Total Annihilation opens with a cutscene that clearly shows that it has a different take on the sci-fi future, progressing to heated skirmishes involving semi-sentient robots who know of nothing but war and the scant reasons they fight. Some enthusiastic and loud scrap-metal-making later, the player is presented with a crisp interface and menus that fit the manner in which RTS games are best tackled by their users.
The game eases the player into its apparently unique gameplay via a simple but informative tutorial that teaches the basics - which are certainly not one would expect from RTS games of the time, especially the gameplay aspect of economics and resource management. Other than that, the tutorial presented a few things on land, air and naval combat, but unfortunately little else.
(This would be later corrected in a certain spiritual successor.)
As implied earlier, the economics and resource management that players have to learn and master are the most unique trait of the game. There are no vital yet relatively bothersome resource-collecting units to worry about - simply the plonking down of resource-extracting structures on top of resource seams. Such structures were usually seen in micromanagement games of the time, which needed the simplicity to streamline gameplay, so this was definitely a wise design choice as the game intended the player to be fully focused on raising and moving armies about.
Furthermore, this game design only affects one of the two resources, which in this case is metal, in the game; the other, energy, can be practically obtained from just about anywhere in the map using one of the appropriate energy-collecting structures - and there are a lot to choose from, ranging from solar collectors (which are undoubtedly a green statement from the developers) to the more exotic geothermal plants and tidal wave generators (which are also likely green statements). These even have varying output, depending on the environmental conditions in the map.
In addition to building structures and securing resource patches to gain resources, the player also has the option of sending Construction K-bots (as well as the Commander, which is the main unit for either faction in the game) on patrols to collect resources from in-map objects, ranging from trees and rocks to the scrap metal from the wrecks of dead units. Hence, one can say that the usual game design of resource-collecting units had been eliminated from the game. This does serve to increase the diversity of resource-obtaining strategies, to the game's benefit.
Unfortunately, it can be said that much of the effort that went into designing these interesting and obviously functional structures and methods to gain resources would go largely unappreciated due to the inclusion of high tier resource-providing structures, namely the Metal Maker and Fusion Power Plants. Granted, the latter is an unstable structure capable of wiping bases out, but a shrewd player can mitigate this by planting individual plants in every nook and cranny of the map, taking advantage of the often large sizes of said maps to hide these. Couple that with the fact that the proximity of resource-providing structures is not an issue, batches of Metal Makers ensure that a crafty player won't be running out of resources anytime soon. In fact, gaining these structures is often a key component of just about any build strategy for this game. Nevertheless, the economics work as intended, and there are game modes in skirmish and multiplayer where tech levels can be limited to make the more interesting buildings useful.
That minor gripe aside, it has to be said that another unique aspect of the economics of the RTS gameplay in this game is the resource meters. These are simple bars showing the amount of resources available to the player and the capacity to store resources, together with the net drain/gain on these resources caused by the player's decisions. Again, this game design was adopted from micromanagement games of the time, with the intention of making it easier for the player to plan expansions and building of armies further ahead in time - certainly a plus point. (This reviewer found it strangely satisfying to balance the drain/gain rates.)
As an RTS game, the economics and resource management aspect are the linchpin of the mechanism of raising armies - and the armies in this game are a varied bunch indeed. There are the aforementioned K-bots, semi-sentient robots that happen to have artificial flesh underneath their shells, and auxiliary automatons in the form of tanks, aircraft and naval ships. Each and every one of them has been designed with a role in mind, such as a big tank intended to be use as an up-close assault meat-shield and torpedo bombers that are effective counter-naval airplanes. Sadly, some units have roles that are just too niche, an example being the Spider K-bot, whose all-terrain climbing capabilities would have been more useful had it been a faster unit and more heavily armed. Still, all of the units are functional and can see practical use in certain circumstances.
It is worthy to note that all units are capable of attacking each other, and they will do so with gusto if there is nothing else closer to shoot at. This does result in odd scenes where ill-equipped units like Artillery K-bots attempt to attack Fighter planes, and at worst, this gung-ho but futile behaviour can be exploited against players who use too much of one kind of unit. Even so, this is just as much a plus as a minus as it adds to the tactical depth of battles and encourages the building of combined-arms armies.
(This does not mean single-unit-type rushes do not work though - some units are a bit overpowered enough for this cheap strategy, the Missile K-bot in particular.)
If it is not apparent already by the time the player has played through a few mission and matches, the graphics and sounds in the game appear to be more brilliant compared to its peers at the time - in fact it is one of few RTS games at the time which took advantage of DirectX 5.0. Just about every unit has its own peculiar animations and particles to fire, with the most impressive graphical flare reserved for the Commander's devastating D-Gun. Every unit even has its own cranks, whines and other typical machine-speak too, which further adds to its colourfulness (if its often amusingly silly name does not already).
After shaking off the daze from the overwhelming gameplay, graphics and sounds, the player would then take notice of the story. It is rather simplistic, as is typical of RTS games of the time; two factions arraigned against each other over irreconcilable differences - ideological ones in this case. Every mission is preceded with a well-written briefing that emphasizes its brevity and - interestingly enough - narrated by a person with an obviously human voice. After that, the player is thrust into the mission and may complete it as he/she sees fit. There is no twist mid-mission, no hidden surprises - only the objective to achieve.
(Perhaps the deepest aspects of the story are best portrayed through the cutscenes; maybe they have been inspired by or have inspired later works involving the nature of artificial beings. The (obviously not human) actors in the cutscenes are for the most part stoic robots, who go about battles in a silent, efficient manner and only revealing their true nature when a significant moment in their lives comes up. The ending scenes involving the main protagonists/antagonists, the Commanders of both sides, are particularly poignant.)
This reviewer did not have a reliable connection to the Internet at the time for a properly complete experience of this game's online features, but did experience gleeful LAN battles. While some units from the aforementioned large repertoire ended up being a bit too unwieldy for human players, the rest were a credit to the fun that is to be had in players sending waves of robots, bipedal or otherwise, after each other. While there were occasional slow-downs due to huge waves of units being sent after enemy bases and/or armies, there was little lag and no serious setbacks - at least on LAN. The inclusion of special game modes, especially one centered on the Commander units, serve to freshen up subsequent play sessions now and then.
Of course, this reviewer will have to point out that players that had gained significant strategic advantages, e.g. control of major resource spots, and know how to make use of these advantages (and - regrettably - some exploits), are more than likely to steam-roll over opponents who will have little to no chance of comebacks. On the other hand, this is a defining characteristic of Total Annihilation (and its cousins and spiritual successors), where last ditch offensives usually do not work and players are doomed from the start if they planned poorly.
In conclusion, Total Annihilation set a new par for the design of real-time strategy gameplay involving large-scale battles, and will undoubtedly be a source of inspiration for later games of such a nature.