Uber’s war of the worlds is one of commanding scale
The original Supreme Commander took Total Annihilation and taught it a spectacular party trick. A flick of the mouse wheel whipped the camera skywards, turning a skirmish between dozens of bots, tanks and jets into a continent-spanning war between hundreds of them. From that perspective, another flick would send you crashing to ground level, where the wrecks of combatants were scavenged by fabrication units that scuttled to and from colossal bases.
Planetary Annihilation is the Kickstarted spiritual successor to Supreme Commander by Super Monday Night Combat developer Uber Entertainment. It marks itself out, as its predecessor did, with epic scope. This time, a tap of spacebar zooms the camera out to the cosmic level, where a single star is orbited by multiple planets. Each is the size of a Supreme Commander map, and each is able to be conquered by players as they race to seize the power to wipe each other out.
This branch of PC realtime strategy is defined by looseness on the micro scale – the placement of individual buildings and units is less important than it is in, say, StarCraft II – balanced against macro-scale precision and weight. Players rush to secure the resources to churn out units by the score. When armies meet, they grind against each other like tectonic plates, the power of vast economies wrestling for control made manifest. Planetary Annihilation is, in its beta state, more straightforward than Supreme Commander 2. There’s a single faction, though more will follow, and a handful of units of each type. It’s still possible to plan your strategy around long- and short-range combat as well as naval, air and land units, but less time is spent reading tooltips to determine how one artillery tank differs from another. This relative simplicity is reflected in the visual style. Uber’s signature cartoonishness makes Planetary Annihilation more colourful than its ancestors, eschewing muddy detail for robots built out of primary-coloured blocks. That said, animations are less detailed than they could be, and rapid-zoom level changes can cause distracting visual errors.
It’s that cosmic zoom level that really sets the game apart, however. Losing the early game need not mean total defeat: providing you can get an orbital launcher built in time, it’s possible to relocate your commander to another world to start over. This in turn leads to a paranoid rush to secure the new planet from enemy incursion, and ultimately the construction of an invasion force and the teleporter network you need to get them home. Supreme Commander always had a problem with feeling anodyne at the ground level, and Planetary Annihilation’s additional space for drama is welcome.
Order a unit to travel from one planet to another and it will plot its own gravitational slingshot around planets and stars to reach its destination. It’s possible to build rockets that allow you to move stellar bodies out of alignment, the ultimate aim being to turn asteroids into planet-smashing missiles. Planets have a day/night cycle determined by their position in the solar system, and pass by each other according to randomly generated orbital paths. Never quite a simulation, Planetary Annihilation’s occasional nods at real physics nonetheless help to ground it.
As with Supreme Commander, the scale is more than a gimmick. Getting your head around spherical maps is daunting at first, then exciting as their potential becomes apparent. Uber has laid a solid foundation on which to build a cult strategy game, but it requires care, polish and a healthy number of new ideas to get the rest of the way.
Planetary Annihilation may be on sale, but it’s still very much unfinished. Missing features aside, the AI isn’t good enough to present an interesting threat. Persistence will usually win the day, but spending an afternoon cracking an unresponsive foe isn’t a rewarding way to play. Playing against humans online is better, but we did experience performance issues in large-scale battles, and it’s possible to enlarge your armies to a horde that’s beyond your PC’s rendering capacity. All that said, this paid beta is an opportunity to get involved with the game’s community at the ground level – and, as with any competitive game, there are advantages to being among the first wave of players.