Six years ago, at a time of high excitement for the real-time strategy genre, a good-looking click-and-drag number was released called Total Annihilation. Harking from an unknown US developer, the game was initially dismissed as a Command & Conquer clone, its chief selling point seeming to be the fairly inevitable move to full 3D units. Slowly, however, the game began to reveal its true depths. This wasn't just C&C-plus, this was war on a scale beyond compare, with dozens of uniquely useful units and a wealth of strategic options that remain extraordinary to this day.
Six years on, Total Annihilation has proved to be one of the most enduring and playable RTS games ever. Mods and total conversions are still in production, new units still appear on the Net on a regular basis, and the game is still played by hundreds of fans every day - which is more than can be said for contemporaries like Quake II and Age of Empires. Few would argue it's one of the best RTS games ever constructed.
GO FORTH AND CONQUER
Total Annihilation's basic strategy was to advance the existing RTS blueprint in every possible direction. Familiar elements were cribbed from the likes of Command & Conquer, but there was also a huge amount of innovation at a micro-level. TA's chief architect Chris Taylor is candid about his inspirations.
"I was walking around E3 in 1995, checking out what everyone else had been up to when I came across Command & Conquer. I'd already heard about it and I was a fan of Westwood's Dune 2, but when I played C&C I was blown away. Until then, I'd become something of a career sports game developer, having worked on Hardball 2 and 4-D Boxing, but after playing C&C I said to myself, that's it, I'm going to build a real-time strategy game; no more sports games, from here on in it's tanks and jet fighters!"
Let's Get Together
In order to fulfil his dream of "making things blow up", Chris called an old friend from his days working at Accolade, Shelley Day, who, along with industry legend Ron Gilbert (of Monkey Island fame), ran kiddie software developer Humongous Entertainment.
Ron Gilbert was keen for Humongous to branch out and set up a division geared towards a more mature market, and Chris's idea of "the ultimate war game" seemed to take root. Soon after, Chris was drafted in to lead the development on the studio's first game, Total Annihilation. All that was left (apart from development) was to come up with a suitable studio name. In the end it came down to a flip of the coin. Heads, it was Frozen Yak; tails, it was Cavedog. The sheltered canine won.
Earth, Wind And Fire
When work on Total Annihilation began in January 1996, Chris's objectives were clear; the game was to feature true 3D terrain (as opposed to the split level-style maps of C&C), polygon rather than spritebased units and a gameworld that obeyed basic physical laws. These included true line-of-sight, proper ballistics and even wind and water effects.
"We were happy with the results of our early code experiments," says Chris was exciting and we hac hopes for the way the various units would move. When a unit fired, we wanted its weapon barrel to recoil, a muzzle flash and smoke. The shell would then fly in a perfect arc and when hit, a unit would jolt. When we had all the physics and basic graphics done, it was then just a case of sitting down and writing the game."
With most rival games offering less than half the content, you'd assume TA was a nightmare project. The game featured 150 land, sea and air units. 50 single-player missions and many multiplayer options. Surely the more physical objects a game has, the harder it is to build, test and balance?
"Yes, but we were very efficient," grins Chris. "The game was finished around September 1997 - about 20 months development time in total. We had a bunch of different schedules, but in the end it was just a giant sprint to the finish line. There are always problems, but nothing we couldn't overcome. And there were a lot of things we wanted to include in the game that had to be scrapped.
"For example, bridges - we wanted to give the player the ability to build and destroy them, something that's still difficult to do today, six years later."
Despite the inclusion of Mech-style walker units, tanks, planes, ships, static gun emplacements and all the required buildings to create them. Chris felt early on in TA's development that the game lacked a certain something. "I wanted to close the gap between the player and the game." he says. "Rather than watch from above. I wanted to take you to the battlefield and involve you at a more personal level. That's when I thought of the Commander; the ultimate end-all unit-you."
One of TA's true strokes of genius, the Commander was central to the game. If he died, it was game over - but he wasn't a typical desk-bound general, hidden away and protected. He could build all the basic level units in the game faster than any of the Construction bots. He could reclaim resources from the battlefield, repair, cloak and detect enemy units and walk underwater. Best of all, he was well armed and fully armoured, with the game's most powerful weapon - the D-Gun.
