What began as a conflict over the transfer of consciousness from flesh to machine escalated into a war which has decimated a million worlds. The Core and the Arm have all but exhausted the resources of a galaxy in their struggle for domination. Both sides now crippled beyond repair, the remnants of their armies continue to battle on ravaged planets, their hatred fuelled by over four thousand years of total war. This is a fight to the death. For each side, the only acceptable outcome is the complete elimination of the other.
Released in 1997, Total Annihilation is a science fiction Real-Time Strategy game created by Chris Taylor and Cavedog Entertainment. Pioneering game elements such as 3d models for units, terrain with a 3d heightmap, and strategic warfare on a scale simply not seen before, TA won dozens of awards at its release and is still considered by many critics to be one of the finest examples of the RTS genre.The war between Arm and Core began over the process known as "patterning", a technology that allowed the transfer of the human mind into machines untouched by disease or pain. The Core government, acting according to the will of the majority of its citizens, moved towards universal patterning, and backed up copies of all patterned minds into a central database on the world of Paradise.A small group of soldiers rebelled against patterning and the rejection of humanity they associated with it. They founded the Arm, a significant minority of militaristic hardliners utterly opposed to patterning. Around this time, the central pattern repository of the Core formed itself into a single vast intelligence, known as Central Consciousness, which took control of the benevolent Core government and instituted mandatory patterning for all. War became inevitable. Principles were at stake. There could be no surrender.Total Annihilation, then, is set at the very end of a vast galactic civil war that has utterly destroyed the once-great Arm and Core civilisations. Advanced resource extraction, transmutation and construction technology have allowed entire worlds to be stripped bare and turned into war machines in a matter of days, entire worlds built up and torn down again and again. The Core's mass-duplication of patterns to be downloaded into war machines was countered by a mass cloning programme by the Arm, creating endless armies of identical and utterly disposable combat units; there are no such things as civilians, there is no such thing as peace. The very reasons for the conflict have been largely forgotten over four millennia of hyper-efficient industrial warfare. Only the shattered military remnants of Core and Arm survive, still bitterly fighting over a ruined galaxy, reducing worlds to nothing but barren graveyards of broken machines.TA, despite advanced graphics (for the time), massive critical acclaim, unique gameplay and ground-breaking technical brilliance, was never hugely popular (it had the misfortune of being released around the same time as StarCraft) and is largely forgotten today. Its limited success is largely blamed on the game lacking the background material, storyline and character of its competitors. TA is often considered one of the most underrated games of all time.It is also one of the most moddable games of all time. It was designed from the beginning to have additional units available for download after release, so adding new units or altering existing ones is relatively easy. Total Annihilation fandom and player-made mods still cling to life more than a decade after the game's release, though most have migrated to its Spiritual Successor, Supreme Commander and the unofficial freeware game Spring (which can use Total Annihilation content - though the engine has since progressed so far that you need a lot of tweaking to get it working perfectly, and it'll be graphically sub-par compared to all the other games/mods on the engine - some of whom rival retail games in quality).Before Supreme Commander, there was the ill-fated follow-up Total Annihilation: Kingdoms, which used the same game engine in a magic-fantasy setting with four (then five) sides rather than two. Never as popular as the original, and the producer Cavedog went belly-up not long after the release of its Expansion Pack, The Iron Plague. However, Kingdoms enjoyed the same modding community as Total Annihilation, indeed to ludicrous levels at times.Another Spiritual Successor titled Planetary Annihilation has arisen on Kickstarter, this time upping the ante by taking the RTS genre to a galactic scale.Additionally, Chris Taylor has been reunited with Total Annihilation courtesy Wargaming.net. The possibility of a new, official Total Annihilation seems fairly likely.The game notably managed to avoid a number of tropes and Acceptable Breaks from Reality standard to the Real-Time Strategy genre. These include:
Bottomless Magazines: Justified, as transmutation and mass-replicating is commonplace. The more powerful units and structures require seriously high amounts of energy to fire their weapons. In some of these cases, merely moving a heavy unit will drain energy, though this is usually offset by the fact that the unit in question also produces enough energy to balance out the drain.
Crippling Overspecialisation: "Rock versus rock". Any gun can hit anything. An insanely lucky shot from a mortar, for instance, can destroy a stealth fighter flying at top speed.
Construction units can reclaim anything that's not the ground itself or flying, which can act as an improvised weapon.
Commanders can also capture enemy units, allowing them to instead rally an improvised army of turncoats, assuming they survive long enough to complete the capture.
More to the point, if you order your units to fire at one of your own, then many of these shots will fly through it (rockets and missiles, sometimes also artillery fire, in case of smaller units) instead of hitting them. In case of gravity-affected weaponry (and everything else as well, if the terrain is rough and you are unlucky) it will hit the ground just behind them, however, and you can hurt your own units with splash damage.
