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Total Annihilation: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Big Bertha

A Commander wreaks havoc on a deserted outpost.

By Mark Huang
Staff Reporter

You can only beat up a third-rate AI so many times before it gets boring. Unless you're swearing at the office assistant, fighting winning battles against the computer is generally considered to be dull. Red Alert? Child's play. Age of Empires? Boring, and the computer cheats anyway. Blupi's Planet? Extremely challenging, but losing is still a rarity. Enter Total Annihilation, now considered to be the best real-time strategy game on the market. Losing to Cavedog's well-trained AI not only sucks, it hurts too. There's no "super doomsday device" or "dumb strategy" that cheats you of a fair fight. Nope, when you lose, you lose because you suck, and you'll find yourself becoming more ruthless in your determination to win as you flail in your own festering incompetence.

It's an easy game to play - most actions are intuitive, from telling units to move to queuing up construction - but it takes a few days (or an hour perusing the strategy FAQ) to learn all the dirty tricks, of which there are only a few. Once you can win against the 8-year-olds who use them, it's abstract warfare from then on. What makes sense is what usually wins: hold the high ground, hoard your resources, diversify your forces, and maintain the balance of power. Of course this doesn't happen in real life - Microsoft always wins. Period.

Total Annihilation's amazingly perfect balance is what has endeared it to most gamers. The units can roughly be divided into land units (consisting of Kbots, vehicles, and buildings), sea units (consisting of subs, ships, and shipyards), and air units(consisting of transports, fighters, and bombers). The two sides at war in the game, Core and Arm, produce different types of these units with different abilities, but each unit on the field has an analogue. More accurately, every strategy involving particular Core units can be countered with an Arm strategy involving similar expenditure on Arm units. Cavedog even posts new units weekly on their web site in response to player comments and suggestions about what the game needs.

Probably the most dramatic feature to a new player would be the game's use of 3D. All units are rendered 3D objects, and the terrain is drawn such that it is quite easy to tell height. Rumors of a 3Dfx patch for Total Annihilation have abounded, but because units generally take up only a quarter of the screen area, a patch probably wouldn't speed things up considerably (the reason Cavedog gives for its reluctance to do so). The game runs at a tolerable trot on my Pentium 133, but I wouldn't trade the 3D for more speed any day. Effective use of 3D terrain is a feature which has been sadly lacking in the genre until now, and the realistic, fully rotatable units are just, well, really cute.

Departing from the idea of the construction yard, keep, or city center as the heart of the game, Total Annihilation places primary importance on the Commander. The Commander is your roving construction yard, storage bin, and "big gun" in one compact package. While an option can be set to continue the game after the Commander is killed, it's generally not a good idea to lose him. He's the fastest builder, wields the most powerful weapon (the dreaded D-Gun), and is the only Kbot capable of capturing enemy units. He also blows up rather nicely when killed, considering the fact that he's a walking Tokamak.

Wreckage is also a new feature in Total Annihilation. Losing a unit is generally bad, but the metal you spent on it can be salvaged if you can reach the wreckage. The wreckage can pile up so much that it impedes movement - a last-ditch strategy if you want to block access to a pass, but not advisable. It's always amusing to kick my friend's ass once, suck his carcasses dry, and treat the other cheek to a beating with his own metal.

Dozens of other features, including intuitive controls, waypoints, command queues, TCP/IP support, and single-player campaigns, catapult Total Annihilation above its competition. The limited use of plot is what really makes the game fun. So many companies try to bolster their terrible games with even more terrible plots. Total Annihilation doesn't pretend to be a game about anything except destruction, which is really what we're all interested in anyway. It'll definitely stay a favorite well into the months ahead.

Total Annihilation

For Windows 95

By Cavedog Entertainment

Release Date: In stores now

Next week: Tomb Raider II