Total Annihilation: Kingdoms
First off, let's get one thing straight: TA: Kingdoms isn't just Total Annihilation with swords and sorcery in place of robots and tanks. If we were to believe Ron Gilbert, head of Cavedog Entertainment, TA: Kingdoms is a whole new game.
With TA, Cavedog took the traditional real-time strategy game by the short and curlies and pulled down very hard. So hard, in fact, that Westwood, creators of Command & Conquer, are still clutching their collective nuts and squealing in the background. Westwood may have started the war, but Cavedog won the latest battle, making TA one of the best games of the last two years. The next stage is imminent, and although Cavedog refuse to be goaded into a war of words, he's willing to talk openly about his own games.
'They're both different," says Ron, of Total Annihilation and Kingdoms. "I think that the whole fantasy aspect will be a big draw. It's really popular, in some ways maybe more popular than a traditional wargame like C&C.
I don't think you'll be able to compare the two. Some people hated WarCraft and loved C&C, and the same the other way around." Looking at the success of TA, it was obvious that a fantasy interpretation was bound to appear eventually. The game engine has yet to be surpassed, and to not update it for a fantasy setting would have been a crime. The first problem that becomes apparent is this: how on earth can Cavedog create believable organic units from an engine developed for angular metallic monstrosities? The answer is long-winded and boring; the result is that they have. The movement of the flying dragons is incredibly realistic, as their wings flap consistently depending on their speed. Watching the foot soldiers walk around is equally impressive - like watching a 64-player Quake II deathmatch from an armchair in the clouds.
Now, I love TA to death, but its single-player campaign missions are pretty dull; skirmishing is where the action is. The question is: will Cavedog deliver a decent singleplayer game apart from a multiplayer practice mode?
"Yeah, if there was one aspect of TA that I was disappointed with, it was the single-player missions," concedes Ron. "It lacked a really compelling story. In Kingdoms we've got a much more complex story that drives its way through the missions. We're structuring the game differently as well: we're not doing the game as 15 missions per side, but as one continuous stream of missions, alternating the sides that you're playing against."
Magic And Mayhem
Unlike TA's two almost identical sides, Kingdoms features four. The Aramons have a regular medieval flavour and feature such fantasy stalwarts as knights, foot soldiers and catapults. Their reliance on magic is low, favouring technological might to defeat the foe. Veruna is a predominately water-based world whose navies are the core element in its fighting force. The Zohn are the flying specialists. And the Taros are demonic, fire-loving anarchists. Each race battles it out over Darien, the world on which the game is based.
Now it would be folly to describe even a few of the 160 planned units, but there are some interesting new elements that need to be discussed. The first is that resource collecting is gone. Yes. gone. The only thing to worry about here is mana, or magical energy, to power up those fireball spells. Some units sweat mana while others absorb it. 'Sacred sites' are the key to success.
"The whole idea about not having resources was very appealing to us," says Ron. "Initially we thought, no way, you gotta have resources. But then, as we started thinking about it, we asked ourselves do we really need resources? I think resources are one of those things that nobody has stepped back and questioned the need for. People include them because the last game had them. When people actually sit down and play Kingdoms and they don't realise they have to micro-manage their resources, they're gonna like it a lot."
When it first arrived, TA was put head to head against Activision's Dark Reign. Both games were well received, but TAs polygon units and emphasis on frantic action made it the clear winner. Dark Reign II has now gone full 3D. Isn't TA: Kingdoms falling behind in the technology wars?
"We had a version working in full 3D," says Ron, "but we decided to back away from that. If you move the camera up or left and right, you really take processing power away from the AI, and you need a really fast machine. I think it's too early for us to take the 3D route. In the future, when everyone has the hardware, we may come back to it."
Although Kingdoms remains essentially a 2D top-down game, looking at previous attempts at full 3D it's difficult not to agree that the time is not yet right. Anyway, there are a whole host of new features and enhancements that look set to build upon TA's strengths. For example: enhanced line of sight, where units on hilltops see further, and even enhance the visual range of nearby units; healing units will automatically go to work on nearby casualties, and some enemy units will naturally induce negative effects on the enemy on account of them being grotesque or frightening; in multiplayer games and skirmishes, rushing will be out, as fortifications will be immune to regular fire, needing something heavier to break them down.
