You know that movie where the villain challenges James Bond to play a weird proto-RTS on his weird seventies-punk brass and wood games console? Where they're slinging nuclear missiles at each other in a bizarre wireframe war simulator that was occasionally reminiscent of a cross between Populous and Tempest?
Did you ever want to play that dorky game (without the electric shock bit, of course)? Going mano a mano with a sharp-suited villain with only your wits and an armload of thermonuclear devices to your name? Well, here it is.
Note that, in order for this to work, the supervillain is not optional. Planetary Annihilation is a game built for multiplayer. There is a tacked-on single player campaign, but the AI is simultaneously too brilliant and gobsmackingly stupid, both making it a less than stellar experience. Trust me, multiplayer is where it's at. Preferably in a Monte Carlo casino, before an audience of enraptured beauties with enormous hair.
It's a game of system-wide futuristic conflict. A planet (or planets) orbiting a star, and each player starts with a single battle/construction droid akin to a Transformer. Using this cyberdude to create base facilities, mine deposits and establish defences, you'll soon find yourself with far more to do than the human mind (or hand) is capable of doing. But it's okay, because so does the other guy. You can't be in two places at once, and neither can he, so as you build up your forces in mostly-typical RTS style, he might well be duffing up your troops on another front. Possibly even on another planet.
Terrain is of course a factor, but the main thing that made me smile is how destroyed buildings provide their own cover. Move your units up in the shadow of a previously shattered vehicle factory, and the enemy turret behind it can't target you properly. Surprisingly clever stuff, and certainly something that leaves battlefields littered with the dead ruins of nuked buildings.
The point of all this seems to be to have no realistic ceiling to a player's skill. No matter how good you are, and how fast you make decisions and navigate the maps, you'll never be fast enough to do everything as fast as you want. There's really no sitting around. There are factories to be constructed. Units to be upgraded. Factories to be ordered to build stuff. Then, when you inevitably run out of energy or metals (and you WILL. Frequently), you'll need to keep your construction guys cranking out the necessary stuff.
Unit upgrades are selected before the main confrontations, in a kind of galactic minigame, which is actually just more like a couple of random choices made before a match (representing you travelling to other star systems and downloading data on different troop and building types). Once you face off against your enemy, these choices allow you more and better units of a certain type, thus ensuring a little variety in each match. You might fill the heavens with orbital weapons platforms capable of blasting clusters of enemies into oblivion, or you may rely on heavy artillery bots and aerial attack flyers to pound your enemy's defences. Or, naturally, you might work your way up to the big stuff, and then unleash nuclear or even planet-busting devastation on your foe.
The goal is simply to destroy your enemy's commander unit, so it's perhaps entertaining overkill to just destroy the entire planet he's on in order to win the game. But even if you go for an old-fashioned laser to the face, he still seems to be loaded with so much explosive fury that his death is always a particularly dramatic event.
Planets themselves are pretty tiddly as these things go, but a decent size for a multiplayer arena. With a couple of well-placed radars, you can zoom out and spin the globe well enough to work out where your major avenues of attack and trouble spots are likely to be. Some things are a little confusing, however - units can pile up on top of one another and make it pretty difficult to tell what's going on, and until you learn what each unit's icon look like, zooming out doesn't always make things much more useful. On one battle I manage to completely lose my commander amid the high-tech junk I'd spammed around the planet.
The learning curve is pleasingly steady. As you play through battles your ability to take in the massive amount of real-time data and parse out what really matters grows steadily until, like all good MP games, it begins to feel simple. Well, perhaps not exactly simple, but like you know what you’re supposed to be doing, and how to go about doing it. Graphically it’s sort of simplistic – slightly cartoony, even – but the whole feel of the thing is that, in the long run, none of it matters. While single-player campaign modes open up new options for later games, it’s all basically a tutorial for the multiplayer, and skirmish mode quickly becomes the go-to option.
It’s not cynical to say that Planetary Annihilation was built from the ground up as an e-sports option. As such, it’s not really designed for mellow, thoughtful play at home so much as overly frenetic, WMD-laden violence before an army of screaming South Koreans. It has certainly learned the lessons of past MP giants, but whether it is really going to conquer that demanding arena or sputter like a damp squib is hard to predict. As a game in its own right though, a lot of what you’re doing is standard RTS stuff, only simultaneously on a series of spherical maps, which adds dramatically to the challenge.
Oh, and with the ability to destroy entire planets just to get at one guy. But without that, I guess they’d have to change the name.