Planetary Annihilation Goes Round and Round

The biggest mistake the devil ever made was agreeing to play God, one on one, on an eight player Total Annihilation map.

-Commander Söze

Origins

In the beginning there was Total Annihilation.

This was not the first RTS game I played, but it was the first of what I consider the three great games of the RTS genre.

The other two are StarCraft and Age of Empires II – The Age of Kings.

There have been other good… even very good… titles in the genre.  But for me, these are the crown jewels that defined the genre.

StarCraft showed that very different factions could be brought together to form an almost zen-like rock/paper/scissors balance that required serious unit management skills to excel at.

Age of Kings brought that sort of balance to medieval armies, advancing at a slower pace.  It reflected the real world aspect of cavalry vs. infantry vs. ranged, with siege engines in tow, forcing players to adopt a combined arms strategy to survive and win.

But before those two there was Total Annihilation, which brought chaos and mass slaughter.

TA wasn’t balance.  The ARM ruled the early game with the Flash tank and the Peewee rush.  Cavedog eventually had to give the CORE a unit whose only purpose was to kill Flash tanks and Peewee kbots.

It had a pretty bad, or at least not a very creative, single player campaign.  Resources were simplistic, just power and metal.  The UI was somewhat primitive compared to its contemporaries.

It was a resource hog that needed a couple of generations of CPU upgrades before it would run smoothly.  The music was literally in the standard CD format, you could pop the game disk into your boom box and listed to the sound track.

And yet it was wonderful, a synthesis of a number of ideas put together in just such a way as to make a great game.  Probably one of the greatest things the game did was make terrain matter in new and interesting way.  Maps were 3D and heights could give you range in shooting or something to hide behind when fire was incoming.  And then there was the whole modability aspect of the game.

Probably the greatest testament to TA is the fact that, while Cavedog Entertainment has been dead and gone for nearly a decade and a half, Total Annihilation still has a pretty strong and dedicated community still supporting it.  You can still buy a copy over at GoG.com, and it runs great on today’s machines.

Total Annihilation

The Atari logo is a recent addition

Its main problem is that it was designed when multiplayer meant friends on a LAN, so being able to play over the internet requires effort.  You need some network know-how or something like Game Ranger to help you out.  So the idea of bringing the game into the 21st century is a compelling one.

More after the cut because of wordiness.

Attempts at Replication

While there are still many people who love TA, there has also been a current for years wondering if somebody couldn’t just recreate it with some more modern amenities.

Like many, I love to go back and play TA, but finding the mods and updates and additional units and decent AIs is something of a chore.  There is a dedicated community, but people come and go, sites flourish and then disappear, and so it is always a bit of a challenge to do anything beyond the base game.

So there have been attempts to create a spiritual success.  There was Supreme Commander back in 2007, and Supreme Commander 2 in 2010.  Both of those were good games in their own way, but neither of them seemed to capture the essence of Total Annihilation for me.

It is difficult to explain why that is.  It is like trying to explain why, when two people play a piece on the piano, and both are technically competent and make no errors, one performance speaks to you, moves you, while the other might as well be coming from a music box.  I am sure lots of people felt one or both of those titles were acceptable substitutes for Total Annihilation, but it was not the case for me.

And there is evidence supporting my case.  Certainly neither title killed off the TA community and, just two years after Supreme Commander 2, there was a Kickstarter launched to fund yet another attempt to create a successor to TA.

That was the Planetary Annihilation Kickstarter.

I was not convinced that they could necessarily make such a thing, no matter how much old school talent they brought together.  If nothing else, programmers and designers like to improve things, move things forward, prove that they can do things better, so simply remaking a game from a past decade was unlikely to happen.

Still, it was worth it for me to kick in a bit of cash to see what came of it.  So I did what I usually do with these sorts of things, I pledged just enough to get myself of full copy… $20 was the toll… and then I pretty much ignored the whole thing, waiting for somebody to send me my Steam key so I could download the finished product and play.

Kickstarting project take note on this.  I don’t really want to have to create an account, get a token, join the forums, open a ticket, and jump through whatever other hoops in order to eventually get my ticket punched so I can have a Steam key.  Hidden Path Entertainment did this right with Defense Grid 2, Steam keys just showed up in my email when things were ready.  Uber Entertainment made this a mild pain in the ass.  Eventually I got it straightened out, but I think it was a bad plan to start with. (Along with undercutting my $20 pledge two years down the road by offering the game for $17 at the Steam Summer sale before the game has even officially launched.)

