Total Annihilation is a Real Time Strategy computer game produced by Cavedog Entertainment for Windows 95 in 1997. Two expansion packs were later released under the titles Total Annihilation: Battle Tactics and Total Annihilation: The Core Contingency.

TA is a robot-based game. The single humanlike character in the game is the commander (one commander per player, though a player has the option of making decoy commanders); all the other units are one of five types: aircraft, ships, vehicles, kbots (walking-type robots) and hovercraft; the unit lists can be found in each of those nodes. Each type has both construction units and fighting units. The common weaponry are gaussian shots, lasers, rockets, missiles and exploding shots. Each type of unit (except hovercraft) has advanced units as well.

The idea behind the war is that there are two factions, Arm and Core. Core is the older and more heavily armored group, while Arm is the revolutionary light and fast bunch. Core is more heavily armored, therefore it takes longer and more resources to build a Core unit than it does to build the equivalent Arm unit.

In comparison with other well-known RTS games such as Starcraft, Warcraft and Age of Empires, there are three major differences that are worthy of note: the Total Annihilation (TA) resource model is continuous rather than discrete, the terrain is actually three dimensional both in appearance and game play, and the waypoint system is well-formed. The user interface is similar to that of Command and Conquer. The usual unit limit is 200, but with the expansion packs this can be extended to 500.

The resource model is continuous. Both of the necessary resources (metal and energy) are gathered on a per-second basis; instead of needing units to go out, gather resources, then bring them back to a "home" or "base", special buildings are set aside to be gathering resources all the time. Metal extractors or moho metal extractors are set atop metal deposits. Solar collectors, wind generators, tidal generators, geothermal plants and fusion reactors collect energy. Metal makers and moho metal makers transform energy into metal (since, most of the time, metal is the limiting resource). Metal and energy are used up on a per-second basis as well, so at some particular time a gamer might have 2560 metal and 12300 energy in storage and be gaining 45.2 metal and 2530 energy per second, while using 65.1 metal and 2400 energy per second. It is possible to have empty metal or energy storage (rarely both at the same time), at which time anything that is using those resources stops until there is enough to go around again. Therefore it is imperative to be increasing the metal and energy influx for most of the beginning of the game. It is most necessary to keep the energy flow positive because metal extractors and metal makers require energy.

The terrain is three dimensional. Aircraft fly at varying heights (explosions at one height do not affect planes which are at a different height), shots which hit the terrain explode where they hit and shots do not pass through terrain. Shot explosions usually cause area damage (with a high falloff rate).

Waypoints. TA is arguably one of the first games to implement a full-formed waypoint system, though it did not appear in the first release. As of the expansion packs mentioned above, the full waypoint system had two major features: any waypoint could be removed at any point after creation; units start on their waypoint lists immediately. By way of comparison, Age of Empires II units didn't start on their waypoints until the last one was declared, and no waypoint is removable. The same is true of StarCraft: Broodwar, with the exception that they start on their waypoints right away, and some things (like construction) cannot be waypointed.

Waypoints are quite similar to queueing, (waypoints are a command queue for units), but there are no waypoints for construction buildings in TA. The method there is a 'build count', and there is one particularly notable feature in this: the queueing for construction buildings is strictly-ordered, unlimited and unmaintainable; (e.g.) a vehicle plant can have five construction vehicles (CV) and 25 missile vehicles (MV) queued up to be built, but the order is unalterable (without erasing them all and starting over). (I) could tell the building to build one CV, then 5 MV's, then another CV, then 5 more MV's, and the queue is maintained in that order. In StarCraft, the queue limit on buildings is 5, with a strictly-ordered alterable queue; similarly, in Age of Empires II, the queue limit is 15 and is also strictly ordered and alterable (the first AoE was worse in this respect, with a queue limit of 1).