Everything Fades: Units leave wreckage, depending on how much base health the unit had and how powerful the weapon that finished it was. A medium tank destroyed by a rapid-fire light laser will leave a wreck resembling it with a similar metal content to the original unit; if it was killed by larger, heavier weapons, or the wreck then takes more hits, it'll turn to unrecognizable metal trash, and a unit insta-killed by a truly lethal weapon, such as the D-Gun or BLoD (Blue Laser of Death) generally leaves no remains.
The wreckage can also be reclaimed by construction units and, with later patch units, resurrected.
Friendly Fireproof: Just about completely averted; it's quite possible to massacre your own troops through mishandling of artillery or failure to properly use terrain.
Magic Tool: Justified by the backstory explanation of the nanolathe technology.
Palette Swap: In the sense of the different planets. RTS games of the time such as Warcraft II and Command & Conquer tended to have different terrain styles such as forest or winter, but this made no difference to the gameplay. By contrast, TA introduced planets with lava oceans (or mist chasms between continents) where ships cannot be built (Barathrum and Temblor), planets with acid oceans that eat away at everything except hovercraft (Kral), planets made of metal so the normally limiting resource of metal is easily obtained (Core Prime) and so forth, changing the style of gameplay required for them. Also, each planet has a different level of metal deposits, metal in the regular ground, geothermal vents, wind velocity for wind turbines and life forms that can be reclaimed for energy.
However, due to the scale, it can still be a drop in an ocean. Some community made nukes are/were several times as powerful as the original nukes, making the small ones look weak. Against lategame CPU with 10000 unit limit, you need several nuke facilities constantly making and firing nukes to see any effect.
Short-Range Long-Range Weapon: One of very, very few games then or since to feature artillery that could fire across an entire map and nukes with near-unlimited range.
Units Not to Scale: Scout boats are as long as the largest tanks, and battleships are larger than any ground unit.
Apocalypse How: Seriously. Look at the name. The war is essentially an apocalypse of Galactic scope and severity ranging from Societal Collapse to Total Extinction with some planets suffering even Physical Annihilation; The Core ContingencyExpansion Pack one-ups this with the Core plan to cause a Galactic Physical Annihilation with the only survivor being a single Core Commander, who would then rebuild the entire Core civilization. Hell of a contingency plan.
Interestingly, the game in it's original state had an Arbitrary Headcount Limit of 250, while it supported 256 different units. The game could be brought to a point where even if you made only one of every kind, you still couldnt make them all.
The Annihilator Cannons are the best laser weapons in the game, but they are only used by advanced point defense turrets. There are three units that use them, Arm's Penetrator and Shooter and the Core Krogoth, all of which are also impractical.
The city maps are absolutely gorgeous, but good luck trying to get a proper metal economy running without hordes of construction units reclaiming stuff left and right, at least until advanced Metal Makers can be set up.
Artificial Stupidity: The pathfinding leads a lot to be desired at times, and the "stock" AI is not very competent in sea or air arenas.
The stock AI is almost comically inept at dealing with Tier 1 rushes, as a small number of light units can easily assassinate its Commander(s) in the opening minutes of a Skirmish (where all players only start with their Commanders).
The stock AI is comically inept at everything. It'll build random units without keeping note of what it's making, send constructors to make resource gatherers in the middle of your base, build few defenses placed in a completely nonsensical way, and even do dumb things like construct buildings so close together that the factories can't get their units out. And when it's done all that, it'll display a complete lack of tactics by simply sending its units against your closest position - even if it happens to be on the other side of a river, and most of its units aren't amphibious. No wonder mods came out that attempted to fix the AI.
A stupid AI is still a dangerous AI. If you fiddle around for TOO long and don't attack, the enemy will eventually build up to a point that it can keep sending units upon units at you non-stop, making the current mission almost impossible to win.
The Core Campaign in the expansion is even more so, since you start out with not only the last Core Commander, but the only Core left in the galaxy.
Black and Grey Morality: Depending on your viewpoint, the war began as La Résistance vs The Empire, or a band of psychotic terrorists destroying great works out of futile bigoted spite. Regardless, both sides were nothing more than endless hordes of identical mindless hate-filled machines, towards the end.
BFG: Both sides' long-range artillery pieces, the Big Bertha and Intimidator. Their rapid-fire superweapon versions, the Vulcan and Buzzsaw. And then there's the Arm's Annihilator, nicknamed "The Blue Laser of Death".
Brain Uploading: The whole war started over the Core government instituting mandatory "patterning" and the Arm faction refusing to do so.
Clone Army: The Arm's troops are clones while the Core's are robots with uploaded human minds. Or at least the Commanders are, the ordinary units could be just robots.
