I think we have finally found our first serious contestant for the GiN strategy game of the year award. Total Annihilation: Kingdoms raises the expectations bar for gamers by giving them an intelligent artificial intelligence coupled with graphics that are truly spellbinding.
The first thing you will notice about Total Annihilation: Kingdoms is that the game is completely beautiful. I found myself being overrun by enemies several times when I was just starting out because I was too busy looking at the pretty scenery to concentrate on strategy. I won’t fault Cavedog for using the Total Annihilation name, after all brand recognition is a hard thing to generate in this business, but Kingdoms is nothing at all like the precursor game of the same name with giant robots and tanks. The first game was more like an attempt to imitate Command and Conquer, while Kingdoms stands solidly on its own.
When I say the game is beautiful, I mean it. I have never seen any game this pretty. At 1024 x 768, everything from individual units to terrain features looks real. A flying drake (sort of a miniature dragon) will glide gracefully across the landscape, pausing to rest his veined wings before propelling his muscled body forward again. When he attacks, flame shoots out of his mouth toward the helpless ground troops below, washing them in flickering death.
One of the best looking parts of the game is when you are fortunate enough to play on a map with water. At the sandy coast lines, waves crash onto the shore overtop the clear blue-green water. Some units can wade into the surf a bit, leaving a slight trail of bubbles in their wake.
But ships rule the sea lanes, and the game has a fairly extensive navy to go along with the land and air troops. When a ship sinks it is nothing short of spectacular to watch as the flaming hull is slowly overcome by the crystal blue water. You can still see the ship for some time even after it is under the waves, as it slowly sinks into the darkness and eventually out of sight. On muddy and shallow river banks, sunken ship’s hulls and broken floating battle towers remain mired to the bottom, sometimes with their masts sticking up and posing a navigation hazzard on future voyages. It seems not a smidgen of detail has been overlooked.
The game has four distinct races, with each one possessing totally different units, fighting philosophy and leaders. Normally strategy games with different races are not really that different, but in Kingdoms the rules really change from race to race. One race relies on gunpowder and heavy land forces, while another has the best navy in the game. Still another does not build any structures at all, instead leaders rely on fast or flying troops to field an entire guerrilla army. The last race are the masters of magic. Besides having zombies and other nefarious undead in the army, their leader can build any structure he chooses to magically, and does not have to rely on specialized builder units.
The resource gathering component to Kingdoms is pretty good. You only have to worry about gathering mana, which pours out of the earth in certain spots. Setting up a lodestone at that location lets the mana trickle in. As you build units, the mana flows back out of your bank. So you are really only managing time, which is a whole lot better than say, mining several different minerals. If you are going to be forced to manage resources in a war game, at least keep it to a single one. Kingdoms does this.
This also gives the game an additional measure of strategy, as you can beat opponents by destroying their resource-gathering lodestones right before a large battle so they can’t produce reinforcements.
The artificial intelligence is also smart. It’s not really smart enough to beat a human opponent given equal footing, but it does a good job if given more resources than the human player to start with. Perhaps I am just an excellent strategy gamer, but given time I was always able to beat the computer.
Kingdoms gets bonus points though because the AI opponents will actually fight each other, a probable reason for my success. On most strategy games, when you put three or four opponents into a skirmish map, all the enemies are going to attack you while ignoring each other. I always thought this was silly, considering there is no way enemies would band together just to fight a human opponent. But in Kingdoms when you put three other computer opponents on a map, they are going to not only fight the human player, but each other. This I think is a more realistic portrayal of war, where not everything is cut and dry. The best time to attack an enemy is after he has just sent a huge force to attack someone else, and good players will be able to take advantage of the situation when other armies fight, so long as they have scouts reporting up-to-date information.
The only real negative aspect of Kingdoms is that beauty comes at a price. The game is a total drag on system resources. Often, even on a Pentium II 450 test computer with 128M of RAM and a kick butt video card, the game will pause or control will become choppy with too many units on the screen. Even on a PIII with a Voodoo 3 card, too many units on screen harms performance somewhat.
Also, some people might not like the single player levels, as you are forced to play all four sides in various excursions. The worst part about this type of setup is that you will sometimes spend hours in one mission gaining a beachhead, only to play the other side in the next mission trying to destroy what you have created. And I must admit I hated playing one of the four races, that of the forest people, because despite the fact that they are fast, they are very weak compared to the other three. Any mission involving them is a chore to finish, especially if the opponents are given well-defended positions to start out with.
All in all though, Kingdoms is about as close to perfect as a wargame can get. It could nearly earn a perfect score based on its looks alone. Throw in a smart AI and a ton of single player missions, and you can expect a lot of lost hours. Kingdoms achieves a perfect 5 GiN Gem score, because it will be a long time before we see anything this good again.