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:
: 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 meaning
ful 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.