The gaming industry is gearing up to bury consumers under an avalanche of real-time strategy games. Every developer is touting the one or two features that will help its game to "redefine the genre" - but the majority of these features do nothing but take away from the precarious balance which made the big two - Warcraft II and Command & Conquer - such runaway hits. At first glance, Total Annihilation, with its much ballyhooed 3D terrain and more than ten dozen units, appears to be nothing more than another in a long line of real-time games with a few minor innovations. But in this case, the innovations work. Cavedog has done a commendable job of taking the basic mechanics of real-time strategy and using them to create something new: A game that relies less on constant mouse-clicking than careful planning and strategic thinking.
Initial impressions of Total Annihilation may be misleading. Fire up a campaign and the first few missions will seem like nothing more than another Command & Conquer clone, albeit one with strikingly realistic terrain and a great symphonic score. But as you play deeper into the game, or play a few multiplayer battles or skirmish missions where your opponent is less forgiving, the complexities of the game begin to become apparent. Total Annihilation is a game about balance, from the tightly interwoven resource management scheme to the very diverse units.
It's hard to talk about one without the other, and resource management provides a great tightrope you must walk to keep the army strong, both in numbers and brute force. You need the two resources in the game (metal and energy) to power and build your units. Unfortunately, metal is usually rather scarce in the early parts of a mission (later you can salvage wreckage from destroyed units), but you can build generators to convert energy to metal. This solution to the metal shortage poses another problem entirely: Your units need energy to fire their weapons, and these generators use a great deal of power to produce a small amount of metal. Building a massive army of units is fine, but won't help you much if you don't have enough energy to keep them firing.
The units themselves - robotic mechs, vehicles, aircraft, and naval vessels - provide more to the balancing challenge. The stronger units are devastating but require a great deal of power and move very slowly. Large tanks and ships take a great deal of time to simply turn and fire at a target, and large bombers often must traverse the entire length of a map to turn around and make a second run. As a result, you must create balanced forces, small units to hold the enemy while the big guns ready themselves. There's no "ultimate weapon" like Red Alert's Mammoth Tank or Warcraft II's Ogre Magi - there are only more powerful weapons that have equally powerful disadvantages. And then there's the Commander, your strongest unit, your fastest builder and possessor of the devastating D-Gun that destroys units with a single shot. The Commander provides another great strategic conundrum - he's your best warrior, but it's risky to send him into battle because once the Commander's gone, the mission is over.
Total Annihilation is full of great features. The 3D terrain - pre-rendered maps with tall mountains and deep valleys - plays an important part in strategy, as units situated at higher elevations have a much wider firing range. Units can take cover behind trees, but these trees - and whole forests - can go up in flames with a single stray shot. When units are destroyed, complete with bass-heavy explosions and a slight shaking of the map, shrapnel flies everywhere, and structures and troops unlucky enough to be hit by the flying debris take damage, adding to the need for strategic placement - just standing and firing at the enemy will cause your units to get destroyed very quickly.
Your units gain experience, and with five kills they become veterans with much more accurate firing ability. You can also give units numerous commands at once (simply by holding down the shift key), so that minor tasks can be queued while you go off to worry about more important matters. These types of details make Total Annihilation great, and every time you play you'll discover some subtle little feature that makes you want to change your tactics and try something new.
There are a few small details that could have been improved. The opening missions of the Core campaign are set on a metallic backdrop that is somewhat confusing, making the area in your line of sight and grayed-out; invisible areas look very similar. The manual is a little on the skimpy side, and the lack of any tutorial to demonstrate the game's mechanics seems like an oversight, especially in a game where many players will bring tried-and-true real-time tactics, only to find they're almost completely useless. There's also the lack of a dedicated server for Internet play and the noticeable lack of a scenario editor. Finally, there's the Commander AI bug, which makes the enemy AI send his Commander into battle early on in skirmish missions, causing most to only last a few minutes (Cavedog has promised that a patch for this problem will be released shortly).
But in the face of all that is right about Total Annihilation, these minor details are fairly easily overlooked. If you're looking for a real-time strategy game that adds some new features without breaking from the standard formula, Total Annihilation may be too foreign to satisfy your needs. But if you're looking for a game that is challenging and rewarding on entirely new levels, Total Annihilation is highly recommended.