You can’t fault Planets under Attack for a misleading name. Sure enough, a lot of planets come under attack, so it’s got that going for it. But such a flatly descriptive name doesn’t express how smart this game is. It deserves a name like Spaceward Ho, Star General, or Reach for the Stars. Something operatic and sci-fi and maybe even a little gotterdamerung. Is “Off the Shoulder of Orion” or “In the Dark near The Tannhauser Gate” taken?

After the jump, don’t pay any mind to that screenshot

This looks deceptively like one of those real-time mathy games where you’re shuffling populations around nodes. Eufloria, for example, is a best-case example for how it’s equal parts languid poetry and brainy strategy. But as you might guess from the name, Planets under Attack is entirely without poetry, languid or otherwise. Just look at that screenshot. It looks like the sort of thing tossed cheaply and with little care onto the iTunes store.

But it’s not. What you can’t tell from that screenshot is that this is a thoroughly detailed and smartly designed game with serious long-term playability and excellent multiplayer prospects. It’s not just a game about shuffling population around. It’s about carefully balancing your population, income, and upgrades. It’s deciding when to attack, when to defend, and when to hang back and earn money. Do you spend your money building up, or do you hold it for the combat bonus? It probably depends on what the other guy is doing. It’s about figuring out where to set up your bank(s), and whether to use that new planet as a fortress to shoot down invaders in transit, and calculating when that planet’s orbit will slew it close enough to a juicy target on the other side of the screen for an unexpected attack. It’s about deciding which tech improvements to slot for this match. It’s about leveling up to unlock more tech improvements. It’s about trying to adjust to how the robot faction plays so differently that you’re going to feel a bit helpless for a while. You have to break a few densely populated worlds to make a galactic empire omelette.

Planets under Attack is a game that has a lot more depth and breadth than you might guess from that screenshot. It’s got a really nice single-player campaign, with an experience point system that doles out constant rewards for campaign games, skirmish games, multiplayer games, and even meta achievements, Call of Duty style. I just got my genocide badge to platinum, which dinged me up to level ten, which unlocks a technology so that my fortress planets slow down enemy ships in their area of effect. Do I swap that into the slot that lets me launch speedier attacks from my fortress planets? I guess that will depend on the scenario.

The interface is thorough and mostly clean. Once you’ve played a few games, you can get all the information you need by visually sweeping the layout, each player’s money reserve, and the population bar along the bottom. Sometimes all hell breaks loose. Things can get crazy when swarms of spaceships are flowing to and fro like angry bees, when you’re trying to keep reinforcements flowing where they need to go in reaction to incoming attacks, when you’re forced to make tough choices about striking at a lightly defended planet here or defending a vital planet under attack there. That’s part of the challenge. Sometimes this surprisingly intricate strategy game approximates a firehose of spaceships spewed out into the galaxy. Some matches will end in spectacular galactic meltdowns where each player funnels his entire population into a horrible cauldron of casualties on one planet, neither backing down until billions of lives have been snuffed out. Last empire standing wins.

Because of its smooth strategic flow, Planets under Attack is one of the best couch strategy games since Risk Factions. But since Planets under Attack is always and only real-time, it’s arguably an even better couch game. It has easy support for up to four players, with no downtime for anyone, and you can mix and match teams against the AI. And, of course, it works online, but you’re going to have to arrange a time to meet your friends. This is sadly one of those Xbox games where you won’t find anyone else playing. Their loss.

4 stars
Xbox 360