INSOMNIA

Videogame Art: Planetary Annihilation (2014)

By Alex Kierkegaard / December 25, 2014

The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.

Ludwig Wittgenstein


Videogame Art: Volume I

The last proper RTS games I played prior to getting into Planetary Annihilation this past August were Cossacks: European Wars and Age of Mythology in the autumn of 2003. That's an 11-year absence from the genre: had I got bored with it during that long break? Not at all. It was just that in February 2004 I moved to Japan for three years, and naturally enough focused my attention on Japanese console and arcade games during that time. A year later I would start Insomnia, and since I mostly played Japanese action games when I made it, the early years of the site were focused on those genres, which, coupled with the popularity of the Arcade Culture essay, gave people the impression that those were my favorite genres. But this is actually pretty much the opposite of the truth, if you define complex strategy games as the opposite of simplistic action ones (and all action games are, compared to strategy games, "simplistic" to an extent — even the most complicated of them). For my favorite genre since the very beginning of my involvement with videogames has been strategy, and, with the introduction of Dune II in 1992, its real-time subgenre. It was only with the release of Grand Theft Auto III in 2001 that the action genres started realizing their true potential, and it was only then that free-roaming action came to the fore in my playing habits and became my favorite genre. The genealogy of my genre preferences pretty much goes Defender of the Crown, Civilization, Dune II, Grand Theft Auto III, and finally Far Cry 2 (at which point free-roaming achieves its most immersive form by moving to the first-person perspective). And then there's Planetary Annihilation.
   It will be hard explaining why this game stands so high on my list of top 100 videogames [ > ]. Since the strategy genre is actually located pretty low on the tree of gaming, I will have to explain to people how a low-hanging branch on a tree can actually reach higher than a higher-hanging one (when the higher-hanging one is still too young to have attained its full length). Or how a bicycle can, under certain conditions, go faster than a motorcycle (when the bicycle is a modern carbon fiber racing one and the motorcycle is the first or second motorcycle ever built). But let's leave those explanations for the appropriate theory essay, and let's abstain from comparing PA's genre to other genres here. Let's just compare it to other games within its genre in this essay, which is a pretty involved task on its own, as you are about to see, and once we are done with this you should be able to better understand why, as of this writing, I regard it as nothing less than the fourth best game of all time.
   When I finally left Japan in December of 2006 I still didn't get back into strategy, because the 360 and PS3 had just been released, and ushered in a new era of flashy first- and third-person action games which were hard to ignore. I wanted to play Lost Planet and Gears of War on a 100-inch projector screen with other people online, and lacked the attention span — also because of other things going on in my life at the time — to devote the necessary time to properly get back into the strategy genres. But I did keep an eye on what was going on with those genres, and was well aware of both Civ4 (which I've yet to try by the way — it looks awesome), and the then-impending Supreme Commander, which promised to be the be-all end-all RTS for years to come, which is apparently what it indeed ended up being.

   I say apparently because I still haven't properly played SupCom. I did intend to do so before I started PA — I intended to finish both TA's and the two SupComs' campaigns before moving on to PA — but in the end the excitement over the new game won out, and now that I am right in the middle of the latest and greatest I just can't bring myself to put that on hold and go back to exploring the now-laughably obsolete ancient games on which it is based (and believe me, I've tried). I know full well that this contradicts my principles about reviewer expertise, which I expound at length in my Sequel: The Videogame essay, but fuck that shit dude. If it comes down to being either a critic or a player, I am a player first and above all. And that's why I am also the best critic. If due to some idealistic theoretical reasons you manage to quash that desire in you to go for the latest and greatest, it means playing games is not your top priority, and if playing games is not your top priority you can never aspire to be a great critic (or even a merely decent one, in fact). And if you think that my lack of knowledge of TA and SupCom will mean that my analysis of PA will be lacking, watch and learn, young padawan. Read what I have to say, and then good luck trying to find anyone else alive today who has a better understanding of what this game does and where it stands in the context of its genre and in that of videogames as a whole.
   And where it stands is right at the top of almost both categories. This game is an astonishing triumph from which, four full months after I started playing it, I am still reeling. I just passed 200 hours in it, and I think I've scarcely put that much time into all other RTSes I've ever played combined. The only game I've played more than it is probably Civ, and I've no doubt that, in the long run, my total PA playtime will far surpass Civ's — maybe even all versions of Civ combined, including Alpha Centauri. That's how awesome this game is. I almost no longer want to play anything else lol. But let's get back to what was happening in my (gaming) life in 2007.
   In 2007 I spent a year living with my parents in Athens, as a break from my Japanese adventure, and didn't have a PC powerful enough to run Supreme Commander properly, so I didn't even try. In early 2008 I moved to Lyon, France, and spent about a year there, still without a powerful PC, and still concentrating on console and arcade games. In late 2008 I moved to Florence for a few months, living mostly in hotels and hostels, leaching internet access with a MacBook Air which couldn't run games worth a shit, and therefore playing mostly older emulated stuff that works well on a keyboard like the GBA Fire Emblems, etc. And then finally, in early 2009, I moved to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, ordered copies of Supreme Commander and Civ4, among a shitload of other PC games, and started slowly acquiring pieces for an uberPC which... I only ended up building last summer lol. Don't ask why: during that four-year period I spent nearly half a year in a hotel room and moved between four different apartments, all more or less in the same town, until I found an apartment that truly satisfied me. Then I had to go through the trial of getting internet in it, which can be hard in Spain if you don't speak the language and aren't registered as a permanent resident here, and it is only then that I could finally go online, start playing with other people first on XBL and PSN, and then on Steam after ordering the remaining parts for my PC and putting it together.