There are only a couple endgame strategies. Nuclear missiles are quite effective, but these can be protected against (with anti-nuclear missiles). A swarm of units might work, but most bases are heavily guarded with stationary artillery. Groups of Krogoths work wonders, but are just as susceptible to heavy artillery as the smaller units. The only other strategy is long range artillery. These buildings are fixed, but can cover most of the map in terms of range. Nuclear missiles and long range artillery take prohibitive amounts of energy and metal in order to work properly as an attack. Krogoths use a lot of energy as well, but their main difficulty is how long it takes to make one. My favorite method of endgame is a combination of advanced planes, Krogoths and nukes. Most nuclear protection can be overloaded if enough nukes are sent at about the same time.

One of the significant disadvantages of Total Annihilation compared to other RTS's is that most games take a long time to play (i.e., 4 hours is a short game when playing with others over a network). The worst problem with this is that it is fairly difficult to work any break time into each game; once you start you have to go until it's finished or the other players may simply quit.

I think it is important to stress the importance of the continuous resource model a little more. In Blizzard-style RTSes (Warcraft, Starcraft, etc), when you purchase something it spends all of the money at once, then churns away until that thing is done. In Westwood-style games (Command & Conquer, etc) the money is spent as the thing is building. This also allows building times to be directly proportional to the cost.

TA is closer to the Westwood style, as building times are proportional to the cost. But it's also more like the Blizzard style (specifically Warcraft II) in that buildings are built with construction units, and the more units you have, the faster it builds. In a twist, the construction units can also speed the building of other units.

The practical upshot of all this is that the resource model is far more dynamic than most other RTSes. Things which effect your resource production happen now and in real time. The rate at which you gather resources is far more important than the actual amount of money you have. When your resource collection is destroyed, you can't spend much before you're out of money. "Strip-mining" strategies of other RTSes are rather pointless in TA, or at least would be done for completely different reasons.

On a completely different note, TA also boasts a phenomenal soundtrack by Jeremy Soule, who composed music for such other games as Secret of Evermore, Icewind Dale, and the upcoming Unreal 2. It is orchestral music, of a very grand scale. The tracks are divided into various categories, like building, battle, and defend, and the game will play from the appropriate category depending on what is happening in the game. If you have this game, put the CD in your CD player right now and listen to track 6.

None of the above writeups quite do justice to Total Annihilation. I remember seeing TA at the time of its release, and being overwhelmed by its depth and complexity; its variety and innovation.

Why is it such a good game? If you’re asking this question, go and play it first. You’ll be experiencing a game that marked a watershed in RTS; after TA, Westwood carried on with the formulaic but admittedly great Command and Conquer games, and Blizzard produced the superlative Starcraft. But whilst these games were good, they were anachronisms in the light of TA – to use a rather weak metaphor, they were elegant masterwork bows, compared to the heavy machine gun that was TA.

A number of points stand in TA’s favour. Some of these have been briefly outlined above, but to summarise: amazing music, sophisticated resource gathering, and a well developed waypoint system.

All these are worth touching upon again. The music is truly fantastic: a fusion of classical styles, ranging from the darkly sombre to intense rousing tunes. If you’re a fan of Shostakovich, you’ll see the influence of his Soviet anthems here. Compared to the grinding background modernity of Command and Conquer and Starcraft, the music in TA is epic and uplifting. It makes the listener really FEEL like he or she is poised between absolute victory and crushing defeat. It reminds me most strongly of the music in Warcraft 2; but it's even finer than that.

The resource gathering is brilliant, not only for reasons outlined above (such as its continuous nature), but also because it’s oddly realistic: no glowing tiberium ore here, or Vespene gas. There’s energy, and there’s metal, believable requirements for a military campaign. Energy can be produced by solar power, wind power, geothermal power, wave power, or fusion; a surprisingly realistic touch in a game that styles itself firmly in the science fiction mould.

The waypoints are useful, and allow extensive queuing, particularly useful when building a base. This has more profound implications than you might suspect – no longer is this a game of construction and resource gathering: you can automate that. You have time to watch the battleline, direct units personally, control every aspect of what goes on.

