Wot I Think: Planetary Annihilation – Titans

Announced and released today, Planetary Annihilation: Titans [official site] is an expandalone version of Uber Entertainment’s Planetary Annihilation. The original game, Kickstarted and released last year, was trapped in the orbit of two RTS giants – Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander. Staff at Uber had worked on both games and their new venture was seen as a spiritual successor of sorts, pitting enormous robotic armies against one another, backed up by Commander units, supply-and-demand resource management, and base-building.

Titans adds, tweaks and modifies but does it do enough to make Planetary Annihilation worthy of a second look? I’ve been playing since late last week and here’s wot I think.

At launch, Planetary Annihilation had a singleplayer skirmish mode but concentrated its efforts on competitive multiplayer. The Titans edition – free to backers of the original and discounted for those who bought it after release – adds some flesh to the metallic skeleton of singleplayer, building on the Galactic War campaign mode that Uber patched in after launch. I’ve been playing for three days straight and that’s enough time to convince me that this is the definitive version of Planetary Annihilation. Sadly, that’s because the changes quickly bump up against the limitations of the current design, adding to it rather than significantly altering it. If ever there were a game that needed something new rather than MORE and BIGGER, Planetary Annihilation is it. Titans allows players to launch interplanetary nukes and to plough moons into their enemies’ planets, but always comes back to fighting over a small patch of land.

The headline additions, as the title suggests, are the Titan units. They’re enormous, capable of grinding armies into the dust and armed with super-weapons that can turn the tide of battle. There are new high-tier units in the other categories as well – naval, bot, vehicular and aerial – and a new tutorial to replace the limp video that came with the original game. The tutorial begins with the Titans and, presumably by accident rather than design, immediately shows that they’re not game-changers at all. They’re introduced as large units that can walk through an army and that’s almost precisely what they are. Big tanks in all but name.

Like so much in Planetary Annihilation, the Titans are a bigger form of something else. Units scale in power and size but there’s very little tactical variation between them. Occasionally you’ll need to build a navy to attack or defend a coastline, or might be forced to rely on airpower to hit vulnerable positions, but on the whole PA foregoes the Art of War in favour of the Graft of War. Efficiency wins out over inventiveness.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some people prefer efficiency and the construction of a well-oiled war machine to the minute tactical details that can decide a specific skirmish, or the operational decisions that decide a war. PA is an efficient game for efficient people, and Titans greatest improvement lies in the ways it now communicates that efficiency to the player. The tutorial explains camera anchor points, continuous build queues, area of effect commands and the use of teleporters. It doesn’t QUITE manage to explain how the two-resource economy works but there are prompts whenever the flow of supply and demand is broken at one end or the other. Essentially, resources require constant balance between intake and output rather than long-term planning and storage.

It’s telling that the most important elements of PA: Titans are in its highlighting of the interface tools and shortcuts that make its frantic arms race manageable. Rather than overhauling any part of the game, Uber are attempting to show what already exists in a better light. They succeed but the fundamental design of the game continues to be frustrating. The occasional beauty of the planets – this is the Mario Galaxy of RTS games, with fully rotatable and explorable tiny spheres – means little when you spend most of your time zoomed out, ordering icons around a map whose shape serves to confuse distances rather than altering strategies.

The surfaces are more interesting now, at least. Multi-level terrain allows for defensive positions, bottlenecks through valleys and slightly more complex base construction. It’s an important change, adding a small but much-needed layer to the ground combat that is at the heart of PA’s eternal war. The other part of the war takes place between planets, using orbital units that can transport fabrication units to other bodies in a system. Those units can then construct teleporters to beam entire armies between planets and moons. At the top end of the research and construction ladders there are engines that can steer moons into enemy planets and evacuating a planet before such a strike was my favourite multiplayer moment. I still lost the round but ‘porting my troops out at the last minute felt like precisely the kind of grand scheme that PA should be host to.

Mostly, it’s tanks vs tanks or bots vs bots though, on a planet’s surface. I used the word ‘ladders’ above to describe the progress through tech. At the heart of PA, that’s what I see – a ladder that every player attempts to scramble up, in a race to the top. The Titans add another couple of rungs but don’t change the shape.

In the singleplayer Conquest mode, technologies must be unlocked from one mission to the next but I find that picking between a vehicle factory and a bot factory simply reminds me that there’s little difference between the two. There are other techs in the form of buffs that do allow for some strategic variation by powering up defensive structures or build costs for various units, but they don’t change the basic form of the race to the top, they simply add various boosts, bumps and hurdles along the way. The AI seems more interesting than in the base game, occasionally showing signs that it is something other than a perfect machine. That said, either I’ve become significantly better at the game, or the AI has had some of its advantages stripped away. It hasn’t put up as much of a fight as it did in the early days of the original release.

