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Wot I Think: Planetary Annihilation – Titans

I love it when planets come together

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.

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