These are some great attributes of Total Annihilation. But there were other things that always made this game special, in my eyes. The most obvious of these was the amazing detail in terms of units. Hundreds of units were accessible, in land, sea, and air theatres. They weren’t that heavily playtested, and not necessarily very balanced; but their variety made up for that. A lot of my skirmish games were played just to test out l33t units I’d never used before. Plenty of new units appeared all the time, both official and unofficial. A whole range of them are available from the Cavedog website. The units weren’t gratuitous, either: all were distinctive and interesting, with a staggeringly varied range of attacks.

The land units were never the focus of TA, but the stationary defences were amazing. Enormous artillery pieces, firing slowly, but with tremendous range, shattering targets that would take your tanks several minutes to reach. This was a camper’s paradise. Who needs to build tanks or Kbots? Just build enormous guns and impenetrable defences. Except, defences are never completely impenetrable...

A special mention should go to the air and sea units. In most games, air units are useful alternatives to land attacks. Most games don’t even have naval units. The Red Alert games managed this quite well, but even then, they pale in comparison to Total Annihilation. Here, the skies and the seas are just as important as the land. You need to use them, otherwise your opponent will. If you’ve got no air units, your opponent will smash you to pieces with heavy fighters and gunships. If you’ve got no naval units, battleships will hammer your coastlines and carrier-based bombers will scorch your bases.

Unlike Red Alert, there are no particularly good defences against air attacks apart from fighter planes – there are missile launchers, but a heavy attack by bombers will easily overpower these. The best defence against bombers are units of stealth fighters on continual patrol over your base. Three fighters in formation, diving and pirouetting over your structures, even as you get on directing something else. It feels so real!

Naval units are slightly different. You can defend quite well against them with stationary turrets. But still, these will be overwhelmed in the end. Your base will be surrounded, and you’ll be trapped, by a wall of battleships.

Naval combat itself is worth a mention; it’s pure WW2 stuff. No 100km distant engagements here – this is close-on combat. The balance of naval power is divided between big surface ships, like cruisers and battleships; underwater armadas, of submarines and battlesubs; and finally, there are the carriers, with their torpedo planes. Watching a torpedo bomber make an attack run is one of the peak experiences of TA: approaching from a distance, it sinks closer and closer to the water, before unleashing its cargo. A vast number of naval units exist, all nicely categorised into believable types: destroyers, cruisers, battleships, carriers, hunter-killer subs, attack subs, and so forth. Despite the futuristic setting, this is the Pacific Theatre in World War 2.

Total Annihilation is a milestone in RTS development. Many of its strokes of genius have yet to be repeated. Whilst it lacks the perfect balancing of the Westwood games, or the cinematic touches of Starcraft, it’s probably the best skirmish RTS in the world. It’s £4.99 on budget in the UK. If you haven’t got it yet, you’ve still got a fantastic time ahead of you.

...and if you still need convincing, go to www.cavedog.com, and have a look at it. You lucky thing.

What began as a conflict over the transfer of consciousness from flesh to machines escalated into a war which has decimated a million worlds...

It's been over eight years, an aeon in computer time - eight years separates The Secret of Monkey Island from Grim Fandango. By this point the most remarkable thing about Total Annihilation is the way it simply does not stop. Who plays any Command & Conquer anymore? The Zerg swarm no longer, peace has returned to Azeroth (after a fashion), innumerable lesser-known games have come and went, but Total has survived. The vast majority of real-time strategies are usurped by more developed ones and become all but unplayable - what is it that shields this one?

Such longevity is in part due to the sorry state of computer games, innovation having become increasingly synonymous with bankruptcy. With a few less clones around TA would've been surpassed. That said, it was built to last. The design and graphics are functional and work; they're now much less flashy but still nifty. A modern player will find himself missing some features (zoom, unit formations, a large-scale reclamation command...), but using others that are rarely if ever seen today (the sublime construction waypoint system, in particular).

Total Annihilation is vast. A total of 75 units and buildings - per side, although they're mostly parallel - offers variety plus a large range of options and strategies. The Core Contingency expansion pack only boosts the amount further. Unlike some games there is no undefeatable strategy or incounterable move, although I won't swear by that - a game between two real pros that I've watched saw only basic missile units. At least the starting unit is powerful enough to vaporize any quick rush attacks.