   So you can see that it was a long and involved journey until I got back into PC games (and I am actually giving you the short version), but it was important for me to explain why I skipped such a milestone title as Supreme Commander. The game sounded insane from the interviews that Chris Taylor was giving back in 2005. I actually had no idea who the dude was at the time, because I also skipped Total Annihilation in '97, which brings us to the beginning of our story, and almost the genre itself come to think of it.
   The RTS genre has three main branches: the Westwood/Blizzard one, the Ensemble/GSC one, and the Cavedog/GPG/(and now)Uber one. That's it: everything else is just a footnote, and indeed until this past August I also thought that the Cavedog branch was also a footnote, but it ended up actually being the main trunk of the RTS tree. How did I commit such a monumental error? I guess you could put it down to my extremely demanding aesthetic standards (what aspies tend to call "graphicswhorism"), and also to the fact that I really didn't get into online gaming until Red Alert 2 in 2000, which means I missed out on the mode of play where the Cavedog-style games shine: their versus multiplayer modes. The Westwood/Blizzard and Ensemble/GSC games have really strong campaign modes, and I was TRAINED by these games (since they did, after all, come out before the Cavedog branch had really appeared or properly caught on) to value the campaigns in RTSes above all else. And, until PA's release, I was even correct to do so: Red Alert 2's MP barely managed to keep me occupied for a few days, and I am sure, from what I've seen of them, that TA and SupCom would not have fared much better. It was only with PA that this changed, and it's part of my goal with this essay to attempt the difficult task of explaining why.
   So, if I remember correctly, I was actually aware of TA's release in '97, or at any rate shortly after. I can't really recall if I actually tried it though. It really was that much of an underwhelming game, at first glance. The box art looked like a piece of bad MechWarrior fan art, the screens looked like a muddy brown mess, the setting sounded utterly uninspired; the game had all the hallmarks of every other throwaway late-'90s early-2000s RTS bandwagon-jumper, and even looked worse than such middling affairs as Warlords Battlecry or Battle Realms, or a ton of other unremarkable efforts I would try for a few hours and then forget. So that's why I didn't try it. Or if I did, I tried it for a couple of hours and moved on. I really can't remember.
   The point is that I missed out on something great, because even TA's campaign, which I tried briefly for a few hours about a year ago, seems like a pretty decent affair. It lacks the cinematic flair of Westwood's and Blizzard's campaigns, but it seems to make up for it with sheer difficulty and mechanical complexity, and even its setting starts to grow on you once you realize how well its minimalist plot development has been pulled off. Its universe is by no means as throwaway as it appears at first, and SupCom's universe and campaign seem to be even better. So not only did I underestimate the Cavedog branch's games in terms of aesthetics, but also as regards their campaigns. The jury is still out on how TA itself measures up next to C&C and AoE, but that judgement will have to wait until PA's spell has been broken, and I can go back to devote some significant time to it.

