I was first put on the trail of Planets Under Attack, by Russian developer Targem Games, through Tom Chick of Tom Chick fame’s warning that, and I quote, Planets under Attack is way better than its name. While his review is for the 360 version, a quick look around the website — which is incidentally stuffed with some pretty decent artwork — lead me to discover the existence of a PC demo and subsequent full version. And that, as they say, was enough: here we are.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, high.)
Alright, fair advance warning: actually buying Planets Under Attack is a more involved process than usually. The game can be purchased from the web-store of German publisher TopWare Interactive, which is what I did because I missed the Steam Store page like an idiot; doing so nets you an email with a download link and a product key. A product key that has to be manually entered after the downloaded installer has runs its magic, and before you actually launch the game for the first time. The store looks a little skeezy, but so far hasn’t actually swiped any of my money yet, and for all its hoops the game does run fine after installation. Just be warned in advance, I guess.
Alright then! Planets Under Attack’s menu screen is primarily blue.
Options, options: there’s your basic simple video options, a hilariously low-tech — but surprisingly fully functional — red/blue-anaglyph 3D option, basic audio stuff, a neat set of language options that sadly don’t include Dutch, but hey, and a set of controls screens I wish to replicate here, in full, sans comment:
There’s also Credits, which are credits, and a Player Room, which appears to be some type of meta-game player profile I have yet to care about…
…and then there’s a How-To-Play section. I’d honestly started hoping we’d gotten rid of those by now, but alas.
Actually, you know what? I’m not going to whine about that. Forging onward, ho!
Out of the three available options that seem to promise actual gameplay — Campaign, Skirmish and Multiplayer — I pick Campaign, because I’m boring and predictable. In the subsequent selection menu, I can choose precisely one of the one available campaigns: ‘New Economic Galaxy’, starring this dapper gentleman:
Alright, one little whine: the existence of How-To-Play sections always makes me a little nervous to just dive in, because I’m always worried that the game’ll assume I’ve read them. Because by its very existence, it takes away my ability to complain about poor in-game explaining. “The game didn’t tell me how this works!“, I’ll say; “Yes, it does, haven’t you read the How To Play section?” will be my at-least-partially-deserved reply.
Alright, now I’m projecting. Let’s hope that Planets Under Attack does actually properly explain things in-game as well, as that would reduce that whole mini-rant to so much pointless madness. I like being wrong, in cases like this.
The campaign opens with a little scrolling text introduction, setting the stage: I’m to be mr. Goodman, no relation, an ‘ex-clerk turned ship commander’, with an inherited debt of such magnitude that the only logical way to get rid of it is to take a dangerous trip to uncharted reaches of the galaxy in search of new treasures.
The game starts me off on the campaign star map — visible two screenshots up — where one mr. Norell, something of my clearly-evil counterpart, briefs me on the how and what. Short story: each star on the map is a mission, and each constellation is a mission path that has to be followed sequentially. Missions earn Stars upon successful completion; some other missions are locked behind Star-gates. Simple enough, right?
But what about the actual gameplay? Let’s start the first mission, ‘Business School’.
Even-more-obviously-evil mr. Norell is on the ball here, too. Look at this:
It turns out Planets Under Attack is of a genre I’ve actually played a few online games of: for a me-perceived lack of a common parlance name, I’ve dubbed them ‘Ship Senders’. It works like this: every level (/map/scenario/challenge) has a bunch of planets it it. Planets can be either player-controlled or neutral; see if you can work out for yourself which planets in the above screenshot are which. Player-controlled planets generate ships at a steady rate, which orbit around the planet unless otherwise specified. The player has no direct control over individual ships, or usually even groups of ships, but he/she can designate other planets as targets of attack. Generated ships will then automatically fly over and attack the targeted planets, attempting to conquer them on your behalf.
See the process in action in these three screenshots:
And that, as they say, is that. Send ships to capture planets, which in turn generate ships, which you send to capture planets. Rinse, repeat, planets.
Of course, describing the core gameplay of this genre in those terms is akin to describing First-Person Shooters as ‘point and click at other players until they fall down’: it’s true, in a sense, but a certain richness is lacking. The first few missions, I find, gradually introduce this richness-of-detail into Planets Under Attack.
From the first mission, I learn to send ships. The concept of ‘Sollars’ is introduced — GET IT — and I learn that setting ship markers costs Sollars. So if I want to send ten ships over… you get the idea. I can also exercise some more granularity over which exact planets send the ships, by toggling ‘Defensive Mode’ on or off. Not sure why I’d want to, yet, but I assume it’ll be a thing.
The second mission introduces the Difficulty selection screen:
Besides ‘increasing difficulty’, picking a higher difficulty level also unlocks optional side objectives that can be completed for extra stars. Yes, I will try to Catch Them All, thank you very much.
Other lessons include the fact that planets can be upgraded for money, increasing their ship production speed, and the notion that while I’m out attacking — that is to say, while my ships are in space heading towards an enemy planet — my income supply stops. Given that attacking costs money, I can’t just keep adding new ships to the attack queue mid-flight… unless I already had the money to do so. Sending ships to my own planets, though, is both free and totally tax-legit.
The third mission teaches me about a second type of planet: Space Fortresses, which forego generating ships in favour of vaporizing them. There’s also some achievement stuff going on, that I’m initially not really sure about…
…but which apparently ties into my Player Rank, which itself ties into a meta-system of optional upgrades called Techs.
And did I mention there’s a whole other race, the Robots, that change the rules in interesting and somewhat hard-to-understand ways?
Alright, tell you what: since I’m (ostensibly) writing a review, not an in-depth tutorial, I’m going to page-cut my exposition here. Planets Under Attack has me pretty engaged at this point; I’m going to keep playing for a while and see how long that lasts.
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