Review by Rules Shadowrun Does
"Intelligent and fun, but marred by the weak AI, mediocre campaign, slight balancing issues, and lack of unit personality."
Intelligent and fun, but marred by the weak AI, mediocre campaign, slight balancing issues, and lack of unit personality.
While the game's name might have quite a masculine flair to it and carries a hint of unintelligent smashing ala cavemen, it's quite a misnomer the game beneath is anything but brainless; at a respectable level, the game is a pure thinking-and-doing-man's game, though not quite in the same vein as Starcraft at an equal level. As soon as you start the game up, you're presented with an introduction explaining the premise of the game; humanity had 'defeated' death by discovering a way to transfer consciousness to flesh. This defeat revealed itself to be temporary, as humans who did not want to cast away their meatbodies quickly rebelled as the Core called for the process, dubbed 'patterning', mandatory for the safety of all citizens. This turn of events sparked a war that would decimate millions of worlds and irreparably scar two civilizations.
Now that the background's through with, let's get to the game. Upon starting the game up and setting up a skirmish, your first choice is which side you're going to pick. While it may not seem like the sides are diverse(and this is almost the truth in older versions, but there's no reason not to have patched the game up to v3.1c at this point), they are anything but. Most mobile units serve the same purpose in general, but the 'counterparts' serve it differently and thus they are applied to the same function in different ways. The Zeus, for instance, is an Arm level 2 K-Bot(that is, it can only be built in Advanced K-Bot factories). It has a Core counterpart, called The Can(which, again, is a level 2 K-Bot). Let's take a look at their capabilities. The Zeus wields a fold-out lightning bolt gun that deals a decent amount of damage to lightly armored units(Light Laser Towers, Arm infantry, light vehicles). The Zeus is mobile to a point, fitting with the Arm motif; more mobility at the sacrifice of implacability. The Can, by contrast, wields a generic laser; it does more damage against most everything and shoots a bit faster, but it's shorter ranged. So far it seems like The Can is winning by a huge margin, no? The fundamental differences in playstyle stem from this tidbit here; The Can is a larger target, has more health, but moves at a very slow pace. This motif repeats itself throughout the entirety of Core's 2nd-level tech; stronger but less mobile. "Oh well, I guess it'll just take a little longer to get them wherever I need them to go" is the thought that would probably cross your mind; unfortunately, that 'little longer' will likely be a minute or longer, by which time the enemy will have added extra defenses to compensate for your attack. You'll probably lose unless you support your assault force properly; since The Can is a slow mover but pretty implacable, why not keep artillery behind a line of approaching Cans to keep a bead on the defenses and provide a screen for your artillery? "Oh, silly RSD, all artillery I've seen in RTSes just shoots across half a screen. How can they possibly help?" And here's where the game really starts to show its sense of scale; most artillery units can shoot at least a screen and a half across. The most expensive and most powerful artillery building, by contrast, shoots sixteen screens across on flat land, long enough to shoot across at least half of a map on all but the largest maps. Obviously, the units and buildings cannot see this far for sake of balance and realism; this is why keeping line-of-sight or radar coverage on enemy units is more than important.
After a brief touching on the numerous differences between the Core and the Arm, the scale of the game, and a general strategy, I believe it's time to go onto the economy and the start of the game. As you start your skirmish, the first thing you're going to see is your Commander unit. Clicking on him seems to make him come alive to a metallic whirr and a few icons popping up on the left side. As you look over the interface, you notice the two bars on the top of the screen, one a greyish cyan and the other yellow. The cyan bar is labeled Metal; the yellow is labeled Energy. The economy is a touch more abstract than the mostly realism-grounded units. You have two resources, energy and metal, both of which can be collected by various ways. Energy is far more expendable than metal, as you get it in greater quantities and expend it in large amounts as well. This is not the main reason energy is so much easier to get than metal is, however; the three most basic energy generators(the Solar Collector, which produces a static +25 energy, the Wind Generator, which generates an amount of energy dependant on how the wind is doing on the map, and the Tidal Generator, buildable in any water that's more than knee-deep, generates an amount of energy dependant on the water's tides) and the two most advanced energy generators(Fusion Plant, buildable on any flat land and generates roughly 50 times the amount of energy made by a Solar Collector. Underwater Fusion Plant, generates slightly more energy than a fusion plant, buildable only underwater) are not dependant on terrain. Only the Geothermal Plant, which generates 350 Energy, is dependant on terrain features; it is only able to be built on geothermal vents. Metal, on the other hand, is almost entirely terrain dependant; you will only get a metal income using Metal Extractors if you build them on metal deposits, which are quite numerous on almost any TA map. Metal Makers are the other way to generate metal using buildings; they will give a fixed income of 1 metal for a constant drain of 60 energy, but are buildable on any flat terrain. Metal makers are almost necessary to deal with energy runoff on non-metal maps if you're expanding economically using the patented 2-for-1 ratio; that is, two Metal Extractors for every Solar Collector or vice-versa. The other way to gain metal is by reclaiming the wreckage left behind by destroyed units; they leave about 80% of the metal it took to build the unit. This is the one feature that allows for true balance using an unlimited-resource economy; while it sounds stupid, it prevents one player from truly getting a foothold in the other enemy's base with swarming tactics if they are properly countered and just do enough damage to take out a few defenses.
