It isn't often that an upstart game company breaks through with a major hit, but when Cavedog released Total Annihilation in late 1997, that's what happened. A year and a half later, Cavedog is trying to follow suit with Total Annihilation: Kingdoms, a fantasy real-time strategy game that is an apparent effort to reclaim the interest of Total Annihilation fans. And while Kingdoms does include four different playable factions and a much more interesting story than Total Annihilation did, Cavedog's second game suffers from a long list of problems that collectively prevent it either from exceeding its ancestor or from rejuvenating a tired genre.
You can begin to see what's wrong with it right from the start. Although the graphics in Kingdoms are more detailed than those of its science fiction-themed precedent, the jagged-edged polygonal graphic style was far better suited to the rough-hewn metallic shapes of Total Annihilation than the more organic style of Kingdoms' designs. The consequence is that it's not so easy to tell one unit from the next in Kingdoms, and while some look distinctive, such as the kingdom Veruna's massive warships and dirigibles or Zhon's squid-like krakens, many or even most others look plain at best and messy at worst. The flat 2D backdrops aren't much better, and the 3D units clash against them much like they did in Cavedog's first game.
The Kingdoms graphics engine, only slightly enhanced since Total Annihilation, makes limited use of 3D acceleration to accentuate certain special effects but does not take advantage of your card in order to enhance the game's frame rate or smooth the edges on the polygons. Even if you have a very fast machine, you'll still find that the game's frame rate bogs down noticeably during large-scale battles on account of the software rendering, which not only makes the game look worse than it could have, but proves to be a serious detriment during gameplay.
Yet while Kingdoms' graphics aren't all that bad, it's difficult to find anything nice to say about the game's sound effects. The dozens of robotic units in Total Annihilation could be easily forgiven for their plain mechanical noises, which seemed appropriate even if altogether uninspiring. But in Kingdoms, which is evidently modeled after Blizzard's character-driven real-time strategy games, the sound effects are mediocre and often downright bad and cannot be excused as easily because the game professes to have so much more context than its predecessor. If the various units sounded interesting, that might have gone a long way toward lending the game the sort of personality and idiosyncrasy that helped make Blizzard's real-time strategy games so popular.
At other times, the sound in Kingdoms seems altogether unfinished, and events for which you'd expect audible cues, like unit construction and healing, are strangely silent. Even the game's soundtrack leaves something to be desired, and while the orchestral score is the work of the same Jeremy Soule who lent Total Annihilation its incredible soundtrack, the music in Kingdoms is a missed opportunity to play up the differences between the four warring factions. Though the countries involved in the conflict each have opposing morals and ideals, the soundtrack suggests little evidence of this and drones slowly and similarly for all four sides.
At least the story holds up rather well, which is told as though it were a historical narrative, through the static painting montage style of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. The single-player campaign spans nearly 50 missions, each of which is preceded by a cutscene that sets the stage for the ensuing battle. While the cutscenes are often interesting, just as often, the missions themselves are not. The Total Annihilation engine apparently isn't equipped to handle complex scripted situations, and so the missions' supposed surprises and twists tend to be underwhelming. And aside from the quirkier escort and defense missions, you're stuck with the usual formula of having to wipe out all your enemies. The cutscenes prove to be the biggest incentive to play through the campaign, which is unfortunate since Kingdoms should be at least as enjoyable to play as it is to watch.
There are few obvious problems with how Kingdoms plays but plenty of more subtle ones. While the game carries over its predecessor's sleek interface, which readily allows you to set unit waypoints and building-production queues, the game moves slowly and feels awkward. You're responsible for only a single resource, which is generated continuously when you build a lodestone on the right spot. Lodestones are fragile, and you'll almost always have to spread yourself thin setting them up, and what's more, they rarely provide you with the kind of resources you'll wish you had. In consequence, your armies must be assembled deliberately and specifically, as certain types of units on each side are simply more effective than their weaker counterparts. Why should Taros build zombies when executioners do the same job so much better? With very little base building and resource management to deal with, your goal in Kingdoms is to assemble a large army as quickly as possible.
When you're ready to strike, using combined arms seems neither entirely necessary nor necessarily practical; certain flying units are extremely powerful in groups and can attack without fear of retaliation from the game's more common units that carry short-range weapons. These ground units also tend to get cluttered together, and since certain spells and ballistic attacks affect a wide area, you're liable to lose a great many warriors at once as you try to storm the enemy's position. Defensive structures are very powerful, long-range ballistic weapons are very fragile, and most melee units are so slow that they get mowed down before they can get close enough to attack. Furthermore, unlike ranged units, melee units won't attack their enemies while moving, unless you expressly order them to engage a target. In practice, many of your melee units will stand idly by in combat while the front ranks take a few practice swings, rather than the lot of them surrounding their enemies en masse. On top of that, there's no way to tell how far your units can detect their enemies on the map, which makes it very difficult to gauge just how many enemies there are in an area, or whether they're anywhere nearby in the first place.
For all these reasons, it is difficult to mount a successful attack in Kingdoms. If you let a battle drag on for too long, it's liable to drag on even longer since resources are unlimited and defensive structures so deadly. Since you're restricted to a 250-unit limit, and there are no all-powerful melee or artillery units (nothing like Total Annihilation's Big Bertha cannon), it's easy and tempting to kick back and defend, and watch your enemy waste dozens of troops trying vainly to breach your perimeter. All the while, your defensive units rack up more and more kills, and achieve veteran status, making them even less likely to be eliminated. And should your foe waste the huge amount of time and resources to summon a holy dragon, the superunit of Kingdoms, know that just a few defensive towers placed in close proximity will be able to take it down. With these concerns in mind, it seems almost a moot point to question the play balance between the four sides in the game, which are intriguingly different but perhaps too much so in certain ways. For instance, Veruna is the only kingdom with a serious navy, making it an obvious choice for water maps while the asset goes to waste in any other situation. Then again, the game doesn't include many multiplayer maps in the first place, and there's only a single two-player map in the whole lot. And they all take a really long time to load.
The best thing Kingdoms has going for it is that it has no real competition right now. It's not a bad game, and if you're starving for real-time strategy, there's enough in Kingdoms to hold your interest for a while. Cavedog promises to provide new units and maps for download regularly, and the included map editor means you might find another two-player map to play on soon enough. Plus you get free online play courtesy of the Boneyards service, which means Kingdoms can indeed keep you busy if you choose to overlook its problems or find ways to work around them. But the fact is, Kingdoms is not a better game than Total Annihilation, nor does it approach the other real-time strategy games it hopes to emulate.