Conquer planets, accumulate enough money and take a journey to the stars and beyond to find a mysterious planet with unspeakable wealth.
Low on story
The story about an intergalactic merchant upstarter who has to pay his debts by finding a legendary treasure planet is a fun concept and the different races he meets and fights on his way are well enough realized to entertain. But if one expects deeper dialogue and characterization from the characters or a plot with many surprises and twists, one will be disappointed. Both only offer a background to the strategic fights and nothing more. There are certainly some amusing scenes, but suspense or laugh-out-moments are almost non-existent, although one has to say that it’s all very much tongue-in-cheek, making it less of a concern than in other more serious RTS games.
High on strategy
The main gameplay idea of the campaign is simple: Conquer as many planets as possible to build enough starfighters, earn money and gain experience points by completing various mission objectives. These consist of the modes Elimination, Domination, Capture, King of the Hill and Payback. In the first, one has to defeat all enemies, in the fourth, holding a planet for a specific amount of time leads to success (in the fifth only one planet), while in the third, capturing enemy planets is the goal. Payback adds even more economical strategy to the proceedings, because another merchant has to be given a certain amount of money to keep him from attacking. There are also some imaginative boss battles, but these are far and few between and can’t hide the fact that one plays the same game of conquering and defending planets again and again, only with a different starting points. Destroying all enemies usually works in almost every game mode though.
Even if the main concept is easy to grasp, it’s far from easy to finish the later levels. Unlike so many other RTS games which are all about producing as many powerful units as possible and tank-rush the enemy, the game has a different approach. Not only is it imperative to capture many planets and build up armies of starfighters, one also has to have a look at the monetary situation, because each attack costs money. If there’s an overflow of it, there’s also a higher chance of defeating enemies quicker. Usually a number indicates how many inhabitants a planet has to defend itself against aggressors. If the number is lower than the number of one’s ships to send out and the money is there as well, the planet will be taken quickly. It’s therefore a constant struggle of keeping the number of inhabitants and the amount of money high enough in order to have the upper hand.
Level and build up
In contrast to most other games in the RTS genre, there are no other units one can build than the starfighters. Still, there’s a way of upgrading planets for bigger defense systems, while levelling up also helps to unlock certain special abilities (like more fire power or faster movement) for the ships, although only three of these can be used at the same time, so choosing the right ones before the start of each level isn’t always easy. The upgrading system adds even more strategic thinking to the RTS fighting, because one can later decide how each planet can be transformed. It can either increase the population for more fighting units, it can be used as a turret to attack enemies with the wider range of a gun or it can be turned into a bank to accumulate more money for stronger assaults.
Frustration and lateral thinking go hand in hand
The gameplay is accessible and addictive, but it’s also extremely frustrating and overwhelming at times. Constantly looking at the money and units is one thing, but when one has to keep an eye on how the enemy progresses and how certain asteroid fields can become strategic obstacles among other things, it requires more than fast thinking. One alien race is especially annoying, because it infests a planet and after a while, the hatched enemy units are so strong that they can easily overtake many planets in a row. Having two or three more adversaries to fight doesn’t make it any easier to keep it cool. It’s also quite unfair if one can’t predict where these attack in the higher difficulties.
There are three difficulties and with the second and third one, more goals are introduced while some of the helping features are deactivated. So if one is warned in the easiest setting where the enemy is attacking now, this can’t be seen in the others, making it more a game of luck and keen eyes. Even if one already has problems finishing certain levels in the easiest difficulty, one is more or less forced to replay levels with a higher difficulty because of the star system. Completing sub-goals rewards the player with more experience points (which are essential for upgrades and make certain missions easier) and with stars which unlock more levels on the star-system-shaped map. This is all well and good for those people who like a challenge, but when it comes to the final mission with the true ending, it’s simply unfair that the player is forced to have a certain amount of stars to get there and only being presented with a rather unspectacular ending after having beaten an apparently final boss.
Seeing and hearing is believing in stars
The presentation of the story and its characters is as unremarkable as the graphics and sounds department. Despite some cheerful musical score and the colorful drawings of the different races, it doesn’t all look and sound very exciting. Especially the voice acting could have needed a bit more professional help, as the lines are delivered in an exaggerated tone. It’s too bad that the dialogues are presented in static images and cutscenes are absent as well which would have made it a bit more rewarding to progress in the story. Still, the comic look has a certain charme, even if the planet system looks very similar with each mission.
The controls work quite well after a certain training period, and the way the game plays on a console is remarkable, considering how few titles of the genre actually succeed. The only problems arise from the limited point of view, as zooming in can only help so much to make out what is going on in the heat of the battle. The biggest issue is that losing one’s orientation happens far too often. It’s not as if one has to constantly readjust the camera like in the classic Homeworld, but with so many units and planets on screen, it’s hard to see everything.
A hardcore RTS experience
Targem Games shows with Planets Under Attack how a strategy title can work on a console and offers an addictive mix of light RPG elements and galactic warfare. It’s easy to pick up at first but becomes more and more difficult to master in later missions, making many restarts inevitable. The repetitive level design and subpar storytelling keep it from playing in a higher league of the genre. This is a shame, because it actually looks and sounds quite nice and offers a long playtime. As a multiplayer game, it certainly has enough potential for even longer hours of strategizing, although casual players will be overwhelmed by the fast-paced gameplay. In a way this is highly reminiscent of The Bitmap Brothers’ Z which also had a high difficulty level, but was just as addictive and fun to play for those who persevered.
Buy the Xbox 360 game on
the Xbox Marketplace
Buy the PS3 game on
the PSN store
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