Opinion Piece

The Return Of Total Annihilation

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If you haven’t been keeping an eye on the many news sites out there, let me fill you in on an exciting piece of news that has just hit the internet with all of the force of a pissed off asteroid: the developers of free-to-play sensation World of Tanks has just announced that they’ve acquired the rights to Masters of Orion. That’s not the news that excites me, though, that gets me all hot and sweaty and hype. No, it’s that they’ve also acquired the rights to a game that holds a very special place in my heart, a game that got me truly passionate about games, a game that is, without doubt, at the very top of my favorite games of all time list. I speak of Total Annihilation, easily one of the greatest RTS titles ever, even to this day, despite its age.

In a press release Wargaming’s CEO said:

“Total Annihilation and Master of Orion are strategy game classics. Although it’s too soon to disclose any details, we are more than willing to give a new lease of life to these games most of us grew up playing. It’s exactly where our major focus will be.”

So, we can expect to see a new Total Annihilation game at some point in the future. Or at least that certainly seems likely, though a HD remake cannot be ruled out either, I suppose. Adding to the intrigue is that fact that not too long ago Wargaming also acquired Gas Powered Games, a company led by Chris Taylor, one of the original designers of Total Annihilation. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Wargaming wouldn’t place Gas Powered Games on development duty of any Total Annihilation project.

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I admit that after playing Supreme Commander it’s hard to go back to such constricting views.

Total Annihilation was, and still is, a beautifully balanced RTS that successfully blended resource management, base construction and warfare, mixing them together in just the right amounts to create a superb strategy game with a perfect rhythm to every match, be it against the AI or another human. Mention its name in my presence and prepare yourself for a lengthy and impassioned speech on why you should have played it, and why you should still be playing it.

Total Annihilation takes place in the distance future where two robotic races, ARM and Core, are locked in an endless, eternal conflict that has spanned countless years and planets, consuming the galaxy in war. You take control of your Commander, a massive mech equipped with the blueprints to construct the basic building blocks of your base, as well as boasting some formidable firepower should it ever be needed. At the time the Commander was something of a revolution, a personal avatar on the field of battle who was both immensely powerful and immensely fragile. The Commander had a fast build rate and could be a devastating combatant, but losing him often resulted in defeat.

Resource management was kept simple with just energy and metal required to construct your bases and army, which meant that focus wouldn’t entirely on constantly micromanaging everything, but rather on waging war. That didn’t mean you could simply ignore your economy, however: Total Annihilation had a nice system in which rather than spending the resources in one go to construct something, resources would drain as you constructed the desired building or unit, so managing the economy was about keeping an eye on your incoming and outgoing expenditure.

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I was always fond of building a good navy.

When it came to the warfare there were a pleasing number of units to choose from, all of which had their own very distinct look and uses within the game. No matter how advanced your tech every unit  was always useful for something. Even the basic PeeWee, a light little bot with an absurd rate of fire and very little armor, could be used by a skilled player later on in the game. No single unit, strategy or structure was too powerful or could not be countered by something else. Land, sea and air units were all at your disposal, which is something I really loved as it allowed you to launch combined operations, such as bombarding an enemy base with warships while advancing on land with tanks and mechs as a fleet of bombers escorted by fighters softened up the main defenses. Yes, battles in Total Annihilation could be won by simply amassing a bloody huge amount of units and chucking at the enemy, but there was also plenty of scope for strategic play, the kind which made going up against human opponents a pleasure.

The metal on metal action is brilliant to behold. Tanks, mechs, planes and ships clashing in a cacophony of beautiful explosions and destruction that gave every engagement a real sense of power. Waging war in Total Annihilation is quite simply a joy that has rarely been matched.

Total Annihilation also introduced a lot of firsts for the RTS genre, It had a true line of sight model, featuring height maps which gave you a reason to consider the terrain you were fighting on as hills could be used to block incoming fire or give your units a slight edge. It was also the first RTS game to really nail artillery, letting players construct the beautiful Big Bertha, a unit I adored. I’m a base-building defensive lunatic who prefers to build up forces while maintaining a powerful defense, so building a fuck-tonne of Berthas to harass the enemy from afar was a favorite tactic of mine, even if it was an expensive and sometimes risky strategy. The game catered beautifully for those that proffered to go on the offensive, but for players like myself there were plenty of defensive structures with which to hide behind.

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Ah, beautiful mayhem.