Continuous resources are a very rare design choice, and usually come with a resource cap when they do appear. In most games, the resources needed to build units and structures are concentrated in a few large deposits with limited harvesting speeds, often leading to a scenario where a player sits there, resource gathering running at full efficiency, waiting for enough units for a massive assault.
TA has energy and metal. The former is produced by multiple kinds of power plants constructable at will, the latter mined by extractors on deposits scattered all over the place and converted (costily) from energy. Dead spots are almost eliminated: All resource production can be reinvested for further profit, but use too much and an enemy attack catches you with your pants down; use too little and – say - your invulnerable air defenses eventually fall to the shrapnel from exploding enemy bombers (I’ve seen it happen). With numerous individually less valuable locations, raids are the order of the day. Not that massive attacks won't happen. They do. Oh, yes, they do.

Fan-made mods do wonders to a game's lifespan, and the developers of TA encouraged them from the start. Tools were released, amateur-made extra units were put for download alongside official ones. Nowadays there are a large number of modpacks tweaking this, modifying that and adding everything but the kitchen sink. I gather one called Überhack is particularily popular. Total conversions can turn the game into something else entirely - one sets it in space. There's a program for recording and replaying multiplayer games, and a way of doing the latter in full 3D!

The already lauded music deserves another mention. It hasn’t aged a day! How many games actually use a full symphony orchestra, despite having the means? The soundtrack is militaristic, epic and perfectly suited to the game. It's even playable as ordinary CD audio and replaceable. The excuberant, vaguely Soviet combat tracks create atmosphere like mad – I can’t hear some of them outside the game without also hearing the sound of heavy laser towers.

A vital component of the real-time strategy game genre is blowing stuff up. It's amazing how many developers fail to realize this. For all its features and properties, one point of Total's execution is clearly the most memorable: FIREPOWER.
It's loud, it's showy, it genuinely calculates each trajectory, it even makes julienne fries! While Command & Conquer riflemen can take several direct hits from tanks in a rock, paper, scissors arrangement, the lightest TA units won't survive a single heavy laser beam. Most other RTS games impose strict limits on superweapons, while in TA missile defense systems can be overwhelmed by launching too many nukes at a time. Large battles involve hundreds of units; in the previously mentioned pro match, the minimap swarmed like an anthill. Wrecks litter the landscape. Base conquests are enormous combined arms assaults with the screen shaking with explosions and euphoric war music blasting from the speakers. The combination of factors leading to this wild orgy of destruction was unprecedented and has been unreplicated.

It's apparent from everywhere that Total Annihilation was designed keeping in mind what its players would need and giving it to them, made with care and to be fun. Monstrous cliches aside: It was a labor of love, one that succeeded magnificently. The single player campaign is largely forgotten, the game's one major weakness being the virtual lack of plot, but as Henry writes above the game's "probably the best skirmish RTS in the world". That was four years ago, and it's no less true. The hardly related fantasy Total Annihilation: Kingdoms was a flop, and after this long it's started to seem that TA will reign until the end of the era. On the other hand there's talk of one Supreme Commander, scheduled for Q1, 2007. Its features: Robotic units, continuous uncapped resources, an actually innovative design, the same composer...


This writeup naturally refers to the updated version. It was delayed because I listened to the soundtrack while writing and got pulled into playing the game. Repeatedly.

Supreme Commander preview screenshots:
http://pcmedia.gamespy.com/pc/image/article/632/632026/supreme-commander-20050707115342377.jpg
http://pcmedia.gamespy.com/pc/image/article/632/632026/supreme-commander-20050707115432124.jpg


ERRATA: Well, that was a nicely excuberant writeup, wasn't it? Unfortunately, a comrade of mine - the one with the "invulnerable" air defenses - has pointed out that an optimal tactic has emerged, and that online games are largely restricted to one map. Sigh. Sic transit gloria mundi. Luckily, TA being the perfect storm that it is, the particular unit involved can be individually disabled allowing meaningful games for those who want them. Switching to Überhack will also make everything alright again.

Additionally, Starcraft and such games do have some remaining following. I will not be acknowledging this properly since they stink. Nyah nyah nyah.

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