Willing And Able
However, in spite of their awesome capabilities, it's not the Commanders that Chris remembers most fondly from the game, but the humble KBot - the lurching, stumbling metallic foot soldiers of TA.
"They had real personality." enthuses Chris. "We came up with KBots just to add more alternatives for players. Some people like conventional units: others prefer ones that are more unique. Units are like toys: no matter how many you have, you get bored with them. Ergo, the more fun units you have, the less chance of falling asleep at the keyboard."
Give The Dog A Bone
Soon after TA was released. Cavedog began releasing units for download from its website. The aim might have been to stave off player boredom, but the result was a rapidly ballooning and hugely loyal fanbase. Frequent forum visits from the Cavedog team also fed this phenomenon, as did the popularity of the 3D unit viewer released before the game.
"We felt really good about the game three-quarters of the way through development." says Chris. "But until the game was out there, we were never sure how people would react. In the end. the new toys including response we got was very, very positive, and it was followed up by the mods and cool strategies which were fantastic to see evolve over the years. "To be honest. I was blown away and never expected the game to take off the way it did. The multiplayer was very important for that, and after it shipped, it was even more important than we first thought. In fact, we added co-operative multiplayer because everyone was insisting that we supported team play."
With plans for four expansion packs and a full-blown sequel already in place. Cavedog began taking steps to capitalise on the success of its debut. It quickly did with 1998's TA: The Core Contingency, an add-on that complemented TA's already massive arsenal with nearly a hundred submarines and seaplanes. Soon after its completion. Chris Taylor decided it was time to move on.
Cooking With Gas
"I left for various reasons." says Chris. "The biggest was my personal dream of starting my own company, and the time was right to make that happen."
Cavedog continued regardless, but soon the free downloads began to dry up and the second expansion. TA: Battle Tactics was a disappointing addition, full of maps but lacking real substance.
Rather than begin a proper TA2, it was decided that TA's next follow-up would be a fantasy-themed RTS. The result was Total Annihilation: Kingdoms. While the game looked good and offered a range of unique units. TA: K lacked the frenetic pace of its predecessor and was plagued with performance issues. Just after its release at the end of 1999. Taylor's Gas Powered Games announced Dungeon Siege. Six months later, having cancelled the promising FPS Amen: The Awakening. Cavedog was put down by struggling publisher GT Interactive.
Despite its short life. Cavedog's legacy remains strong. Among its contemporaries and even against more modern games, TA remains highly playable and unique. Few games from that era. if any. can claim to have stood the test of time so well.
"It comes down to the team members who brought it all together.'' concludes Chris Taylor. "Aspects like the free flowing nature of the design, the flexible engine design which supports mods and the interface are all things I'm proud of. Also, much of the credit must go to the mod community, which kept the game fresh with all the new units, maps and Al improvements. They did an amazing job and still do. I still have a look over the TA community occasionally and it amazes me that after six years, people are still creating content for the game."
Download Total Annihilation
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Luckily, from some extensive sessions both single player and across a four player network, it would appear that TA is in quite another league. The units behave in an incredibly intelligent manner (if that's the correct expression) and if the development hype is to be believed, the fact that "real life" military tactics were fed into the Al engine would explain this. Unlike the loony units in C&Cit's rare to see your chaps careering off in the wrong direction for no apparent reason. Occasionally you will find your fellas wandering astray, but if you leave them you soon learn that they are simply exploring a slight deviation to the obvious route. Real soldiers do that (we're told). Apparently it 'spreads the risk.' Regardless of how clever this may be, it stops you slamming your mouse against the desktop in frustration - and this is a 'good thing'.
It is actually better than...
There are lots of important points to cover here and they all lead to one fact... something that I should probably point out now rather than later. Total Annihilation is actually better than Command & Conquer- and Warcraft II, and all the others that I've played so far. There - said it. There are numerous technical reasons that make the game better... like the fact that it has proper 3D terrain so that you can hide units in valleys or set up artillery on hilltops to gain an advantage. Or that it operates a Tine of sight' model that prevents units from seeing round corners or over hills. Or that all of the units in the game are constructed from polygons rather than sprites so you can see the way the terrain affects them as they trundle around. But at the end of the day it's the way it feels that really counts, and TA has, ultimately, that special something that feels genuinely exciting.