Conversely, some higher level units - The Seven Knights of the Sky, for instance - will be limited to... er, (Seven? - Ed). One of the most exciting features we've yet to see is that each player may be visited by their 'patron deity', a powerful god whose power will be at the player's disposal for a limited time. Can you imagine it? It'll be like King Kong and Godzilla exchanging blows at Gallipoli. It'll rock. Man.
When asked to explain why the Seattle-based, award-winning developers are busy working on an 'all new' fantasy world version of the world's favourite real-time strategy game, Cavedog's game designer Clayton Kauzlaric muses for a moment... "I guess we're just geeks," he says eventually.
"Like most people who are into the sci-fi thing, we also have a penchant for the fantasy and magic stuff. I guess the backbone of all games is the RPG element. I suppose it's just in our blood - if you asked everyone here whether they'd played a paper/pencil Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing game, I bet you'd get a unanimous thumbs-up. Except maybe from some of the younger ones: if you asked them what a 'die-twelve' was, they'd just look at you as if you were some kind of lunatic." There is another reason too, apparently: "At the end of the day we just thought that it would be neat to make polygonal dragons," laughs Kauzlaric. "We've been working on Total Annihilation for something like four years now, and we needed to take a bit of a vacation from all that nuclear weaponry and high-tech stuff and have ourselves a change of pace. We also felt that there was this enormous pressure to out-do ourselves, and thought that maybe it was time to sidestep and refine what we had before starting work on Total Annihilation 2. We're not even sure at this point whether the technology is there to do it justice."
Just in case you were thinking that Cavedog are taking the easy way out, and simply swapping futuristic units for wizards, knights and archers, then think again. Cavedog have taken the Total Annihilation game engine and pumped it up from every conceivable angle. 'The biggest noticeable difference is that TA: Kingdoms is in 16-bit colour," says Kauzlaric. "The level of detail we have now is just amazing, and everything looks just great, especially with 3D hardware support. The water laps on the shore and the fog just sort of hangs there. We're really quite proud of it." Contrary to reports on the Internet, TA: Kingdoms won't have a zoom feature, but you will be able to change resolution on the fly. This not only enables you to get more on the screen at any one time, but if things start to slow up in the heat of battle you can change resolution to help get the action running smoothly.
It was for similar reasons that Cavedog shied away from incorporating a 'bells and whistles' spinny-rotatey 3D game engine, as Kauzlaric explains: "TA: Kingdoms was like that about a year ago , but we decided not to go down that road. I think that if you speak to people who play a lot of real-time strategy games, they tend to think that it's just a bit of a gimmick. Sure, it's a nice feature, but if it means that you have to compromise in terms of frame rate and the number of units you can have on screen, then it becomes a serious issue. Total Annihilation has always been about massive armies battling it out. If we'd developed the game using a free-floating camera engine, then we'd have had to make too many compromises with regards to gameplay. Maybe the technology will be in place by the time TA 2 comes out. Who knows?"
Enter The Dragon
As well as spending time making TA: Kingdoms look utterly brilliant, Cavedog have streamlined the interface to make playing the game easier and quicker. "You no longer have to flip between menus," explains Kauzlaric. "Now you can do everything using the same interface. We've also incorporated a full-screen radar/map view - you just hit the TAB key and it's all there right in front of you. You can actually play the game this way if you want to, everything still functions in the same way." Massive improvements in how the game 'thinks' have also been made: "We've essentially rewritten just about all the artificial intelligence code. The path-finding and strategic routines have all been redone, and the units in TA: Kingdoms noticeably behave as if they're a lot more clued-up."
Units will also gain experience to encourage you to conserve your resources. Keep a watchful eye on your basic swordsman and you see him move quicker and perform better in battle as he becomes more experienced. Some of the 160 units in TA: Kingdoms will also be expendable; lose your star knight or dragon in a rash act of aggression and you'll play through the rest of the game at a distinct disadvantage.
Kauzlaric goes into more detail: "In TA: Kingdoms the state-based artificial intelligence will respond according to the unit's situation. If a unit is in trouble, the AI is smart enough to tell it to retreat. Similarly, if a unit is ordered to attack, it will explore the area until it finds something to engage. If a unit is ordered to patrol, via user-designated waypoints, it will do so until it finds something to attack. As well as opposition forces, there will also be wandering monsters and random events in both the single-player and multiplayer games to make sure that things are kept buzzing."
