Blast from the Past review
TheMorty travels back to 1997 to see if it still annihilates
The late 90s was the peak of 2D strategy gaming. Command and Conquer understandably stole most of the thunder, its Soviet theme proving extremely popular at a time when a post-cold war Hollywood was overflowing with Russian Antagonists. The cross-platform launch of ‘Red Alert’ on the very first iteration of Sony’s PlayStation also helped it dominate sales as the opened genre to a whole new audience and shared with console users a style of game normally reserved for PC purists. Following behind that strategy flagship, was a whole fleet of battle sims each with their own unique brand that allowed you to wage war in space, during the iron age – or even as a robotic commander with an army of Mechs at your disposal. At the heart of the latter of those brands, is a game that gets very little recognition, but really is the benchmark of top-down gaming as we know it.
Total Annihilation from the unheard of Cavedog Entertainment didn’t have the gravitas or the reputation at launch of the EA backed ‘Theme’ Series. Nor that of Sid Meier’s MicroPose which boasted Civilisation and UFO in their portfolio. No, Cavedog were a short-lived and very niche developer that almost exclusively produced a single cult classic. You start as a Commander. A Mech. Your role? Build the strongest army you can and (you guessed it) totally annihilate your opponents army. It sounded simple, right? Well they didn’t make it too easy… time to go back and see if TA still annihilates the competition.
Still a Blast?
The game has two modes: Campaign and Skirmish. In the former, you’re pitted in scenarios each rising in difficulty against your rival faction. Starting with quickly achievable goals to win small battles before reaching the culmination of an all-out war to end your enemy’s faction for good. The missions can be ensuring the survival of a lone unit or wiping out a small colony, but it doesn’t feel samey, as you move from world to world the maps become more intricate and force you to use a different strategy each time. The narrative is driven by short, text-based write-ups that bookend each mission, giving an update on how you’re fairing in the grand scheme against your nemesis. Each level eventually descends into a straight up, kill-or-be-killed account, but you’re forced to read the text as there’s no ‘Objectives’ on the HUD. So skip the blurb and you’ll end up losing the battle for sure.
Legend has it (and by “legend” I mean the opening cutscene) that humanity and the all-synthetic CORE were once staunch allies in an intergalactic union until the CORE made it mandatory for humans to transfer their consciousness into an artificial Matrix. When some humans refused, CORE decreed that all those refusing would be slaughtered. The remaining humans fled to a far-off planet to create a base, form ARM and mounting a resistance… and here we are. If you’re worried humans vs Battle Mechs sounds a bit one-sided – fear not. ARM found a way to clone themselves and operate mechanical units – so it’s not just a fair fight but cements the view that the narrative could easily be straight from a Direct to TV, Sci-Fi B-movie… it certainly gives it more flavour than the boring ‘the Babylonians are invading, don’t die’ storylines you have in Age of Empires that don’t add any sugar to a flavourless campaign mode.
In either mode you can choose your faction as both ARM and CORE have their own unique campaign story with their own special units. ARM are naturally positioned as the good guys, but the writers do a good job of rationalising genocide in the CORE playthrough to the point where you start to believe you’re doing the right thing trying to save humanity from dying out… by killing them?!? They do have much cooler units though so that justifies mass-murder, right?
Since we’re on far off planets with robotic units, you don’t have to worry about chopping wood or hunting deer for food like some of the 90s more tedious strategy games and there’s no finite stores to deplete. You can mine metal, you can generate energy and as soon as your stations are built, they’ll provide you a per-second rate of receival. After that, it’s standard bank balance stuff - ensure your outgoing is less than your incoming. It’s a nice touch because it adds an additional layer of unit management. You can turn stations on or off to lower the outgoing rate in order to prioritise creating structures, units or ammo – whatever is most important to the current stage of your battle tactics.
There’s also an added difficulty for metal refinery in that there are a limited number of metal mining squares on most maps, so it restricts how much you can collect in the early stages of the game. This makes it harder for players who just want to squirrel away as much metal as they can to then mass produce units at ease. You aren’t fully restricted as can convert energy to metal, it just takes upgrades and a lot longer to do so.
