A month ago I made this blog on my favorite childhood RTS series, Command & Conquer. In that blog, it came to my attention that, of the three great RTS series of the 90's (C&C, Starcraft/Warcraft, Total Annihilation), I had yet to play one of them. So I spent the past month playing through the full campaign, at a whopping count of 75 total missions including the vanilla TA and Core Contingency (including Krogoth Encounter). I didn't play Battle Tactics (I'll talk about that in this review).
Well, it didn't particularly appeal to me at first for a number of reasons, but it did grow on me. It certainly earns a place as one of the important games of its time. There were quite a few things about it I did and didn't like - and I thought it would be fun to give a review on a forum where I know at least a few others have played it - or would be interested in playing it if they never did.
Obviously, I'm new to the game, so there's bound to be stuff I don't properly grasp or understand compared to veterans. I'm not a particularly great RTS player - I've played a lot of RTS games but seldom did I put enough effort in to become competitive. But I did try to adapt a playstyle that was consistent with what seems to work in pro-level play so I will give some commentary on design based on that.
Well let's get this one out of the way first just because this is the easiest, least contentious, thing to bash on. Bottom line, there's barely any story to the campaign to speak of. A race of machines and a race of humans, with the goal of completely obliterating the other, starting from the home planet and planet-hopping to the enemy homeworld. That's literally all there is to the story - the only cutscenes are the intro and ending (and for Core Contingency not even that) and just a narrator for telling the story. Lame.
Single-Player Mission Design
For the vanilla campaign, there are 25 missions, with generally monotonic design. Almost all of them were "destroy all enemies" or "destroy all enemies and capture the world gate" or "capture this random ass structure." No clever single-player mechanics, unimpressive commander-only missions, and in general every individual planet felt like a series of three redundant missions with one unifying gimmick.
But that aside, they were generally interesting to play, giving a chance to learn the various game mechanics and get through the game. But honestly, too often I felt like they basically just placed a few units on the map, made up a highly generic story and mission objective, and called it a campaign mission. Because there were very clear signs of not-so-thoughtful campaign decisions in the vanilla story. The difficulty of the campaign was also very inconsistent.
I could name a whole lot of things that were kind of lazy in game design on this front. The fact that all reinforcement units were just stored on the side of the map was pretty damn lazily coded - and a party and a half for speedrunners. But the stupidest thing was simply the way that the "capture the radar on Rougepelt" mission worked. On the planet with random "destroy everything" meteor showers, there was a decent chance of just having your mission objective (the radar) be destroyed before you could ever even have a change to approach it. So I basically had to take a speedrunner's approach to that mission because there wasn't any other way to not just die right away. Bad design.
Core Contingency, to its credit, certainly gave a lot more thought to the way that it designed its missions. Sure, each planet was still a skirmish map with a single gimmick - but each gimmick was actually a pretty decent limitation that forced you to think about your strategy. A water-only planet, a planet with restricted land movement but little sea to speak of, a planet with rocks and hills that screw with artillery, and a hailstorm planet. The storyline may have sucked but the planet design gave something more to work with.
Battle Tactics, I chose not to beat after looking at it and trying a few levels. Why? Because on top of being the same lazy mass-mission design as the vanilla, I felt that it completely missed the point of what actually is good about the game. No, it's not particularly interesting to try to learn to use the D-gun more effectively. The macro mechanics and logistics are pretty much the entirety of the game. All the units are either unwieldy and immobile or made out of paper. I have not all that much interest in trying to focus on "battle tactics" because the game is pretty bad for that. Units on their own just aren't that interesting, so this entire concept falls apart. And given the rather mediocre ratings on this game I'm clearly not the only one who thinks so.
Stepping away from the single-player only aspects, it's clear that the most interesting aspects of this game are seen when you look at the design of units and structures. Most of the game's most devout fans will agree that it's a primarily multiplayer game, so as opposed to the rather critical single-player commentary above, you could expect a lot more praise here. And while that is going to be the case, this will also come with a fair bit of scathing criticism.
The first and probably most important aspect of the game is the Commander. The super-unit you start with that can build structures faster than anything else, and has a secondary weapon, the D-Gun, which for a mere 400 energy can instantly destroy, without rubble, any enemy. With the one caveat that you only have one Commander and when he dies in a gigantic nuclear explosion, you lose. Well in multiplayer you can choose not to make the game end upon commander death but even so he is quite irreplaceable. This is the unit that defines the game and it's a great one.
