The Real-time Strategy genre was already established as a primary market for Mac and PC games when Cavedog Entertainment released its first title, Total Annihilation, in late 1997. The Command & Conquer and Warcraft series, soon to be joined by Starcraft, had set the standard for RTS gaming and many producers were attempting to make inroads into the market with their own take on the familiar genre conventions. Total Annihilation broke this mold by completely redefining what the genre was capable of.
The basic gameplay of Total Annihilation departs from the standard RTS mold almost immediately. Each game, whether in single or multiplayer, with a few campaign exceptions, starts with the Commander Unit, a powerful mech that produces a modest amount of resources and can construct the basic buildings needed to start a base. The Commander is also very tough and possesses the D-gun, a disintegration weapon that can destroy anything in one shot. Structures are built over time by the Commander or other construction vehicles, with higher tier vehicles required to produce higher tier structures.
The game’s two resources are metal and energy. Metal appears as tinfoil-like deposits on the map (or anywhere on Core’s metal homeworld) while energy is simply generated by buildings like solar collectors and fusion reactors. Both resources are harvested at a fixed rate by buildings and provide both a stockpile and income rate. Players can produce units and buildings within the income limits, or can deficit spend by overclocking their resource requirements and dipping into the stockpiles. Resource harvesting is fairly easy to manipulate; certain buildings can convert energy into metal and some worlds have high wind speeds or tidal force for alternative energy generation. However proper management is extremely critical in the early game where resource shortages can slow production to a crawl. Most units also require energy to fire their weapons and high energy output is needed for higher tier weapons to function.
Total Annihilation is set in the distant future where the technology to transfer the human mind into a machine body has caused a galactic civil war between the robotic Core and the biological Arm. Both sides employ analogous units with similar functions but different aesthetic designs. Arm units have a more terrestrial design while Core units tend to be skeletal and lack cockpits or other indications that they might have a pilot. Arm units are for the most part faster, possess rapid fire weapons, and have lighter armor. Conversely Core units are heavier, slower, and feature high powered, slow firing weapons.
Each faction has its own campaign with twenty five missions, for a total of fifty in the base game. Each campaign starts on the faction’s homeworld and takes the player through the final stages of the galactic war before climaxing in an assault on the enemy’s homeworld. Most missions begin with the Commander and a small starting force from which the player must construct the army necessary to destroy the enemy’s fortified bases. Occasionally a special objective will be featured, but for the most part the only requirement is the annihilation of the opposing force.
Total Annihilation’s story is told purely through a brief opening cinematic and text based mission briefings, each with an audio narration providing some additional flavor. Little in the way of character is presented and there are no characters mentioned by name except for the Core ruling entity, a super computer called Central Consciousness. The missions follow a linear progression of the player’s conquests, with roughly three to four missions taking place on a single world before the player moves on to a new world. The lack of flavor keeps the immersion level somewhat low and sometimes fails to give the player an adequate sense of his or her accomplishments. However the campaign is very detailed in its mission designs and tech progression allowing the player to fully enjoy the different strategic options each faction presents.
The AI opponents in Total Annihilation leave something to be desired. Even for the time the AI was considered simple and this is a side effect of the game’s innovation. The combined arms tactics and strategic planning required for a truly challenging situation are difficult even for modern AI to accomplish properly. For the most part Total Annihilation does the best it can and the AI is capable enough to utilize its tech tree and create thorough defenses inside its bases. These deficiencies somewhat hamper the enjoyment of the game’s skirmish mode and to a degree the player must explore strategies on their own initiative rather than be forced to adapt by the AI’s maneuvers.
The skirmish and multiplayer modes would be familiar for the time period. Elements like fog of war, population cap, and victory conditions can be switched between a limited number of options. Sadly a cheat code is required to unlock more than four player slots. This can allow up to ten players, but cannot be used in multiplayer. Multiplayer is no longer officially supported but fan sponsored servers now host multiplayer games, although matchmaking is not supported.
Total Annihilation was one of the first games to introduce 3D graphics. Units make a full revolution instead of shifting to a different model stance when turning. Structures with moving parts operate seamlessly, bringing a surprising degree of life to the world. The most notable effect this innovation has is on the interaction between units and terrain. Artillery shells smash into hillsides while the cannon adjusts its aim; units can hide under trees and must adjust their shots when shooting up hillsides of varying height. The units themselves follow a polygon style of graphic rendering typical of the period of early 3D development and can at times look goofy or abstract. The technology is certainly dated by today’s standards but is still sufficient and supplies some of the best explosions and flying shrapnel that a RTS game has ever produced. It was also very gentle on processors of its day and modern machines should have no trouble running even large matches.
Total Annihilation may not have possessed some of the qualities that today are considered necessary for longevity such as a deep thematic campaign, dynamic AI, and a variety of factions. However its combined arms emphasis, strategic breakdown of tiers, and 3D terrain modelling and interaction were revolutionary for their time and even today have not been seen on such a detailed and well built scale except in Total Annihilation’s spiritual successor, Supreme Commander. These are the elements that not only make Total Annihilation a centerpiece of RTS history but also an enjoyable, engaging, and fulfilling exercise in true strategic, combined arms combat. Everything that the RTS genre was meant to be and can possibly deliver can be found in Total Annihilation.
Author’s note: Total Annihilation is available digitally on gog.com and Steam and is compatible with current operating systems. The digital product features the base game, official expansions, and DLC released during Cavedog Entertainment’s existence.