Now that I've explained the economy, I believe it's time for an explanation of the four unit branches(as well as the two only-tech-1 unit branches). Basically, you start out with five factory choices with your Commander(one is VERY stupid as they are exorbitantly expensive for a starting economy). Vehicles are self-explanatory as to how they function and what they are; they are mobile to a point and easily the most dominant ground force, as they are generally armored and powerful(there are exceptions to the rule, but they do not form the bulk of vehicles) K-Bots, by contrast, aren't as powerful as vehicles(with a few exceptions, as before), but are more adaptable to terrain and serve more functions than their vehicular counterparts. Aircraft are the third force, and they're the other end of the spectrum; they are exceptionally mobile, but go down in one or two shots from anti-air with only one exception; they are meant for reconnaissance, border patrolling with scout planes, and support, but should never form the bulk of your army unless you know what you're doing because aircraft are easily stoppable with meager defenses. The real powerhouses(besides the Krogoth, who is a hulking monster of a K-Bot; it's the largest unit in the game and kills nearly anything with one shot) in the game are the naval units. While they are easily the most powerful units in the game, they suffer from pathfinding issues and usually collide with each other on the way to the target location. Once they are there, however... the Arm Millenium battleship is essentially six Guardians stacked on one unit; it has six artillery guns, three to a row and two rows. The Core Warlord battleship is a touch different; it only has one row of guns, but it has a heavy laser tower on deck, allowing for flexibility in naval combat; it can go toe-to-toe with any non-sub ship and usually win.
I mentioned two other unit types, and indeed, they do exist, but one isn't quite that useful unless you're playing a large naval map. Hovercraft, buildable by any Tech 1 builder and unique because it has two separate factories, one for water and the other for land, are the happy medium between aircraft and vehicles but play differently than K-Bots. The vehicles basically float on an airfoil, giving them the range of land accessible to aircraft, but retain the straight mobility of vehicles. This allows them to be used as multipurpose vehicles, as they can get to almost anywhere on the map, allowing you to surprise them if you set an Atlas or Valkyrie transport aircraft carrying a radar jammer to guard a group of hovercraft, effectively making them invisible to anything that doesn't see them by line-of-sight and thus able to launch a true sneak attack; it's this kind of warfare that gives the game the depth it has, along with the sheer amount of strategies possible against any kind of opponent you care to name thanks to all two hundred units or so and the way the game plays out; terrain is a real issue, as units can't fire through mountains and high ground is a very, very important thing, as it affects line of sight and firing range, as well as making it harder for units on lower ground to hit it if they don't fire high-trajectory shots. The other, final unit type are seaplanes; they are built underwater and are not particularly useful unless there is little to no ground to speak of. They do have the benefit of being able to perform a sneak attack with torpedoes, however.
Now that most of the basics of the gameplay have been described, I believe it's time to give the music its fair share of limelight. This game boasts one of the best soundtracks in a video game, period; the 'peace' music gives an eerie and tense feel to the game, like it's trying to alert you to the fact that you could be attacked at any given time if you aren't keeping tabs on the map. One of the defining moments of Total Annihilation is starting a battle and having the music accompany your units' firing; it's simply an experience that is almost unforgettable. I've found myself heaving a sigh of relief whenever the battle music cools off; it's when I know I'm finally free of my enemy's assault for however long they cool off for.
The graphics haven't aged as well as the game, the interface, or the music, but they're still quite passable for the time as the resolution scales, making everything clearer and less jagged. Unfortunately, the uninspired unit designs do little for those looking for a Starcraft-esque experience, and neither does the fact that the units look fairly similar; it's only with experience and knowledge that you are able to distinguish same-tier units, rather than knowing them off the bat. The terrain, however, holds up quite well over time, as do the explosions.
The story... was never really the point of the game. It was obviously a multiplayer-oriented game, and this shows; the game's premise, while interesting, never really goes anywhere in the campaign as you have no connection to any character aside from the narrator; the whole setup is just another way to learn the units outside of firsthand experience in multiplayer, though it's nowhere near as effective nor as challenging.
In essence, the game is simply incredible when taking into account its age and how the game still feels quite fresh even after years of playing; I watched Boneyards come up and I watched it come down in 2000, I watched the community bud into what it has, but I've never really managed to stay in the community thanks to not being able to get The Core Contingency or Battle Tactics until very recently.
(do note that I do not average scores.)
Rent, buy, burn? Buy. Buy it and the expansions.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 06/14/07
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