Review by BloodGod65

"My Kingdom for a Horse!"

There are two types of real time strategy games – great and terrible. If it seems odd to say something is either good or bad, let me clarify. Strategy games typically fall on one end of the spectrum, at either end of extremity. Rarely is there any middle ground. My theory regarding this is that the PC market is so oversaturated with the genre that a game either stands out from the crowd, or fails to make itself distinct from the glut of RTS games and receives a harsh reception because of that. It's definitely a case of familiarity breeding contempt; once the concept of a game has been seen a thousand times over, it becomes thoroughly reviled. Not only does Total Annihilation: Kingdoms fall into the latter category of games that fail to innovate, but its terrible mechanics and design would make it a bad game even if it had no competition.

Total Annihilation's story, like most RTS games, is nothing to get excited over. The land of Darien is unified under the benevolent rule of King Garacaius, and upon his death, he divides the kingdom into quarters for each of his four children; Elsin, Kirenna, Thirsha, and Lokken. Like any good dysfunctional family, they aren't happy with what they've been given and begin to squabble over territory.

It's a boring story, but Cavedog deserves commendation for presentation. Each mission is preceded by a short movie introduction made up of narration and a variety of pictures that range from paintings to medieval illustrations. While the presentation is minimalistic, it has the same kind of documentary feel as you might see in one of the History channel specials. Truth be told, this was probably my favorite aspect of the whole game.

That should tell you that the rest of the game isn't very good. Actually, “not very good” doesn't quite convey the sheer mediocrity of this game. Let's just say Kingdoms sucks in the very worst way. It's as if Cavedog made a list of every good design principle for strategy games and then did the opposite. Where to even begin? Let's start with the biggest problem – the idiocy of the unit artificial intelligence for your units. You can order a group of units into an area and they'll all try to stand on the exact same spot of the map, constantly moving around, even going halfway across the map to find a way to get there. They'll also get stuck on environmental objects, and get confused while trying to navigate your base. When it comes to fighting, it only gets more shameful. They'll ignore units two feet away, letting their comrades get slaughtered. Even worse, they sometimes ignore it when enemies are attacking them. As if this isn't bad enough, the issue is compounded by a slow as molasses movement speed for every unit.

These two problems lead to a common and infuriating problem. A large group of your units can encounter a tiny group of enemies, but due to their overwhelming stupidity, they won't even attack in force. As you select units one by one, trying to get them to attack – in vain – their numbers will dwindle with frightening speed as the computer takes advantage. When they get cut down to size and it becomes clear you aren't going to win, you'll have to beat a hasty retreat. Unfortunately, the slow unit movement speed means it's hard to disengage from a fight or even get away.

The computer is also suspiciously quick when it comes to building an army. If you manage to slaughter a large attacking force, don't be surprised when another comes knocking on your door a few minutes later. It's blatantly obvious that the computer is cheating, especially when you take Total Annihilation's unique resource system into account.

Resource gathering is identical to that found in a more recent title - Relic's Dawn of War. You place a gathering structure over resource points on the map, and the single resource type – mana - is gathered at a constant rate. This feeds into your mana pool, which is capped based on how many resource points you control. Building units or structures puts a drain on your mana and once the drain eclipses the influx, the cost comes from the mana pool. The thing is, the computer seems able to build as many units as it wants without dealing with mana (or the lengthy unit creation times).

There are plenty of other problems as well, but some of the most bothersome include the limited map visibility and the lack of decent unit information. The visibility is an especially irritating problem because the sight range for any unit is so miniscule an archer can actually snipe them from beyond their field of vision. It's roughly akin to fighting in a fog, and you're just groping around looking for your enemy. The lack of good information is also a hindrance. There is no real info pane to give important unit details, such as their total health, damage rate and armor. You don't even get an idea of what a unit does unless you read the manual.

All of these problems mean that the interesting campaign structure and different armies don't count for much. If they were in a better game, the armies would be interesting. There's Taros, an army of the undead and creatures of darkness, Veruna, a seafaring nation with lots of naval units, Aramon, a typical medieval melee army and Zhon, the most unique. Zhon actually uses a variety of wild and mythical beasts, and summons them using beastmasters.

The campaign is especially unusual. Rather than have the player take control of one at a time, each mission changes the army the player controls. Because of this, you'll see the conflict unfold chronologically. More importantly, it doesn't give players the time to get bored of any one nation before switching to another. Even so, this one bright spot doesn't do anything to salvage the game because of its overriding mediocrity.

Cavedog is no more capable when it comes to technical design. The game is ugly, with plain environments and bland units lacking in detail. It's also presented from a very strange viewpoint – top down rather than the traditional isometric. This decision doesn't have much of a gameplay impact but it feels awkward all the same. It's no surprise that the audio is lackluster. The voice acting, with the exception of the main narrator, is hilariously bad. At times, I had to ask myself if they were doing this on purpose, but since the game shows no humor or lightheartedness anywhere else, it's clear that nobody caught on to how terrible these voice actors are. The music isn't much better, though it isn't as likely to cause the player to break into spontaneous fits of laughter. Still, it's just the typical overwrought music you would hear in any cheap, made for TV fantasy movie.

Total Annihilation: Kingdoms is a monumental failure as a real time strategy game, because it is unable to get even the most fundamental aspects of design correct. Everything about it, from the stupid AI and poor interface to the technical presentation, seems to be tailor made to infuriate the player. There are few redeeming features to be found here and on the off chance you stumble upon this game, it should be avoided.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.0 - Poor

Originally Posted: 07/19/10

Game Release: Total Annihilation: Kingdoms (US, 05/31/99)

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