This world is my weapon: PAR plays Planetary Annihilation
The first moment of awe in Planetary Annihilation involves nothing more than shadows. You're stuck to the side of a round, spinning ball of rock and metal orbiting a star as the match begins. Sometimes there are asteroids, planets, and moons nearby.
The shadows of your units will stretch long as the sun rises and recede as the sun rises higher into the sky. The way the lights impacts the appearance of the units reminds you that the planet you're on isn't the level. The whole solar system is, and that's a realization that changes the entire tone of the game.
The Planetary Annihilation Kickstarter launched last year and raised over $2.3 million, more than double its fundraising goal. Even so, Uber Entertainment is trying to make an ambitious game with a modest budget. The good news is they seem to be well on their way.
The grand stage
Planetary Annihilation is a real-time strategy game in which you collect resources so that you can construct more buildings and produce more units. It's the same basic formula that has fueled the RTS genre for decades. That catch is that levels aren't 2D maps ala Command & Conquer, but are entire 3D solar systems full of planets to conquer.
There was never anything wrong with real-time strategy games, as the size of StarCraft 2's audience will attest. They just lacked innovation and gamers got bored of the same-old, same-old. Planetary Annihilation puts that same gameplay into a whole different environment, and it changes the feel of the game in the same way Super Mario Galaxy evolved the platformer with nothing but one drastically new idea: to make gameplay environments truly three dimensional.
Planetary Annihilation does essentially the same thing: levels aren't flat anymore, they're spherical and you can move from one sphere to another. It may not sound like much, but the play now feels current, alive, and fresh.
The greatest achievement of the game in this early beta stage is simply the feeling of being in a solar system. You don't feel like you're on a 2D StarCraft map, instead you feel as if you're on a planet, and you have the capability to engulf that sphere or move to another. There is something intrinsically satisfying about filling out the entirety of a planet with your machine of war before moving onto the next one; this is the strategy gaming version of manifest destiny.
You can even control nearby asteroids and moons and use them as weapons if you please if the game lasts long enough. Zoom out enough and you'll see the massive sun in the sky appearing, from your vantage point, to orbit your planet.
You may be stressed with decision making and unit preparation, but it's worth taking the time to sit back every now and then and appreciate the scale of the game.
This world is mine
That sense of scale is what's most impressive about Planetary Annihilation. Even when the match is only beginning and the only unit you have is your commander who will build your first structures, the planet just calls out for a massive World War.
It's surprising then that many matches don't fulfill that promise. I saw small scale skirmishes more often than I saw planet-spanning global super conflicts. This is a tight, strategic game where it's important to scout your opponent and devise a build that's safe from early harassment. It's not only about massive interplanetary wars.
Occasionally you're placed on the same planet and duke it out in these sorts of fast battles, but at other times you'll find yourself across the solar system. Those are the epic matches where you spend twenty minutes just building up your planet, strip mining it of all its metals and building massive defensive and offensive forces as you reach up into orbit planning your route across the skies to crush your enemies.
There's the sense, and Uber Entertainment has echoed this on live streams, that these commanders are going from system to system just strip mining for the purpose of war and at times obliterating entire solar systems in their all consuming need to destroy the other side of the conflict. It's not an all-together comfortable feeling, and it's weird to see untouched environments only to begin thinking of how they can be torn apart for the greater good of your war machine.
What's old is new
There's still a ways left to go in the game's development. The beta only recently implemented the game's main selling point: the ability to crash asteroids and moons into player-inhabited planets. I wasn't nearly good enough to accomplish that goal, nor was a I good enough to survive in a long game that would reach that point of technology.
Still, it's exciting that Planetary Annihilation's lofty ideas actually work. The proof of concept is here, and now it is time to sand down the edges.