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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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Ups:Great graphics, innovative units, fast and furious gameplay.
Downs: Lousy manual, miserable storyline.
System Reqs:
Pentium-166, 32 MB RAM, 4X CD-ROM, SVGA w/ 2MB.
ta1.gif (15293 bytes)Some years you remember for certain things, like ’76 for German wines or ’91 for Nirvana’s Nevermind or ’84 for the great Old-Milwaukee-and-yard-hockey craze that swept the nation--or at least my neighborhood. I’m afraid that those of us who spend any time at all playing computer games will always remember ’97 as the year of the real-time strategy game, the year when RTS became the acronym of choice as companies unleashed a flood of gather and get’em games of biblical proportions, more or less. Some of these games just haven’t been very good, like Conquest Earth or 7th Legion; others have been solid but otherwise undistinguished, like Dark Colony or Outpost 2; and some have been very good but very much more of the same, like Dark Reign. Into this crowded ring now steps Total Annihilation, a game that weighs in as a serious contender for the title of RTS game of the year.

Total Annihilation has been getting all sorts of five-star-best-game-I’ve-ever-seen coverage lately, and frankly I find this sort of infatuation unseemly. Don’t get me wrong: TA is a very good game with many strong points, but I think its virtues--as in any infatuation—have blinded gamers and reviewers to its flaws. So before I go on to lavish praise upon TA, let me first point out a few blemishes on this beauty.

First, the story and background itself are pretty lame. Humans learn to transfer consciousness to machines and become immortal, someone tries to mandate this, people who like their bodies object, they have a big war. Not a bad premise, as far as RTS games go, but it remains a premise largely undeveloped. Of course, this has little effect on the multiplayer aspects of TA, but it does hurt the single-player campaigns. There is no FMV, no cut scenes, no sense of drama or coherent plot. Just twenty-five long missions, one after the other. It’s surprising to me that TA and Dark Reign, the two best "traditional" RTS games of the year, have improved upon precursors like Red Alert and Warcraft II in every area but this, and that’s problematic. Never underestimate the gamer’s desire for a great story.

ta3.gif (16212 bytes)More importantly, the game’s documentation is pathetic, a tiny slick thing with info on commands and shortcut keys but very little on unit types and important stuff like how to play the game. TA just assumes you know enough about the RTS genre to jump right in to the game, and newcomers may find the learning curve steeper than necessary. Even old hands at RTS will be occasionally frustrated by the manual’s lack of unit info; TA has a ton of units with specialized abilities, which is good, but you can’t always tell what these abilities are, which is bad. Unsolicited plug here—if you really love this game, do yourself a favor and get Selby Bateman’s Unlock the Secrets of Total Annihilation; besides the usual "how to win level nine" info, it contains a wealth of info on unit capabilities and gameplay that should have been included in the manual. Along these same lines, TA is missing anything like a tutorial. The campaign does get progressively difficult--it serves almost as on the job training—but a short series of basic scenarios introducing hot keys and unit types and capabilities would have been most welcome.

And since I’m quibbling, the game also includes no map or scenario editor. Its absence is somewhat mitigated by fact that you can play through fifty lengthy missions and that the game includes over 30 varied multiplayer maps, but editors have become standard issue in most RTS games, and those folks who love their editor will be disappointed.

And this game is a hog; though it takes up surprisingly little hard drive space, it will tax your processor—I’d recommend at least a 166 with 32 megs of RAM and a 2 MB video card, especially for multi-player games.

Finally, this is a Command and Conquer/Warcraft II clone. It may well be the most innovative and spectacular example of the gather/build/fight genre, but it operates within the confines of, rather than transforms, that genre.

ta4.gif (16677 bytes)But I come to (mostly) praise TA, not to bury it. For all of these faults, Total Annihilation is an excellent game. Much has been made of its look, and justifiably so. TA uses 3D polygons, rather than 2D sprites, to render its units and terrain, so you get an incredible sense of heightened perspective—planes actually bank when pulling out of bombing runs and tanks bounce and jostle over terrain and recoil convincingly when they fire. The only down side is that the bot units tend to look somewhat alike, and it can take awhile to sort them out, especially in the heat of combat. And speaking of combat, man oh man does combat look fine. In TA, stuff blows up real good. Not only are the explosions themself spectacular-looking, they will also shower the immediate area with glowing metal fragments, which will often set nearby trees afire. But the best thing about TA’s look is the absolutely gorgeous terrain. You’ll encounter a wide variety of terrain types in TA, from metal planets to islands to lava worlds to forests, and it all looks fantastic. But even more important than the look of the terrain is its effect on combat—in TA, terrain means something—taking high ground is a real advantage, you can use hills and forests to screen flanks and mask maneuvers and valleys to set roadblocks and ambushes, and games often come down to who manages to hold key terrain. In a genre where terrain is often of no consequence, this adds a new and welcome dimension to gameplay.

And gameplay is another area in which TA shines. Yes, the game is based on the standard C&C gather and build model, but with enough twists to keep your attention. First, you must gather both metal for construction as well as energy to power your buildings and bots. Initially, you’ll do this by building metal extractors and solar collectors with your commander, a sort of super-bot whose abilities include not just the aforementioned building, but also fighting—he’s armed with the awesome bang-you’re-dead D-gun—as well as capturing enemy units and buildings—a very nice touch.

Adding to the gameplay’s allure is the fact that the AI is also quite good; though the unit controls are not as sophisticated as Dark Reign’s—you can only select whether a unit holds fast, roams, or manuvers on its own and whether it holds or returns fire or blasts away at anything that moves—they are mostly useful. The enemy AI is agressive and smart; the campaign game is tough.

ta5.gif (15727 bytes)Total Annihilation also provides you with a vast array of units—more than 150 different units and structures—and many of them have a lot of personality. Like The Can, a squat and powerful bot that just will not die, or The Pyro, a flame-throwing bot, or The Triton, an amphibious tank, or The Spider, a unit that looks, well, like a spider, can climb over almost any type of terrain, and can only paralyze, not destroy, enemy units. There are of course many more types of units—from missile launchers to radar vehicles to radar jammers to armadas of sea and air units. Each has its strengths and its weaknesses, and this along with the wide variety of terrain makes TA the RTS game that offers the most tactical challenges and possibilities.

ta7.gif (15704 bytes)And it is just these challenges and possibilities that make Total Annihilation the winner of this year’s RTS clone wars. Standard tank rush tactics will just leave you a heap of metal for the enemy’s commander to collect. In TA you have to think on your feet, to improvise, to come up with new solutions for new situations, rather than just work the same plan over and over. This is especially true in multiplayer games. There are a lot of obsessed TA players out there with truly devious strategies, no two of them alike, and if you have the machine for it multiplayer TA is as good as online RTS gaming gets.

Finally, TA has great music. It’s atmospheric and even dynamic—somber and understated strings while you gather and build, big John Williams type score when you’re slugging it out. It does get somewhat repetitive, and you’ll tire of it after playing 25 missions, but when you do the game allows you to play your own tunes.

Bottom line: despite its shortcomings, the variety and innovation in Total Annihilation, combined with its beautiful graphics and gameplay that thwarts "perfect plans" and rewards creative tactics, makes this my favorite "traditional" RTS game of the year. It’s doesn’t really take RTS gaming anywhere new, but it may take this particular form of the genre as far as it can go.

cheat.gif (1707 bytes)--Rick Fehrenbacher