as sneezes in their direction, they fall apart. Sea units, which are something of an oddity in modern RTS’s, serve the role of long range artillery.
PA ups the ante a little by adding in an entirely new type of unit: orbital.
Orbital units are new to the genre. Sure, there were occasional nods to orbital capability in other games, like C&C’s ion cannon, but never before have you been able directly build and control things like orbital laser cannons, spy satellites, or orbital defense platforms. This adds a whole new level of gameplay, as you can’t actually see or interact with any of your opponent’s orbital units unless you have your own. Not only that, but to get to other planets you must have orbital capability, even if you only use it to land a fabricator on another planet so that you can build a teleporter there.
The only other unit type that I feel merits particular mention is the air units. Unlike other games (like Starcraft) where air units just hover in the air like buoys in a harbor, the air units in PA actually do strafing runs and dogfights. Bombers will carpet areas with explosives, making short work of entire columns of ground units, and fighters will go through arial acrobatics that would make the Red Baron jealous. This is a refreshing change of pace from Starcraft, who doesn’t have a clue on how to handle aircraft physics.
Most RTS’s are an odd marriage of fast and slow paced gameplay; you have to manage your economy, build in the most efficient manner possible, and churn out units without missing a beat, then dive headlong into frenetic combat where twitch reflexes are just barely fast enough. Still, it seems like PA takes this to the extreme. It almost seems like the economic portions of the game are particularly languid, while the combat is astoundingly brutal. Units and buildings that took two minutes or more to build can be destroyed in a fraction of a second, even when only basic units are involved. The incredible variety of ways to destroy your enemy complicates matters further; a smart opponent can slowly take out your base piece by piece with heavily defended artillery, snipe your commander with a pair of orbital cannons that you didn’t notice, or simply drop a nuke or three on your head, all without having to build a single unit except for fabrication bots.
This means that a game never plays in the same way twice. What was a perfect strategy for one game will only get you killed in the one your’e playing now. You have to have your ear to the ground a whole lot more than you do in Starcraft, where you pretty much pick a build order that a pro came up with and stick with it.
Games tend to run on the long side, though. The shortest that I’ve played was around 30 minutes, and the longest upwards of an hour and a half. You could get through between 3 and 9 games of Starcraft II in that time, which is kind of the downside of the kind of scale that PA revels in. Sure, you can play in a solar system with more than a dozen planets and a couple of comets, but systematically annihilating opponents from each and every one of those planets is going to take time, even if you are flinging around planetoids like party favors.
Single player is, to be quite frank, boring and confusing. It seems to completely miss the point of RTS single player, which is to introduce the player to the various mechanics and units of the game, kind of like a 4-8 hour tutorial.
PA’s single player does almost exactly the opposite. Instead of trying to give you a basic idea on how to play the game, it assumes that you’re already an expert and starts you out with handicaps and gameplay elements that are never used in the multiplayer.
You start out in a galactic map with 3 empty ‘tech slots,’ which are never really explained. You can move to the any connected system, which may be empty or inhabited by another commander. If it’s empty, you can scan the system. This usually turns up a random piece of tech, which gives you various in game bonuses. I haven’t progressed far enough to know what all of them do, but they provide various combat bonuses like access to advanced defensive structures or increased armor for your Commander. Each one of these takes up a tech slot, which means that before too long you have to decide which ones to keep and which ones to delete permanently. Once in a while you’ll come across another tech slot, but these are few and far between.
Playing against the computer is unbalanced at best, in your favor or the AI’s. Either you destroy the computer with little to no effort or you are destroyed before you even get a base set up. This is compounded by the fact that you’re limited to building only vehicles and the most basic orbital units, because apparently you have to beat certain AI ‘bosses’ to unlock the other unit types.
All in all, this is probably the worst RTS single player I’ve ever seen.
The multiplayer, on the other hand, is pretty enjoyable. Since there are no factions, everything is more or less balanced; you have access to all the units that your opponents do. While this does make the gameplay a little less varied, PA has so very many units and so many different strategies available that it doesn’t really matter. I’ve been annihilated a different way each time I’ve played (I have yet to actually win a match against live opponents). I’ve been blasted from orbit, nuked, and even overwhelmed through sheer numbers. The only way I haven’t died yet is by having a celestial rock fall on my head, but it’s something that I’ve seen it happen to other players.
There’s no matchmaking system, so you either have to join a game that someone else has made or make one yourself. Anyone is liable to join, which means that you can either be playing against someone who’s just picked up the game for the first time, or one of the top players in the game. I have yet to play a game that truly isn’t enjoyable, though; even losing to someone who’s leagues ahead of you is fun. While this means that you can make a game with as many players and planets as you want, you’ll probably end up waiting 10 minutes or more for a game, especially since the player base isn’t very large yet.
All in all, PA is a pretty fun game. While it’s still in gamma (a fancy name for beta, apparently), I probably enjoy it more than I enjoy Starcraft II, which is saying something. Still, it could do with a good deal of polishing, especially as far as balance is concerned. It doesn’t feel too different from other RTS’s, either, until you start to actually get into the game, which is a little bit concerning. The thing only that disappointed me was how the individual planets felt kind of small, but that’s a pretty small complaint all things considered. This is definitely a game to put on your wish list.
The one thing I don’t understand is why Uber decided it needed its own Steam knock off. I mean, really? You have FOUR GAMES, only one of which can be considered to be a triple A contender, and you think you need a proprietary digital game store? Get your head out of your asses, guys.