   Now what happened with PA was this. Esteemed forum member Adjudicator started a thread on the game's kickstarter [ > ], about a month after it had wrapped up, and I mosied on over to the KS page to watch the video of the devs' pitch [ > ]. As has been recorded in that thread for the benefit of posterity, my reaction was cautious but hopeful. I voiced my traditional complaint with the Cavedog branch's aesthetic direction, but remained hopeful of the mechanical aspect. Not too hopeful, however, because the kickstarter video really did suck. Everyone today says it was awesome, and that the game didn't "live up" to it or some shit, but "everyone" is casual, so what the fuck do they know. The ACTUAL game we received makes the kickstarter video look like a Game Boy Advance game. True story. So let's start our examination of PA from the very beginning: let's dissect the kickstarter video.
   On a pure mechanical basis the KS video spectacularly fails to so much as mention any of the game's important new features. It clobbers you over the head, again and again and again, with the "planet-smashing" gimmick, or at any rate quasi-gimmick, which is basically little more than an oversized superweapon. And do you really mean to tell me that the essence of PA, the new thing it has to bring to the table, is merely a stronger nuke? Oh, you casuals! And that's why I didn't get too excited about the game. From the video it's not even clear that the game features strategic zoom at all. Which would make sense since it billed itself (fallaciously and even fraudulently, to an extent) as a successor to Total Annihilation, not Supreme Commander, which didn't have it either. I mean sure, the camera pans and zooms all over the place, but this is merely prerendered CG — it's basically a cutscene. Go watch the SupCom trailer from E3 2006 [ > ] and you'll see how strategic zoom should be advertised. I mean why would you even need it when the game features just a handful of units fighting on a tiny planet — a large asteroid, really — as seen on PA's KS video? So the video spectacularly fails to mention any improvements at all in the main three lines along which the RTS genre has traditionally evolved — size, scale and complexity — and expects everyone to get excited by the fact that a new RTS is coming out which appears to utterly forsake all the advances of its most immediate predecessor — Supreme Commander — and merely gives us battles taking place on a single tiny asteroid, with a second, even tinier asteroid that can be smashed on it at some point. And that's why I didn't get too excited. But the casuals of course lapped it up, and the game got funded.
   Thankfully for us, as it turned out, because unbeknown to me project lead Jon Mavor had given out media interviews and Reddit AMA threads throughout the KS period in which he explained more fully his vision for the game, and answered a ton of player questions, all of which would have covered — and more than covered — most of my concerns, if I had heard about them. It's just that, on the basis of that video, the game did not excite me enough to seek out additional information on it. I merely filed it in the drawer labeled "interesting side-projects in the RTS genre until someone comes along to one-up SupCom", and promptly forgot about it. To give you an idea of how underwhelmed I was about the prospects of the game, consider that I didn't even bother seeking out new info when I heard that the alpha was out and people were actually playing it. I couldn't really give a shit about another RTS that looked like it had a 200-unit limit (which is even a generous conjecture considering what was shown in the KS video), so I concerned myself with other games instead.

   Actually, I did skim a Jon Mavor interview in January '13 [ > ], in which he talks about a million units and 40-player battles that take so long to finish that players switch in rotations to go eat and sleep lol, while the war is ongoing; but I also at the same time came across Chris Taylor's reaction to the game in a Reddit AMA of his own, during the Wildman kickstarter, in which he wished the Uber guys good luck but expressed his disbelief that they could deliver on their promises on a measly budget of two million dollars (while SupCom took upwards of ten). His exact words were:

"I like the video a lot, but beyond that, I'm pretty skeptical... I know what it takes to make an RTS game. TA took 20 months, and I (and the team) worked 7 days a week. SupCom 1 took 3.5 years and cost over 10 million. I don't think they stand a snowballs chance in hell to make that game for 2M."

   So I left the matter at that, and went back to ignoring the game. It just seemed to me at the time like a bunch of dudes overpromising stuff on Kickstarter so they could get their game funded, all the more so since I didn't know any of the names on the team, and wouldn't realize until much later that they did at least have the technical knowledge to deliver on their promises, even if they clearly lacked the resources.
   When, nearly a year and a half later, on July 22 of last summer to be exact, I was about to finally put together my uberPC, the first thing I did was seek out fresh information on the game in order to decide where exactly I should place it on the mental to-play list of my comeback to PC gaming that I was making, and what I found out, literally within minutes, was that it should be number 1. And here I have no better way to convey to you, dear reader, my amazement at what I discovered than to copy-paste my exact words from the forum post I made that day on the subject [ > ] :