Similar to the Commander, the construction units are pretty central to what makes the game what it is. Each one (Kbot, vehicle, aircraft, ship, hovercraft) can collect metal or energy, build stuff, and repair stuff. Each has its own nanolathe strength, its own tech tree of stuff it can build, and each is frustratingly immobile. But as with the commander, they are the core of what makes TA what it is. More on them in the next section.
KBots. Basically infantry. Out of the Tier 1 (basic), only the rocket (main offensive infantry unit) and construction ones are particularly useful. Out of the Tier 2 (advanced) ones, there are a lot of really nice ones - Pelicans and Mavericks for ARM, Morty for CORE. The construction bots have kind of shitty nanolathes though.
Vehicles, on the other hand, are pretty interesting at the Tier 1 level, but leave much to be desired at the Tier 2 level. Construction vehicles have great nanolathes and are great builders, Flashes/Instigators are great for harass, Samsons/Slashers are great AA/"fodder" units. But the Tier 2 stuff is either too clunky or too expensive to be particularly useful.
Aircraft. Most of them are very quick and have some bizarre targeting AI. But they're also made out of paper. Hard to say what I think of them because they are a mixed bunch. All I can say for sure is that Tier 2 fighters (Hawk/Vamp) are ridiculously overpowered when sufficiently massed. Bombers do some good work as well but suffer from being slow enough to be targeted, which makes them kind of unpleasant to use with their rather unfortunate AI. Construction aircraft have terrible nanolathe powers but fly in the sky, so are frustrating but necessary, lol.
Ships. Well what strikes me most about ships is how expensive they all are, making looting rubble that much more important. A lot of ship-to-ship combat involves abusing long-range, as everything can shoot well beyond sight range and acquiring vision. I just sort of wish ships were a lot cheaper because as with most games, ships get slaughtered by a well-positioned ground offensive. Most combat is conducted by the destroyer (Crusader/Enforcer) and cruiser (Conqueror/Executioner) unit, with a spattering of missile speedboats (Skeeter/Searcher) and maybe a Warlord or submarine or two. Everything costs a fortune and moves slooooow.
Hovercraft. Well the construction hovercraft somehow manages to be both utterly unwieldy and in possession of a god-awful nanolathe. The hovercrafts themselves are no better, being too expensive to be worth using. Too bad, because it was a cool idea to incorporate them.
Base defenses. Well there are quite a few, but I'm only going to focus on three because the rest have some unfortunate weakness - insufficient range, unfortunate tech tree placement, absurd cost, or some combination thereof. The first worthy of mention is the defender/pulverizer, a very metal-cheap and made-of-paper turret that is great for stalling or for killing paper airplanes because it has remarkably good missile tracking, akin to spamming missile turrets to stall carriers. The Guardian/Punisher turret is an interesting one - a kind of expensive, high-range high-damage high-accuracy turret that does a number on any attacking force - but is actually probably even more useful as a passive offensive weapon for breaking fortifications than as an actual defense. And the last useful one is the obscenely long-range Big Bertha/Intimidator turrets that can shoot really far, but drain an insane amount of energy and a fair bit of money.
Everything else. Anyone who played the game will notice that I'm omitting quite a few of the remaining units, structures, and the like. And that, perhaps gets into one of the biggest problems I have with this game. It has so many units, probably hundreds, and yet only a few are particularly useful. Which on its own is kind of fine; obviously some units will see more play than others. But the reason that most of these units are not that useful is because they're too unwieldy or buggy. Why is the Warlord a really nice and powerful offensive capital ship whereas the Millennium is a pile of suck? Because the laser turret on the Warlord doesn't miss as much as the double cannon of the Millennium. Why is The Can unfortunate to use? Too unwieldy and even with its massive defense it will just get shot down before being able to use its laser weapon (too bad, it's a cool design). I could go on and on, but I do just get the feeling that this game just works in such a way that units that are the most useful are the ones that you can count on not to bug out on you stupidly. Which makes a whole lot of units kind of useless.
So this game has two resources: metal and energy. You get metal from metal extractors, and power from power-generating structures. Pretty straightforward.
Where it gets interesting is in that you also have a secondary source of each: looting rubble for metal, or looting the environment for energy. When you kill units they may leave behind valuable metal; when you are on a forest map you can eat apart the forest for energy. Which makes the construction vehicles that much more useful; they serve not only the purpose of building stuff but also as your secondary resource gatherers.
And in fact, that's probably the most interesting and valid way to characterize this game: as a game of logistics on a large scale. Fight battles, loot the kills, build important stuff, and kill your opponent with it. The units aren't great for micro, which as previously mentioned killed off Battle Tactics. But the macro mechanics, balancing your two resources, gathering enough supplies to keep your economy going, that's what makes the game what it is and what I enjoyed most about it.
