Total Annihilation Finally Invades Steam

Beyond boring corporate sales figures and the often-unreasoning acclamation of fanaticism, there’s one simple way to define a classic videogame: when you refer to a new game as “like X meets Y“, X and Y are probably classics [are those prequels to Z? -‘funny’ ed.]. So consider Stardock’s Brad Wardell telling us “Ashes of the Singularity is like Total Annihilation meets Company of Heroes meets Kohan”, or our old Nathan declaring “Planetary Annihilation is like Total Annihilation with planets.” The conclusion? Total Annihilation is a classic. The 1997 RTS has lived on GOG and other digital stores for ages, but has only now touched down on Steam.

Total Annihilation brought vast swarms armies of robotic mechs, vehicles, aircraft, tanks and naval vessels. I remember being impressed by units taking cover behind trees (I swear this was impressive at the time) and being wary of the fact that entire forests could be set alight with a single stray shot. I remember its strikingly realistic sort-of-3D landscapes (again, for the time) and symphonic score. I was a fan, in case you hadn’t gathered. Did I mention it’s a classic?

After developers Cavedog Entertainment closed, members went on to work on sprawling, TA-referencing RTSs like Supreme Commander and the aforementioned Planetary Annihilation.

Shut me up and see for yourself, either via GOG for £3.99 or, of course, now via Steam for the reduced price of £2.79 until Christmas Day.

50 Comments

  1. crowleyhammer says:

    One of my favourite intros.

    Loved the debris strewn over battlefield in areas where mass combat constantly takes place, makes it look like no mans land once the battle fades.

    Awesome game.

    • Konservenknilch says:

      “For each side, the only acceptable outcome is the total elimination of the other”

      Man, I still love this over-the-top epicness without drowning it in lore (cough, SC2, cough). I really miss this boiled-down approach to wargames. Whelp, they hate each other, nobody remembers why, but let’s duke it out. SupCom had some of that, but they threw it out with the second game.

      And that soundtrack. Woof.

      • KDR_11k says:

        The only lore to the game were the technobabble descriptions of the technologies at the end of the manual.

        • Azhrarn says:

          There was a storyline of sorts in the campaign, but especially in the expansion (Core Contingency). Very over the top, obviously, but there was story. :)

      • Thants says:

        They threw a lot of stuff out with the second game.

        • Konservenknilch says:

          Like the fun, you mean?

          I’m not one to immediately diss bad sequels. Heck, I enjoyed Dragon Age II. But I’m still playing SC:FA occasionally, and I have just no interest at all to revisit SC2.

  2. Canazza says:

    Also Jeremy Soule’s soundtrack is awesome.

    • KillahMate says:

      The soundtrack put Jeremy Soule on the map, and it may be due to nostalgia, but it’s still my favorite of his work. Nothing else at the time had such a grand orchestral sound, very fitting for the kind game it was. A sample:
      link to youtu.be

      • LionsPhil says:

        Brings a sense of TA’s scale and class to a genre whose sountrack was usually some kind of rock.

        (Although I’m not going to badmouth Frank Klepacki.)

  3. GernauMorat says:

    So broadly, these were games about automation?

    • GernauMorat says:

      Sorry (damn you lack of edit)- So you set up factories that continuously provide you with units, ans that is where the strategy comes in to it?

      • Konservenknilch says:

        It’s pretty much the opposite of e.g. Blizzard-Games. Lots of macro-management, automation like you said, expendable units, easier to turtle as well, heavy reliance on physics, several endgame mega-weapons (kickbutt artillery, nukes and all that). Resources are infinite and arrive in a constant stream (as do expenses), but mining points are pre-determined.

        You can produce just a single tank from a factory, or spew out endless streams to rally points. If you can afford it.

        Still my favorite RTS next to SupCom:FA. That one had the wonderful feature to set a patrol route as a rally point for factories. Sigh, I miss that.

        • LionsPhil says:

          I’ve been playing FA with a friend again and there are just so many quality-of-life interface features in it that have been lost again to RTSes it’s just not funny.