You know in the later levels of C&C when you've built up absolutely quadrillions of tanks and troops and other junk with huge guns on top? You know how good it feels when you role this lot into the heart of the enemy base and just stomp all over everything? Well that's the feeling that the designers of this have clearly been focusing on. In C&C it was a fun but infrequent experience. In TA you find yourself with an awful lot of firepower at your disposal in a relatively short space of time and whether you like it or not this just prickles your adrenal gland enough to throw you into a destructive frenzy.
Part of the reason for this is that there are no ground troops per se - absolutely no cannon fodder whatsoever. Instead you start the game with just one unit... the commander, and unlike any other games of this type this guy is actually you, and therefore must be protected at all costs. Fortunately the commander is a big dude resembling one of the larger, lumbering Meehs from MechWarrior and as well as being the centre of the resource management, he is also armed to the teeth with laser turrets and a fantastic nuke-style 'D-Gun' that can wipe out any unit on the board in one shot... an obviously expensive (it sucks away power like a veritable bastard), if ultimately satisfying way of annihilating the competition. Along with this he can also repair units and salvage wreckage from the battlefield when your resources are running particularly low.
As stated, the commander absolutely has to be protected at all costs - you use him to establish your base, and he is also the hub of pretty much all the important activity. A typical level will start with him and a number of pre-built units such as tanks or basic artillery. Before attempting to go after your mission goal (set out in, it has to be said, one of the most boring-but-functional briefings ever), you must establish a base from which to operate. Unlike C&C, you can build anywhere you want - all you have to do is make sure that you produce a sufficient level of the games' two main resources; metal and energy. Once you have built solar power stations or wind generators or whatever and built a few mines you are free to build some of the more exciting stuff.
The units in Total Annihilation are broken down into four main types... KBOTS, which are Meeh style chaps, units such as tanks, missile launchers etc., airborne units and sea-faring units. Each of these is subdivided into scouts, light and heavy attack vehicles as well as either construction or transport craft. As you progress you can build more advanced factories, and with improved technology come more spectacular units. Alongside the mobile units you also find that as you progress through 'tech levels' you can also build defensive and offensive structures with which to pummel your opponent. Huge plasma guns called 'Big Berthas' can obliterate bases from miles away, laser turrets can defend your base from the enemy onslaught - whilst nukes can be used to take out whole areas of land. Cool.
The 'feel' thing
I must say that my early experiences with this were a bit up-and-down to say the least. We had a crack at a multi-player game first, and this really was fab. Four of us were locked in mortal combat using just about every unit that the game has to offer... and it was brilliant. The satisfaction gained from bombarding a base with your battleships whilst sending in fighters to knock out perimeter defences and then rolling in heavy bombers to flatten the place is unparalleled. Red Alert really can't match it. Don't even think about how much fun rumbling the tanks in before nuking the place is... because your head will explode. When I first played the single player campaign though, I was a bit disappointed. All this talk of using the elevation of the land to your advantage whilst hiding your units in little nooks and crannies seemed to take a back seat to the C&C style 'round up lots of tanks and things with big guns and then just rumble in and blow the crap out of everything' approach. Where was all the subtlety? Where were all the little features that made the multiplayer game such a joy?
They turn up later. Persevere with the campaign mode and it really is a rewarding your ultimate impression will be that this is a refined development of real-time strategy gaming. It nods its head towards the way this kind of thing is clearly going (3D... you can bet your bum-fluff that C&C2 will be in 3D spinny-round-o-vision) whilst clearly acknowledging peoples' loves and hates about the genre as a whole. It's not particularly original, and it may ultimately be 'one of the many', but as far as I'm concerned it's certainly the best of the bunch. Personally I prefer it to C&C, but the score is lower simply because Westwood's game set such a precedent. People will always remember C&C, and Red Alert's score of 94 was a reflection of this - but at the end of the day people won't say 'a Total Annihilation style game' in the future. Shame.
Before groaning "not another real-time strategy game," take a good look at Total Annihilation. Granted, it's another title in the C&C genre, but Total Annihilation has features and graphics that could push it to the head of the class.
