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
; its variety
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.