Wizards And Pointy Hats
It's not all bows and arrows and catapults in TA: Kingdoms, however. Depending on which of the four sides you control, you have a varying number of mages, wizards and witches at your disposal who have the power to heal, resurrect or even re-animate wounded or lifeless units. And as if that's not enough, there are also deities that can be summoned to wreak havoc on the opposition.
"Each magical unit has three levels of spell," divulges Kauzlaric. "The lowest can be cast with little or no mana very quickly; the medium-level spell will draw on a unit's mana reserve while the third, all-powerful spell can only be cast by an experienced mage with a large mana pool. As a wizard or magical character becomes more experienced, then his or her mana 'battery' grows, enabling them to cast bigger spells more frequently. All four civilisations use magic, but while the 'good' kingdoms up the ante with gunpowder, the evil units use sorcery."
Playing For Keeps
Just like the previous games in the series, TA: Kingdoms incorporates line of sight to give it that realistic edge. And like virtually every other aspect of the game, it's been improved.
"It's so much better," enthuses Kauzlaric. "I'd even go so far as to say that it's the biggest single change as far as how the game plays. In TA it was really subtle, but in Kingdoms we've intentionally exaggerated what you can see, purely for the sake of gameplay. You can watch an archer climb a hill, and see the world open up in front of you; from the top of a cliff you can see around six times further. It really opens up the game. Hills become strategically important because of the increase in range they give your weaponry. In testing, we've had players fight over a certain hill a dozen times because it's so crucial."
Cavedog have also taken steps to ensure that 'build and rush' tactics are less effective: "We've purposely made it much easier to fortify your base and protect it from attacks earlier on. In a word, it's all down to walls. You can protect your base straight away, safe in the knowledge that lower-level units such as archers and swordsmen won't be able to run in and wipe you out. if your opponent wants to get at you he'll have to develop catapults and magic."
TA: Kingdoms is undoubtedly an ambitious and potentially enthralling prospect for RTS fans, and Cavedog are confident that they can bring something new and exciting to what is already a very crowded genre. Kauzlaric is very much aware that TA: Kingdoms will be compared to a certain other RTS game currently being developed in Las Vegas. "I'm sure that the guys at Westwood will do a good job, but we just want to do something a little different," he confesses. "I don't really know much about voxels, but they strike me as being something of a stop-gap technology. I know that polygons can be something of a frame rate hog, but once you've paid for it you can do anything with it. It's like a puppet - you can do what you want, it doesn't cost any more."
The fact that the recommended spec for TA - Kingdoms is in the region of a P200 with 64Mb of RAM could be in Westwood's favour. But as is always the case, if you want to play the latest and best games you're going to have to fork out for the kit. From what we've seen so far, the price of a couple of extra memory SIMMS seem to be a small price to pay.
What we thought
"Each unit is animated like nothing else you've ever seen. Archers reload before firing, and the cannoneer covers his ears each time the gun goes off."
What you think
- "This truly is a great game. Well done to Cavedog for doing to WarCraft 2 what they did to C&C. As you said in your review, TA Kingdoms does take some time to get into after Total Annihilation, but once you're into it, you realise how much better Kingdoms actually is."
- "Just what sort of iibersystem did you test TA Kingdoms on? Even on my 400MHz Pll it grinds along to the point of being unplayable in 800x600, pausing every so often while it accesses the CD, and no amount of option tweaking or reinstalling seems to make it better. "My advice is if you have 30 burning a hole in your pocket, go and buy the original with the various add-ons and save yourself a lot of frustration."
- "Even though Kingdoms eats your processor for lunch (I have a Pll 400MHz with 128Mb of RAM), it still runs fairly well and is thoroughly enjoyable. The races are evenly balanced and network play is top-notch. I can see Kingdoms becoming the king of RTS."
- "The strategy game of the year? Rubbish! More like the most bugged game ever. My advice? Take it back and get Dungeon Keeper II, the most amazing game I've played since Warzone2100."
- "Having never played TA and having read your review of TA Kingdoms, I bought this game on its release date. Well, all I can say is Kingdoms is a triumph of style over substance, and your review should have reflected this fact. How about sending me 10 funt for my inconvenience?"
Download Total Annihilation: Kingdoms
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode
Total Annihilation: Kingdoms Screenshots and Media
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