The Campaign mode is a lot more linear in the computer controlled commander’s approach to your battles, with many scenarios having pre-built bases you have to destroy, but in Skirmish mode the AI isn’t brilliant. It doesn’t have the nuance of in-built tactics and game adaptation, so often the strategy is erratic. Playing at the time of release gamers might have been frustrated or had higher expectations but replaying 20+ years later this is exactly what makes skirmishes so thrilling. Each game differs dramatically from the last, a rival commander is just as likely to start building metal extractors as he is to instantly walk over to you and start a one-on-one, winner takes all deathmatch. Then the next game, your nemesis could focus all their energy on creating near unstoppable nuclear missiles. It’s so random that it makes trying to plan a winning strategy challenging and it means you often must switch up your tactics outside your comfort zone to get the win. Skirmish mode also allows up to 4 players on a map and you can ally-up. This can make your life either much easier – or a hell of a lot harder depending on the skill level (or level of erraticism) of your ally.
The units themselves are quite advanced for a 90s release. They are split into classic land, sea and air categories (with hybrid hovercrafts being introduced in the first expansion). You have Infantry, Vehicles, Ships and Aircraft plants and the basic of these have more agile, lower-armoured units that are quick to build as an early defence. However, they would be cannon fodder against an upgraded opponent so you must produce advanced construction units which can build more advanced plants - unlocking some seriously lethal upgrades and game changing tech.
Of the two factions, ARM units tend to be quicker to build but less powerful against their CORE counterparts. CORE are stronger and more armoured but they’re less agile and they take an absolute age to build. There’s two things that make CORE the best faction to choose; first, they have a little annoying Kbot unit called ‘Morty’ who takes long range snipes at his opponents (quite apt). If that isn’t enough for you, wait until you hear about the Krogoth. Their top-tier unit upgrade makes ARM look like choirbots. The Krogoth facility produces a Megazord level Mech which is a near unstoppable. It’s deadly against air and land units and if you’re up against more than one it could spell game over. For the steadfast humanitarian players that couldn’t bear to play as the anti-human CORE, then fear not…
The Commander is equipped with two unique abilities. Cloaking which, at the cost of a huge amount of energy, makes it invisible to both radar and your enemies line of sight and it also has the trait to convert units from rival factions. One very brave strategy to level the playing field would be to go behind enemy lines and convert a rival construction bot and bring him back to your base, so you can boast the best of both production lines. Beware, unless you turn it off, the default setting in both game modes is a big ‘game over’ once your commander has been killed so use this tactic if you’re either Solid Snake or if Danger is your middle name.
Total Annihilation was a blast decades ago and I was worried replaying would damage the nostalgia, but I was delighted to see it hold up so well today. Its simplicity is timeless. Build, destroy, defend, conquer - it’s a format that’s been over-complicated in almost every game since. The Settlers and Age of Empires didn’t get the Strategy/War balance right. You’d often be picking berries or chopping wood early in a game and come under attack. You had limited time to prepare for an onslaught which meant 9/10 playthroughs you’d be pinned to prioritising your army ahead of your settlement. You’d have to mine gold and stone and build houses and huts. Hunt live animals that could easily kill you. Grab artefacts and bring them to your base for ‘prestige’. All good elements to those games but in those quirks, you’d often spent hours preparing for a battle that could be over in minutes. Total Annihilation was the opposite and it allowed you to get out what you put in - the longer you prepared the more intense the war.
The game is available to buy online for less than £4 and that’s for the ‘Commander Edition’ – which grants you both original expansion packs; Core Contingency and Battle Tactics. Both come with additional campaign missions, more skirmish maps and upgraded units, including the Big Bertha and Vulcan Cannons - which can fire almost the length of the map. However, even after you’ve exhausted those - the fun doesn’t stop there. Total Annihilation is a cult classic so of course over the years there’s been fan-made mods. Fan sites like TAUniverse have been mass producing new units, maps and missions for decades, so the freshness of the game is almost never ending.
You won’t find a better value for money real-time strategy game that has aged as well as this. For less than the price of a pint, this review should absolutely twist your ARM.