          Unfortunately I also fear some of them would be sorely missed returning to TA with any sincerity beyond a nostalgic prodding. It didn’t have ferry routes, or strategic zoom, or being able to move waypoints (air factory on repeat -> patrol route = move the nodes to send your airforce to assert control over whereever you want, constantly being reinforced), or build templates, or double-click select-all (although I think there was a key for it), or co-ordinated attacks, or formation movement…

          The one thing neither has, though, which I wish hadn’t been both introduced and lost (AFAIK) with Dark Reign, was AI orders, in particular “hunt and destroy”. Good for mopping up: select some mobile units, tell them to do that, they wander the map finding that one last enemy builder unit. (They could also automate scouting, and hit-and-run harassment.)

          • KDR_11k says:

            That’s why I suggest playing Spring RTS mods over vanilla TA. After all TA is 17 years old now, Spring has been receiving UI updates and even accepts scripts that add features the base engine doesn’t have.

          • Darloth says:

            People are still producing modpacks for original TA though, and one of them added strategic zoom, and mobile teleporter thingies which act very much like ferry points (minus the actual ferrying, I admit).

            Now I want to go find an FA modpack and compare, but I don’t know where my FA disc is and I think it’s still inconveniently expensive.

        • aircool says:

          I’m sure you could use a rally point for a factory as the start of a patrol route in TA.

          I’m sure I used to do that for air defence aircraft so that they went on patrol as soon as they had been manufactured.

          • LionsPhil says:

            Hmm, maybe, but since you can’t move waypoints after the fact in TA it’s less powerful. The trick with the FA version is that all your previously built aircraft will also follow suite, allowing you to sweep a huge tidal wave of fighters/gunships across the map.

            Either option is, of course, way out ahead of other RTSes. :/

      • KDR_11k says:

        No, it’s not that simple, factories act similar to other RTSes except there’s no limit to the build queue length and the actual build process happens in the open, resources are only subtracted as the unit is being built (instead of as it’s queued) and construction units can help build factory units, speeding up the process several times over. You still order which specific units you want built, they get made and then you order them around. AFAIK the balance favors using one factory with tons of construction units over multiple factories since factories are VERY expensive and the construction units have as much build power as the factories that build them so two con units on a factory = 300% output (the commander has the highest build speed of all units).

        • Dominare says:

          That’s only true up to a point – since a built unit has to physically clear the construction pad before the next one can begin building, if you put all your builders on a single factory it’ll spend more time waiting for units to move than it will actually making them.

      • EhexT says:

        The strategy comes from deciding how many units, and which kind to commit to which fronts at which time. You know – actual strategy. Admittedly that gets easier with the better UI introduced by Spring and Supreme Commander – in original TA you’ve not got a strategic zoom or super simple ways to drag or delete single orders in order chains, etc.

    • KDR_11k says:

      Storywise yes but not in gameplay. It was notable for vastly expanding the ability to queue orders (contemporary games only allowed you to place one building at a time, maybe queue up a handful of units and only movement orders and that very clunkily in the case of Command & Conquer) and handling many more units. TA came out before Starcraft but Starcraft did things like allowing you to select only 12 units at a time. But in the end you’re still giving all the orders yourself, it’s standard RTS fare in that regard.

      TA also scales up to any resolution you throw at it, simply showing you more of the map (again C&C had 2-3 resolutions to pick from per game and Starcraft forced one resolution). It stood out with terrain heights being smooth, forming natural hills and valleys (the terrain is pre-rendered and the units on it polygonal, everybody else was using sprites or voxels) while SC had 3 distinct height levels, C&C added some strict slopes and Dark Reign had 9 heights that were hard to distinguish.

      Really doesn’t stand out that much anymore but still matches or exceeds modern games in UI functionality when it’s 17 years old. It’ll seem fairly unremarkable to someone playing it now for the first time but it’ll also not feel as old as it really is.

      For actual playing I’d recommend Spring RTS with a TA-based mod but TA itself is a good piece of history and has a campaign (that was not up to the standards of its competition but skirmish was where the real meat was anyway).

      • LionsPhil says:

        I kind of lament that Tib Sun’s waypoint system was a dead evolutionary branch. Having waypoint paths as a persistent-first class entity you could slap down then assign units to follow was an interesting approach, but didn’t really fit its parent game.

        The closest I can think of seeing it again is SupComm’s ferry routes, where some transports can define a route, then you can get extra transports to assist it, and assign factories or loose units to be ferried along it. But the route is ultimately owned by those initial transports, and if they get shot down the route is destroyed (even if other transports still exist…they just give up and land wherever they are).