Anyway, two years after pledging, and just a year after they promised to ship the game, I finally had Planetary Annihilation downloaded and ready to play.

Annihilation Is Us

So there it was.

Annihilate this!

Annihilate this!

I spent a good chunk of the past week or so playing Planetary Annihilation, and I can say that Uber Entertainment got a lot of things right in trying to bring the Total Annihilation formula forward.

The basics are all there.  You start with your both powerful and impotent commander who starts off by himself to create your army from scratch.  He comes in a few forms now.

Just one of the commanders

Just one of the commanders

There are the usual forms of combat units, vehicles, kbots, aircraft, and ships. Resources are still just metal and energy, and metal is still the scarce resource on most maps, leading to conflict over those nodes.

Building a metal extractor

Building a metal extractor

You have to build the first tier vehicle production units in order to build advanced factories in order to get to the really big stuff.

The enemy commander is still your main target.  Commanders are incredibly tough, and chewing them up with low tier units requires mass waves as he will rapidly one-shot your units as they get within range.

Chasing down a hostile commander

Chasing down a hostile commander

And, of course, destroying the enemy commander wins you the game.

And he goes boom!

And he goes boom!

As you can see… well, you can if you know what the unit designations are… I got in there with my own commander once his was worn down to finish off the job.

Just about all the stuff you would expect.  The core of a Total Annihilation remake is there.

The New Stuff

There are a number of new things.  For example, rather than there being an uninteresting static single player campaign, there is now a single player dynamic campaign, which basically trades whatever minimal story there was in the original for some repeatability in play.  Sitting down for the first time with a game, the campaign usually sits in as a tutorial as well, introducing the player to the game.  The dynamic campaign has some rather limited instructions, after which you are tossed into the game to sink or swim.

What? You want more?

What? You want more?

So, that isn’t your tutorial.  Rather it is more of a dynamic encounter system that makes you discover technologies as you fight your way from one start system to another.

Galactic War

Galactic War

In this the campaign is almost Rogue-like in its randomness.  Sometimes you get an empty system right at the start that unlocks all your advanced unit technology, which sort of removes the challenge of finding and balancing techs, and sometimes the only choice on your first system is to go up against another commander with very limited tech on your side.  It isn’t all that satisfying, or at least not much more than just running a few skirmishes against the AI instead.  But, if you want an ongoing campaign, and are not too picky, it is there for you.

Then there are the units.  While they come in the usual flavors, the variations have been pared down quite substantially.  While only Bizarro would complain that Total Annihilation did not have enough units… and there was a lot of overlap and units that were only good in very specific circumstances… it did feel like you had a big toy chest to work with.  I can see part of this as an attempt to make choices both easier and more meaningful.  A Peewee rush and a Flash tank rush were about the same thing, unless there were terrain considerations.  But when you play the Galactic War campaign and don’t have kbots or aircraft or advanced units, you can really feel the hole in your lineup if things don’t line up right.

The biggest change to the game is that you do, in fact, play on planets… or moons… or whatever.  There is no rectilinear map with hard boundaries, instead you play on a sphere.  This has its pluses and minuses.

From a tactical flexibility, it is much more difficult for your foe to turtle up in a corner.  You can come at the enemy from all sides as you range out from your own base.  All directions lead right back where they started eventually.  Your flanks are never secure and the need for situational awareness is increased.

Fighting on a ball in space

Fighting on a ball in space

That said, the whole globe thing makes me dizzy.  When I was playing on Sunday I was getting over a bit of a head cold and motion of the globe thing was giving me a bit of vertigo, to the point that I had to go do something else for a while.  I am generally not subject to motion sickness in such games, but PA managed to find a way to get me there.

But even after I was over that, I found fighting on a sphere problematic.  In order to keep the game manageable in size, the ball your are playing on has to be limited in size.  But that puts the horizon pretty close to you, no matter where you have your camera.  You cannot take in the whole map in one glance.

I also found myself getting lost with the camera.  While there is a “north,” on moving the camera around I would often lose my sense of orientation and with that where I needed to be looking.  The freedom of direction the sphere allows also means a freedom from easy reference points and directions.  The one thing the camera wouldn’t do by default was rotate through the north pole of any sphere.  That seemed to mean that the AI would pick that pole for a base because moving the camera through there was difficult.

All in all, I am somewhat mixed on the whole “fighting on a ball” aspect of the game.  I can see the advantages, but I cannot quite get my mind around it yet.