"I've just spent an hour or so looking at new videos and reading up on the game. It's not even that I can't believe what I am reading — I can't even believe what I am seeing in actual YouTube footage. I half expect someone at the end of the video to come out and say 'Hahaha, you thought this was real, but it's just a prerendered video we made to take the piss out of you lol'. It really is that good. Or at least it seems that good — because I am finding it extremely hard to believe there is not some catch somewhere in all of this. Every single thing I see or read about the game is a dream come true. I have zero negative things to say about it — and if you've been reading my forum comments for a while you'll realize this doesn't really happen. Even the artstyle and setting are growing on me, and the music, the colors, the unit and building designs, 'Galactic War' lol, everything...
   It's perfect. I have half a Videogame Art review in my head already written and I haven't even played the game. It's going to take an insane exertion of will to keep myself from playing it this weekend when I finally set up my PC. The worst part is that there is no official release date beyond 'when it's done'. How am I supposed to hold myself off from playing it when IT'S SITTING RIGHT THERE ON STEAM and I've no idea when it will be ready? So what I am going to do is start from the beginning of the Total Annihilation campaign, then move on to its expansions, and then the SupComs and their expansions, plus a ton of multiplayer on all of these games, and hopefully all this will keep me busy for a few months until PA is ready. That's the plan at any rate. I've never played any of these games before, so this is the correct way to go about it anyway. I followed the Westwood/Blizzard/Ensemble/GSC branch of the RTS tree, you see, instead of the Westwood/Blizzard/Cavedog/GPG branch, because the original Total Annihilation (where the second branch split off from what I consider the 'main' branch) seemed flat and boring to me at the time, compared to Age of Empires. And it still looks flat and boring compared to AoE, but when I see how far its successors have come, and when I also hear that the original game has been modded to work with high resolutions and 5,000 units caps, lol, I am willing to sit down and give it a serious try. I did play the first 2-3 missions of its campaign on my laptop a few months back, and I was pleasantly surprised by them. It's no Age of Empires, but it's very playable and certainly looks promising."

   I spent the entirety of the next day and many hours over the next week reading through the official PA blog, the PA forums, and all the interviews and AMA threads I could come across, and even registered an account on the official forums [ > ] and started obsessively reading everything in them and posting in them, something I haven't done in a forum outside of Insomnia in years. Naturally enough most of my threads exploded in giant aneurysm-inducing shitstorms, with derailings and lockings and admin-warnings flying left and right, and so on, and all of this has been amply documented in our PA thread here for those morbidly curious enough to look for it; but the point is that my investment in the game reached such a height (with several hundred posts in the PA forum within a mere couple of weeks) that on August 8 I couldn't take it anymore, trashed the plan to play through TA and the SupComs first, as well as my reservations for playing Early Access games at all, and gathered a bunch of people from the forum, started my very own videogame and PA clan [ > ], and launched into several entire MONTHS of some of the best gaming I have ever experienced in my life, a period which is still ongoing, and which I sincerely hope, dear reader, that it will never end.

   So let's get to properly analyzing what this game does that no other RTS has ever done before, and let's trash all casual criticisms of the game in the process for great justice.
   The titular planet-smashing feature, and even the recently added annihilazering, are little more than elaborate versions of superweapons, as I've already mentioned; the real innovations of this game are the following:

1. Spherical battlefields

2. Strategic zoom to a stellar level, as opposed to a mere regional, sub-planetary one as seen in Supreme Commander

3. Multiple fronts (thanks in part to the spherical battlefields, and partly to the multiple planets afforded by the newly introduced stellar systems)

4. A new, fourth layer to add to the previously existing three (land, air and naval): the orbital layer

   and last but by no means least,

5. Infinite everything: infinite units, players, teams, fronts, planet numbers and even planet sizes

   Throw in the revolutionary army-sharing co-op option that was pioneered by the original Age of Empires together with multiplayer lobbies that can accommodate any kind of player setup, from boring outdated 1v1s to 4v4v4v4v4v4v4v4v4s [ > ] to the insane 40v10v13v5v28 games that are already technically possible, or whatever absurd configurations you could come up with, and if you don't already, merely by looking at this list, see why this is the best RTS ever (and indeed the best strategy game ever), then you don't even like strategy at all and are merely confusing it with tactics, like the uneducated mouthbreathing internet shut-in retard that I am sure you are and that you've downright proven yourself to be by your absurdly laughable negative (or even merely lukewarm) judgement on this game. There's no other valid reaction to this game than ecstasy. Either you are ecstatic about it... or you don't like strategy games. That's how much of a monumental masterpiece this game is, so take your pick, and show us your true colors. Psychology doesn't lie, only subhumans do.
   Now, these innovations, these new things that PA brings to the table, are so many (more than any other single RTS has ever brought!), and interact with each other in such complicated ways, that it can be hard getting your head around them and realizing the essence of the game, the real heart and soul of what PA has to offer; of its genius. That's why the casuals reduced everything to "planet-smashing" or, at best, to "spherical maps". These are the aspects of the game that are most immediately apparent to the eye (especially the untrained eye, that's connected to a small and weak brain), and this is why they have dominated discussion about it so far. It is time, however, to leave casual talk behind and start talking about what this game REALLY does. So without further ado I will simply state that the four most important and innovative titles in the history of the genre are Dune II, Age of Empires, Supreme Commander, and Planetary Annihilation, and their major innovations were as follows:

Dune II: Created the genre by fusing the real-time tactics of Herzog Zwei with the real-time "base"-building of SimCity

Age of Empires: Took things to the next level by introducing co-operative play with shared armies between players, thereby allowing for control of much larger bases and armies, just like in real-life, in which no one can possibly hope to effectively manage an entire war effort on his own

Supreme Commander: Introduced a genius user interface which, primarily through strategic zoom, but also through a myriad of other UI innovations, finally made strategic play POSSIBLE in this type of game

   and finally,

Planetary Annihilation: Which removed all arbitrary limits from all aspects of the game, allowing for theoretically infinite scalability in all dimensions, which FINALLY made strategic thinking, not merely possible, but the very CORE of the game, the very factor that determines whether you win a war (a WAR, and no longer just a single glorified battle!) or lose it

   So, reducing the major innovation of each game to a single term, we get:

Dune II: Fusion

Age of Empires: Co-op multiplayer

Supreme Commander: User interface

Planetary Annihilation: Scalability

   So it shouldn't be surprising to find that the devs — or at the very least the game's director — are, unlike the players, acutely aware of this. Quoth chief architect of the future of real-time strategy Jon Mavor:

"Players already have to swallow a lot of complexity to play these games. And I don't ever want to treat players like they are dumb, what I want to do is to give them tools to play interesting games. There are a number of things we are doing with the UI, like the ability to have multiple windows, and auto-labelling of bases — more meta-information at a higher level to give you an idea what is going on. It's going to be more complex than playing on a square map, of course it is, but you can play on one planet if you want to — if you want a 20-minute game just play on a smaller map! Scalability is key to the whole thing."

   And it is only now, once we have finally identified the "key to the whole thing", that we can begin examining each of PA's innovations in turn, and really grasping what they are about, and how they contribute to this "theoretically infinite scalability in all dimensions" that I've been raving about. First and foremost among these innovations, to be sure, is the game's ENGINE, of which no casual player or bad critic or pseudo-critic has yet had a single good word to say. For it is the engine, after all, which makes scalability possible in the first place, whereas all previous RTSes had limits hardcoded into them, and limits which, past a certain point, not even the most dedicated modder could remove without effectively rewriting the game's entire engine from scratch. For it is a million times easier to mod a second faction or special unit abilities or giant experimental units into PA (most of which modders have already done, by the way, and which can be downloaded and played as I write this) than to mod spherical battlefields and orbital layers into AoE or WarCraft 3 or SupCom. The former could be done by a single person in a matter of days, while the latter cannot be done without trashing the games' entire codebases and starting from scratch — which is merely another way of saying that it is impossible. So is PA missing something from an old favorite of yours? Mod it in, or ask a modder — pay him even, if you want it that bad — to mod it in for you; whereas the reverse cannot be done with any of PA's innovations (not with a single one of them!), because all previous games really are that massively inferior.
   Now, as regards the spherical maps, it may be a bit tricky to explain to you how scalability comes into it. After all, I am told that SupCom's largest maps featured more surface area than even some of the largest systems being played in PA today, so why couldn't map size be indefinitely increased while the maps remained flat?
   Well, of course they could. But even the flat map in Civ1 FUNCTIONED, more or less, in a spherical manner, since if you sent some units to the far right of the map they'd disappear and reappear on the far left. So it's not so much that the map HAS to be spherical as in PA, or even be represented via three-dimensional graphics at all, it's more that, as human beings that grew up in the advanced Western culture of 20th-century Earth, we are accustomed to thinking in terms of spherical planets and stellar systems and galaxies when our minds reach for the concept of "spatial infinity", as opposed to a flat surface extending infinitely in all directions while supported on the backs of an infinity of turtles "all the way down", as the humorous popular anecdote that's used to explain to laymen the infinite regress problem in cosmology posed by the "unmoved mover" paradox puts it. So if ancient savages played real-time strategy games, they would undoubtedly have found a SupCom sequel with infinitely extending flat maps more immersive than we do, but since they don't, and since these games are made by us for us, it is only natural that, once we have finally decided to remove all spatial limits from our games, that we would reach for a planetary, a stellar, and finally even a galactic model to represent this (see PA's under-developed and much-maligned, but extremely promising Galactic War mode...)