One fault though, one that kind of makes the game a clunky one as a result of its most important feature. All this logistics also contributes to a situation where ungathered resources are also obstacles. Lose a tank? Great, now you can barely shoot over the rubble. And while there certainly is an argument to be made that this "adds strategy" my previous argument of "what isn't buggy is what works best" comes here too. Frankly I myself - and the more competitive players I watched - mostly just used units that didn't really get bothered by it. Sufficiently large numbers of rubble and you might as well just have an airplane game; they don't give a shit about rubble so you can actually get places.
Also I wanted to mention two extreme scenarios on this issue that were actually kind of enlightening. The first is the "money map" scenario, the case of playing on CORE Prime where everywhere there is metal as far as the eye can see. Even though they say "metal won't be a problem, resistance will be," which is true, it's also true that I play a good game of FASTEST PO$$IBLE MAP and so I can macro really good on these levels and make it not a problem. And the other situation, the resource-starved situation, where you have to actually rely on metal makers and on looting in order to even have enough metal to be able to function. Basically, the resource structure is really what determines the dynamic of the game, and I have to say it's clear that this is what the game is mostly about.
There are two races: ARM (the humans) and CORE (the machines). In terms of what you use, they're mostly very similar; 80% of units have a counterpart on the other side that basically does the same thing with few changes. Of course, a few of the differences are highly significant - Warlords are great while Millenniums are not - but in general there is a similarly functioning counterpart on the other race for any unit.
As far as I am aware, ARM is more commonly played in ladder. I'm not surprised; out of units that are likely to appear in a competitive game, theirs just seem to run a lot more smoothly. Hard to exactly pinpoint where and how considering I generally like CORE more except for the one, brutal blind spot of not having a good answer to the Pelican or Maverick.
It's certainly not a game like Starcraft, of an asymmetrical finely-tuned balance. It's neither finely tuned nor does it have particularly good balance between its two (not three) races. Whenever I look at asymmetry, I like to use the example of the Hydralisk versus the Dragoon (or Roach vs. Stalker if you're an SC2 fan instead). On the surface they have the same purpose - ranged spammy tier 1 unit - but their surface-level similarity belies their highly asymmetrical use cases. Not so with, say, the Rocko/Storm or Samson/Slasher; they basically do the same thing in the same way with a few minor differences.
So that covers most of the core gameplay/storyline mechanics I wanted to address, but there are a few other things I wanted to note. My review of the game so far has probably seemed quite critical, but I actually enjoyed it a lot. And I want to share a few of the things that were really well done.
The final CORE mission in Core Contingency
So this is a mission where you have to defend your implosion device to destroy the galaxy against a relentless ARM assault. You have a bunch of fancy high-tech shit, all near death, and you have to salvage what you can to turn it into a win. Most importantly, you start with a Krogoth, a walking superweapon, near death, and the game quickly turns into one of "Krogoth defense." Sure, it's very hard to protect the two most important pieces of the puzzle (the Krogoth itself and a nuclear power plant to power its weapons) but once you figure it out it's a really cool "slaughter everything with a Krogoth" mission. Its offensive power is insane and with proper defense it turns into a deadly killer. I racked up 256 kills on this monster beating the level.
The bonus mission of Core Contingency, again having to do with Krogoths. On CORE Prime the money map. But the enemy has a grand and glorious opposition, with a spam of Krogoths to meet you on the field of battle. A very interesting mission of balancing defense and offense on the grandest scale this game offers. And of course a demonstration of the true power of airplane whoosh. I'll link a nice speedrun that demonstrates as much.
Despite my gripes with the rubble and clunkiness, I also think that this game does most things with controls really well. Rally points, waypoints, patrol micro, control group units exiting from a building, and so on. Only one gripe here: Alt-1 instead of just "1" to select a group is a really bad feature. Mostly because it makes it easier to overwrite an old control group by mistake by missing Alt and hitting Ctrl. Otherwise, I really like the controls in this game.
Though not all the units are useful, it's clear just by looking at the variety of units and playstyles that this game should be fantastic for people who like to mod games. The fact that the game has a pretty substantial mod community is testament to the fact that this is true.
Well this turned out to be one hefty review. Cheers to anyone who is actually interested enough to read it all the way through. Overall, it was quite a fun game to play. Though I do have quite a bit of scathing criticism, and I would say that many of these features make the game less viable as a competitor to a multiplayer behemoth like Starcraft, it's clear why the game spawned many follow-ups (most notably Supreme Commander) and why it earned its place as one of the household names of RTS games of the 90s. Its place there is well-deserved.