Total Annihilation: Kingdoms

a game by Cavedog Entertainment
Platform: PC
Editor Rating: 8/10, based on 3 reviews, 4 reviews are shown
User Rating: 8.0/10 - 1 vote
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Picture a nobleman. A mature, robust-looking chap: broad shoulders, steely gaze and Falcon's Crest hairdo. Now imagine him stomping through thick undergrowth, his eyes probing for an open space in which to cast a spell.

A hawk squawks noisily high above, making him jump. He cranes his neck to look up. Either the bird is about to crap on his new tunic, or someone's trying to keep an eye on him. He mumbles something. Greek? Latin? Something strange - and a violent tremor pulses across the landscape like ripples on a pond. Bugger, wrong spell. Before he can fry the airborne interloper with a carefully aimed lightning bolt, the creature ducks into the swirling mists and is gone.

At the edge of the wood is a large clearing of sand, just big enough for a barracks. He stops, raises his arms, and pictures the building in his mind. Suddenly the space around him becomes a maelstrom of yellow light, the very air itself sparkling and surging with an intense energy.

He can feel the mana - the sum and substance of all magic -pouring from just behind his knuckles. It feels... hot. Distracted for a second, he concentrates once more and can make out the soft outline of a barracks deep in the eerie glow: roof and windows, then doors, bricks, even the flag bearing his insignia that flutters proudly atop the tower.

In what seems like an instant, the stone and mortar are real, and he commands four swordsmen to step forward. The doors swing open, and the mighty knights emerge from within, swinging at the air to test the weight of their blades. They stop. "Is that bird shit on your cloak, sire?"

Once Upon A Time

TA Kingdoms is entrancing. It's a masterpiece of storytelling, where you get to play central characters from different cultures as they fight for domination of an imaginary realm. But there aren't separate campaigns for each side as in Red Alert, or episodic diversions as in StarCraft everything has been skilfully woven into one long yarn, with each new chapter presenting the possibility of playing a new faction from a contrary viewpoint and a different setting.

And what settings await. From the moment you click on the icon in your Start menu, you're immersed in a fairy-tale world of witches, dragons, kraken, lodestones, kings, princes and armies of undead. Huge stone towers, thundering cannons, catapults and trebuchets. Forts and temples. Yachts and balloons. Evil-doing and treachery. Where Total Annihilation lacked a cohesive plot and variation, Cavedog have really gone to town, constructing a new 3D universe that looks set to make Kingdoms one of the most engrossing single-player experiences of all time.

The novel which unfolds around you is set in the fantasy land of Darien, a province ruled by an immortal king who has since done a bunk for reasons I unknown. But before his disappearance, he Balkanised I the land between his four children, telling them to be good, look after their mum and never build a castle on a swamp.

Many hundreds of years pass. The four siblings - yes, they're immortal like their father - have gradually become one with the elements, and have started to squabble. And as you step into the storyline, Aramon and Veruna (earth and water) have come together to fight the malevolence of Zhon and Taros (air and fire).

Your progression through the Kingdoms' book' involves innumerable cut-sequences and interludes that make it feel more like a docudrama than a real-time strategy game. Sure, these sequences appear to be on the crude side, comprised almost entirely of static images and narration, but the effect is spot-on. Fine tapestries, chronicles of the 48 chapters - each one looking like a section from the famous wall-hangings in Bayeux Cathedral - are used to illustrate your passage.

Ancient runes and paintings are shown to further enhance the feeling of authenticity, as if the depicted legends are somehow real, and each scene is accompanied by the sort of matter-of-fact voiceover that you get on National Geographic documentaries. With each transition, you feel more and more convinced that perhaps it is real. Well, almost.

