Free Total Annihilation-like RTS Zero-K lands on Steam

Zero-K

Total Annihilation was an influential real-time strategy game where resources flowed like water, where armies blotted out the sun with their artillery-fire and where conflicts could play out on a scale where true strategy became more important than second-to-second micromanagement. Freeware RTS Zero-K is one of its best fan-made imitators, built on the Spring RTS Engine (an open-source foundation built to replicate Total Annihilation), it has been around for a while, but today it made its big debut on Steam.

While it might look a little raw compared to the current crop of hyper-polished real-time strategy games, Zero-K brings a lot to the table. The competitive/esports stuff is to be expected, but those wanting a more solitary experience are well served here. On top of skirmish and AI horde survival modes (all of which can be played cooperatively, and the horde mode features an entirely new alien race to fight), there is an enormous branching 70+ mission campaign.

The campaign mode opens with a gentle tutorial, explaining the interface and the basic flow of gameplay, so it’s a perfect place for less experienced players to hop in. Playing out over a galactic map, each planet holds a mission, and every mission completed unlocks new units on the enormous tech-tree, or provides you with some persistent upgrade to your Commander unit. Plus, multiple difficulty settings and optional objectives add replay value on top of all that.

Zero-K shares a core design with Total Annihilation. You start each battle with a lone Commander mech. If it explodes: Game over. You use it to build your first few resource-extractors (mines for metal, solar or wind power for energy), a robot factory or two, and from there your options balloon. While Zero-K does a lot of little things to define itself, its biggest feature is the ability to alter the terrain itself, opening up a whole world of weird new strategies.

Zero-K

Terrain has always been important to Total Annihilation and its successors. Many weapons fire in arcs, meaning a cleverly placed unit can hide behind cover while still attacking. Zero-K’s terraforming also allows you to seal off base entrances and exit ramps, or even cut your way inland to allow a naval invasion of a land-locked enemy base. All this combined with the quite frankly silly number of options you’ve got in terms of unit choice makes this one of the most freeform real-time strategy games around.

While you can figure out the basics just by diving into the tutorial missions, the official site contains a full wiki & video-guides section. Once you’re feeling confident and have cut your teeth on a few matches (up to 32 players) online, you’ll also unlock the PlanetWars mode. A multiplayer campaign of sorts, where three factions of players fight for control of a galactic map, with each planet representing an individual battlefield.

Zero-K is absolutely free, although the Steam page for the game does provide several options if you want to donate to the developers. Linux-favouring folks (or those who just don’t use Steam in general) can also get hold of the game via Itch.io here.

17 Comments

  1. Konservenknilch says:

    Looks great, will definitely check it out. The TA model is basically the only RTS I can stand. Oh, how I wish for a proper SupCom successor.

    • QSpec says:

      If you are into multiplayer, have you looked at Forged Alliance Forever? It provides a lobby to find games, balance updates, a ranking system, and more (I believe they even added a 4th race that can be played in casual games).

      Supcom is alive and well.

  2. EvilMonkeyPL says:

    Sweet tip, thanks.
    My pointer-clicker’s been hovering over TA in Steam for quite a few days in a row now, so I just might give this a go instead.
    To my mind nothing ever came close to just how good TA was. SupCom never really did anything for me while PA I felt just wasn’t very good, even if the idea of hopping between planets is kinda neat. The stupidly overpriced Titans expansion didn’t really help either.

    • Dominic Tarason says:

      I’m not sure if it was that way at launch, but I know the Titans expansion for Planetary Annihilation was something like 80% discounted for players with the original game at some point.

      The choice to do a re-launch under the expansion’s banner was a bit awkward though.

      • EvilMonkeyPL says:

        Oh, you are right, I can upgrade for a fraction of base cost. Great tip again, cheers. Will have to check it out at some point.

        • Darloth says:

          I still didn’t like it all that much.

          Zero-K feels like TA tuned for competitive balance and optimized user interface, if that helps… but in exchange, you lose a little of the slower buildup TA had, and certainly lose the modded upper end of ridiculously huge megaunits. Zero-K has a few of those, but they’re rarely seen in online play and the dozen or so they have are all you get.

    • zagibu says:

      SupCom is better than TA, simply because it has continuous strategic zoom. Once you get used to that, you can never go back. It also has lots of other convenience features that are nice, but not essential, such as automatic ferries or coordinated attacks.
      TA has more style and more difference in the factions, but functionally, SupCom is a much better game.

      • Cederic says:

        Strategic zoom was nice and all, but Supcom never replicated the missions in TA that left your ground units unable to move due to the wrecked remains of their predecessors which you couldn’t reclaim because there was constant fire that would destroy your construction units.

        TA managed to implement attritional warfare in a way I haven’t seen before or since, and I will forever love it just for that.