It also made controlling everything a simple and easy task. Orders could be queued up, allowing you to dish out a series of commands and then wander off to take care of other things, such as blasting the shit out of an enemy artillery emplacement that had been giving you problems. Factories could be given default construction commands, so once they finished up doing whatever task you had assigned them they’d go back to building automatically. You could also command factories to send units to a certain place once finished, bolstering your front lines without you always having to keep an eye on things. Units could be given different stances that changed their behavior, and could also be ordered to patrol areas. Total Annihilation made commanding armies and executing complex plans a doddle.

Truth be told I struggle to find any real flaw with Total Annihilation, but then nostalgia could have something to do with that. Still, I play the game to this day and it stands alongside modern RTS games easily, and is bolstered by a massive array of mods available to download that extend the game in a variety of ways, adding units, maps new rules and even completely redoing the game. One of my favorite mods is  Final Frontier, and it turns the game into a space warfare RTS with massive cruisers and warships floating through the void, unleashing hell.

If I was going to really try to pick out some flaws I would say that the singleplayer campaign isn’t anything special, and the differences between the two factions could have been a little more substantial than they were. But that’s really all I can think of it. Total Annihilation truly was amazing, and it has stood the test of time with ease.

As much as adore Total Annihilation, I have some rather mixed feelings regarding Wargaming’s acquisition of the license. Part of me simply wants a new Total Annihilation because, well…it’s Total Annihilation! Another part of me, however, is wondering if we actually need a sequel? What can they do with Total Annihilation that hasn’t really already been done with it?

Supreme Commander didn't hold back when it comes to scale.

Supreme Commander didn’t hold back when it comes to scale.

Back in 2006 Gas Powered Games released Supreme Commander, another one of my favorite games, a sequel to Total Annihilation in all but name. And what a sequel it was, evolving the Total Annihilation formula in pretty much ever way I could have ever envisioned, crafting a game with an immense scope. Wars between the factions take place on huge maps where it can take armies 10 or 15 minutes to march to the enemy base, and a single game can take hours to complete, as some of the late game technology takes considerable resources and time to build. This was war and strategy on an epic scale, so much so that Gas Powered Games introduced the ability to zoom all the way out until you reached a tactical overview of the entire map where you could more accurately control your armies and manage the frontline. Best of all this view transition was perfectly smooth, making it a joy to use.

Much of the core design elements of Total Annihilation were still present and accounted for in Supreme Commander. The concept of having a Commander remained, although again due to licensing reasons it was renamed an ACU, and like Total Annihilation this unit was both powerful and vulnerable. Again, two resources were used and base building was a vital component of the game, but this time around rather than building separate factories to gain access to new technology levels you upgraded existing factories.

Supreme Commander also introduced massive experimental units, devastating machines that required absurd amounts of resources and time to construct. bringing something extra to the late-game.

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There were some notable flaws in the formula. There was a fairly limited selection of units, and the later game technology tended to make earlier units almost entirely redundant. The increase in scale also resulted in a lot of the units just feeling too small, like you were commanding tiny ants to attack the foe. Each unit also had a distinct lack of personality – I still can’t remember the name of the most them, unlike Total Annihilation’s array of powerful metal, the names of  every one I can still remember. Finally the game’s experimental units were so powerful that each match tended to be won by whoever could get one out first, turning battles into resource managing challenges more than full-scale wars.

Flawed though it may be Supreme Commander was still a superb title, and it’s expansion pack, Forged Alliance, solved some of the game’s issues by introducing some new units to each existing faction along with an entirely new faction. The clunky user-interface was also improved considerably. As a result Supreme Commander still stands as a brilliant RTS, able to compete with any other example of the genre, and was more than a worthy successor to Total Annihilation, even if doesn’t quite have that certain something that Total Annihilation had. The only other games that really do war on this sort of scale is the aptly named Total War series.

Supreme Commander 2 was released over 3-years later and was something of a strange beast. Taken on its own, without the Supreme Commander name, it would have been a rather enjoyable, fast-paced RTS that placed the emphasis on quick action and outright fun rather than patience and grand strategy.  But with the Supreme Commander name stamped on the box it was hard to view Supreme Commander 2 as anything more than a stripped back, dumbed down version of the first game, offering none of the depth or scale and leaving fans feeling let-down. The desire to create a game that would run on consoles, something which the first Supreme Commander proved unable to do in its terrible port, and appeal to that market had much to do with this drastic change in style.

Supreme Commander 2 went a little nuts, introducing crazy but fun units.

Supreme Commander 2 went a little nuts, introducing crazy but fun units.

The experimental units in the first game had also gone in completely the opposite direction. In Supreme Commander much of the game was spent just holding off the enemy until you could build the massive experimental units which dominated the game. Usually victory came to those who got the first experimental unit on the field. In Supreme Commander 2 experimental units became relatively fast and cheap to produce and so you could throw them en masse at the enemy.

