“I have often been asked: if we have traveled between the stars, why can we not launch the simplest of orbital probes? These fools fail to understand the difficulty of finding the appropriate materials on this Planet, of developing adequate power supplies, and creating the infrastructure necessary to support such an effort. In short, we have struggled under the limitations of a colonial society on a virgin planet. Until now.”
— Col. Corazon Santiago, “Planet: A Survivalist’s Guide”
Colonel Santiago’s quote here is best seen as a companion to Lal’s comments on Fusion Power. The achievements represented by the sixth-tier Orbital Spaceflight technology, made possible on Planet by Pre-Sentient Algorithms and Doctrine: Air Power, show that the colonists have now well and truly established their colony. But just like with fusion power, the fruits of the struggle Santiago speaks of are borne out not in the creation of something entirely novel, but in the technical capacity to match humanity’s greatest achievement.
It’s fitting that Santiago is the one to introduce the player to this technology, as the main gameplay effect of Orbital Spaceflight is to open up space itself as a new dimension for conflict. A new form of base facility is made possible in the form of satellites, which are unique in that they spread their benefits out over every base in the faction instead of having their effects localized to the base in which they are constructed. At the same time, they are potentially vulnerable to being destroyed in orbit by enemy action, so a player now has to keep an eye on space as a new off-map theater of battle if he wants to keep reaping this boon.
The other major advance that comes with this technology is the ability to build missile units in the unit editor. Missiles are one-time use air units that can only carry two kinds of weapons and a reactor type. The first kind of missile is one topped with a high-strength conventional warhead. It’s intended to represent a stash of ’90s-style long-distance cruise missiles. In the game, they’re usually used to take out critical ground-based defenders. Like, say, a key AAA sentinel unit that’s potentially able to shoot down a few needlejets. But, all in all, they aren’t terribly useful.
The second kind of missile payload is called a Planet Buster. It’s the SMAC version of a nuclear ICBM. But it’s better. Not only is it capable of wiping whole stacks of units and bases from the map in one go, it also ties into the game’s terraforming model to smash lasting craters into the landscape. Instead of causing fallout, like in previous Civilization games, it literally destroys the land out from under the tile improvements. The better the reactor, the bigger the blast. From the player’s perspective, launching a Planet Buster on a hated foe is intensely satisfying.
Quite naturally, use of Planet Busters is considered the worst of atrocities. If the U.N. Charter is still in force, the player that goes nuclear is instantly considered a pariah. And, regardless, any faction that ends up on the wrong side of one will hate the faction that launched the missiles pretty much forever.
This means that repealing the Charter turns out to have a major impact on gameplay. In effect, it’s essentially an international agreement that intense nuclear wars are A-OK. And since the SDI missile-defense equivalent doesn’t come until the late game, that leaves a big chunk of time where the only real defense against having bases wiped off the map is the balance of terror.