        • EvilMonkeyPL says:

          Exactly. One of the strongest points of the game for me was that turtling to obscene levels was also a possibility, what with long range artillery and ballistic options, and as fun and viable a strategy as playing aggressively.

      • bloodnok says:

        I don’t agree with that. TA had one zoom level but it was “just right”; the units are distinctive (astonishingly so given it’s 3D not sprites) but you can see quite a lot of battlefield. In contrast I found SupCom had no sweet spot; if I could tell units apart, I was zoomed in too close – or I could zoom out all the way and look at a bunch of little icons, and while gameplay might trump graphics it is nice to look at graphics sometimes.

        Furthermore, in SupCom the perspective isn’t at infinity; you can zoom the camera in under your own air force and even before you get there, air units are unhelpfully close to the camera, huge but passing through your field of view in an eyeblink. This is a really horrendous misfeature and I don’t know why it was done that way – and it really contributes to the way zooming just lets you choose between a number of bad options.

        • kalzekdor says:

          The best thing about SupCom was its multi-monitor support. You could have two completely independent viewports simultaneously. I tended to leave a zoomed-out strategic view on one monitor while dealing with things at a more local scale, though I occasionally monitored a battle while doing a bit of base building.

          • bloodnok says:

            That’s one of many SupCom-isms I liked and would like to have seen in TA, but I still found the lack of a sweet spot for zoom frustrating; in the end, at least for me personally, the verdict is clear in that I still fire up TA now and then (even paid GOG for a second copy of it) but SupCom is long gone from my hard drive.

            While I’m on it, I had hoped SupCom would fix something; one of the strengths of TA (compared to, say, Starcraft) was that the mechanics of metal extraction encouraged you to take and hold territory all game. The very powerful defensive buildings were neatly countered by the way aggressive expansion beat turtling; you wanted the whole map at a point in the game where a Starcraft player is only trying to get a expansion and deny the opponent a expansion. (Yes, the latter is a whole-map activity too). Except… after a while you can just build fusions and moho metal makers and make all the metal in the privacy of your own base, removing that incentive. I hoped SupCom would remove that; instead it’s even easier.

  3. fuggles says:

    Is this good? Looks good. I need to know for when I have a pc that runs it.

    • ThornEel says:

      If you keep graphical options low, it seems to run on pretty weak computers.

      Otherwise, it is pretty good, yes. It is more or less Total Annihilation after a few major cycles of redesign and interface improvements.

      Notable big changes are:
      – Only one “faction”, everyone has access to the same units.
      – All factories are “T1”, you can start the game with any (though starting with an air factory is generally a bad idea in 1v1 matches). In fact, everything is buildable from the start. No Starcraft-like tech, nor Building A unlocks Building or Unit B. Obviously you won’t start with a superweapon, as by the time it is half done, your opponents will have raided your base to oblivion. Note that the first factory is free and will instantly appear when your Commander build it.
      – No damage/armour types. Every unit does the same damage to every other unit – apart from anti-air: dedicated anti-air units won’t attack ground (and do 10% damage if they do somehow hit)
      – Everything has the same cost ratio in time, energy and metal. So if an unit costs 600 Metal, it also costs 600 Energy and takes 600 buildpower/time units.
      – A modern UI, with extensive customisation options.
      – Decently smart unit behaviour. For example, small, fast raiders will randomly run around to avoid slow anti-heavy rockets, and kite slower, shorter-ranged enemies. Units will also choose their targets reasonably well and avoid overkill.
      – Very good non-cheating AI. While the best players will consistently beat it, its non-handicapped difficulty level isn’t called “brutal” for nothing.

      Also, in the most common game mode, you won’t loose on the death of the Commander, so you can take more risks with it. Which is good, because it becomes rather fragile when the game progresses. You can add modules during a game and basically turn it into a super-unit, but then it becomes a big metal investment to be managed with care.

    • domukaz says:

      I downloaded it this weekend and have enjoyed it a lot, though I still prefer the Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance community patch/client, Forged Alliance Forever, with which I’m more familiar, and with which Zero-K shares a common ancestry. Still, I like the players’ ability to shape the terrain, and the smaller maps keep the pace fast. The relative simplicity of the economy, and the effective choice of a “faction” in your choice of a first factory, also appeal to me greatly.

      Basically, if you enjoy Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander, then you’ll probably enjoy Zero-K. It’s a well-done tribute to a classic series of games, but it has some interesting ideas of its own, too.

  4. poliovaccine says:

    Weird, I wrote a song called Zero K and I kinda never expected to see that title crop up anywhere else.

  5. lrbaumard says:

    I don’t know why I would play this over the identical looking but still amazing and still updated Supreme Commander: Forged alliance via Forged Alliance Forever.
    The best strategy game that exists… still

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