Feature Article

Planetary Annihilation and the Art of Robotic War

That's no moon.

by

It only takes a glimpse of Planetary Annihilation to understand that it thinks big. This real-time strategy game doesn't have you waging war on a county, or a country, a continent, or even a single planet. Instead, you set your strategic sights on a number of planets at once. You don't manage only a battle or two at a time; instead, you command your robotic forces across all these planets at once, collecting resources and fending off the enemy's metal warriors as they vie for dominance. In an individual match, a solar system is at stake--and in this early-access game's newly introduced Galactic War mode, an entire galaxy hangs in the balance.

Planetary Annihilation's presentation is its most immediately striking feature, if only because the planets that represent individual warzones look so stunning against the darkness of space. And you spend a lot of time playing Planetary Annihilation with an entire planet stretched across the screen--a planet around which you can rotate and zoom the camera to your heart's content. Mind you, these planets aren't the size of the Earth, or even our own moon, unless you imagine that even the game's smallest units are the size of entire cities, and production facilities are as expansive as Australia. But whether you think of the planets as rather small or the robots as rather large, Planetary Annihilation is awesome, and awesomely overwhelming, at first glance.

If you've played Total Annihilation or Supreme Commander, however, you are already prepared for Planetary Annihilation's impressive scale. You've already commanded forces from a distance so vast that your robots are represented by mere icons. You've already nuked an enemy commander, a super-unit that serves as your moral and mechanical center. Planetary Annihilation is the next logical step in this sequence, and the game's economic structure, robot designs, and general themes echo the great Chris Taylor-designed games that preceded it.

If this all sounds like a bit too much for you to handle, fear not: developer Uber Entertainment wants you to focus on the strategizing, not on the micromanagement. I checked in with Jon Mavor, the bright mind behind Planetary Annihilation (and lead programmer of Supreme Commander), to see just how the development team keeps battles manageable from one moment to the next. The key to maintaining order is a suite of mechanics called advanced command and control. Says Mavor, "With area commands, for instance, you can automate production by queuing up multiple factories and resource structures with simple drags and clicks. Picture-in-picture, another tool, lets you interact with multiple planets across two windows. Our notification system dynamically lets you keep track of battles. And with automatic rally point, patrol paths and build orders that repeat, we take away the need to micromanage all of your factories. For example, you can have a rally point that leads from a factory to a teleporter that then rallies the unit to attack an enemy base on another planet."

I saw several of these mechanics in action, only to wonder why I'd never seen them in a strategy game before. I've seen automated rally points certainly, but being able to queue up a number of power structures without having to manually choose their location is a godsend. (Shift-clicking into place ten power stations seems such a quaint but tedious option, in comparison.) Picture-in-picture, too, is not only vital to managing two planets at once, but is visually astounding to boot. That second planet is not represented by a minimap; it's a full-fledged rendering of another world in the corner of your screen, and can be fully manipulated in its window. More astounding is how well the game performs. Zooming in close reveals plain-looking units and geometric trees, but you spend most of Planetary Annihilation from much further out, and from those impressive distances, the game looks far more artistically vibrant than Supreme Commander ever did. In Mavor's words, they are "light, clean, and colorful," and they look all the more splendid given the game's smooth, brisk frame rate.

Mavor adds, "Making a game look good starts with art direction and ends with the technology to pull it off. Over the course of the project we've revamped and extended each of the systems to improve visual quality. Typically we look at the game in terms of close zoom, medium zoom, and far zoom. In each of these areas we try to optimize the visual look as much as we can. Doing natural lighting lighting and shadows on moving planets in a real solar system that has to work from any point in the system is actually pretty challenging. A lot of the little visual tricks we use in a normal level don't actually work, so we've had to invent quite a bit of tech to make it work. Obviously, there can be a collision between gameplay and visuals. For example we do have icons and other [interface] elements that can get in the way of the just looking at the planets."

