Total Annihilation was probably one of my favourite games when it was first released 17 years ago. It wasn’t the massive swarms of units, or the epic scale of the battles, no I loved building up the superpower units that could decimate an entire army in one fell swoop. I’d spend hours crafting the perfect base, one that no one could break through so I could sit there crafting my doomsday weapon. I even downloaded TAUIP to give me even more units and a better AI, sending me further down the TA rabbit hole. It’s spiritual successor, Supreme Commander, was also one of my favourites, even if the sequel fell short. You can then imagine my excitement when I saw the Planetary Annihilation Kickstarter which I couldn’t back fast enough. Here we are, 2 years later, and Planetary Annihilation has finally launched and I’ve spent the last week playing through it.
Humanity has long since left this universe. You are a relic of a war that has long since past, a machine built with a single purpose in mind: to annihilate everything that stands in your path. You will travel to the far reaches of space, seeking out new technology that you’ll incorporate into your unrelenting war. However your foes have the same goal and they will stop at nothing to ensure that you are wiped off the face of this universe permanently. Do you have the strength and skills to beat them before they get the better of you? Or will you fall to the same unrelenting fervour that you are a slave to?
Visually Planetary Annihilation is definitely a step up from its predecessor (for the sake of argument I’m going to say that’s Supreme Commander 2) although the art direction now tends towards the stylized/cartoony. Considering the purpose of Planetary Annihilation this isn’t much of a surprise as one of the long running problems with any of the Annihilation series was that performance often suffered the longer the game went on. Suffice to say that even with the slight improvements it still manages to remain quite smooth over the course of longer games. The interface is also much more streamlined, making it far easier to get acquainted with everything than it was in previous titles.
Like previous installations in the Annihilation series Planetary Annihilation puts you in charge of a single unit, the Commander, to start off with and then lets you loose upon a world to build an army to destroy your foes. However you’re now no longer constrained to just a single planet, escalating the potential warfare to planetary levels. This introduces a whole host of new mechanics like orbital units, teleporters and whole planets which can be used as weapons. Notably absent from the game however is the inclusion of a single player story campaign which has been replaced by a procedurally generated series of AI skirmishes called Galactic War. Finally there’s multiplayer to be had which is likely where most people will be spending their time, although it’s done in the older style of “find a lobby to join” rather than the newer style matchmaking.
Long time fans of the Annihilation series will be instantly familiar with the core gameplay of Planetary Annihilation as all the units are essentially the same with your standard air/vehicle/bot/naval choices immediately available from your commander. The tech trees have been reduced from 3 tiers to 2 which significantly reduces the number of units you’ll have at your disposal. However this is made up for by the inclusion of the new types of units and was probably done because you’ll likely be splitting your concentration across multiple planets with multiple warfronts. The same mechanics are at play, you’ll need metal and energy in order to be able build things, however they have also been streamlined with only 2 types of energy generators and metal extractors. So overall the gameplay is largely similar but streamlined with a few mechanics thrown in to elevate the combat to a planetary scale.
However unlike previous Annihilation titles there’s no factions to speak of so all the units are exactly the same for every player. For me this was one of the defining features of the Annihilation series as it meant that each race had it’s own strengths and weaknesses and different strategies were needed to cope with each different race. In Planetary Annihilation that’s not the case however and all you really need to do is figure out what kind of units your opponent is building and make the counter to them. This, especially when competing against the AI, means that the game favours those who rush their opponents with swarms of a certain mix of units early, even more so when you’re on the same planet. Indeed there are very few opportunities to craft super units that can devastate armies, a trademark of the Annihilation series, thus eliminating much of the strategy that I came to love about these games.
In fact I think this is reflected in one key metric: the length of each game. Games in Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander could easily go on for hours as everyone tried various tactics against each other, all the while hoping to build that one unit or structure that would give them the upper hand. In Planetary Annihilation most games will go for 20 to 30 minutes before it’s obvious who’s going to win. Again this was something that I loved about the Annihilation series as it always felt more strategic rather than tactical and was the primary reason many disliked Supreme Commander 2. The planetary scope had a lot of potential to recapture that feeling that so many previous Annihilation titles had but it unfortunately fell way short of the mark.
This is only exacerbated by the incredibly lackluster single player campaign. Whilst the idea behind Galactic War sounded good on paper in practice it’s not much more than one AI skirmish after another, ones that are either easily won within the first 10 minutes or others which are an uphill battle due to the fact that the AI is given a head start over you. It’s made worse by the fact that you can get shoehorned by the technology that you collect during the various missions, sometimes putting you in a spot that’s nigh on impossible to bypass. Like, for instance, if you’ve got all naval and air tech but the enemy starts on another planet you’re likely sweet out of luck as you won’t be able to use the teleporter to get them across. Instead you’ll have to rely on shooting nukes over there and hope that they haven’t got more anti-nuke facilities than you have missiles.
There’s also some niggling issues around the game itself. If you start an AI skirmish or Galactic War there’s no way to restart a battle if it isn’t going your way so you’ll have to quit and restart Planetary Annihilation in order to start over again. I can somewhat understand that not being in the Galactic War (if it’s meant to be a Roguelike experience, although I have no idea if that’s the case) but for AI skirmishes it seems like a really glaring omission. Things like that are supposed to be about testing builds or trying out units that you haven’t seen before and so restarting the battle quickly and easily is key to that. Having to boot the game over every time you want to do that is a right pain in the ass and not something I expected from veteran developers like Uber Entertainment.
Planetary Annihilation feels like a game that’s still in beta mode, lacking the polish of it’s spiritual predecessors and ultimately failing to deliver on the tried and true Annihilation franchise experience. The core aspects of the series are there, the massive units, larger than life scale, etc. but the game itself just doesn’t play like the titles of yore. This isn’t a case of the game not living up to the hype, after backing the game I ignored pretty much everything to do with it until I heard of the official release, more that too many things of what made the previous Annihilation titles good have been left out and what remains just isn’t enough. I really wanted to love Planetary Annihilation but it just feels like the official launch came way before it was ready for primetime with a lot more work to be done before I can say that it’s up to the calibre of its predecessors.
Planetary Annihilation is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 6 hours. The writer backed this game on Kickstarter at the $250 pledge level.