   So that's why the maps in PA are spherical, and also why a single game can contain more than one of these "spheres" — because in their desire to keep increasing the size of the battlefield the devs naturally copied the manner in which our own universe is structured (much in the same way that Sid Meier copied the evolutionary dimension of reality when he decided to make a game about how civilizations evolve). And that's why strategic zoom goes out to level of the entire stellar system now, and maybe one day, we can hope, even to the galactic one. The engine is certainly powerful enough to handle it: all we need now is the computational power, and the money (hence the player desire) to pay Uber to do it.
   So we've covered 1) the spherical maps, and 2) strategic zoom to a stellar level; let's now tackle the issue of the multiple fronts which, once again, PA was the first to introduce to the genre.
   And here we come upon the subject of the limits of genius. For Chris Taylor was definitely a genius for coming up with strategic zoom (some say he stole it from TA: Spring, but that's debatable since it's not clear if work on SupCom began before Spring demonstrated its initially rudimentary zoom-out feature, which was anyway far more limited than what was used in SupCom, so either way, if CT was not the inventor of the idea he certainly was the man who took it and ran with it, which fact suffices for declaring him a genius, on top of the fact that he made the game that TA: Spring was based on in the first place, and the 3D-centered nature of the latter was therefore inspired by the 3D-directed innovation of the former, which was CT's brainchild), but this is what he had to say about the multiple front issue:

"I've been a firm believer that multiple battlefields is not a good idea. You look at chess and you try to go to 3D chess, it just blows your mind. The brain is powerful, but the brain has limits. Only savant genius type of people can play on multiple boards at once."

   Which may very well be true, but then again it doesn't take a "savant genius" type of person to figure out that, when things get too complicated for a single person to handle, it might be time for that person to look for another person to come in and help him out. In other words, despite the fact that multiplayer has been a feature of RTS games almost since the beginning (Dune didn't have it, but Herzog Zwei did, which is why I say "almost"), and co-op with shared armies since AoE (or since The Settlers in 1993, if you want to regard that game as an RTS, which perhaps you should), Chris Taylor in 2012, when he delivered that snippet, still hadn't caught up to its possibilities. But let's give the man a break. CT didn't make Dune 2 either, any more than he made Herzog Zwei or SimCity: you can't expect a single fuckin' person to evolve an entire genre from beginning to end all on his own, and he's certainly done more than any other single person for it, so let's cut him some fuckin' slack on this, and on any other mistakes he may have made. It's like the feud between Stuart Campbell and Dino Dini: despite what Campbell alleges, Dini is a genius for having made Kick Off, regardless of the fact he made no other decent games in his career. That's all a genius needs to do in order to be declared such: create a single masterpiece; and never forget that all the envious antagonists and resentful bystanders who are trying to tear him down haven't even done that much, and never will.