Now That's Magic

Gameplay in Kingdoms will be familiar to anyone who's ever played real-time strategy, and second nature to every Total Annihilation tan on the planet. In most chapters (and in every skirmish game), you take control of a principal character who's able to construct buildings and prepare a raft of armies through the use of spells and incantations. He (or she - the Veruna and Zhon are ruled by priestesses) is also one of your most powerful units, able to repel enemy attacks, repair structures and heal the wounded with potent magic. Keeping this character alive is absolutely key to your survival in the game.

To create - or, more correctly, summon - a new building, you simply click on the relevant icon (now much crisper than before, thanks to the all-singing, all-dancing 16-bit colour interface) in the toolbar and drop it on the map. Total Annihilation aficionados will spot straight away that each pending structure is 'ghosted' on the screen, enabling you to see exactly what's on the way. While this may be a slicker, more aesthetically pleasing way of doing things, we must confess a preference for the more precise bounding boxes of TA This is because the game's smaller units (such as wall sections and mortars) are now rather difficult to place accurately if overshadowed by larger structures.

Generally speaking, the larger and more mighty the structure you envision, the larger and longer the drain on your powers. So before creating a whole new town, look for sacred sites on which to construct your lodestones. These rocks are the glowing crystals that sit on holy areas and unlock the game's single resource, mana, which you need to control in order to replenish your magic and win the game. Allow the enemy to force you away from these hallowed regions and you'll soon lose power, yield the upper hand and be overrun.

Like Total Annihilation before it (but unlike Command & Conquer: Red Alert), Kingdoms hides everything beyond your range of vision whether you've been there or not. You can still make out the basic features of the landscape, such as trees, rocks and the granite monoliths that encircle each holy area, but you can't tell what's hiding near them. You could, for example, spot a strategic place for your watch tower, only to walk over and discover that the place lies behind castle gates and is swarming with enemy troops.

Unlike TA the transition between clear and obscured areas of the map is now done with a gently swirling fog that wafts and billows at the limits of your vision. When enemy units appear, they don't just step forward from nothing, they appear gradually through hazy mists. The only penalty for this is the fact that it demands processor power - even our Pentium II266, with a whopping 256Mb of memory and an AGP Voodoo Banshee, was made to sweat by Kingdoms.

THE UNITS

One of the few criticisms of TA was that both sides had the same weaponry but different wardrobes. Indeed, the game's widely praised play balance was largely attributable to the fact that everyone was using the same basic units. Kingdoms is way ahead of that, and comes bundled with a far larger assortment of goodies. We counted somewhere between 20 and 30 unique units per faction, with specialised troops for battles on land, at sea and in the air. The Aramon, with whom the story starts, are principally knights and bowmen, and have the upper hand when on solid earth. Zhon, masters of the air, are better when swooping down to attack from above. Veruna, at home when organising naughty-bubbles competitions on the bottom of the ocean, have a distinct advantage at sea. And finally Taros, the sinister fire faction, really know their magic.

There are also some welcome 'oddball' units - caged demons and ghost ships to name but two - that stretch both your imagination and the game's variation still further. What's more, there's the welcome addition of experience. Sure, TA made allowances for veteran soldiers (ie those who'd notched up a particular number of kills, supposedly making them more of a challenge in battle), but like line of sight it was one of those 'back of the box' features that didn't actually seem to do anything.

Now, all that changes, with skilled units noticeably better and more accurate when fighting alongside novices. Top-scoring troops change their name and even their appearance to reflect higher levels of expertise.

But that doesn't mean you can swamp your enemy under a deluge of all-conquering bastards. Particularly powerful units, such as the gliding, swooping, fire-barking dragons, have restrictions placed upon their numbers. In the case of the Golden Dragon, the Acolyte (a more resourceful version of Terry Pratchett's indolent wizard Rincewind) is only able to summon one. Rather than being unnecessarily restrictive, this actually lends each game a healthy dose of longevity, discouraging stockpiling and rush victories - the two curses of realtime strategy. There's also a noticeable slant towards the defensive, meaning there's little to be gained by trekking across the map right at the start for an instant win.

