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Planetary Annihilation review

Our Verdict

Should have been a great, massive RTS in the tradition of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander, but crippled by technical issues.

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need to know

What is it? An inter-planetary RTS.
Play it on: Quad Core CPU, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX 660 Ti or better (emphases on 'or better'), 2 GB HD space.
Reviewed on: AMD Quad Core 3.3GHz, 16GB Ram, GeForce GTX 660 Ti PC
Alternatively:Supreme Commander
Price: $30/£23
Release date: Out now
Publisher/Developer: Uber Entertainment
Multiplayer: 10-player online
Copy protection: Steam
Link: Official site

Here's what I did right before a bug ruined one of my best battles in Planetary Annihilation: My commander was building power generators and bot factories while a team of constructors scoured a green planet for untapped metal deposits. About 50 units—tanks, mechs, and anti-air—lined up for a portal that would take them to the enemy moon.

Once they arrived and secured a stronger foothold, hundreds more would follow. With the only two resources—metal and energy—coming in steadily, and a row of factories set to auto-build, I'd created an army that would put the American military industrial complex to shame. It covered almost the entire surface of the planet, and as I zoomed out into space and spun it around I was drunk with power.

I could carpet bomb the moon with nukes, harvest gas giants for energy, or build huge engines on smaller celestial bodies to change their orbit and crash them into my enemies. I'll get back to that bug I mentioned in a moment, but learning to execute any these strategies was also far too difficult. The game's only tutorial is an embedded, low quality YouTube video, and it only skims over the basics using a UI from previous builds.

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This multiplayer partner taught me how to use mines.

Planetary Annihilation is a complex, massive RTS, where most matches take place across multiple planets. It didn't tell me how to get 100 orbital landers to pick up 100 tanks, or how to set my constructors to assist each other. It didn't explain the tech tree or why I couldn't build metal and energy storage yet. Even now, after spending close to an hour fiddling with the messy key bindings menu, I still don't know how to rotate the camera.

The bigger problem is that just as I was about to unleash all hell, a bug corrupted the graphics so I couldn't see anything. It could have been my most epic battle through single player Galactic War mode, but the only way to fix it was to restart, and since you can't save the game in the middle of a battle, I lost about 30 minutes of progress. This happened several times on my AMD Quad Core, 16GB Ram, GeForce GTX 660 Ti PC, and other players with completely different specs reported similar problems in multiplayer chat and Steam discussion threads.

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Since you can't save the game in the middle of a battle, I lost about 30 minutes of progress.

Captain planet

The Galactic War mode is a series of AI matches tied with a 2D galactic map that for some reason slowed my framerate down to single digits. After every match, I got to choose which system to attack next and upgrade my army with pieces of tech that are all available in multiplayer. It didn't do the best job of explaining different strategies, but it did force me to experiment with aerial and naval units by staggering access to the full tech tree.

The only distinction between opponents is the variation in commanders, which have different constructing or combat abilities. It's a negligible difference, but the tech tree is wide enough to let players specialize along parallel paths. Bots, for example, are excellent in rushing, while a steady trickle of tanks can destroy any base as long as it keeps coming. An air force, meanwhile, can come out of nowhere, level an outpost, and disappear just as fast, but it can't travel between planets.

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The widest view in the game showing the system and units moving between planets.

Invading an enemy planet is the most interesting new problem Planetary Annihilation introduces. Sending a couple of units to build a portal works in the early game, but you can't get to the ground and build one once the enemy has complete radar cover and orbital guns. Even massive invasions consisting of hundreds of orbital fighters are blown out of the sky.

If two players have two separate planets locked down, invading a third, uninhabited planet provides extra resources and another manufacturing center. The endgame, especially with multiple players, is a challenge of managing manufacturing, doomsday weapons, and infrastructure in one part of the solar system, while directing a vicious ground war in another.

A picture-in-picture mode let me keep tabs on both at any time. It's overwhelming, but I enjoyed Planetary Annihilation most when there were too many things to do, and the only limit on what was possible was how fast my brain could process information.

When I put my tower defense skills to good use and established a network of laser turrets and anti-nuke launchers, matches became a nail biting race to build the most efficient infrastructure and fund the titular Planetary Annihilation moves.

In one multiplayer match, I did everything I could to prevent another player from conquering a metal planet, which can be transformed into a giant, Death Star-type laser cannon. I managed to shuttle my commander to another planet just as mine was exploding, but then he blew up my new home as well. In another match, I had the pleasure of crashing a moon into another player, but when I did, another graphical corruption made the spectacle invisible. Planetary Annihilation always reminded me that it was broken when I was enjoying it the most.

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A commander at the moment of detonation.

When it's working, PA mostly does a great job of presenting these battles by going for "cute" rather than "badass." Tanks don't look like chrome death machines, but stunted toys in bright, primary colors. It's like every unit is the corgi version of its real life counterpart, though it's still intimidating to see hundreds of them storm your base at once.

However, with enough units, the only way to manage them is zooming way out, at which point they appear as small, simple icons. I zoomed in now and again to witness the satisfying explosions and projectiles up close, but if I was trying to be practical, combat was abstracted.

And then there's almost always some technical hitch that ruins everything anyway. It's hard to find multiplayer matches, especially with eight players like I want, and when I do, one player crashes, or one planet just refuses to render, appearing as a black box.

I know that there's a great, massive RTS beneath all these issues. I've seen glimpses of it when everything works correctly, but at the moment I can't recommend Planetary Annihilation without a warning that it's bound to disappoint and frustrate, even if you do teach yourself to play it.

The Verdict
Planetary Annihilation

Should have been a great, massive RTS in the tradition of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander, but crippled by technical issues.