Saturday, December 4, 2010

Total Annihilation

Ah yes, things are going fine. Mr Cricket is chirping along, I am going to write about another favourite old game of mine and Mr Tumbleweed is Rolling On the Floor, Not Laughing. So, Total Annihilation this week.
The CD jewel case art

As you can see from the Wikipedia link, Total Annihilation or TA is a real time strategy published by the now bankrupt Cavedog entertainment company in 1997. In the game you command an army of robots who will say nothing else to you than a couple of grunts and beeps. The amount of units is vast. There are 2 parties in the game which by default have around 50 different units and buildings. These were divided over infantry, vehicles, aircrafts and ships. The explosions are massive and you will blow stuff up, what is not to like about it?All this is given extra ambiance with the epic soundtrack.

I recently bought Total Annihilation again from Good Old Games with all the expansions. I had the game in 1998, but I didn't have the money to buy the expansions back then, I was 13. Was I in for a surprise when one of the expansion packs gave access to hovercrafts. Those things ROCK!

The story was short, yet deep in a way. In this time and age where you are smacked to death with long cut-scenes and quick-time events it's refreshing to see the brilliance of TA's intro movie. This is what you get to hear when you boot-up the game

Premise: What began as a conflict over the transfer of consciousness from flesh to machines escalated into a war which has decimated a million worlds.
Introduction of characters/parties: The Core and the Arm have all but exhausted the resources of a galaxy in their struggle for domination.
Motivation of parties: Both sides now crippled beyond repair, the remnants of their armies continue to battle on ravaged planets, their hatred fueled by over four thousand years of total war.
Why you play the game: This is a fight to the death. For each side, the only acceptable outcome is the complete elimination of the other.

Four thousand years of a universe told in an engaging way in just five sentences just over the half minute mark! Nobody questions the story, everybody fully understands what is going on and it is a spankin' good excuse to have a forest-world, a beach-world, a purple world, a lava-world and a metal world without explaining why and how you got there. The intro-movie continues to show only war over an incredible soundtrack and when that's over, you'll only need a couple of clicks and you're right in the game. That brilliance is what I find lacking in modern games.
Just a normal day in the TA life

By now you should be wondering, "So, why aren't you telling about the gameplay yet?" Well, I generally suck at real time strategies. So bad, it's embarrassing, really. Although I am bad at them, if they are well designed I find them a bucket-load of fun to play and Total Annihilation pushes all the right buttons. My strategy usually is to make a lot of one unit, usually bombers or rapid firing units, then some support for if they are attacked by something they couldn't handle and then just let them march like a carpet over the enemies base. If the enemy is still standing, turn 180 degrees and repeat. Here lies the problem: I refuse to employ strategy in my strategy games. This makes multiplayer in Total Annihilation double fun, since nobody knows what in Pete's name I will do next. I won from a semi-TA-veteran that way once. He flipped me the finger, it was awesome and then we had a beer.

I am aware that aging of a game is purely subjective, but in my opinion it did age very well. The game still works on Windows 7 and even under Linux when using wine. The graphics are no eyesore, since most terrain are rendered pictures with a 3D collision detection and the 3D rendered robots are meant to be blocky. Come on! Round robots are from the 60's!

There are 2 downsides, however. The first is that it was one of the first multiplayer RTSs and in multiplayer you are in the game when you are not yet beaten. When you get beaten, you get booted, this includes the host. So if you are playing with more than two people and the host is killed not as last, the game is interrupted, thrown away, never to be seen again. This gave my semi-veteran victory mentioned above a bit of bitter taste, because I was still having fun and he was the host. (Note: they might have fixed it in the GOG version, but I haven't tried yet)

The other downside is that the designer got too famous too fast when he created TA and later on he made Supreme Commander, which is made by exact the same people and might be more known to you all. Let me make one thing clear: SC sucks. Why? Too sophisticated tech-trees and worst of all: voice acting. In TA you had 3 levels of tech and you were left alone to have fun. In SC it is 5 levels to learn by heart and some 'assistant' nagging you to reach a goal. I sometimes missed the last tech level in TA, because I didn't need it, but in SC it takes you too long to build something nice, because you need to go through a lot of tech levels. Although I can manage to grow to a new game-mechanic I refuse to do it with this kind of appalling writing and voice acting. To start off: the introduction of SC has way too much blabbering and drama in it to a degree that you don't care anymore after the first minute. Worse: after the first minute they didn't even start the premise! Then, when you finally get to play a mission every other minute somebody starts yelling over your shoulder saying something like 'Do this and that ASAP' where they use ASAP as if it's a full word. SHADDAP! Can't you see I was having fun before you started yelling? I am glad to be at home without my boss/mom/girlfriend/boyfriend breathing down my neck. I don't want a game to do that too!

But I digress, Total Annihilation is still a game that is played everywhere by fans. There is even an open-source reboot called the spring project, which I haven't gotten around to try yet. There was also the Unreal Annihilation project, which went horribly wrong. Maybe I'll write about them some other time, Total Annihilation is awesome enough for that.

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