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SummaryReally cool strategy classic
The GoodIn 1997, when the two big guys in real-time strategy gaming were Blizzard and Westwood, A newcomer called Cavedog forged onto the scene with their soon-to-be classic game Total Annihilation. While it isn't as good as, say, Warcraft and Age of Empires II, it is solid as hell. Any fan of the genre who doesn't own this game is seriously missing out.
While other strategy games at the time (notably Blizzard's Starcraft) were trying to "RPG-ize" themselves with detailed plots and well-developed characters, Total Annihilation went in the other direction and contains almost no story at all. In the distant future two sides (the Arm and the Core) are fighting a war over thousands of planets using robots and bio-enhanced human soldiers. The story doesn't matter, the theme does. An epic war spanning a whole galaxy gave the developers a platform to put practically anything they want into the game, and you better believe they took advantage of the opportunity.
Total Annihilation initially looks like a Command & Conquer-inspired strategy game, and in its basic design it is one. You start out with a "Commander" unit that can construct buildings, and using him you must build a base, collect resources, and construct an army. And like Command and Conquer, Total Annihilation is combat-oriented. Collecting resources is a simple matter of building mines over mineral clumps, and from there you're free to start planning a campaign. Warfare, be it with robots, aeroplanes, vehicles, ships or submarines, is where the game's real meat is.
What makes Total Annihilation so great? It is perhaps the most strategy-filled and open-ended RTS ever made. Historically this has always been a genre weak spot. Warcraft 2 was all about build orders and grunt rushes. Command and Conquer was a tank spamming fest. Age of Empires was all about who could click the mouse the fastest. But now there is Total Annihilation.
You can try to rush your enemy by spamming lots of cheap units, but your enemy can shut you down with Buzzsaws and Anti-Rush towers just as easily. You have a powerful "Commander" unit that can destroy any unit in the game with one hit, but he also constructs buildings very quickly so it may be best to keep him home rather than send him out to the front lines. Every unit in the game has a counter; the strong, powerful units usually have some fatal Achilles Heel that can be exploited. You can use hit and run tactics or dig yourself with missile towers and walls. You can invest heavily in expensive mineral-gathering techniques or try and grab every resource mine on the map. You can build a tight, small base if that is easy to protect, or a huge sprawling one so that surprise missile strikes will do less damage. You can attack by land or sea or air, or even from under the ground. And that's not even allowing for the different gameplay settings and maps possible, for instance playing on a water map is like playing an entirely different game. Your war campaign is also determined by things like gravity and wind-speed (for example, on a windy planet you won't need to worry so much about energy as you can build wind turbines).
This is where the genius of Total Annihilation shows itself, there are no good or bad tactics, the player is free to develop his own style and use them to defeat the enemy. It's not a game about formulas and build-orders. It's a game about real strategy. There are almost endless possibilities and because of this the game has more replay value than Warcraft 2 and Command & Conquer combined.
Lots of new innovations help make the game. Your soldiers gain experience in battle, and upon attaining "Veteran" status become far more powerful and accurate. Old hat these days, a novel concept back then. Dead warriors can be "sucked up" by Commanders and turned into raw energy and minerals, meaning if you desperately need a few more minerals to build a Krogoth you can sacrifice one of your own soldiers.
Total Annihilation is also remembered as the first 3D RTS game. Although not fully 3D, Total Annihilation takes the extra dimension a lot further than any strategy game before it, and not only as a graphical gimmick but as a way to dramatically change gameplay. Total Annihilation contains detailed, dynamic terrain and unit models and Newtonian physics that would have been impossible before. All objects in the game interact with the game's world as though it were fully three dimensional; hills obstruct artillery fire, height enhances units' visual and firing ranges, and buildings can be constructed on steep terrain to shield them from artillery fire. If terrain is steep and jagged, units tilt and turn to meet the face of the ground. Artillery shells are affected by gravity, which is variable on different planets in the Total Annihilation universe. Some artillery units can hit targets 15 screens away and nuclear missiles can be dropped anywhere on the map.
The game also looks great. Unit models are generated dynamically (basically, polygons are combined on the fly to create segments and joints) and as a result all units in the game look and move very realistically, and can also do other things like get blown to pieces. Watching Spiderbots crawl over the landscape with their skinny, jointed legs is decidedly creepy. Explosion effects are bright and colorful (despite only 256 colors) and resolutions of up to 1280x1024 are supported. The game's creators even embraced the nascent modding community, providing free graphics, downloadable units, and modding tools to create new weapons, units etc.
The BadWhile it broke a lot of new ground, some aspects of Total Annihilation are disappointingly derivative. The user-interface is ripped off from Command and Conquer's, and the resource gathering system is also very similar. It’s as if halfway through making a revolutionary game they got lazy and started ripping stuff off.
While multiplayer is a blast, single-player is merely decent. You can have a max of three computer players per game, which is a shame as some of Total Annihilation's best moments are epic ten-player explode fests. The AI can be described as "below average", it has no variation in strategy (it builds seemingly random units and throws them at the enemy) and will occasionally do retarded stuff like build 20 battleships in a tiny isolated puddle of water, and build missile silos but no missiles. In fairness many games of the time had crappy AI but it's nevertheless a pity.