As I worked my way through the Conquest mode for the second time, I picked different technologies but ended up falling into the same patterns. The PA community talk about a third resource, alongside harvested energy and metal – that resource is attention. I can see the value in recognising that. With its multiple battlefields, various methods of attack and vulnerable Chess-King Commander, PA trains players to shift their gaze and effort from one spot to another, quickly and smoothly. I’ve become accustomed to that and I’d love to try some 2v2 multiplayer battles since I think the game shines with cooperative play, when attention can be divided and plans can become more elastic and complex.

This is an improved version of the game but, in singleplayer and in 1v1, it retains the same rigidity as the original release. The story of Conquest mode is of several AI commanders waking to find their creators gone. They commit themselves to war, without reason or purpose. As I started afresh in each new system, queuing the same build orders and organising the same base layouts, I realised the structure of the game perfectly reflected the story. Planetary Annihilation’s vision of the future of war is a finger, clicking on build queue – forever.

31 Comments

  1. padger says:

    Great review. There’s so much to like about the original game, but it is empty in its soul.

  2. Vandelay says:

    By Mario 64, I assume you mean Mario Galaxies.

    Pity this doesn’t make the improvements requires. I feel the biggest issue with PA, as well as Supreme Commander before it, is the bland units and constructions. As you say, you are just working your way up a ladder to the top tier.

    I didn’t play too much of PA, but I also found that the game descended into stalemates far to often. Has that been fixed yet?

  3. PoulWrist says:

    I was pleasantly surprised to find a free copy of this in my steam library for backing the original during the kickstarter. That’s nice of them.

    • ThTa says:

      Yeah, I was trying out some of the games I got in bundles, only to suddenly see this entry in the list of recent games. That was a pretty nice surprise.

      Guess I’ll give it another shot, then.

    • Molay says:

      Uuuuhh shiny! Thanks, I’d have missed it if you hadn’t written that comment. Guess already having it is a good incentive to try it out, eh?

  4. Ethaor says:

    I’m a huge fan of the original planteray anihilation that I played when I was young to no end, I played hundreds of hours of Supreme Commander and forged alliance. To me planetary anihilation has nothing to do with these games.

    Planetary Anihilation is an empty generic RTS aimed and geared towards Esport. It rewards clicks per seconds and mindless queuing instead of tactics, choices and strategy. That’s everything I didn’t want from a spiritual successor of PA and SupCom. What a waste, what where they thinking?

    • Ethaor says:

      Total Annihilation* :o

      • Cinek says:

        That’s a very interesting opinion, considering that you can apply every tactic from TA into PA and it works just as well – exception being anything that relies on heavy defenses (shields, cornering, etc.), which is a good thing, cause prevents turtling which is always a bane of these games.

        TA and SupCom both reward “rewards clicks per seconds” and “mindless queuing” making them a viable methods of achieving victory as long as your opponents don’t know what they are doing. It’s no different from PA.

        • subedii says:

          I have to largely agree.

          This series of games is actually very relaxed on the APM compared to, well, most other RTS’s on the market that aren’t called “Total War”. And that’s largely down to an interface that’s designed to allow you to queue up and automate a whole heck of a lot of stuff that other RTS’s simply won’t let you, allowing you to focus far more on the larger scale strategy.

          • KDR_11k says:

            The complete lack of chokepoints on most maps gave harassers a big advantage which is of course the antithesis of what people who see “big battles, explode planets” want. Though realistically you won’t get a non-hectic RTS because they are ALWAYS about quickly gaining and reinvesting resources which will require constant attention no matter how many helper features your game has.

        • hotmaildidntwork says:

          I’m curious in what way “turtling” is so detrimental to the genre.

          • KDR_11k says:

            Turtling/porcing is not a bad thing by itself but it’s often the symptom of scrub players trying to skip straight to the end game with no real combat before then (“20 minute no rush”).

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            FhnuZoag says:

            Turtling is… scrub now? It’s surely a necessary part of the core Rush > Boom > Turtle > Rush rock-paper-scissors dynamic of every decent RTS.

    • KDR_11k says:

      Frankly I cannot remember any RTS that didn’t have people complaining that it’s more about APM than strategy. So I can’t say that I have any idea what this mythical truly strategic RTS looks like. Many RTS makers may claim that they’re delivering that but I’ve never seen players uphold any of them as a true example.

