|With the success of Total Annihilation, Cavedog has pretty big
shoes to fill with its next title, Total Annihilation: Kingdoms. The original TA has drawn
a huge following of RTS gamers who adore it for the variety of units and its multiplayer
experience. With Kingdoms, Cavedog is trying to capture the magic that made TA a winner
and integrate into a fantasy genre. With strong multiplayer support, fantastic graphics
and a stronger single-player campaign, Cavedog has largely succeeded in creating another
Kingdoms is set in the magical world of Darien, a medieval land divided into four kingdoms, each based on one of the four elements. Elsin the Fair rules the kingdom of Aramon and has domain over the element of earth. Thirsha the Huntress rules the wild kingdom of Zhon and controls the element of air. Lokken is the fire mage and rules the strange, twisted domain of Taros. Kirenna is the sea mage and rules the land of Veruna. The four mages are siblings and are battling each other over power and ideals. Elsin and Kirenna represent the side of Good while Lokken and Thirsha represent Evil. Granted fantastic magical powers by ancient talismans that they each possess, the four lead their kingdoms in a struggle to control the world of Darien.
Graphically, the game is absolutely beautiful, though this beauty comes at a cost. Unlike TA, the terrain graphics of Kingdoms are as detailed and crisp as the unit graphics. Everything, from trees to grass to stone, is finely textured and blended. Unit animations are smooth and varied, from archers drawing bowstrings to swordsman and executioners swinging weapons in big arcs. The audio is also wonderful, with excellent sound effects and background music that sets the mood without becoming monotonous. The price of this splendor is, of course, system requirements. Though the box lists the minimum requirements as a P233MMX with 32mb of RAM, the realistic minimum is a P2-300 with 64mb. If you want to run at resolutions higher than 640x480 youll need even more. Even with a P3-450 and 128mb of RAM, Kingdoms chops during scrolling at 1024x768 and bogs down when there are lots of units on the screen. The game includes options to lower the graphic detail so it runs smoother, such as turning off shadows, shading and unit sounds. Its interesting to note that a fast graphics card is not a great asset, because Kingdoms uses software rendering for the backgrounds. Thus, the game is much more dependent on processor power than the graphics card. One thing I found amusing: the manual lists ways of adjusting your system for better performance, and one of them is "Buy more RAM or a faster computer." Its far more economical to turn down game details for smoother performance, dont you think?
Gameplay is smooth and addictive, and flows much like TA and other RTS games. In the skirmish and multiplayer modes, the object is to use your mage character to establish a base that will produce combat and support structures. There is only one resource to collect: mana, which is generated by sacred stones and collected by building lodestones atop them. The unit selection is not as extensive as TA, but there are a lot of highly specialized units, such as scouts that have no combat abilities and the Pillar of Light that heals all units around it. There are also some extremely powerful dragon units, but the ultimate units are the four deities that will sometimes appear (you cant build these) to aid you in battle. Appearing under certain conditions, the destructive power of these units is truly awesome.
The adventure is divided into a series of chapters that take you through the power struggle between the four rulers. The missions get progressively more complex, beginning with simple move-and-shoot skirmishes and progressing to scenarios where you must establish bases from scratch and take out enemy encampments. The different forces have different objectives; for example, when playing Taros is it acceptable to kill innocent peasants, but you should spare them when playing Aramon. Some of the missions are very different, like the early one where you have to infiltrate a guarded village and take out an enemy unit by using only a single character. The storyline keeps you jumping from side to side, rather than playing the campaign from a single side or playing each side in sequence. This non-linear approach works to add spice and interest to the single player game.
The major weakness of Kingdoms is poor computer AI. This is not as apparent in the campaign as it is in skirmish mode. Even with little experience it is relatively easy to defeat the computer on the hardest difficulty setting. The computer just doesnt seem able to coordinate its attacks or mount an effective thrust at your defenses. Hopefully, Cavedog will recognize this and issue an update that will upgrade the AI to make it more of a challenge. For now, after finishing the campaign it seems the only way to get the most out of the game is to play multiplayer. Fortunately, with support for LAN, modem and Internet play, including games on Boneyards, Kingdoms will satisfy most players for a long time.
Overall, Kingdoms is an excellent RTS game that has a few minor problems and steep system requirements. Strategy gamers and those who like the fantasy genre should get many hours of enjoyment out of this title, and gamers lusting for multiplayer challenge will enjoy the gameplay as much as they did TA. With a patch for the AI and a powerful computer system this game would be nearly perfect, but it is still an excellent title that deserves a place on all RTS gamers shelves.