To add style, each unit is now animated like nothing else you've ever seen. Horses gallop, archers reload before firing, and the cannoneer covers his ears each time the gun goes off. Flying creatures and dirigibles paddle the air with wings, banking and diving as they soar over the landscape. Even the immobile Mortar and massive Stronghold (a minaret with a medieval howitzer poking out halfway up) has two little chaps on the top - one to control gun elevation, the other to work away at levers that rotate the tower. It's all nicely eccentric.

The Interface

As befits a game with Total Annihilation in its moniker, the interface of Kingdoms is a true work of art. But before we go exploring its many enhancements (and yes, Cavedog have managed to find room for improvement), for those of you unfamiliar with the way TA works we'd better explain what all the fuss is about.

First off, it's a doddle to do anything in TA Select your leader (or any other troop capable of creating new units), click what you want him or her to summon, then place it on the map. If you want more than one, hold down the shift key; each subsequent click of the mouse adds a new action to the build list. Creating a long list of instructions has never been easier.

It's also intuitive. If one of your builders is building something, you can have others lend a helping hand and get the job done in half the time. You can also issue specific commands, such as patrol an area, guard another unit, repair a damaged structure, and so on. And if you need to break off in the middle of a task to do something else, your helpers finish the job you started before tagging along.

Kingdoms is even better, giving you all the above and more. Getting into a game is now much simpler, requiring less hopping between screens and button pressing. And little trinkets lie in wait after you start playing. For example, you can now insert new orders into the build queue without scrapping all the old ones and starling over. This means you can break off from one task, toddle off to begin another and then, once completed, return to what you were doing. Wonderful. Not only that, but you can also enjoy 'augmented' line of sight and height advantages. What this means is that you can now climb a bluff or a peak and see the map open up beneath you. And using the same theories of elevation, airborne units can see for miles, which, as you might imagine, has a significant impact on strategy.

Altogether Now

Kingdoms comes bundled with full Boneyards capability - ie access to Cavedog's online games server - enabling you to get hooked up quickly and easily with opponents from all over the planet. Then again, you don't really need to venture into cyberspace to find some decent competition, as Kingdoms retains both the skirmish mode from TA and its flexible LAN set-up.

Skirmishing gives you the chance to challenge robot players, and after you've completed the 48 missions it'll be the game section you come back to most often. Network play enables you and your friends to battle each other, the computer, or an assortment of both. As with TA, you can define 'mixed' teams -you and a chum versus the computer, or perhaps you and the computer versus your chum. It's fully configurable to suit any number of players from two upwards, so you don't need a huge LAN to enjoy yourself. Artificial opponents are seriously smart, too - it isn't like shooting rats in a bucket, as was the case in Red Alert. In fact you'll probably end up dead. Intelligence routines have now been improved beyond all recognition, with units now moving around obstacles on the map with stealth and purpose and retreating back to base when overpowered.

And there you have it. Sure, it's Total Annihilation in that it borrows elements of TA's interface, but then that's like saying a semi-detached bungalow is Blenheim Palace because it's got windows and a front door. While Kingdoms is a 'real-time strategy game', it's actually a whole lot more than that. The best advice is for you to try it and see what we mean.

Played Ta? Read This

We're not asking you to bin your favourite game, rather to enjoy Kingdoms and the treats it offers

So, you've played Total Annihilation. We guarantee that the first thing you'll do when you play Kingdoms is bitch and whine. "It's just a fantasy M," you'll say, wrinkling your nose "And fantasy's for squares and geeks."

Actually, it's not For starters, the new graphical interface is simply gorgeous: 16-bit colour brings the game alive. It also has a cohesive story; proper experience points and veteran troops; real line of sight; a realistic trajectory and physics model; DIY castles and forts; pre-butlt multiplayer bases. In fact, name an aspect of Total Annihilation, and Cavedog have injected it with performanceenhancing drugs.