      • malkav11 says:

        Being more about APM than strategy is pretty much in the DNA of the RTS, particularly the traditional base-building, resource-mining RTS. Making things happen in real time means your attention is a resource and success will be significantly based on how well you allocated it and how quickly you can execute the tasks you need to perform. Not much getting around that, though you can fiddle with the continuum by making more or less things to keep track of and letting players automate systems to one degree or another (for example, WC3’s auto-cast abilities were a huge micromanagement reduction. Meant I could actually bloody use specials, or at least on multiple units. Loved it.). Pretty much you have to either make it turn-based (my preferred solution), reduce the number of things a player has to manage down to the bone (pretty much the MOBA play, though I’m not sure it’s terribly successful), or keep the real-time element to automatically executing plans rendered by the player in untimed sequences (this is really more of a turn-based game still, though some tower defense games can come close).

      • BlazeL says:

        I only saw minimalistic strategy games like Galcon that manage to achive this in competitive play.

        But even there when things escalate and get frantic, click speed starts to matter more and more.

      • BlueTemplar says:

        Here’s a long discussion about micromanagement and APM in RTS games : more specifically about StarCraft 2 and Zero-K, but it applies to most of them :
        link to zero-k.info
        (Don’t be put off by the initial thread title and comments, the following posts are more balanced, and some by people that have played Starcraft 1/2 at a high level).

  5. KDR_11k says:

    Titan units aside this sounds more like a large patch than a real expansion. Especially things like the improved tutorial and terrain that reduces the wide openness of the maps, those seem more about getting the game up to snuff than breaking new ground.

    These changes sound like things that might make the game more approachable for people like me that bounced off it but throwing more money at a game that didn’t click with me just to hope that it might this time doesn’t sound like a wise risk.

    • SomeDuder says:

      Errr… yea, I’m kinda wondering why RPS isnt raising more outrage over this “game”. From what I read, it’s just some changes that could easily be incorporated into the existing game (its not a new engine or whatever). With a name like “Titans” i’d expect some content about the massive expirementals that Supreme Commander is known and loved for.

      In fact, it looks like a genuine “hey you know that game you bought and play? Well, now you can buy it again!” scheme. Sure, KS backers get it for free, but which fucking idiot payed €90,- for this turd when it was p. much guarantueed that, it being on Steam and all, a discount was going to happen?

      Nope, not falling for it. If I wanna play a Supreme Commandef-ish game, I’ll boot up FAF.

    • Quitch says:

      It expands the unit count by ~20%, adds new mechanics, new maps, 150 new terrain pieces, a new game mode, and a few other things.

      You can get a full rundown in this article.

  6. SwiftRanger says:

    Does this fix the no-cursor bug in Vista with AMD video cards if you don’t want to play in windowed mode all the time?

    Ah, what am I saying or hoping for, I just didn’t like the original. Total Annihilation(:CC/BT), SupCom(:FA) and the like; I could endure their performance hogging because the game design was daring and terrific (and still is as StarCraft II and the MOBA invasion plunged the RTS genre back to the stone age). As for PA, that game is daring alright but it also throws out what makes RTS a pure joy and that’s the feeling of having complete control. Multiple spherical battlegrounds which make any kind of strategic zoom worthless? That’s the nr. 1 flaw right there already and it is a cornerstone of the play experience here. It seems that experimentals or more interesting terrain doesn’t solve that problem.

    I’d rather have the Uber folks help out Chris Taylor with TA2 or go on their own for a full-on SupCom 3 (do something with that license, Square-Enix!). PA is clearly the black sheep amidst those franchises and in the current RTS-drought a stand-alone addon for it is not even a welcome oasis either I’d say… :(

  7. BigglesB says:

    Have actually been playing a lot of PA recently, so as a backer, this new updated version is a very welcome surprise!

    I get that a lot of people find it a bit dry and soulless and when it first came out, I would have agreed, but actually, the cumulative updates over the past year or so have made the game so much more interesting. Initially, units lacked a lot of personality, but little things like how dox and slammers can now walk (& scout) underwater (with the latter able to harass ships with pretty effective torpedoes) and the various ways to attack other planets, from orbit to using nukes or using unit cannons to going all out for a superweapon can actually be satisfying.

    The problem though with having a game which has evolved over time is that a lot of people will judge it on grounds which are no longer valid. The negativity in this thread is a pretty good example of that, I think. It’s not as perfect as one might have hoped but Uber have done a ton of work on it post release & I hope people get a chance to get their teeth into this new improved version rather than just criticise the half finished original release from a distance.

