As a self-described “tactics and wargamer”, I tend to focus my energy on games that put their emphasis on unit control, e.g. “micro” over economics, e.g. “macro.” I have nothing against macro, per se, but personally feel that smashing tanks or alien bugs or what have you into other tanks and alien bugs is considerably more fun than building up production facilities or managing income vs expenditures. Having spent time playing games on every point of the RTS spectrum, I was finally confident that I could say I vastly preferred the Relic approach to the Gas Powered Games/Cavedog approach – a deep unit interaction model and tactical focus was the way for me.
Thanks to an innocent straw poll, and my own laziness, that assertion was shaken to its foundation (though perhaps not entirely invalidated).
I’ve been watching Planetary Annihilation since the very beginning. The day its kickstarter was announced, I backed the game. With team members whose work experience reached back to Supreme Commander and even the original Total Annihilation, and promising the ability to fight instanced real-time strategy battles that spanned multiple planets and even allowing players to smash those planets into each other, just seemed like too awesome of a premise to not be made real.
Of course, a multitude of people agreed with me and the game was funded. From there, it dropped off my radar until the game’s “Gamma” phase, to which I was invited as a backer. I played for a couple of hours, and let the game fall to the wayside, promising to come back when it was more polished. This process of picking the game up and inspecting, only to let it fall by the wayside, continued until the Galactic War update, where I spent about 20 hours getting elbow-deep in the game’s mechanics. I liked what I saw well enough, but made a cardinal mistake – during this first in-depth look, I never summoned the courage to actually play mano-a-mano against another player. Without the safety net of matchmaking or the ego boost of a ladder, 2v2s and free-for-alls were more comfortable.
Which brings me back to Monday (1/5/2015)
One of my resolutions for this year is to focus on solo matchmaking in the games that I play. From AirMech to Company of Heroes to StarCraft 2, I’ve drifted away from the bread-and-butter of virtually every competitive strategy game. That is, 1v1. I spent most of 2013 and 2014 hiding behind other players in team games, allowing myself to carry other players to victory (or, more often, to be carried myself) in shared-responsibility scenarios.
Towards that end, I posted a poll on Monday morning asking my twitter followers if I should play (and stream) either AirMech, Company of Heroes 2, StarCraft 2 or Planetary Annihilation. I had assumed that StarCraft would be the easy victor there, and really only threw in AirMech and Planetary Annihilation on a whim. In the end, though, PA won by a landslide, garnering almost 50% of the votes from my followers. I was flabbergasted and a bit taken aback – I’d not played 1v1 in this game since the Gamma, since the game was in an unfinished state. I almost scrapped the poll in exchange for returning to my comfort zone – Company of Heroes 2, but I have to say I’m quite glad I didn’t.
I loaded up that first match all aquiver with fear. It has been months since I played Planetary Annihilation, and longer since I’ve spent considerable time playing games of Total Annihilation’s bloodline. I had a real concern that I wouldn’t be prepared for the sorts of economic calisthenics I’d be asked to perform. Turns out, I was very nearly right: I made a couple of key and incredibly laughable mistakes that easily could have cost me the match, including but not limited to forgetting to build orbital radar or umbrellas (which is a structure that can attack objects in orbit). But, surprisingly to myself, I had fun.
More than that, I had a crazy amount of fun. I had so much fun, that my very assurance that I was, in fact, tired of “macro” focused RTS was shaken to its core. That match left me wanting more. More delicious 1v1 across solar systems, more endless Von Neumann inspired expansion and destruction, more smashing planets into other planets. That one sloppy, exhilarating match just got me hooked in a way that dozens of hours of skirmishes, Galactic War and free-for-alls hadn’t.
For RTS games, mechanics make or break the game, and Planetary Annihilation has some truly beautiful mechanics. The obvious one here is that game ‘maps’ can encompass multiple worlds – literal planets and moons (albeit often pretty dinky). The configuration of these systems (“systems” is the game’s parlance for the play area in any given competitive match) can drastically alter the strategies either available to or required by the players. Single planet systems with no satellites are often intimate affairs, with Orbital tech, Unit Cannons (which can fire a dozen or more units anywhere in a system) or tactical nukes playing a more limited role and tech such as Halleys entirely useless.
The methodology of play on a single planet system is drastically different than even a system that includes a single satellite (e.g. moon). Single planet systems feel more like Supreme Commander matches played out on a ball. The implications of playing on a sphere rather than a 2d box are interesting – though difficult – to wrap one’s head around. It eliminates “turtling” near an edge of the map – all angles of attack are open, always – and forces the player to actively engage with the game in order to keep up with action on various areas of a planet. Simply keeping up with what’s going on within the bounds of a single planet is an active process, which I greatly appreciate.
System configuration can drastically change how matches play out. Starting alone on an island moon, with your opponent on another, instantly means that Orbital and inter-planetary tech will be integral to the game. All of a sudden, ridiculous but insanely fun options like dropping nukes or sending an entire planet hurtling towards your opponent open up.
The intense divide between the Orbital layer and the surface of the planet is endlessly fascinating to me, despite or perhaps entirely because of how difficult and disjointed it is from the rest of the game. Keeping tabs on Orbital, fighting not only on multiple planets but within a realm almost entirely divorced from the rest of the game, is challenging and engaging in a very unique way.
The depth of the tech tree in this game is quite different from Supreme Commander. There are no “Experimental” units, no “sub commanders.” Tier 1 units are not obsoleted at any point, and there’s no counter play between artillery and shields. The ground combat in PA is more focused, more structured to me than that in Supreme Commander, given additional complexity through the complications of establishing a beachhead on an enemy planet and the impact of orbital tech.
Despite the “omission” of things like shields and experimental units, I vastly prefer the unit dynamics in PA to those in Supreme Commander. The Tier 1/2/3 dynamic in SupCom feels unwieldy to me compared with the more focused nature of tier 1/2 in PA. Tier 2 units in PA perform vastly different functions to Tier 1 units, making Tier 2 feel more supplemental that supplanting Tier 1. Tier 2 also (at this early point in my career) feels like a more meaningful choice in the game, due to its general availability being later and overall cost creating more scarcity of T2 units. I think in this case, my personal opinion would be that being “simpler” works to the advantage of Planetary Annihilation.
Orbital provides a more… intimate scale to a game otherwise obsessed with its own size. The choices surrounding Orbital tech are meaningful and difficult and add a feeling of tension and gravitas to what would otherwise be a game of percentages and degrees and pure efficiency. Fighting for Orbital dominance even on a single planet is a game within the larger game, a tactical slugfest on top of the strategic and economic scrabble for resource domination. Orbital, as weird as it is to say, is the lynchpin around which my interest in this game hangs. Despite my fervent desire to see interstellar warships, the very nature of Astreus (orbital transport), Anchor (orbital turrets), Avengers (orbital fighters) and the tenuous ground-based counters (umbrellas and Orbital Radar) are a frustrating and deeply important aspect of playing this game.
I need to impress upon you that Planetary Annihilation has hooked me. It’s hooked me despite having a user base that I’d normally consider to be worryingly small. It’s hooked me despite crashing on me in skirmish matches. It’s hooked me because it has tied the focused unit list and intimate/tactical nature of its Orbital mechanic to the economic and strategic Total Annihilation style ground/air/sea game. I gave Planetary Annihilation another chance after spending hours in emotional detachment and obstinate frustration (despite this game doing exactly what I say that I want, and trying new things in the RTS space) and found that it won me over in spite of myself.
And I will –not– tell you how many Commanders I have bought.