So be patient, sit back, and spend some time with each of the four factions - their disparate nature, unique weapons, special tactics and cute animations are well in advance of the units that came shrink-wrapped with TA. And remember, of course, that both Cavedog and the gaming community will be releasing new troops, new structures and new maps from now until Doomsday. You'll end up a Kingdoms convert. We promise.

Download Total Annihilation: Kingdoms

PC

System requirements:

  • PC compatible
  • Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP

Game Reviews

Total Annihilation's futuristic tank warfare rocked the realtime strategy battlegrounds last year. For the sequel, Cavedog is leaping into the past for some good old-fashioned medieval butt-whippin'.

Total Annihilation: Kingdoms takes place in a time where magic means more than mechanics. Four races, each representing a different element, battle for supremacy with ground forces, huge (if primitive) batdesbips, and fire-breathing dragons. Each faction has its own building hierarchy and patron deities who will sometimes get involved in the skirmish themselves.The gorgeous graphics that marked the first game will return with new neat tricks like rolling fog.

Can to: Kingdoms win the medieval real-time strategy crown from Myth? Cavedog will try to work its magic this spring.

Total Annihilation obliterated the early real-time strategy (RTS) champs, but the stakes have been raised by Myth s gorgeous 3D environments and Star-Crafts immersive story line. Now Cavedog is firing another volley with Total Annihilation Kingdoms, and the battle shall begin anew.

Shakespearean Strategy

Looking to improve the weak plot elements of the original TA. Cavedog has borrowed a theme from King Lear. Kingdoms sets four bickering royals on a quest to take over their fallen father's land. Each monarch wields the power of an element, drawing their power from the game's sole resource, mana. You place receptacles over "Lodestones" to replenish your power faster.

As opposed to the race-based campaigns of most RTS titles, Kingdoms offers just one story line that jumps back and forth between all four clans and spans 48 missions. Unfortunately, Kingdoms has ditched TA's difficulty adjustment and careens from mind-numbingly easy to nigh impossible in one tragic step.

Balancing Act

Each kingdoms advantage lies in its elemental power--air, fire, water, or earth. The quasi-unique races are dubiously balanced for multiplayer challenges (there are questionable problems, like the Zhon race's lack of queues), but there's little rhyme or reason to the technology trees, and it's often difficult to visually discern one type of foot-soldier unit from another.

Total Annihilation.. .of Variety

Kingdoms' excellent character designs are enhanced by fluid animations and energetic battle cries, from the screech of Griffons to the lightning blast of a Mage Tower. The landscapes are vivid and crisp, but they, along with the placid score, suffer from lack of variety. Kingdoms' clunky map editor allows you to choose between tile sets for each race, but the sets are all strikingly similar--hardly the variety offered in StarCraft. Luckily, both the visuals and audio shine during battle; you'll cringe at the wet thunks of mortal blows and gape at the spectacular blasts of magic.

Kingdoms is an exciting, energetic RTS. but each of its elements has already been outdone by superior games. Fans of the TA franchise or RTS freaks who've played out everything else won't be disappointed, but this Kingdom isn't the fairest in the land.

ProTips:

  • Use two or more building units to quickly summon defensive structures in a jam.
  • Don't spread yourself too thin. Fully defend each Lodestone with towers before moving on.
  • You have a foothold, keep your precious Monarch buried in the heart of your defenses and use basic building units to advance.
  • When defending an all-out assault, set your magic users to attack with their most powerful spells.
  • Place towers or projectile attackers with good lines of sight and elevation whenever possible.

Graphics

Kingdoms supports 3D hardware, but there's no zoom mode or rotation, a la Myth. Superb lighting and magic effects dazzle the battlefield, and incredibly lifelike unit animations make you believe in the bloody mayhem--but variety, this game ain't got.

Sound

If Kingdoms' royal score and unit battle cries don't float your ferry, its screeching, crashing, and piercing echoes of war will leave no doubt that Cavedog knows how to put you in the midst of real-time warfare. But again, where's the variety?