And then there is moving from planet to planet.  There is a whole space born aspect of the game that is new and which I have not yet come to grips with.  There can be multiple planets in a system.  In one Galactic War campaign I landed on the wrong planet and found myself alone.  You can build a whole satellite and transport system to get yourself to other planets, but before I could figure that out the AI dropped on my planet and finished me off.  Still work to do there.

Falling Down

And then there is what got missed or what just pissed me off.

I was a little annoyed that, on launching the game for the second time, Uber Entertainment essentially held the game hostage until I linked my Steam account to their service.  This goes back to the whole “I just want my damn Steam key, I don’t want to be part of your development process or multi-level marketing scheme.”  Of course, I did not remember the account details, as I only set it up and jumped through their hoops so I could get my Steam key and leave all of that crap behind.  That isn’t actually a game mechanic, but it did piss me off a bit and wasted a chunk of my time.

The UI is something of an improvement over the original game in many ways, yet I feel like I am not getting enough information from it at the same time.  The whole “UI in blue” idea is just one of those science fiction game tropes that doesn’t work for me.  The info about units at the bottom of the screen is small and tough for me to read, being blue on black.  It works in its own way, but isn’t as legible or effective as the original game.  Add in the whole sphere thing and the game starts to give me eyestrain and a headache if I am not careful.

Looking at a ball

Looking at a ball

Meanwhile, the big miss in the whole thing is the terrain.  One of the greatest things that Total Annihilation did was allow for terrain of varying heights.  Altitude could bestow an advantage when firing or observing.  Holding the heights, or building a Big Bertha or Intimidator on a high point with a clear field of fire, could completely change the course of battle, while having a wall or a hill to hide your production behind could keep you in the battle even when things were turning against you.  Using cover to approach the enemy wasn’t just a viable tactic, it could be a required tactic in the late game.

Maybe I just haven’t played on the right planets yet, but in Planetary Annihilation, all of that seems to have been left behind.  Terrain looks to have two heights, passable lowland and impassible rises.  This brings us back to the whole unit thing in the last section.  Kbots used to be the all-terrain answer to difficult terrain that wheeled or tracked vehicles could not negotiate.  You traded some survivability to be able to go up a hillside or around a pass that was heavily defended.  Kbots can still move under water, but otherwise they seem to have lost some of their bite, becoming cheap fodder.

Now, I know that there were any number of oddities back in TA when it came to terrain, but the whole 3D aspect of it was one of the pillars of the game, one of the things the genre had totally missed up until that time.  Making a spiritual successor to TA and not having the 3D terrain seems like a horrible oversight.  Did I miss this somehow?  Have I simply not played the right maps?  This is such a big deal to me that I am totally willing to accept I just haven’t seen it yet rather than believe that Uber thought it was a feature to pass on.

Good or Not?

The problem with all of this is that it is as much about memories and emotions as it is about game mechanics and implementation.  Total Annihilation is up there with classic EverQuest, early TorilMUD, Air Warrior, Wizardry, and any number of seminal gaming experiences that formed me and my outlook on gaming.

I am about 8 hours into playing the game.  Enough to form opinions without feeling like I have seen it all.

The game has merit.  It seems to run well on my system.  It does capture some of the chaos and mass unit warfare of the original.  The whole commander unit idea is still sound, and I still like that killing him off is your objective.  All in all, it is fun.

But is it Total Annihilation?

So far, no.

Does it have to be Total Annihilation?  Is it even fair to expect it to be?

Probably not on both cases.  But when you invoke the name and spirit of the old game, you should certainly expect to be measured against it.

The world has changed, games have changed, hardware has changed, graphics have changed, connectivity has changed, and I have changed since 1997.

If I had never seen, never played TA, I would no doubt react differently to this game.  It lives in the shadow of the original.

I don’t hate Planetary Annihilation, but I also feel like something is missing, though I would be willing concede the missing bit is as much me as the game itself.

I will still play it some more.  Maybe I just haven’t found the spark yet.

One thought on “Planetary Annihilation Goes Round and Round

  1. Jacob

    Great Review.

    I tend to agree with almost everything you said. I bought the game because TA! And the concept of extending it sounded very cool.

    What I actually found was that:
    A. I had trouble adapting to the round world, constantly getting “lost” trying to find my units or the enemy’s attacking units, or his base etc…
    B. The space orbital and landing stuff just added more things I needed to pay attention to, and I really couldn’t pay attention to that many things all at once, always leaving something either idle or undefended.

    All this is probably a referendum on my age, since my 9 year old son seems to be much better at the game than I am.

    Like

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