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Hands On With Planetary Annihilation

Planet Plan It

Uber Entertainment are making impressive progress with Planetary Annihilation, and we can now leap into both a multiplayer and AI skirmish mode on the Early Access version of the game. Ever the fellow to be interested in varieties of robot war, particularly when fighting large scale battles across worlds whose flavours include metal, lava, and earthy, I set about finding out more. I used my towering review unit to erect a large futuristic facility in which the current state of this Kickstarted strategy could be examined.

Read on for my findings.

The first thing I really want to get across about Planetary Annihilation is that it feels big. Not so much big in the sense that the planets are big – because as planets go, they are small – but in the sense that any given conflict is a huge undertaking with a bucketload of units, and lots to think about. Enemies can attack from pretty much anywhere – including from space – but it's okay because those are your options, too. It'll just take you a few attempts to learn how to make the most of them.

The other thing is that it's big. If you were just looking for your big, then I found it. It's right here. Hugeness comes with every game, and I can see why Uber had been making claims about potentially having a million units on the battlefield – this game slams bigness against enormity and makes a breadth sandwich: you can expect huge sprawling battles that span multiple planets, and the weaponry deployed means that having your commander unit (the only one that matters) assassinated with nuclear weapons (or worse) is almost inevitable.

The deathsplosion is a good one, though. Like everything else in PA, it's got some kick to it.

Anyway, getting a handle on all this took me a little while, but once you're astride this beast it feels soothingly familiar. It's about the economy of resource flow at its heart, and you have to keep up the control of metal, and the availability of energy, or suffer horrible shutdown pain, and possible annihilation. It isn't really that much bigger than Supreme Commander, and of course it plays as per Total Annihilation. Like all these games, it's a frantic escalation towards more and better, with you trying to balance the need to output units for them to be destroyed in various actions – probing the fog of war and capturing more resource nodes being the main ones – with the need to build bigger and badder stuff so that your arsenal can be said to be comparable to that of the Jones'. He who has the biggest arsenal may not win, because the badder arsenal can usually trump it.

The net result of all this is that the game gives you a lot of options, but there are of course optimal build strategies, and even when you're just playing AI there's not a lot of scope for mucking about. That should be what we expected, after all, but I'm not certain that the aforementioned options are all valuable ones, at least not yet. This could possibly be because the balance of the game isn't quite there yet, but whatever the reason for this tension, it's going to end up being a tough game to master. You need to start laying down optimal building patterns if you're going to survive long enough to spit out something truly impressive – like ones of those asteroid-grabbing planet-basher things you saw in the video. And the upshot of this requirement is that it is, like all such RTS games, a deeply demanding experience. Click, click, Mr Rossignol.

The updates have been fairly rapid since I last looked at the game, perhaps four months ago, and things like the solar system editor are now in, and in good shape. The game is taking on its mature, fully-featured form in this crysalis of Early Access, but is nevertheless most definitely not a finished or polished beast. And the game systems aside, there are a few minor issues – I saw a lot of ugly texture popping on my machine as I zoomed in and out of the solar system, and I do have a fairly hefty machine, but I suspect that could be optimised (probably by me if I bothered to spend any time mucking about in the options) and it seems like this is a game that will reward owners of giant, thrumming supercomputers.

It also feels a little messy, tactically and experientially speaking. The pathfinding is not always great, and it seems like there's quite a lot of work to be done in UI, readability, optimal toolsets for controlling everything. Of course, most of that is a given, because this game is still in progress, but its uneven enough for me to feel like this is a game that most of us should hold back from until it's really done, if just because I can tell the target experience is going to be as slick as all hell, and this isn't quite there yet. Once Uber really smooth off the rough edges, however, this is going to be a nuclear-powered giant of the RTS world.

Most importantly, perhaps, this game is the next step for the sub-genre that Total Annihilation created. It works, it's awesome. And so the great wheel of games keeps on turning.

Planetary Annihilation is available over here, but, like I said, it's not finished.

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