Review: Planetary Annihilation

A game buggy from the onset that never got fixed, anything of virtue in Planetary Annihilation is borrowed from its predecessor. Technically deficient, the game frequently crashed to desktop during play, occasionally the UI crashed and necessitated quitting the game via the Task Manager.  The visual design is very cheap mobile game seeming, and the game balance is non-existent, with air and space power utterly dominating. Furthermore, the AI presents very little challenge, consistently getting caught going in circles, sitting right under orbital lasers and dying, and not really presenting any tactics beyond "send all my units at this guy".  A definite pass unless it's on an aggressive sale, a game of many broken promises and none delivered ones.
Review: Planetary Annihilation
Date published: May 21, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Planetary Annihilation is a real-time strategy game meant to be a spiritual successor to the Total Annihilation games developed and published by Uber Entertainment.  Being somewhat of a fan to say the very least of Uber Entertainment's past game, Super Monday Night Combat, I was somewhat enthusiastic about Planetary Annihilation, though I certainly tempered that enthusiasm knowing that plenty of Kickstarter-based games have missed the mark when they deliver at all.  Boy, am I glad that I went into this with low expectations, but even those were let down.

Most of Planetary Annihilation's
working mechanics are borrowed

There isn't going to be much here new for anyone intimately familiar with it's spiritual predecessor - the same trifecta of bots, vehicles, and buildings is here.  You bootstrap development of advanced structures through the creation of fabrication bots at the base level buildings, same with defences, ... and that's as far as the depth goes.  The unit balance is a simple rock-paper-scissors affair, one that doesn't get pulled off well (more on that below) and there's nothing really stand-out here, excepting that the basic level combat units are pretty much useless, you're better served waiting for the advanced units.

The same metal and energy resources are in the game as well, with the same management for both, with the reclaim mechanic also being in there - although the metal resources at metal nodes are infinite, or at least never ran out even when I left the game on for a couple hours in the background to test - and yeah, that's a testament to how unthreatening the AI is.  So, the reclaim mechanic is more there to be a throwback than serving to complement the rather limited metal resource nodes. 

Orbital combat is the one new idea,
but not much gets done with it really

The one unique idea presented in Planetary Annihilation is that of fighting on more than one world.  Which is to say: you are presented with a system of 2-5 worlds for you to fight across.  While this seems to broaden the playing field significantly, the assumption that it would is based on the idea that a world is going to be a pretty decently sized map.  It isn't - you can get across an entire world in a matter of minutes, so in fact, what it's actually done, is taken the larger maps of other comparable RTS games, smashed them into a handful of small pieces, and necessitated an additional layer of meta gameplay to get between them.  Now, this wouldn't be inherently a bad thing, but the orbital layer offers only one thing beyond otherwise being a copy/paste of the air layer, and that's the inter-planetary transport.  Actually, scratch that, two things, because it is basically the vehicle by which the super-weapons in the game are introduced.

There's essentially two super-weapons in Planetary Annihilation: a totally-not-the-Death-Star planet sized super-laser which you can build a structure upon to control, and then use to destroy worlds (did I mention it's totally not the Death Star? Yeah, this game has a problem with original ideas - more on that later), and the other is just a variation on said destroying worlds, albeit at least a somewhat more novel one, whereby you have certain moons you can basically build a certain number of required engines on them, to crash them into their parent worlds and destroy both.

These super-weapons certainly made for a certain amount of pomp and circumstance in the trailers, and the space fighters are actually kind of interesting designs, but they're both very moot points - most player games I had ended well before that sort of end-game, and the AI was far, far too thick to take advantage of them.  It would try to capture those Laser worlds and then .. basically sit on them and do nothing.

There isn't anything else to differentiate
the game from Total Annihilation

While the debate of what constitutes a clone and what constitutes a throwback or a spiritual successor is a subject of a fairly intense deal of hand-wringing and industry controversy in certain circles, I think I can confidently say that I feel Planetary Annihilation very much feels like a clone of Total Annihilation (right down to the name!).  It seems to have no handle either on what it wants to do differently and for that matter on the core mechanics that made Total Annihilation a memorable RTS to begin with.  Game balance in this game is heavily skewed - more on that later - the construction method and animation are taken directly from Total Annihilation without even some attempt at giving it some new flair, and as is the art direction, to the most extent.  Whereas Total Annihilation attempted to be as realistic as it could, given the graphical fidelity of the time, Planetary Annihilation goes for this over-wrought, very "mobile" and cartoony version of the art design TA had, and for it, it makes it seem like one of those really bad knock-off mobile games that plague that market presently.  And looking like a bad mobile knock off is not a good way to endear one's self to me.  This game really doesn't have an original idea in its head beyond the orbital mechanics I discussed above, and it really shows, from stem to stern, so to speak.

Of course, one of the chief appeals of Total Annihilation back in the day, was the absolutely batty amount of units available for the game between the base game and the community-created units made using the unit creation tools Total Annihilation's level editor came with - and here's where we come to where it really starts feeling like a mobile rip off - this gets replaced with obfuscated units you can pay for, with real money (10$ a pop for most).  No indication is given to whether they are stronger or not, but experimentation revealed that they were indeed buying power - at least the one paid commander that a friend experimented with in a game with me was significantly more resilient than one of the 'stock', free commanders.

So not only is it an unoriginal clone of Total Annihilation, it's one with a micro-transaction store (though I hesitate to call 10$ micro) in which you can literally buy power, and it is likely necessary to be do so to be able to compete in ranked matches.

