First off, I should apologize for not having this review up sooner. I've had news about it posted in the What's New Section for about two weeks now, but the link to it has been bad. It probably doesn't matter to any of you, but I'm just practicing my apologies for the day when I have a readership greater than half-a-dozen people.
September 17 marked the first day of Real Time Strategy Week. Dark Reign, the long-awaited cabbage patch kid of the RTS genre, fired the first shot in what looked to be a bloody war. Big releases were scheduled for this period; Dark Colony, 7th Legion, Conquest Earth, Dark Reign, and Total Annihilation. Everyone would get hurt, but gamers knew the fight was really going to be between the heavyweights, Dark Reign and Total Annihilation.
At that point, Dark reign had been released a week early. Gamers everywhere rejoiced. Copies were swept from the shelf. The owner of the local EB tried to strangle me because I bothered him so much. GT Interactive decided that giving DR a week on the shelves would be too much, so they responded with emergency Saturday shipments to some stores, and pumped out the copies as quickly as they could. Both games, once received, were played furiously for a few weeks. And when the dust cleared, I was kinda surprised. The game that nearly everyone was ready to put their gaming dollar on, lost. I'll admit, I neglected TA for the first week that I had it, and concentrated instead on DR. But I've put that mistake behind me; Dark Reign was fun, but Total Annihilation is gaming hedonism at its best.
Just to start, I have to rave about the intro movie. Its really builds a sweeping feeling of a huge war. Talk about epic... The galaxy once knew peace. 'Paradise was ruled by the hand of science,' is how the manual reads. Eventually, a method is discovered by which consciousness can be transferred from flesh to machine. The process is made mandatory to keep the citizens safe. Not everyone's too pleased about this - these people leave the core of the galaxy for a spiral arm. 'Not so fast,' says the government, and starts shooting. Or somebody started shooting. And so, without any official declaration of war, a 4,000 year conflict starts between the Core and the Arm. The actual civilizations no longer exist; the remnants of their mighty armies, after destroying a million worlds in the conflict, continue to slug it out. Makes the name of the game kinda fitting, eh?
Certainly the most striking aspect of the game is its 3D art. Gone are the animated sprites from days of old. Total Annihilation's units are all polygon based, meaning they can be viewed from any angle. They look just great as they drive, walk, fly, and float over, on and through the terrain. And speaking of the terrain, its gorgeous. Its almost as if the units are moving over a bas-relief map or oil painting. The images here speak for themselves. On top of that, the game can be played in a number of different resolutions: 640 x 480, 800 x 600, 1024 x 768, and a whopping 1280 x 1024. When you really start pushing pixels in those heavy battles, 800 x 600 is probably as high as you'll want to go. 3D hardware is not supported, although Cavedog has hinted that there may be a patch in the future.
The play balance is great. Each side boasts about 60 units & buildings. My primary concern when I initially heard this was that there would be such a glut of units that many of them would be useless. Interestingly, this is not the case. Though largely dependent on an individual's playing style, a well- balanced strategy will include nearly all the game's units. Powerful, slow moving bombers are easy prey if they venture out on a sortie without a fighter escort. The heaviest warship is defenseless against submarine attack without an adequate picket line of destroyers or cruisers. In addition, construction time will play a big role in your purchasing decisions. While you tried to build your dozen Millennium Battleships, your opponent had been building a more diverse, less expensive force. This kind of balancing helps to ensures that a well rounded force has a better chance of succeeding, instead of the tired 'tank rush' attack.
The game's interface is simplicity itself. I had balked at Dark Reign's options initially; I was happy to see them, but sometimes they were a bit too much to handle. I will say that I missed them once I moved to TA, but not for long. Each unit's behaviors can be tailored to a certain extent; one button switches the unit from 'Hold Fire,' to 'Return Fire,' to 'Fire At Will'. The next button determines how much maneuvering a unit will do: 'Hold Position,' 'Maneuver,' and 'Roam'. Not quite as much flexibility as DR, but you won't miss it. Another impressive feature is the ability to queue any number and any combination of orders on a unit. For example, click a construction vehicle, and tell it to move here, gather this tree, gather this wreckage, repair this factory, build a turret here and here, then move here and patrol this area. This takes a lot of pressure off of the player and allows you to coordinate several operations at a time without botching any of them. Combine this option with hotkey controls for any order in the game, and you've got a quick and easy two-finger interface. One armed persons should stick to Command & Conquer.
Multiplay in Total Annihilation is intense. Something all RTS games share in their multiplay characteristics is the scramble feeling. 'Get your stuff built first,' is an axiom to win by. A major factor in that intensity is that there are so many things you could build that there is no standard recipe for building a force. C&C, for example, has a weapons factory and barracks. Dark Reign has the same (both of which you upgrade). In TA, there are 4 factories you can build for ground units, 2 for air, and 2 for sea. You cannot expect to run up against any one type of unit in a game; it depends entirely on the chosen strategy and ultimately the preference of your opponent(s). In TA, you have to be smart, not just strong.
If I had to sum up exactly what it is about TA that makes it so much more appealing over all the other RTS games out there, it would have to be this: depth. There is just so much great stuff in this game. There are so many ways to defeat your opponent, so many ways to pull a losing battle out of the fire, that it will be a while before a 'killer' strategy is developed, if one even does emerge (the tank rush in C&C is an example). Add to this the fact that starting the first week in November, Cavedog will be posting new downloadable units to the Total Annihilation Web Site, and you have a recipie for a game that can only get better. A terrain editor is also in the works.
Hey, if you only buy one real-time strategy game this year, you're a freak. But make sure you pick up a copy of this game. Questions? Check out the aforementioned Total Annihilation web site's FAQ. Also, check out OGR's Total Annihilation Strategy Guide, at . You'll be glad you did!