Control

The units move fine, but the pseudorally point system is weak, there's no mouse double-clicking to select all units of a particular type, and it's awfully hard to figure out who's who. StarCraft doesn't make these mistakes.

Fun Factor

Kingdoms improves on TA's lame story line, but falls short of the epic Star-Craft, while the four races aren't unique enough to warrant completely different strategies. It's still a great game, but the parts of this sum have been outdone by other games.

Overview

The world ruler has gone missing and the world has been divided into four nations, each ruled by one of his children. Each nation is associated with one of the classic alchemical elements, Earth, Fire, Water, and Air, and they each have strengths and weaknesses accordingly. Taros, the nation associated with Fire, is heavily dependent on magic to achieve victory, where Aramon, associated with Earth, is very traditionally mechanical. Zhon, the nation of air, has many flying beasts with which to wreak havoc upon the other nations ground troops, and Veruna, the nation of water, has the best navy by far.

Gameplay, Controls, Interface

The single player game is wonderful, if a bit hard to follow at times -- instead of having a campaign for each nation, there is a single campaign and you play each of the nations as you go. I've encountered more engrossing storylines, but for a real-time strategy this one works fairly well. There are 48 missions in the campaigns to challenge you and if that's not enough you can go into the "Fight The Machine" option which allows you to play a skirmish on the multiplayer maps against computer-controlled foes. Add to that the multiplayer support and you have a game that will keep you challenged.

Kingdoms has playability coming out its ears. If you've played Total Annihilation you'll feel right at home -- the game controls are almost identical. The simple resource gathering (find Mana sites, build Lodestones) doesn't get in the way of the fun, but since you have to have the resources to compete, defending your Lodestones is important enough to make the game strategic rather than a slugfest of massive armies. The only problem I had with the game was the lack of the ability to easily reclaim your own buildings and units. Total Annihilation had the option, but it's missing in Kingdoms. You can now only reclaim corpses and destroyed structures (if they leave anything at all).

Graphics

The graphics are beautiful. Kingdoms was built using the same engine as Total Annihilation and as such looks very similar, but they've increased the detail a great deal. Capes flap in the wind and you can see the pebbles on the beaches. That being said, however, I do have a complaint with the graphics as this upgraded engine uses 3D acceleration for some of the magic effects and the hardware/driver support leaves a little to be desired in some situations. When I first looked at Kingdoms, the magic effects around building units didn't blend correctly and looked VERY bad. Instead of little red bubbles around the building unit, there were red squares overlaid. This really isn't that big of an issue, as the game looks wonderful with the software acceleration.

Audio

Once again, Cavedog has done a great job here as the background music is epic in nature. There are times that I just want a soundtrack CD to play in the car on the way to work. Each of the units has unique sounds that are easily recognizable and are very fitting to the unit appearance.

System Requirements

Windows 95/98, Pentium 233, 32 MB RAM, 80 MB hard disk space, & 4X CD-ROM drive.

Multiplayer

The multiplayer capabilities in Kingdoms are similar to those in Total Annihilation. You have complete control over game settings and you can play with up to seven of your friends. Kingdoms comes with MANY multiplayer maps, but if you want to use them all, you will need 128 MB of RAM in everybody's machines as some of the maps are HUGE!

Documentation

The game came with a nice, easy-to-read book describing game controls and each of the basic units for each nation, along with a well-written back-story.

Patches/Updates

There have been six new units released since the release of Kingdoms at the time of this writing and I definitely recommend picking them up, as each changes the feel of the nation it's designed for and opens up new strategies. There has also been a 2.0 patch released that improves speed a great deal and addresses a few small balance and playability issues.

Bottom Line

TA: Kingdoms was a lot of fun to play and I look forward to any add-ons that may be forthcoming. This game has made my short list of games that I play regularly, even with all the minor annoyances, and I definitely recommend it for any fan of the real-time strategy genre.

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