      • aircool says:

        Yeah, you could build a ton of factories churning out the same unit, set a waypoint for them somewhere in enemy territory and pump up the build queue.

        That gave you a constant stream of either reinforcements, or just harassment units to take flak whilst you micro’d the bad boys toys.

  4. PieBaron says:

    For my birthday this year, my friend got me the Ultimate Commander Pack and it was in a massive box, inside was just the little cd case and a giant fat book :D
    I wonder how all the mods and unofficial patch and stuff will play with the steam version..

  5. C0llic says:

    such a great game and way ahead of it’s time. Fully polygon models when that was a new thing, order queuing and other cool little innovations.

    Great to see it make a come back. It was always a shame the franchise died (sup com never really captured the magic in my opinion).

  6. PearlChoco says:

    I remember the screenshots doing it no justice; still screens looked kinda bland, but when I saw this game in motion for the first time, I was completely blown away. This was a graphical revolution for RTS games like Quake was for FPS games.

  7. Risingson says:

    So, another game I will own again soo because of some random bundle.

  8. TillEulenspiegel says:

    Is there any reason to play TA if I’ve already played a ton of Supreme Commander? I tried it for about an hour, and it seemed extremely similar, just lacking the more modern interface.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Honestly, and some people will burn me at the stake for this, probably not. SupComm, for the most part, does everything TA does better. It was a solid spiritual sequel.

      Although you might get a kick out of how their are builder units for each mobility type (air/mech/vehicle/water [and in the expansion sub/hovercraft]), and the tech tree is driven by specialization down these into advanced factories. The lack of experimentals, at least unless someone springs for a Krogoth Gantry in the expansion, means wars tend to get won by extensive nuclear or artillery exchanges, too, which in SupComm/FA always seems to take longer than the alternatives. (Assuming nobody manages to just roll in with enough units, anyway.)

      Oh, and it has all kinds of little ’90s weirdnesses that SupComm kinda shed, like spiderbots with stunguns, and pop-up defence towers (in the expansion again) that could survive bombardment from outside their range well. And learning to love/hate ARM gunships for being totally freaking OP. You thought Broadswords were bad…

      • PancakeWizard says:

        “SupComm, for the most part, does everything TA does better”

        For some of us, SupCom stopped us being interested. Well, TA Kingdoms did that, but SupCom certainly didn’t help. It was just too much. TA is like slipping on an old glove, I love it.

      • Dusk108 says:

        I liked that 90s weirdness stuff. Sup Comm despite all the shiny graphics just felt very samey to me, like the only real differences were the coats of paint each faction had. Maybe I just didn’t play Sup Comm enough. Also that strategic view seems to lose a lot of the character of the game. Very quickly into a game it feels like unless you’re zoomed all the way out, looking at unit icons rather than units themselves, you’re playing wrong and gonna lose.

        Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I still like TA better.

      • Darloth says:

        Popup reinforced gun turrets make so much sense in a battle environment where artillery shells and explosions make up about 30% of the atmospheric content at any given time.

        In SupCom you need to stack and ideally layer shields over any fixed defense for it to even have a chance of being useful once the game reaches a certain point, and that makes me a bit sad.

  9. Napalm Sushi says:

    My most enduring memory of Total Annihilation is, unfortunately, of the entire rest of my gaming circle snubbing it in favour of obscure RTS footnote Dark Reign.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Poor Dark Reign. Had it not been for being released alongside TA, I suspect we’d look back a lot more favourably on it. It, too, had its share of novel ideas, and some interesting superweapons: particularly the Freedom Guard one that set off an earthquake rippling across the screen.

      (I went back to it recently-ish remembering how different terrain types affected different modes of locomotion, though, and found a game that ran so Starcraft-fast that it just didn’t matter. Units were dumb as all hell and need constant micro babysitting at speed. Don’t think that was a overpowered-future-computer problem…)

    • PancakeWizard says:

      I have a friend who hilariously got Dark Reign confused with Dark Colony and bought the wrong one.

      • Napalm Sushi says:

        Ah, reminds me of when my parents bought me a Sega Master System, and in my pre-teen innocence I spent ages wondering – somewhat unfairly – why my Sonic 2 looked like an amateurish imitation of the (Megadrive) Sonic 2 on the telly.

