Developer: Uber Entertainment
Whether I'm sweeping a terrifying army of bipedal tanks across an entire planet, desperately defending a colossal robot commander from swarms of bombers or bathing the surface of a moon in nuclear fire, Planetary Annihilation is easily the most ridiculously hectic RTS I've played since Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander.
That's no coincidence. Uber Entertainment may be best known for Monday Night Combat, but Jon Mavor heads up a team of strategy veterans who helped to develop both of those classic titles, and they plan to take the core framework to its unbelievable conclusion. The insanely fast-paced chaos of Total Annihilation meets Supreme Commander's mech combat in a conflict of interplanetary proportions: a fully-simulated solar system itching to be crushed. Players don't just vie for control of a map, rather they duke it out in outrageous pitched battles between hundreds of units for entire planets and moons, or even strap rocket engines onto celestial bodies to create ridiculous weapons of mass planet-smashing destruction.
Planetary Annihilation is barmy, gratuitous, ambitious, bombastic and dangerously over the top - even in its Early Access stage. I therefore like it intensely... at least, when I can wrap my brain around it.
It all starts with a solar system. A simple editor puts the power of a god at your fingertips, providing numerous procedural world types and moons to drag onto an orbital sandbox. You can set their mass, orbital distance and speed, creating a physics-driven playground to colonise and eventually annihilate. Whether water worlds or lava-strewn hellholes, each miniature celestial body is vibrant and colourful, packed with stylised detail and undeniably adorable. You'll probably want to hug them, at least before you start smashing them into each other. We'll get to that later.
If the war begins with a solar system, the battle starts with a Commander. Each player wields a single unit at the outset of a match: a towering commander mech that can construct buildings and dish out extreme amounts of punishment. Like the Queen and King in chess, the Commander is obscenely powerful and uniquely vulnerable, signalling the end of your game if the enemy manages to take it down. As such you'll have to keep it safe and judiciously decide when to use its destructive power on the front lines.
Once a match begins, you'll instantly start creating your base and infrastructure. The streamlined and streaming economy takes its cues from Total Annihilation. Resources boil down to power and metal, both of which can be generated and mined by building simple structures, with demands streamed in real-time rather than paying for units up-front. This allows you to quickly start pumping out obscene legions of flimsy warbots, tough tanks, aircraft, warships and manufacturing vehicles; catering your colossal strike force to the planet you're on. Planetary Annihilation's UI and controls are pleasingly streamlined, with plenty of big friendly icons and context-sensitive commands at your disposal, though the current lack of drag & drop building makes building multiple walls and structures an aggravating click-fest.
However, you'll then have to take the offensive and turtle up for the inevitable onslaught... both of which require a new way of thinking. After all, you're fighting on a sphere hurtling around a sun, not a flat plane.
Clever camerawork flattens out the perspective when you zoom in close, but the spherical battlefield presents unique defensive challenges. Opposing players can attack from any angle at any time, meaning that players need to construct elaborate concentric defences of overlapping turrets and fortifications, while using any natural topography to advantage. Fleets of warships or swarms of bombers can advance on unexpected fronts, requiring plenty of forward-planning to mitigate, all as you continually strike out for new metal resources and keep power reserves topped off. It's exciting, if click-heavy, and somewhat overwhelming at first.
Taking the offensive, however, is pure TA and SupCom. Individual units are squishy and weak, putting the focus on enormous armies that maraud across planets like swarms of locust in massive macro-scale assaults. Chaos reigns, since wielding these huge strike forces is like swinging a sledgehammer, occasionally plunging in the dagger with aerial assaults and naval units. Pathfinding could use some work, alongside some more usability improvements to make organising armies simpler, but the thrill of sweeping over an enemy base in an orgy of exploding death simply doesn't get old. Again, you'll have to ensure that you're pumping out units like nobody's business, a tough if not frequently overwhelming ordeal.
If you manage to survive the first few minutes, though, you'll gradually unlock access to more outlandish destructive technology. Insane beam weaponry can turn the tide of tough battes, while nuclear missiles can crush entire bases or knock out opposing commanders in a heartbeat. All of this tech is at your disposal, yet has to be defended against as best you can.
But even these ludicrous toys pale in comparison to Planetary Annihilation's secret weapon: Orbital Launchers. These massive structures can launch units into space, thus allowing players to fight and expand their reach on yet another front.
Establishing multiple footholds on other planets and moons is an absolute must, since your starting base will almost certainly be smashed into oblivion sooner or later. Units, commanders and fabricators can be ferried between planets on Astraeus carriers in order to create new firebases, while powerful weaponised satellites rain down remote terror onto unsuspecting enemy facilities. Finally, in an act of deliciously unbridled aggression, players can construct huge banks of Delta-V engines to thrust planets out of orbit; literally smashing them into enemy-occupied worlds to obliterate all resistance. "Now I am become death." Matches between experienced players tend to end with a solar system in tatters; a silent mess of broken, smouldering worlds. The sheer variety of offensive options to use and defend against is utterly overwhelming.
There's that word again: overwhelming. I've used it four times already, and that's no accident, since Planetary Annihilation demands more tactical and situational awareness from players than almost any RTS I've ever experienced. Constantly expanding your infrastructure, continually pumping out units, constructing orbital launchers, reaching out to other worlds, keeping tabs on opponents and defending against Planetary Annhilation's insane arsenal is taxing, confusing and immensely difficult - after all, you're fighting a war on limitless fronts and multiple planets against up to nine other players. This issue is exacerbated by the lack of a minimap (difficult to facilitate considering the spherical nature of each separate battlefield), making it almost impossible to easily interpret any given situation at a single glance. Half the fun, I've found, is just accepting that you're likely to get wiped out and enjoying the enormous explosions while you can, while receiving invaluable experience.
Mind you, I freely admit that years of playing turn-based Grand Strategy games have dulled my killer instinct, leaving me flabby and soft when it comes to insane RTS action. We'll post some introductory videos soon, but Planetary Annihilation's native Twitch streaming means that there are already plenty of high-level battles to watch online. ZaphodX's commentary is a good place to start. Practice will eventually make perfect, even though I tend to get wiped out by early bot rushes four times out of five.
Planetary Annihilation is still in Early Access beta pending full release later this year, and Uber Entertainment have their work cut out. Beyond plenty of optimisation (I encounter some bizarre lag on maximum graphical settings where the action freezes, but camera control remains fully functional), graphical enhancements and serious AI improvement, Mavor and the team need to beef up pathfinding, address balance concerns and introduce plenty of convenient tweaks such as drag and drop building to make the experience less click-heavy. Varied factions need to be implemented to improve longevity and tactical nuance, alongside loads more units and outlandish experimental vehicles, all while somehow making it easier for players to digest and process the insane amount of information thrown at them.
That's fine. It's in beta. We don't expect Early Access games to be near-perfect, since they're designed to give fans an honest 'warts and all' insight into game development. We'll naturally keep tabs on it as Uber Entertainment adds content and features over the coming months.
Should you buy into Planetary Annihilation's early access scheme right now? I'd urge caution: though the fundamental gameplay is already in place and great fun in massive multiplayer matches, it's still far from complete and costs a bomb. Planetary Annihilation's RRP has been inflated to match the loftier Kickstarter reward tiers, meaning that plonking down £40-£60 is a big ask unless you're a TA/SupCom superfan or excited to get involved on a grassroots level.
But should you be excited about Planetary Annihilation? If you crave epic warfare on a solar scale and live for the cathartic thrill of crushing foes in utterly outrageous ways, the answer is simple.