Annihilation sports fantastic graphics, especially the incredibly detailed attack units. One unit, a walking mech, actually pulls out its rifle and obliterates targets. The explosions feature flying debris and colorful blasts. The various 3D battle environments are depicted with equal detail, from the green trees in forest areas to the plateaus and rocks in barren deserts.
Real physics also apply to Total Annihilation. For example, if you set a tree ablaze, the wind can create a forest fire, while vehicles will slow down when going up a hill or speed up when going down.
The action is point-and-click, and the objective is simple: Obliterate your opponent. Other tactics, however, include salvaging opponents' wrecked vehicles to collect valuable resources and combining land and sea forces. For example, you can drop a tank on a battle cruiser for added firepower.
Annihilate the Competition
Although it's far from finished, Total Annihilation looks like a hot title. This is one real-time strategy game that has the potential to total the rest of the field.
The latest in a long line of real-time strategy games, Total Annihilation may use the tried-and-true Command & Conquer game engine, but so far it doesn't come off as a run-of-the-mill clone. The controls in the pre-alpha version are very responsive. It's easy to move various units around, and the actions menu is easily accessible. Only 5 of the 50 terrains are available at this stage, but they're challenging, with hills to climb and trees to clear. The game still has several features to be implemented before it ships, but so far, so good. This title could annihilate the competition.
Since Command and Conquer rocked our hard drives with the benchmark for real-time strategy gaming, many others have followed with their "new and improved" stabs at this lucrative market. Wading through the sea of C&C clones for the past two years has been frustrating, to say the least, because none (in my opinion) have come close to the plot immersion and detail that C&C created. Until now -- Cavedog's Total Annihilation is the first real-time war game that captured my undivided attention since the original C&C hit the shelves.
The Total Annihilation storyline revolves around the ancient conflict between the Arm and the Core. Of course they hate each other and would do anything to eliminate the other from the galaxy. Your army will be made up of Kbots, tanks, planes, and ships, all mechanical (no human units here), adding to the futuristic feel of the game. The first thing you will notice are the incredible graphics and animations of the units; then you will be awe-stricken by the realistic terrain complete with hills, valleys, rivers, and realistic ground cover; finally you will feel overwhelmed at the number and diversity of unit types at your disposal. Needless to say, I rushed home the minute I got my hands on the CD and fired it up on my new Pentium II 266 ... I was not disappointed.
The controls and overhead view of Total Annihilation are standard for real-time games. You will have no problem figuring out how to move your units, group them, etc. There are a lot more things you can do in Total Annihilation than in other games of this type, so there is a slight learning curve you will have to go through to be the most effective. In Total Annihilation, the most important and powerful unit you have is the Commander; you don't want to lose him. Fortunately, he is not a building that is defenseless and stationary -- he is mobile, he can cloak (at a price) and he has one seriously bad weapon that can destroy most units with a single shot. Even if surrounded by enemy units, the commander won't fold and go down easily; he is also easy to hide and protect for those who are a little extra paranoid. Don't get me wrong -- you still have to watch your commander every now and then to be sure he's alive and kicking, but since he is no pushover you can think about that air raid you are conducting and not worry about a couple of engineers taking over your primary unit and thus ending your game.
The resource system is divided in two parts, metal and energy, both of which are critical to your success. It is much easier to get energy than metal, so I found that the game revolves around who can control the largest supply of metal. To get energy you simply need to construct a few solar generators or windmills in the center of your defenses, and presto, instant energy. For metal, you must plop a metal extractor on top of a metal mine which is usually not right in the middle of your base. Yes, you will have to venture out and plan your offense to include securing as many metal mines as possible. The player with the most metal mines will usually win because they can out-produce their opponents since every unit built requires metal. Another way of getting metal is to salvage it from battle wreckage, but I found that this is somewhat time-consuming for little result, so unless the reusable metal was close to or in my base it was not worth getting.
You will notice a multitude of units at your disposal, ranging from ground units to air and sea assault forces. I had plenty of fun optimizing my forces with the right mix of units to get the job done most effectively. With a mobile commander and construction units, it was easy to build outposts or expand my base to occupy more and more of the map. One of the best elements of the game is the ability to program your units. You can automate their actions and attitudes in relation to battle situations as well as set patrol routes, etc. The controls are quite intuitive and Cavedog deserves praise for the job they did in this area.
