Why Total Annihilation is an iconic masterpiece?

Another gaming-related post this time. In case you’re not an oldfag like me you may miss some pillars of the real-time strategy (RTS) genre. I mean these:

  • WarCraft II (1995 release year)
  • Command & Conquer (1995 release year)
  • The staple of the current show – Total Annihilation (TA for short, 1997 release year)

Each of these titles is an absolute mammoth in regards to establishing the genre. But IMO released just 2 years after the other two TA was 10 steps ahead of them at that time. Actually, I played TA among the first PC games on my own box. We’d played DOOM & stuff on the box of my friend before but that’s a story for another day. However, when I played it I had absolutely no idea how progressive & visionary the game was. Only much later I realized that Total Annihilation is a masterpiece indeed taking into account the point in time it was out & the state of technology at that point.

Total Annihilation Cover Art

Devil is in the detail

That’s absolutely what made TA outstand most from my perspective. Every single bit of game experience was polished with love and care. I can hardly remember any comparable attention to detail. Not only in some other RTS game but even in any other consumer product whatsoever. Modern successors of TA – namely Supreme Commander and Planetary Annihilation – are pretty interesting projects. But they lack that level of love & care for the end-user experience. Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • When a tank fires its cannon aiming to the left or right – and it usually does so while moving – recoil makes it shake a bit after.
  • When a unit is destroyed by a slight overrun of its health it becomes a junk heap very similar in appearance to the original unit – but it’s a sprite now rather than a 3D model (we’ll talk about graphics solutions later) – and that’s true for every single unit in the game.
  • The junk heap above acts as a cover from projectiles. By taking damage it reduces itself ending as a few metal shards shattered at ground level. Did I mention that starting from the initial phase up to the final one any constructor can recycle it for metal (one for two primary game resources) ?
  • And one more note about junk piles =) Just how many facts are related to this pretty “insignificant” gameplay piece can already tell how deep-laid the game is. When a unit is destroyed by the application of a major force – think D-Gun / Nuke / Big Bertha direct hit – junk pile is either scattered all over the place leaving nothing or reduced to the final phase at once.
  • Planes doing aerial acrobatics compatible with their motion path from time to time.
  • A shockwave of a powerful enough explosion partially tosses nearby ground units into the air.
  • And so on and so forth.

If that’s not enough to convince that Total Annihilation is a masterpiece – read on!

Total Annihilation is a masterpiece and a beautiful liar

The game engine was ingenious. It combined various infant visual expression technologies present those days into the overwhelmingly charming visual flow. And it all worked on 100 MHz CPU and 16 MB of RAM. I can barely imagine what kind of optimization techniques developers put in place to make it all tick. Here are some takeaways:

  • All units & buildings were fully 3D models. Rendered with complex textures and nicely animated according to the purpose of a unit. Factories constructing units with nanolathes demonstrated the process from the very beginning to the end product. Bipedal robots moved like people. There was even a spider-like ARM machine moving all its 6 legs in a coordinated manner. Yeah, Quake in full 3D was out in 1996 but that was an RTS. An RTS, Carl!
  • All blasts, projectiles and particle systems were obviously sprites but that was a perfect expressive & vivid solution. The game was really visually intense when it comes to VFX.
  • The terrain was also a flat picture but it had elevation metadata which was respected by the engine. That made it effectively a 3D surface capable of obstructing artillery fire. Or making ground units tilt and turn to meet the face of the ground. Or slowing down or speeding them up in accordance with gravity.
TA gameplay picture

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Summarizing:

  • Total Annihilation is a masterpiece that became iconic for its community
  • TA performed reasonably well in sales
  • It received lots of game industry awards

But all that still didn’t help to save its developer company – Cavedog Entertainment – from going out of business in 2020. Chris Taylor – the game lead designer – left the company to found its own game developer. He founded Gas Powered Games – the company responsible for the Supreme Commander series. Planetary Annihilation grabbed its funding on Kickstarter from fans who hoped to see the glory of TA executed in a modern way. But again I’m afraid none of them really transcended the original game.

One may say that there’s objectively no such thing as fairness and they may be right in this case. Nevertheless that doesn’t stop us from admitting one of the greatest efforts in the game industry to build an absolutely unforgettable experience.