  10. aircool says:

    Still my favourite RTS. Being able to put repair vehicles and air-defence aircraft on patrol routes was great. As well as that big cannon that could blow stuff up on the other side of the map.

    The game is also a Hedgehoggers dream, if that’s your style of play.

    It’s a shame the sequel aimed for large maps; a lot of the time you were zoomed out so far you were just watching icons moving about. The fantasy version of TA wasn’t too bad though.

    • LionsPhil says:

      I <3 shield bubbles.

    • kalzekdor says:

      I miss those construction aircraft. I always had a couple groups patrolling perimeter defenses, automatically repairing anything damaged, while my artillery rained hell from within my defensive perimeter. The game was very much WW1 with robots, trench warfare.

      Every 5 or 10 minutes or so, I would gather up all my construction aircraft, and go gather up all of the debris in no-man’s land for resources. When you have 50+ construction aircraft, even the largest debris pile was nanolathed in mere seconds, so they would get in and out before the enemy could react. Allowed me to turn some of the enemy’s resources against them.

      I also loved the way they would gather in one spot when given a build order, then spread out in a big circle. It just looked amazing.

      • LionsPhil says:

        Yeah, they were also great for early land grabs on metal points.

        (Although for keeping defences intact, I do think I prefer the shield bubbles and engineering stations of FA.)

  11. RanDomino says:

    WHAT BEGAN AS A CONFLICT OVER THE TRANSFER OF CONSCIOUSNESS FROM FLESH TO MACHINES HAS ESCALATED INTO A WAR WHICH HAS DECIMATED A MILLION WORLDS ETC

    I played a loooot of TA. Not bad for something I picked up for $5 in ~2001 because it was cheap for a big box. I don’t know if I ever did finish the campaigns, just because they were so grindy.

    Gigantic 32×32 custom maps with 9 AI opponents (what was the cheat for more AIs? *, X or something?) and a huge unit cap were unsurpassed for years for creating a giant mess to blast through. The whole map would fill with a soup of buildings and robots within a few minutes. And then you set a couple of waves of 200 Phoenix bombers on a patrol route around the map and it’s all gone.

    Maybe the best part that nobody’s mentioned is the modded units! The mod program (TA:CC, I think? Conflict Crusher?) took some learning to use but it was very powerful. Anyway people added in all kinds of crazy stuff, a lot of tech-level 3 monstrosities piled right on top. The best by far was the Razorback- that thing was a work of art. Then there was the Beelzebub, which was… completely unnecessary in every way. I think I built one like once… it took ~40 minutes.

    Sadly I can’t really see myself reinstalling because as others have said SC:FA scratches the same itch and has better graphics and quality-of-life UI, although I wish the NPCs would just shut up.

    ooh and does anyone else remember the first mission where you get amphibious tanks as ARM? the first time you send a group of them off to attack some island and they go crawling off into the water, amazing

    • RanDomino says:

      No, wait, TA:CC was Core Contingency. hrm

      • LionsPhil says:

        I think you may be right; “conflict crusher” certainly rings a bell.

        Yeah, Google confirms that was a thing. Man, all the crazy units people pulled off in that engine. Good times.

    • KDR_11k says:

      *x to show 10 slots for players in the Skirmish screen, yes. In theory you can type in any roman numeral up to x but why show fewer slots?

      Also funny for comparison to modern games: You needed one copy per three players in multiplayer (caps at 3 copies).

      • KDR_11k says:

        Oh and I found the cheatcode +dither (type into the chat box) very useful on metal maps because it’s a bit hard to see which of the mostly-grey areas are displayed in complete greyscale.

  12. Lord_Mordja says:

    I’ve tried all the sequels and derivatives but the original is still the best.

    And believe it or not, there’s still a relatively healthy modding community going on at TAUniverse.

  13. Deccan says:

    Stopping a Sumo charge by physically impeding them with a Peewee swarm, thus buying time for my Annihilator cannon to finish building. Getting hit with a bomber wave so big the subwoofer on the stereo gave up. Spotting the next wave on radar and meeting it head-on with massed stealth fighters. Assembling a secret radar-jammed strike force to sweep behind my opponent’s base to destroy his moho metal extractors. Having to D-gun the wreckage away so the next attack could go in.

    I maintain that, despite a UI less convenient than later games, TA is the best. It had a soul that I found sorely lacking in SupCom.