Mavor is also quick to point out Planetary Annihilation's greatest visual trick. "Ultimately, what's most important is that when we smash planets together it looks awesome," he says, and I could see why it took such priority while watching a dwarf planet collide with a primary planet. It takes a while to research the technology that allows you to create such an event, but what an event it is. The soundtrack bursts with anxious violins, a virtual choir belts out its discontent, and hundreds of pieces of the planet's crust burst into the air, laying a once-vibrant landmass in ruin. In the example I watched, that crater then filled with water, making the destruction look all the more dramatic.

A planetary collision is a disaster, but not necessarily the end, presuming your remaining commander was not destroyed in the blast. However, rebuilding becomes a priority, and the newly terraformed planet may force you to rethink your tactics. Luckily, the streaming economy, which doesn't require you to pay for structures up front, helps kickstart that process. Says Mavor, "This lets you queue up dozens and dozens of structures and create deeply strategic, forward-thinking plans on the fly. You boost your build times by acquiring more resources, so as you can imagine, you see lots of fighting around resource hot zones. Players constantly expand so they can fuel their production and eventually travel to other planets to eat up more."

Lest you forget, the smoking remains of the impacted planet are not your only source of raw materials. "Another strategic consideration that's different from other games is that your economy spans multiple planets," says Mavor. "When you own your own planet in Planetary Annihilation, you have an incredible resource that allows you to build massive armies. The strategic implications of exploring the planetary system during a long game is staggering. When players start on different planets it changes the character of the match entirely."

Mavor tells me that Planetary Annihilation is not just a game for nostalgic Total Annihilation fans, but for everyone. The new Galactic War mode in particular sounds like a great place to start, as it is focused not on multiplayer battles or skirmishes versus the AI, but on a procedurally-generated single-player journey that has you earning technology randomly, and more slowly, than in a single match. Those technological limitations sound like a great way to ease in newcomers, so if you were previously too intimidated to take to the stars, now might be the time to plan your voyage.

Uber has yet to finalize a release date, though as is the case with any early access game (or indeed, most modern games), Planetary Annihilation's development will not end when the game is fully released. The team still has a lot in store, though I suspect that this feature-rich RTS game will soon grow out of its current gamma phase, at which point you should look for me on the battlefields. I'll be the one flinging a frightening sphere of doom into your planet's orbit.

Discussion

33 comments
Sozialminister
Sozialminister

I loved Supreme Commander (the first one, not the MOBA fake) and can not wait for this game. If gamers dont buy it they seriously hate innovation.

Pewbert
Pewbert

Whenever I see this game  I always remember how they tried to rip off Steam users by charging $100 for the game because that's what they charged on their Kickstarter (despite reaching their Kickstarter goal!) :D

The community was not happy.

coaltango
coaltango

would be nice to see them at E3

Utahraptor_
Utahraptor_

If it would cool if this game became the Counter-Strike of real-time strategy games.  The RTS has minimal story (just enough to get the game started) and no single-player campaign, but very good multiplayer support.  You could play by yourself versus at least one bot, but the fun is playing with other humans.

wexorian
wexorian

best thing in this game is that you can build rocket engines on meteors and then drop it to planet ,  another great game  from kickstarter.

Tr2et
Tr2et

The planet look a bit small, and to improve overall planet's visual they sarcrifice unit visual, it's not that bad but all look like a LEGO game in the picture.

Those improvements is a great, and fighting between planets remind me of Sins of a solar empire, dont know if there is space battle in it.

I think I will buy it, too bad there isn't Chris Taylor's.


P/s: I do hope there will be some cannon like in Supreme commander that shoot from this planet to another planet.

virtualskill
virtualskill

Wow this looks amazing. My only question: Is this entire game just 1 big zerg? Are there meaningful tactical battles or is it all a numbers game with the only tactic being the direction you attack from?

feathers632
feathers632

first time I've seen it in action.  Surprised by the tiny ball style of maps.  Kind of disappointing to look at.  The entire game is played from that scale eh?  I love the original TA still.

vadagar1
vadagar1

I HUNGER for games like this 



Gazz_mann
Gazz_mann

This game is currently $30 on Humble Bundle.

Rayzakk
Rayzakk

Reminds me of War Planets aka Shadow Raiders.

gp3tron
gp3tron

Man, this game rightfully deserves to be succesful.