  8. Jakkar says:

    I think it telling that my conditioned response to Planetary Annihilation news or mentions has settled at ‘glance, yawn, and think about Total Annihilation/Supreme Commander’…

    So much bombast in the original presentation, so much effort spent on stylised art, the original pitch video and the music, and then… Well, Style over Substance would have been something, but even the style is lacking – the game ended up ugly, indistinct. I have trouble distinguishing units from one-another, trouble spotting them against many different types of terrain, yet in combat their projectiles, the explosions, the demise of units all pass without any visual significance, without any excitement.

    No pop, no viscerality.

    No satisfaction.

    The substance, meanwhile, I can only compare to Dungeons’ take on trying to succeed Dungeon Keeper. It’s slavishly loyal in tools and materials, but lacks any of the fun or coherence in the excellent design of TA, and the very good design of SC.

    Nothing can be done to save this game. It’s just… Empty, as many others have said.

  9. Greendolph says:

    1/10 reviewer clearly played the expansion for 20 minutes looking for things to complain about. Most of the reviwers complaints are mine and a significant portion of the communities favorite things about it. Titans are larger forms of units without tactical diversity? That line, early on in the review, should disqualify the entire thing – BUT YOU DIDN”T STOP.
    This anti uber campaign is ridiculous. People are upset that a COMPANY that has EMPLOYEES and INCURS COSTS would CHARGE for a PRODUCT they DEVELOPED. Get over yourselves. Get over your stupid sense of entitlement to things that the developers never promised. Stop expecting things for free.

    • Vayra says:

      Wait, what? The review just manages to look past the pretty pictures and judges PA for what it is. It is just like GalCiv 3 where there seems to be a lot of choice but in fact it is nothing more than a race to the toughest unit in the game with the highest possible stats. This in itself is not wrong, but it does set the games apart from the RTS that is about micro (Starcraft for example).

      PA is a macro-oriented RTS. This is not bad. It is just what it is. And to be fairly honest, making such an RTS and balancing it gameplay wise is a whole lot easier than making a micro-focused RTS. The whole reason Uber was getting flak is because of their pricing agenda going from Kickstarter to Steam’s Early Access and bringing a largely unfinished skeleton of a game on there at an astronomical price tag.

      They deserved every bit of the flak they got for that, and then they continued by scrapping tons of promised features and ‘releasing’ a product that was largely unfinished as a full release. Then after that they CHOOSE to pick up the pieces of their failures and fix it.

      Long story short, Uber deserves every bit of negativity they got and hopefully they learned a little bit about indie development.

      • xkjq says:

        Whilst I completely agree with you that they released the game as “finished” far too early (haven’t played enough of it yet but I’ve got a feeling Titans should probably have been 1.0), I just can’t understand the argument about early access prices.

        The early access prices mirrored those you would have paid if you’d kickstarted the game. If you bought the game during the alpha you paid the alpha price. During beta, the beta price.

        Uber got a lot of shit wrong – but the pricing structure isn’t one of them.

        • MellowKrogoth says:

          Agreed about the pricing being right, it was just the logical thing to do after the Kickstarter. But the funny part about people complaining about the early access price being too high is that it shows they desired this early entry. Otherwise they wouldn’t care and would be content to wait for the release and normal price. So all their raging demonstrates that early access is actually a highly desirable thing you can charge high sums of money for.

  10. Scott says:

    Not as good as Age of Mythology’s expansion (also called Titans) then?

    I actually really like the macro aspects of PA, and don’t mind that it’s always all about the biggest unit you can make. But I hardly play RTSes, so I guess it’s a little bit of a failure if a casual player like me likes it? Especially as although I like the original, I’m nowhere invested enough to buy an expansion.

  11. MellowKrogoth says:

    Something major missing from this review is how this game compares to Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander. It seems the reviewer simply doesn’t like the “flow economy” PA has inherited from those games, and the automation it added on top (inherited mostly from the Spring RTS open source project) to help the player focus on moving armies around instead of repeatedly clicking to queue builds and build mines.

    Personally what I enjoyed most about TA was installed some crazy mods and turtling with two human allies vs one or two AI. The map would soon be covered with explosions, giant robot wrecks and nukes would fly all over the place, and it was glorious. I hope Uber will open the floodgates of modding and that the community will do the same with PA as they did with TA.

  12. Marr says:

    I don’t have a problem with Uber developing a new, expanded version of PA and charging money for it. My problem is the games-as-a-service shenanigans that has deleted the original PA from history, effectively deleting a product I paid for. Sure, it still exists in *my* Steam account, but none of my friends can ever buy it and the player base is going to drop off a cliff, so as a multiplayer game its value now hovers just over zero.

    If owners of PA don’t get a discount for life on this replacement title, we’ve been scammed.