After Action Report: stealing the moon in Planetary Annihilation

Welcome to the After Action Report, a weekly account from one of PC gaming's varied, exciting battlefields.

Two robots. Two planets. Can't the robots just have one planet each? NO. This is Planetary Annihilation, an RTS from some of the brains behind Supreme Commander's large-scale robotic RTS battles. The plot is simple: once upon a time someone set all the robots to "kill", and the robots have been killing everything ever since, pausing only to build smaller robots that can kill more effectively. Unlike Supreme Commander, Planetary Annihilation has robots fighting for orbital supremacy as well as on land, air and sea.

Planetary Annihilation has recently entered the ominous "gamma" phase of its pre-release program. What does that mean, exactly? Let's find out, by making huge robot armies fight each other to death.

It begins. I'm fighting a single "normal" AI enemy across two celestial bodies. My commander is a plodding bipedal tractor with a single mournful eye, and rather looks like he could do with a hug. There are no hugs on this rock, only extraction points and, somewhere, another commander that wants to absorb my sad robot's carcass for spare metal.

To begin, I build a couple of metal extractors. These vital machines suck metal out of the planet's crust, which I can use to build my commander a few friends. Next, energy plants. You need metal to build units, but without energy, that building process will slow to a crawl. As with SupCom, you can hold shift to queue up build orders and sketch out a ghostly base for your units to fill in. My facility quickly takes shape. I scatter around a few turrets and have my commander build an air factory. That produces a few flying engineers. I send them out to scout the globe and start stealing as many precious extraction points as possible. As long as they don't fly directly over the enemy base, or into the ground, they'll probably get most of the way around the planet.

I soon find the enemy base. They're some way South-West of my landfall position, but not too far away. If your enemy is on the opposite pole, they're equally capable of attacking from any direction. In my four-or-so hours with Planetary Annihilation, the lack of coherent battle lines has proved frustrating. Extractors can be killed from any angle at any time, and there are so many it's tough to keep an eye on your territory, even with the game's superb fast-zooming camera. In this scenario it's unlikely the enemy will send land vehicles the long way round the planet, I can confidently deploy stronger defenses to the South East.

Metal pouring in, which is fortunate, because I've ordered the construction of four vehicle factories. Without a corner to dig into, I have to build hundreds of robots to cover my territory.

I set two of my factories to build anti-air tanks on an infinite loop while the other two churn out traditional tanks. Purple boomerang bombers are nagging at the edges of my base, targeting lone metal extractors and blowing up the odd turret. I get some of my engineers to buff the factories and speed up the build.

Increasingly persistent air patrols target my distant metal extractors, so I dispatch a blob of tanks and anti-air vehicles to mill around on the frontier of my miniature empire. There they swat boomerangs, repel the occasional enemy bot and complain about 3G reception at the cold edge of the universe.

With my factories on autopilot, I can turn my attention to the fun stuff. SPACE. I'm currently fighting for control of a verdant planet, covered in sparse forests and stretches of desert and volcanic rock. The planet also has a small, rocky moon with dozens of unclaimed extractor points. I get my army of flying builder-bots to materialise an orbital factory, opening a new front in the outer atmosphere.

Soon I have a few orbital fighters and an orbital constructor bot sailing over my base and bumping into the camera every now and then. The orbital constructor builds a battle station — a slow moving, unstoppable octagon with lots of mounted lasers. Back on the as-yet-unnamed planet that shall henceforth be known as Robotron, I've built a space bus to carry one lucky unit to the final frontier. One of my flying builders is chosen for the grand journey. Once the it's safely on board I right click on the moon and watch the bus take a spiraling route out of Robotron's atmosphere. The bus quickly reaches the planetoid and the builder disembarks in a slow, lingering spiral, like a sycamore bud falling from a metal leaf.

The moon is MINE. I build a factory with my lone builder-bot, and get it to build more builder bots, then send them around the Moon, spiking the surface with metal extractors until it resembles a craggy grey pincushion. How is the metal making it back to the surface of the main planet? Only Optimus Prime can say, but the resource boost will let me build more cool orbital stuff, like space lasers.

While distracted by the wonders of interstellar transport, the AI has started putting up orbital defenses. My orbital octagon lashes a few fighters into zero-G debris and resumes falls back into brooding silence. On the ground, things are starting to get out of control. The constant raids on my empire's periphery has taken a dozen or so metal extractors out of commission. My self-perpetuating war-blob of tanks and anti-air trucks has grown to a frankly ridiculous size. It's raid-o'-clock.

First I move the orbiting octagon very slowly in the direction of the enemy base. It starts drifting over the cordon of purple turrets like a ship from Independence Day, flanked by a few fighters and an orbital builder. The builder starts assembling a space-laser, which I hope will end the war. There's trouble, though. From the darkness of the fog-of-war, huge bolts zap my octagon into a flaming wreck. Moments later, my fighters and my builder falls. The orbital laser hangs, half-finished above the base. Before the fleet is wiped out, I catch a glimpse of the enemy's building-sized anti-orbital ground artillery. Damn.

I order my factory to build more orbital fighters, but the enemy has a couple of their own floating right above my base with impunity. I have no way to challenge them; every fighter I fire into orbit is swarmed instantly. Plan B: charge the main enemy base with everything I have. If I can wipe out their anti-orbital guns and destroy the lingering orbital fighters I can finish my space laser and win the game. Hopefully.

Mistake. A terrible mistake. I should have migrated my entire population to the moon and lived happily ever after, but instead I sent my army into a devastating laser-turret crossfire, and didn't factor in the presence of enemy artillery emplacements. Their massive rockets pummel by tanks into fluffy clouds. A wave of enemy bombers is taken out by the spiraling homing rockets of my AA tanks, but soon they fall. I beat a hasty retreat, trying to preserve enough of a force to fight back if purple counter-attacks.

They counter-attack. My radar picks up their huge, lumbering army long before they reach my base, but there's little I can do. My bedraggled troops are destroyed.

In hindsight, I should have built twice the number of factories, thought about artillery and obsessed less about becoming king of the moon. The great purple tank collective wipe out my buildings one by one. The space base fires one final rocket into orbit. I like to think that a few robots were on board, trying to make a final escape, but I know there's an army of purple space-fiends above waiting shoot them on sight.

Commanders normally go nuclear in SupCom and Planetary Annihilation, but for some reason my commander doesn't. He died how he lived, silently and sadly. Once he's gone, the buildings on the moon start to self-destruct one by one, covering the grey rock with dozens of puffy orange explosions. Quite beautiful.

DEFEATED. Nevermind, eh. Now the fog of war's lifted, let's take a look at what the enemy really had.


Tom Senior

Part of the UK team, Tom was with PC Gamer at the very beginning of the website's launch—first as a news writer, and then as online editor until his departure in 2020. His specialties are strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.