Rayzakk
Rayzakk

Down to $29 on steam today.  Regularly $50. Waited and watched for over 2 months for a drop.

Lach0121
Lach0121

This game, Wasteland 2, and Jagged Alliance Flashback are some of my more anticipated games. All 3 were kickstarter projects.

blackothh
blackothh

Im a huge fan of Total Annihilation growing up, Its worth playing even today for anyone who has not tried it and likes strategy games. Everything about it shined, even the music was epic and changed dynamically based on if you are fighting or not. I am a huge fan of Supreme Commander and how well they succeeded at very large scale strategy games and how easy they allowed you to control large scale action.

I am very excited to see Planetary Annihilation get wrapped up in development.  I got my butt kicked in the beta the first few times I tried because you have to defend from all sides because....well......there is no corner of the map. I think the right people are working on a game of this scope.

drysprocket
drysprocket

This-looks-awesome! Thanks Kevin. What a great spin on the genre, I am officially pumped for this. I wonder if there is space combat as well...

Aside from TA, I sounds like they took some minor inspiration from original Dark Reign, in my opinion, the most under rated strategy game of all time. I love that era of RTS. 

MAD_AI
MAD_AI

Definitely looking forward to smashing asteroids into planets. The Creative Assembly should definitely try and make a Total War game in space, with space battles similar to Nexus the Jupiter Incident and ground battles similar to Company of Heroes, that would be my dream come true.

jack00
jack00

It's a little weird the way the camera is, kinda, curved in because of the circular shape of planets. Can't put my finger on it but when I play, I have to put extra focus on what i'm doing :s

vackillers
vackillers

This is going to be one awesome! update.... been waiting for galactic war for quite some time now I just really hope that they've added offline play finally, online I get lots of lag in late games.

Mario_VS_DK
Mario_VS_DK

Planetary Annihilation is a pretty fun game. And I'd expect to be much more fun if I was actually moderately decent at it. 

PodXCOM
PodXCOM

Booo on the "That's no moon" joke! Geez, we get it, we get it! It's from Star Wars.

To me, it's as bad as that "cake is a lie" joke.

tomservo51
tomservo51

those are some tiny planets, more like large space rocks.

pezzott1
pezzott1

@Pewbert I wasn't happy about it either... but i got it today on steam for 30.00 :)

Stebsis
Stebsis

@virtualskill Yeah, zerg is pretty much the best choise always. Just bunker down, make some walls and turrets around yourself and build your forces. The tactical element comes more into play with what and where you build, for example if enemy is focusing on air forces your best bet is anti-air stuff, but if he only has ground forces then AA is pointless, you have to adapt. Also nukes are a big threat so never build your stuff only in a small area. In my opinion PA is at its best in the calm before battle and that's when the important decisions are made, when you're trying to outbuild your enemy or fleeing to other planet to think of different strategy, maybe crash a moon into the planet etc. From my experience the battles usually come into play when you want to end the game

ferna1234
ferna1234

@gp3tron it doesn't have enough Kevin Spacey in its trailer to successful ):

bloody-hell
bloody-hell

@blackothh  So very true, Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander (1, Forged Alliance and the Forged Alliance Forever community maintained one) are my all time favorite strategy games, the sheer scale of the battlefields alone is already worth it.

With Supreme Commander 2 however Chris Taylor made the mistake of accomodating (dumbing it down) to consoles, so I am more than greatful that the minds behind the good old ones are working on Planetary Annihilation - it is getting better and better with every new update.

blackothh
blackothh

@Mario_VS_DK lol i know how you feel, the first guy i played, opened chat and said, just so you know, ive already populated the moon lol!  I had not even advanced to tier 2 yet. 


Its going to take a different way of thinking for me to get better at it.

bloody-hell
bloody-hell

@blackothh I bought the Supreme Commander 2 complete pack in a sale a year after release or so though to satisfy my curiosity, they managed to somewhat save face and the patches and new content made it playable but still it came nowhere near to the level of awesome of Supreme Commander 1.

Planetary Annihilation More Info

First Release on Dec 31, 2099
  • Unix/Linux
  • Macintosh
  • PC