Hello all! Last week, I talked about a really short but fun Western game.
This week brings us to a classic RTS from the early days of strategy titles.
Total Annihilation is a real-time strategy title from Cavedog, known for...um...Total Annihilation (and, to a lesser extent, Total Annihilation: Kingdoms). In TA, you play as one side in a war between two factions known as Core and Arm. Core is made up of people who have transferred their consciousness to machines, therefore attaining functional immortality, while Arm consists of those who have rejected this idea. Thus begins a 4000 year long war between the two.
It sounds like a good setup, but like a lot of strategy games (especailly old ones like this), TA’s primary focus is on gameplay; hence, the plot kind of takes a back seat. By today’s standards especially, TA is very old-fashioned, yet it’s got a couple of neat ideas. For example, despite being an RTS, resource management is...well, it initially seems hardly like management at all. Metal and energy pour in indefinitely provided your metal extractors and solar collectors are up; there’s no real danger of permanently running out. There is a danger of spending too fast, and that’s where things get complicated; spend more than you intake and you’ll stall out, having to essentially cease building things until you can get back to a reasonable baseline—if you run out of energy, radar towers and metal extractors, among other things, will shut down. What results is a simple system that quickly becomes complex and has a nice risk/reward element to it. What’s cool is being able to harvest downed enemy units for metal. That’s a unique element we don’t see even today.
TA’s gameplay itself is, again, old-school; like Command & Conquer, strategies generally revolve around building a relatively diverse force of units, band-selecting all of them, and marching them into the enemy base. Core and Arm units are more or less equal (Arm is a little quicker, Core is a little tougher), and both consist of mechs, fighters, etc. A neat wrinkle is the Commander: your top unit, the Commander is responsible for building structures (at least, in the early stages of a battle). He’s also incredibly tough, and has a devastating weapon called the D-Gun. Lose the commander, however, and you lose the battle. So, again, risk/reward: do you send the Commander into battle, knowing he can turn things around? Because it could cost you the match if you’re not careful.
Total Annihilation was a bit ahead of its time in a few ways. The unique resource management system, terrain height factoring into the gameplay despite the 2D maps, a (very simple) bullet physics engine at work...yet by virtue of the game’s style of play, it can seem somewhat quaint today. The graphics are one thing, but as I replayed the game for this article, I started to really notice the small maps, the lack of variety between the two factions, the whole “throw robots at each other until you win” gameplay...it’s a little tough to go back to something like this when, if you’re like me, you’ve spent entire nights outthinking opponents in Civilization.
Then again, Total Annihilation doesn’t really have to be deep or cerebral; I mean, it’s called Total Annihilation. The whole thing, specifically, is about robots destroying each other. It’s a weird thing to go back to this game today; on the one hand, it’s simple and something of a relic. But on the other hand, I, personally, still find it fun. Part of me feels that I like it because I played it back in the day; Total Annihilation would be a hard sell to people who never played it before. The game, for me, is a study in contrasts—it’s a strategy game with minimal depth, it’s got a large variety of units but no real need for complex tactics. It’s simple compared to today’s strategy titles.
And yet, developers continue to revisit this style but can’t seem to really nail it. Total Annihilation’s designer, Chris Taylor, went on to create Supereme Commander, seen as the spiritual successor to Total Annihilation, and it’s pretty good! But it’s missing something that made TA work. I don’t know what it is. Planetary Annihilation, a game by former Cavedog employees, doesn’t have “it” either; it’s quickly bogged down by control and interface problems. So what made Total Annihilation work so well?
In other words, Total Annihilation has a variety of systems running under the hood, like the bullet physics and terrain and whatnot, but they’re all in service to the game’s ultimate goal—making you feel like a badass robot general. Every single feature in the game is designed to make you quickly amass a giant robo-army and crush your enemies in a frantic, furious robot battle. See, as I replayed the game for this article, I came to realize that the features Total Annihilation is “missing,” compared to games of today, are things it doesn’t need in the first place. I look at the seemingly brainless action of Total Annihilation and I realize—it’s not a symptom of the game’s age. It’s the objective of its design. “Ah,” I say to myself, “it’s entirely supposed to be ceaseless action and destruction.” A “blow ‘em up good” game, as my father used to say.
And that’s fine. I love strategy games, but not every single one I play needs to be about politically outwitting Caesar or whatever the hell it is you do in Crusader Kings 2 (seriously I’m so lost in that game you guys). Sometimes it’s fun to build 5000 units (really) and watch them go at it. And that’s where Total Annihilation delivers. It’s funny; during my replay, I was all set to write about how aged this game was, but now I’ve rediscovered it instead. It goes to show you how amazing games really are.
Thanks always for reading this possibly too-long series of goofy, rambling articles. I have a Twitter and I like talking to people, so follow me!
Next week-I write about a GTA clone that’s a buggy mess. But it takes place in my home city, so I can’t hate it that much. The city name’s in the title, by the way.