   So multiple fronts/battlefields are definitely possible, as long as you pair them with multiple players per side (and ideally also with multiple monitors, which again SupCom pioneered, but which once more PA promises to take to an extreme level by allowing, not two of them as in SupCom, but an infinite number of them — an entire bank of monitors of various sizes and resolutions — monitoring different planets, or even merely different sides of a planet or even particular bases or battlefronts of your stellar empire, as long as your computer can handle them of course, in addition to as many picture-in-picture windows per monitor as, once again, your machine can handle); the question that remains is whether they are preferable. And to this I will offer as answer Uber's own attempt at a new RTS, beyond PA: Human Resources [ > ], which was set up to take place on multiple "floating fragments of Earth as they are ripped from the planet". So we see that, even though Human Resources would NOT have featured spherical maps, Uber still couldn't let go of the multiple battlefields feature, and tried to shoehorn it into HR merely because... both players and devs are in love with it and want it in every new RTS from now on, and would dearly miss if it were not there (something which goes for every other of PA's many innovations, as we'll be seeing at length).
   The introduction of the new layer, the orbital layer, meanwhile, is the only area of innovation in which PA doesn't appear to try to expand to infinity, in the sense that the game allows "only" 4 layers instead of an infinity of them. But then again, what other layers could be added? Underground, I guess, and then alternate dimensions? The underground idea is indeed cool and I'd love to see it happen at some point (especially given that I am fairly sure the game's engine can handle it, just as it can handle submarines, which were in the game at some point, but were taken out for some technical reason and will hopefully be eventually reintroduced), but there's no need to go for alternate dimensions before you have expanded to multiple star systems, and ultimately multiple galaxies. As for what an alternate dimension would consist of, it would basically be a battlefield that can be reached only by teleporter; i.e. it wouldn't be reachable via space flight. This would make teleporters and the fighting over them far more crucial than they already are (and they are already very crucial), but considering that some planets in the game are already so large that it is impractical to send ground forces across them by conventional means, and everyone employs teleporters instead, I'd say we really don't need to emphasize teleporter use any more than we already do (and there are even good reasons to de-emphasize it, as I'll be explaining soon).
   But if we disregard the idea of alternate dimensions altogether (which is actually even philosophically absurd, as I've been trying to explain to people on Orgy of the Will for some time now, so for a philosophically astute player it would actually be more immersive to NOT include them), we see that the orbital layer, if we think of it as eventually evolving to a full-blown space layer, which will be easier than it sounds (I think there's a mod-in-progress already that tries to accomplish this), would indeed take the concept of the layer to infinity, since at that point there wouldn't be any location in our universe which couldn't be occupied and traversed by our buildings and armies. The challenge with a full-blown space layer is mainly the UI, as has been pointed out by the devs already, but then again the UI was one of the main challenges of PA as-is, and look at how amazingly well they tackled that challenge and overcame it. So the dudes can do it, and they even WANT to do it, as I'll keep shouting in the faces of the narrow-minded little aspies that populate the official PA forums until I lose my voice from all the screaming. Mavor has flat out stated that he's "not against space warfare at all, just very cautious about it" — as he should be considering the level of challenge it would present, both for the developers and the players — and that he "can see it happening eventually" [ > ]; but when I tried to point that out in the PA forums, the thread got locked lol [ > ]. That's how deep in denial the aspies are living, to the point where they will put words in the mouth of the game's director that flatly contradict what the man has ACTUALLY stated, and that's why the consensus in the forum is that Uber doesn't want to introduce space battles at all in the game, ever. Textbook denial case (which is to say, textbook case of mental malfunction, which shouldn't surprise anyone considering we are talking about aspies).
   Which brings us to the subject of why the aspies are so massively opposed to a full-blown space layer. But if you consider that they are opposed to pretty much anything that adds complexity to the game (which is why they have managed in recent years to nearly kill the RTS genre by reducing it to simplistic arena brawls between two five-unit "armies"), their opposition should no longer seem surprising. As I said to them in the aforementioned thread, "You would have shot down Civilization, Deus Ex, Supreme Commander, and every landmark game in the history of the medium" [ > ], so let's hope Uber realizes that these little fuckwits do not speak for their entire playerbase, and disregards their concerns and forges on with complexifying the game, as much as the market will allow them to. After all, as I again mentioned in that thread, "No one is going to prevent you from playing on a tiny moon with 200 units and tech limits if that's the sort of thing you prefer. But there are already plenty of other games offering that experience. There is nothing that offers the experience that I am asking. Which is why I am asking for it."