Finally, Cavedog promises the ability to download new units from their website on a weekly basis. This should keep the game fresh and interesting. Better check often unless you want your best friend to walk all over you with the new whup-ass tank that just came out.
In 100 words or less -- outstanding. This game truly rocks in the graphics department. The system requirements may be a little steep, but on my Pentium II I ran the game in 1024 X 768 and never experienced a slowdown! For those with lower-end systems, never fear; you can change the resolution to fit just about every situation. Every unit is rendered in 3D for a very realistic feel, and the terrain varies from flat to mountainous, with deserts, oceans, rivers, lakes, lava pits, and other planetary schemes as well. It is rare to get such high marks in graphics from me, but Total Annihilation deserves every bit of it. Plus the level of the terrain actually affects your units' ability to move and their line-of-sight to targets, adding a couple of new dimensions to the real-time strategy game.
Total Annihilation has excellent sound effects, very crisp and distinguished. In the middle of a large battle I could hear the different weapons firing and the individual explosions wreaking havoc on the battlefield. The soundtrack was good as well, just not my style. I like some serious rock and roll to go along with all the destruction, and sometimes the musical score was a little less punctuated, even classical. That is a personal gripe, though; overall the quality of the sound effects and music were again outstanding.
Multiplayer is supported in a variety of ways and through a number of different online services, including DWANGO, M-Player, HEAT, and KALI, and this is where the game really shines for me. The balance of the two sides is good and you can get into some extremely heated battles with exciting finishes. Last night a friend and I played for over two hours, each building up formidable defenses and then conducting raids and bombing runs on each other's outposts. This is certainly a game that favors defense, though -- once you are fortified, woe be to the guy who marches his mechs into the teeth of your laser and missile batteries. I say it favors defense, but there is one offensive weapon that can undo all that in a hurry -- the nuclear missiles. Unlike the "barely scratched me" effect of the nukes in the C&C universe, in Total Annihilation one nuclear bomb really does ruin your day. And your base. And your commander. Once my opponent got nukes, it was all over in a matter of minutes; the first strike completely wiped out my main base -- everything on the screen was vaporized, and from there I had no way of getting back the resources I needed to retaliate. Nonetheless, despite that one tactical oversight in terms of balance, I still highly recommend this game for multiplayer fans -- it adds many new twists to the genre and forces an entirely different type of thinking about your strategies.
Editor's Note: We have received several emails from readers who say "yes, but what about the anti-missile batteries? You can defend yourself against nukes with those." True, but should there ever be a single weapon in a game that can end a 2-hour battle with a single blow? Because resources are so easy to come by in Total Annihilation_, it seems that an epic game should not boil down to a race to build a nuke before your enemy builds an anti-missile defense. It's out of balance with the power of the rest of the units in the game; thus the note to that effect above._
Minimum: Win95 or DOS; 16 MB RAM (8 for DOS); SVGA 256 colors; 4X CD-ROM drive; SoundBlaster or compatible sound card.
Premium: Pentium 100 or higher; 16 MB RAM; Win 95, 28.8 modem, etc.
Warning: The box is more than a tad bit misleading about real-life system requirements. Here is the REAL optimum configuration: Win 95, 32 MB RAM, 6X CD-ROM drive, SVGA 256 colors, SoundBlaster, 28.8 modem. In DOS you can get by with 16MB RAM. In multiplayer you MUST have 32 MB RAM or it simply will not run.
Reviewed On: Pentium 133, 16 MB RAM, SVGA 256 colors, 6X CD-ROM drive, SoundBlaster compatible sound card, 28.8 modem, Trio 64 S3 video board with 1MB RAM
From reading the above you might expect me to give this game a very high score, and you are right; it won't be shabby. However, I don't believe Total Annihilation to be a classic like C&C, and to understand why you need to play the single-player game all the way through. Total Annihilation lacks one critical element that would have put it on my all-time list, and that involves immersion. In other words, the storyline and between-mission cinematics (which were somewhat lacking) did not suck me in as C&C did. I felt that Total Annihilation was incomplete in some sense, that if it could be placed within the shell of C&C it would truly shine, never to be dethroned. As it stands now, Total Annihilation is still a heck of a game which will keep any fan of this genre occupied for months to come. I give it a score of 88; now back to the battle!