I have no words, except to say that is completely unacceptable.

Many features are half-baked or buggy;
the game crashes frequently

My very first run of Planetary Annihilation started as the game intended to go on: I spent the lengthy match-making process to get tossed into a public game, got ready and loaded in after a rather long load time, and then was greeted with my old companion, the Windows critical error dialog box. The game's user interface library had crashed, you see, but it didn't even take the game with it.  Instead, I was left with an entirely GUI-less game, one that didn't even respond to alt-F4 and was entirely non-functional. Giving a sigh of exasperation, I was left terminating the process from the Task Manager.

I share that particular anecdote because it neatly encapsulates my experience with Planetary Annihilation, but there was some diversity in the crashes as well: some of them occurred when I tried to zoom out to the planetary layer, some happened when the abysmal AI path-finding would fail so hard it would crash the game, and even others would happen when I tried to load saved games - a beta feature, the game clearly labels, but no more acceptable.

In fact, let's nip something in the bud right here and now with that - you do not get to call a game or a game feature a "beta feature" when you have spent lengthy times in Steam's Early Access program, even selling "Early Access Edition" copies of the game in stores, and now more than half a year later from the official release date of the product call anything beta.  It is not appropriate, this is a release product and should have the quality expected of such.  That such a basic feature as a save system is still in "beta" so long after the official release of the product is a testament to how unpolished, unfinished, and technically-inept this product is.

Moreover, I find this rather exploitative of people who are paying for a full release of a game and then getting "beta" features.  This game is no longer in Early Access and there is no excuse for it.  I find that the game is selling itself as a finished product when it clearly is not to be false advertising, and abhorrent.  Not something any developer should be doing, nor, I would argue, something which Valve should be allowing to occur on their service, for this is indeed exactly the kind of thing that has tarnished Steam's reputation greatly.

Returning to the actual technical issues, we have a bevy of small but fundamental things: as I said, the save system is in "beta" and thus unreliable and causes crashes frequently, but there is also a very dreadful AI I only touched on briefly.  The AI in this game is thicker than a concrete milkshake, utterly incapable of any tactic more complicated than gathering up all of its produced units and sending them after you, often in nice bite-sized chunks for easy destruction.  It also has this "so-bad-its-funny" tendency to send its commander alone, through your base, on suicide runs, and in general, not defending itself.  Indeed, when I learned that ground units (which includes commanders) won't move when they are shot at from the orbital layer, I was able to scum myself through many an AI skirmish, to the point it made me absolutely and completely bored with the game.  Even when I pointedly avoided orbital defences I only ever was genuinely defeated once, and that was because I was an idiot and forgot to move my commander off a planet before blowing it up with the totally-not-the-Death-Star super-weapon.  It was laughable at best, but hey, at least I got some cheap laughs out of it - that's more than I got with Spacebase DF-9.

Further complicating play is the fact the multi-player matchmaking takes a length amount of time, when it works, and seems highly regionalised - some of my friends in other parts of the world were able to get into the game with other players fine, but I only ever found one public match myself that I actually got to play (that crashed match I ain't counting) and the others I played I had to corral some Steam friends into playing.  It's once again a pretty shoddy-seeming system; working on the assumption that it is indeed regionalised as I seem, a good system would allow you to fall through into more international pools if your local pool doesn't find matches.  Since as we've established Planetary Annihilation is not a good system however, I was left to watch LindyBeige videos to entertain myself while it searched for matches.  When I have to entertain myself during a game - a thing ostensibly made to entertain me - I can only include something has gone very badly wrong somewhere along the line.  While the factor of regionalisation is simply speculation on my part, the end results while anecdotal, are hardly speculation.  Simply unacceptable, and it leaves you either playing the game against a brain-dead AI or waiting long stretches of time to get into a game.

The nail in Planetary Annihilation's coffin
is a very poor game balance

If it sounds like I'm kind of down on the game, well, quite frankly, I am.  I expected much better from a game of this price point than an uninspired and unfinished clone.  And the game balance is the cherry on top of the shit sundae dear readers - it's bad - like really bad.  There is basically little point in getting anything other than advanced air combat units, as they vastly outclass anything else on a planet to the point that fighting them even with the AA-specific bots and vehicles is like bringing a wet trout to a murder fight.  Defensive structures at the basic level pick apart even moderate-sized forces of equivalent combat units except air, and the same is true of the advanced tier, but with a combination of artillery towers and air units you can pretty much dominate even a really good player using bots and vehicles.

Of course all of that is kind of a moot point, because there's only one turret that can shoot at orbital fixtures, and it doesn't hurt them as much as the advanced orbital turrets can hurt it, so it becomes a race to space when you're playing intelligent opponents - basically, get a slew of advanced laser turrets over your opponents base and you can destroy them with impunity.

The lack of challenge that such poor balance results in makes Planetary Annihilation an ultimately unfulfilling game.  There is no "rush" here, no feeling of accomplishment, no feeling besting an opponent close to your skills.  In it's place is the feeling that either you exploited the game's poor balance first, or they did, and neither feels all that great at all.

A game buggy from the onset that never got fixed, anything of virtue in Planetary Annihilation is borrowed from its predecessor. Technically deficient, the game frequently crashed to desktop during play, occasionally the UI crashed and necessitated quitting the game via the Task Manager.  The visual design is very cheap mobile game seeming, and the game balance is non-existent, with air and space power utterly dominating. Furthermore, the AI presents very little challenge, consistently getting caught going in circles, sitting right under orbital lasers and dying, and not really presenting any tactics beyond