Still, Supreme Commander 2 made some interesting steps forward. The graphical style changed, giving the game a little more personality, and an upgrade system was introduced which allowed low-level units to remain relevant throughout the game and also gave players a degree of control of the way they were playing the game.

In some ways SupComm 2 is actually more similar to Total Annihilation than the original Supreme Commander was. The maps are small and the pace of the matches is a bit closer than Supreme Commander’s massive, lengthy games, although it is still much quicker. Units have a bit more personality as well.

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I still hold that on its own Supreme Commander 2 is a fun RTS with an emphasis on quick action, making it enjoyable and easy to jump straight in and play. But as a sequel, though, I agree with the majority that it felt like a let-down, scaling everything down and taking out a lot of what made Supreme Commander so awesome.

That’s not all, though, because the majestic Total Annihilation also has a third pseudo-sequel arriving later this year in the form of Planetary Annihilation, a project helmed once again by several people who were involved in Total Annihilation. For example, both the lead developers at Uber, the name of the company developing the game, worked on Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Once again the concept of having a Commander on the field of battle is present, but now the scope has gone galactic with wars being waged across multiple, entire planets. Yet that core Total Annihilation DNA is still there, and is often quoted and talked about by the development team who, like me, believe that Total Annihilation was one of the greatest RTS games ever created. The resource system is the same, the Commander is the same, the way things are built is the same, and that it’s all done with robots is the same. It’s Supreme Commander on an even bigger scale, and therefore Total Annihilation on a bigger scale.

At this point there’s a closed program going in which gamers are getting access to the game. Sadly, I’m not one of them but the response thus far has been great, and the game itself looks amazing. It’s like Planetary Annihilation is to Supreme Commander what Supreme Commander was to Total Annihilation: an evolution in the truest sense, expanding on everything that was good and adding in even more. The scale of Supreme Commander has been taken and increased further, tasking players with building bases and controlling frontlines across multiple planets, and I can’t wait.

Entire planets, just waiting for you to take control of them and wage intergalactic war.

Entire planets, just waiting for you to take control of them and wage intergalactic war.

But all of this makes me wonder if there’s actually a need for a true sequel to Total Annihilation, because the truth is we’ve already had three sequels in everything but name, with a fourth on the way. For the most part they’ve been a true evolution of Total Annihilation, expanding everything that Cavedog originally created. What can Total Annihilation 2 really do that Supreme Commander didn’t, and what Planetary Annihilation is going to? With Gas Powered Games at the helm is Total Annihilation 2 actually going to be Supreme Commander 3? And isn’t all of this pseudo-sequels and nonsense a bit confusing? I’m starting to get confused about which game is which in disguise.

Part of me also can’t help but wonder if Wargaming will attempt to make a free-to-play Total Annihilation. Free-to-play isn’t something I know a whole lot about, and I’m certainly not against the concept, but some part of me just really wouldn’t want Total Annihilation 2 to go down that route. Currently there’s a new Command & Conquer in development which is using a free-to-play model and it looks very interesting, but I’m yet to be entirely convinced.

Maybe Wargaming will give Total Annihilation a HD makeover and simply release it on Steam. That would be quite nice. And maybe they could even attempt to implement a Supreme Commander-esque zoom-out function? That’d be really cool.

Maybe we should go for broke and attempt to create a phenomenal sequel to Total Annihilation. But perhaps the greatest problem with that is attempting to live up to expectations. Supreme Commander was safe, because while it was a sequel in every way but the title it didn’t actually have the Total Annihilation name branded on the disc, helping to shield it from 10-years (at the time) of built-up expectations that Total Annihilation fans would have had for any true sequel. Had Supreme Commander failed it would in no way have really tarnished the Total Annihilation reputation, but once you have the name on the box, you’re opening a door to a rabid fanbase that are going to have almost insane expectations.

What I’m getting at is what if Total Annihilation 2 ends up being like Supreme Commander 2, the game that many people refuse to admit even exists because they felt like it was a disappointing sequel, even if it was a good stand-alone game?

As you may have guessed, then, I’m rather conflicted about a potential “true” sequel to Total Annihilation. Part of me wants it so much that it’s almost disturbing, while the other part of me is wondering if we actually need a “true” sequel, because in reality Supreme Commander was everything I would have wanted for Total Annihilation 2. Maybe we should leave the Total Annihilation name alone and remember it as one of the greatest RTS games of all time that went on to inspire another fantastic RTS, and a potentially amazing one that’s yet to come. It has left a hell of a legacy, and maybe we should leave it at that.

Maybe.

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