Planets-Under-Attack-Review Planets Under Attack Review

   19/10/2012 at 17:44       Chris Grapes       2 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
 - Tower Defence, PC, XBLA, Targem Games, TopWareInteractive

You ever have a dream where you're being swarmed by ants or wasps or something, some kind of bug, crawling all over your face and wake up still convinced they're all over you, throwing the blankets off in a start?


Must be just me then.

Anyway. Swarms. Planets Under Attack is a game about swarming. Swarming with tiny bug-like ships (or bug-like robots, or bug-like aliens. Bugs. Over your face). The basic gameplay is this: you control planets. Planets slowly generate ships. To attack and conquer other planets, you simply flag them by holding down the left-mouse button to select the number of ships to send (which are then taken from all planets not set to defend). And those ships often number in the hundreds. Swarms, see?

It starts off as a numbers game - a planet with seventy defending it can be captured by seventy one ships (albeit leaving only one solitary ship defending it, problematic if you're counter-attacked). But as you progress through the game, additional nuances show up. Planets can be switched between ship production, cash production, or act as a sentry turret that shoots down enemy ships within its range. Planets can be upgraded to hold more population or shoot faster. Some planets become only accessibly by certain angles and certain times, protected by an orbiting ring of asteroids. Some planets have map-wide orbits, which could send vulnerable planets closer to enemies. As you win battles and level up your rank, you unlock techs - effectively stat boosts - that can give you an edge in various ways. Faster, but less powerful ships? Faster population growth but slower cash income? Sentry guns that shoot slower, but also slow down enemy ships? It becomes too much to really all take in quickly. It's a game that (at least in single-player mode) would hugely benefit from a pause mode that allows you to take stock of things and issue orders. When you're balancing more than half a dozen planets against multiple enemies, tactics tend to take a bit of a back seat to just swarming everything with gigantic numbers of bugs (I don't care that they're ships. They're bugs to me. BUGS). The tutorial also doesn't explain things too well - the broader game concepts like having to spend cash to attack aren't detailed until later on yet still apply from the get-go, which makes the first few missions frustrating as you try to work out why you're unable to attack in numbers. It's a bit like juggling plates - keeping an eye on all of them, seeing if you have the resources and time to spin another without everything crashing down and shattering on the floor like a Greek piss-up.

You're presented with one single-player campaign, and two playable races (human and robot, though the main campaign is almost wholly human) - along with AI skirmish and online multiplayer. Both races handles slightly differently (robots sacrifice ships to upgrade planets, can "charge" planets to increase the combat capabilities of its ships, and directly attack from specific planets, but it doesn't change a great deal overall). With regards to the campaign, it's taken a Goldeneye-esque approach with the difficulty - extra (though not mandatory) objectives at higher difficulty levels (such as don't lose more than two planets, win in a certain timeframe, kill 500 enemy ships, etc) grant you stars, which unlock additional levels. Difficulty is relatively balanced - you'll plough through easy with nary a loss. Medium is pretty balanced. Hard is...well, it's hard, and in good ways (AI is more effective, enemy planet strength is hidden). But the main problems come from predictability and pointless game-modes. Aside from a single example which I'll discuss later, regardless of what the actual game-mode is (capture certain planets, capture and hold a single planet, point scoring etc), it's almost always easiest and simplest to just wipe everyone else out instead. It's also one of these games that's almost impossible to come back from a certain point. On quicker games you can usually work how it's going to go in just a few minutes, if not sooner, and it's often easier to just restart than see it out. The reverse is true too - sometimes it's clear you're going to dominate the entire map in quick order, making it a bit boring to sit through the rest. Of course, there are exceptions to both - sometimes it is easier to play the game-mode as intended, and sometimes it becomes a tug of war fight right down to the wire, but these are far from the norm. There are also a few boss battles that make quite a change - giant planets with defense in the high hundreds, with occasional super-attacks that wipe planets down to zero, or capture the planet outright, converting the existing population to the enemy, or other random effects. But these too are mostly "get massive population, swarm and overwhelm". Just like my nightmares. It's still fun though - there's something inherently machismo about bashing the living arse out of all and sundry with a force larger than the US deficit. That's some political humour for you there.

Special mention should go, however, to the payback levels, where you are constantly under attack by an undefeatable foe - the only way to win is to generate cash to pay them off. You do this by running from planet to planet, capturing and abandoning as you go. It's a very neat twist on the formula, and is effectively a puzzle-game, working out a route through the solar system and getting the timing right. But they're few and far between (I've only encountered three out of the thirty odd levels I've played through thus far). I would happily play through an entire side-campaign of just these, if only to escape from the visual representation of thousands of bugs crawling over my eyeballs. Brr.

Graphically and aurally, it's very polished and solid, but a bit uninspired. They've taken a steampunk-in-space approach, which on paper sounds fine, but ultimately comes off as feeling a tiny bit generic. The graphics also sometimes cause confusion - the camera angle is set, and on busier levels it can be hard to actually select the right planets (or even really tell what's going on when masses are swarming). The aforementioned pause feature would alleviate this instantly, along perhaps with the ability to rotate the camera. Even being able to switch to a pure top-down view would help. It has a 3D mode, which would probably help somewhat, but if you're fancy enough to possess 3D PC hardware, you're probably off playing Far Crysis Morrowrim COD Ops 4 or something than little indie games like this. You horrible mainstreamer.

To be honest, I'm being overly harsh on the game. The faults, whilst seemingly numerous, are easy to overlook once you're into the thick of the game. It's more than playable, and even skirmish mode, a feature I usually avoid like I'd avoid plunging my face into a box of wasps, is a nice way to while away a spare ten minutes or so. It's one of those small blast games that you'll ultimately crank up a fair few hours into, especially if you're a completionist (alongside the Steam achievements, it has several more in-game achievements and medals to collect, as well as extra techs for leveling up your character - it gives a nice solid sense of progression even outside of the campaign). You can't go far wrong with the tenner or so they're asking. It's never going to set the gaming world on fire, but with some additional balance testing to make tactics more viable, some tweaks to the UI and maybe extra campaigns as cheap DLC (I'd buy a payback-led campaign in a heartbeat), this'll be a nice little addition to anyone's library.


Over your face.

Sleep tight.

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