   As for the currently existing orbital layer itself, I can't believe that I have to sell it to you guys, but that's how much the videogame-playing crowd has degenerated. It's basically the best thing ever. Remember when battles in Dune 2 consisted of building a bunch of tanks and sending them out to clash with another bunch of tanks in the middle of a desert? That's pretty much all the "strategy" there was in that game; even all the "tactics", almost. It was even a retrogression from Herzog Zwei, in some respects, since there was no naval layer at all in it; but, you know... Dune. Can't have lakes on it, and therefore neither can we have naval units. And that's why we all pissed our pants over C&C and WarCraft II, back in the day (the day in which you hadn't even been born yet, I mean), because they greatly expanded the air layer while also reintroducing the naval one — AND THAT'S WHERE THE GENRE HAS BEEN FOR GOING ON 20 YEARS NOW! So the orbital layer suffices on its own to earn PA the "next-generation RTS" title that Uber has claimed for its game, even if all its myriad of other innovations didn't exist. It is insane what this layer does to the game, how much more complexity and depth, how much pure awesomeness it adds to it, even in this early rudimentary stage, where it barely adds half a dozen new units and buildings to the game. The way PA essentially works, at a more abstract level, is that the commanders land on an uninhabited planet in the middle of a solar system, and start extracting all its metal and pouring it, via the use of energy (which again they have to spend metal to generate), into the world's 4 basic layers. Each layer is a battlefield, a meta-battlefield in a sense, to be fought over, with the goal of penetrating the enemy's defenses in at least one of them in order to reach the commander who's sheltered behind them and destroy him. So even if you are dominating in, let's say, 3 of the 4 layers, as long as an opponent manages to pierce through the 4th layer that you are neglecting, he will fry your ass and win the game. But if you pour all your metal in all 4 layers equally, so as to have all your bases covered, so to speak, your commander will certainly be safe — at least for a while — but you won't be sufficiently strong to pierce through the OTHER guy's defences in any layer (at least not if he's any good at the game and doesn't commit any obvious blunder). And this is where scouting comes in. Scouting is unbelievably important in this game, so important that I can't believe how important it is. Which is why I said it's unbelievable. I fucking hate scouting, and I suck at it because my mind is focused on production first and above all, and every second spent scouting the enemy feels, deep in my gut, as a second taken away from producing a bigger and stronger army with which to crush him. But you can't fucking survive in this game, much less dominate in it, if you are not 100% serious about scouting, precisely because one wrong decision into which layer to pour your metal into can cost you the game in minutes. So, no orbital presence? Then a single orbital laser platform or even merely an orbital anchor can destroy your commander in seconds, even if you have the entire planet covered in wall-to-wall T2 machines. No significant air force or air defenses? 20 T1 bombers will snipe your commander out of nowhere and it's game over. If, on the other hand, you are doing strong scouting, and assuming you have enough build power laying around, you can prepare for almost anything given sufficient advance warning. Right from the first couple of minutes of the game you can tell if an opponent is going for heavy bots or tanks or air, and adjust your own build accordingly, if you are doing a decent scouting effort — while he, in his turn, will be doing the same to you if he's any good at the game, and so on and so forth in a continuous struggle of initiative, adaptation and counter-adaptation to the initiative of others until the end of the game. Supreme Commander had also a strong scouting aspect, as I am told, compared to all other previous RTSes, but with one layer fewer, and a single square battlefield where you pretty much know where your opponent will be (i.e. straight ahead of you), it still remained in the background compared to the traditionally dominant production and fighting aspects of the genre. PA, for the first time in the history of the genre, achieves the incredible feat of putting scouting on an equal basis with any other domain of activity you will be pursuing here. I can't tell you how many games my team and I have lost because I keep underestimating it. Five months in and I STILL forget to build a basic radar when I start a new base, and mentally (and sometimes even verbally) scoff when I see someone taking time off of base-building to fly a Firefly around (or, even worse, an expensive radar satellite), to check on what our opponents are doing. And yet how many times we've turned the tables in a game merely by doing precisely this! It is a giant mindfuck to adapt to this new reality — this new level of complexity that PA introduces — and it makes going back to any previous RTSes an impossible proposition for me. Here is a brand-new skill that I am called upon to develop! Here is a brand-new dimension (and a very strategic dimension at that, since the whole idea of strategy revolves around making far-reaching decisions based on gathered intelligence, which is precisely what scouting is) that I am challenged to master — and you seriously expect me to do anything else when you talk about StarCraft II or whatever than to laugh?

   A funny example of what a huge mindfuck the existence of 4 layers is, and how they interact with the multiple-battlefields aspect that is, again, unique to PA, to create scenarios that no one could have predicted before the game was up and running and we could stumble onto them (they are emergent!), would be what happened in a recent fight between my clan and some Team Burning guys (southern hemisphere represent!) on a war that began on a water planet. After all 4 of us in our team concentrated our efforts into kicking the BRN guys (along with some randoms) from the water planet, we turned our eyes to the moon and the metal planet that they had in the meantime expanded to and now completely controlled, and began thinking about an invasion. And it was then that we realized that all we had were naval units, which meant we couldn't invade shit. What would we send to the moon, after all, a fucking boat? We did have significant orbital presence, however, since we had needed it to capture the water planet (precisely because the BRN guys were good, and countered our huge naval and air fleets with a heavy investment in the orbital layer), so I used that to personally take the gas giant from them, but our invasion efforts on the moon and the metal planet stalled because of lack of foresight, and they ended up frying our water planet with their annihilaser, and winning the game. All those glorious naval victories supported by orbital warfare went in vain simply because we were not prepared for the scope and design of the solar system we were fighting on, causing the BRN guys to outthink us on the strategic level, even while we routed them on the tactical level in every single engagement we fought, out of dozens. Do you see the difference between strategy and tactics now? Do you see how complexity, in the form of all these layers and battlefields that interact to create a gigantic, previously unheard-of possibility space, is precisely what CREATES the POSSIBILITY of strategic thinking in the first place? If you can grasp that much, it shouldn't be much of a stretch for you to grasp that it is no exaggeration to say that Planetary Annihilation is more or less the first REAL real-time strategy game ever. All previous games in the "genre" were merely experiments and rehearsals leading up to it, and all future efforts in the genre will necessarily start out from it and expand from there, if they aspire to be any good. Which is precisely the definition of a masterpiece; what, in this artform, I call Videogame Art.

Planetary Annihilation is Insomnia's 2014 Game of the Year.


To be continued in Part II...