The Second Generation
At first glance, Cavedog's landmark 1997 RTS game seems like nothing more than a Command & Conquer clone, albeit with very pretty graphics. Total Annihilation was one of the first games to have 3D terrain and units. Once you got into the game, though, Total Annihilation was nothing less than a revelation. And a revolution. What designer Chris Taylor and his team did was to take the real-time strategy game and improve it so that players could actually command their units with the level control they might have in a turn-based strategy game.
Several innovations center on the interface. Total Annihilation solves the problem of needing to constantly return to your units to give them new orders by allowing for order queues: Units can be given multiple orders, and they will perform them in sequence. You can also give units a variety of AI stances so that they don't chase and attack an enemy who is trying to draw them off. Structures can also be given default build orders, so once they fulfill whatever construction task you give them, they will go back to building automatically. Using Total Annihilation's advanced interface, it's possible to construct elaborate plans that aren't hampered by the old limitations of the RTS interface.
Total Annihilation also personalizes the game with the introduction of a "commander" unit, the loss of which costs the owning player the game. While plenty of prior games include units on whose survival a scenario depends, Total Annihilation incorporates the commander unit into its delicate unit balance structure. This balance was preserved even though Cavedog made completely new units available for download from its Web site on a weekly basis.
The remarkable thing about Total Annihilation's success is that it has completely eschewed one of the main factors that has made the Command & Conquer series so popular: story. Total Annihilation has no real story to speak of, and instead of elaborate cutscenes, there are only some spoken intros to the various missions. The two sides, the Arm and the Core, are very similar, and the campaigns don't have much plot to them. But the missions themselves showcase a new breed of RTS game that emphasizes the "strategy" part at least as much as the "real time."
What Total Annihilation conclusively demonstrates is that strategy gamers will enthusiastically respond to a game that makes it easier for them to actually implement their strategies. Whereas earlier games have been limited by the overriding need for speed with the mouse, Total Annihilation goes to great lengths to redress this balance. Total Annihilation was followed by an excellent expansion pack (The Core Contingency) and a scenario add-on pack (Battle Tactics). Unfortunately, Cavedog was not able to continue its success, and the company eventually closed down. However, more than three years after its release, Total Annihilation stands as a game that remains attractive to real-time strategy gamers today.
In addition to Total Annihilation, the year 1997 produced another standout RTS which, had its timing been better, might have made more of a splash. As it was, there was a serious debate about whether Total Annihilation was really the best RTS of the year or whether that honor belonged to Dark Reign. Dark Reign also had line of sight, 3D terrain, elevation effects, and build queues. It also focused on fixing many of the problems that plagued the first generation of RTS games and included a very sophisticated waypoint system, as well as individual unit AI settings. Unfortunately, the game didn't catch on like it could have, probably because Total Annihilation looked better and had many of the same features. Still, it acquired a following, and both of these major RTS games in 1997 were superior on many technical levels to the last game in this part of our history. You all know which one.