Colour Coded Armies: In the campaigns, your side is always blue and the enemy is always red, instead of each side having its own colour.
Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: The relative power of the different types of lasers are colour coded- the very weak 'popgun' type on scout units and A.K.s are orange, light lasers are red, heavy lasers are green, and the 'energy weapon' most powerful laser is blue.
Cosmetically Different Sides: For the most part. Arm units tend to be cheaper, faster and less tough than their Core counterparts, and their exact weapons differ slightly (Core likes lasers, Arm likes energy machine guns). Prior to the Core Contingency add-on including a few more, very few units were unique:
Arm has the all-terrain Fido walker armed with a Gauss cannon, while Core's corresponding unit is the Mighty Glacier "The Can" Kbot.
Arm has the all-terrain, stunner-armed Spider walker, while Core has the Goliath supertank (which renders the Core's Reaper heavy tank, equivalent to Arm's Bulldog, somewhat superfluous).
Arm has the Annihilator defence turret, a long-range, powerful 'blue laser of death'. Core has the Doomsday Machine, which is much shorter-ranged but has all three types of lasers firing together.
As mentioned, Arm likes energy machineguns and Core likes light lasers, but the lasers are very precise and fairly slow to fire, while the machineguns are scattershot-type weapons. This results in Arm Peewees pelting their target with as many shots as they can not caring about precise aiming, while Core AKs waste time trying to line up aimed shots with their lasers. Result: Arm basic units curb-stomp Core ones with frightening ease.
Critical Existence Failure: Justified in the manual by having every unit covered in heavy armor that is several times more durable, but has no middle-ground between "undamaged" and "exploded". This is only visually averted by damaged units emitting light smoke and dark smoke.
Cute Machines: Surprisingly, being near-mindless death robots in a game about a Crapsack World of endless war doesn't make the infantry units any less adorable. Some of them look very boxy, specially the Core ones, but they look so merchandise-exploitable that some players don't care.
Cutscene Power to the Max: The (few) cutscenes unusually depict units looking and acting exactly as they do in game. The only exception is that Kbots and tanks are scaled like real infantry and tanks in the cutscenes, but like large mecha and tanks (similar in size) in the gameplay.
Deadly Euphemism: One of the most effective tactics is to use radar targeting to bring down enemy buildings with a long-range missile launcher unit. The name of the Core version of this unit? The Diplomat.
Death of a Thousand Cuts: particularly loved by Arm, who have several units with machine guns that fire weak pellets but spam so many of them that, given enough shooters, the receiving party will eventually succumb.
Dump, the moon of Core Prime, was used as a landfill by the Core for thousands of years. All about the map, you'll find wrecks of everything from units to structures.
Tergiverse IV is a desert world with no sea, but was formerly a water world before all the water was drained by the Core and used for industrial applications. You can still find incongruous shipwrecks in the middle of the desert.
Disintegrator Ray: The Commander's D-Gun (in fact, that's what it stands for). One absolute in the game is that the D-Gun is completely unstoppable (by units, at least) and can take out anything in one shot, even a Krogoth.
Not even land can stop it, it will go through any obstacle until reaching its maximum range (which is quite short).
Everything Trying to Kill You: Some worlds are subject to earthquakes (Temblor particularly) and meteor or ice showers (Rougpelt, Gelidus) which hamper your ability to build bases even without enemy action. The Core Contingency missions add hostile alien life forms to this such as the Scorpions on Lusch.
Expansion Pack: Two: The Core Contingency and Battle Tactics. The first was a full expansion complete with campaign and dozens of new units, the second a map and mission pack.
Faction Calculus: ARM (Subversive) vs CORE (Powerhouse), although the differences are fairly small.
Fake Difficulty: The planet Rougpelt is periodically bombarded by meteor showers which are devastating enough to destroy everything caught in them. This leads to much frustration when they destroy the base you worked so hard to build, or when they destroy a mission critical capture target that the computer isn't smart enough to repair.
That affects the AI's game too. It's to a lesser extent, as an AI typically spreads their base out much more than a human player might (unlike also the tightly-packed bases which Supreme Commander incentives with the synergy system), but timing your own attack with the end of a shower at their base is a fair and useful tactic. The trope plays out another way on the same planet in missions which involve vast numbers of "asleep" groups of enemy units scattered throughout a map which "wake" and become aggressive upon taking damage. This device is used throughout the campaign to allow the player time to prepare before attacking and to encourage players to explore the whole map (most missions require you to destroy all enemy units, so you have to find them; they won't attack you). It's a problem in the Rougpelt campaign because meteor showers activate these enemies too by causing damage. On the last Rougpelt mission in the Core Campaign, an early meteor shower on Hard can see your commander and anything you'd tried to build be wiped in 40 seconds.
Fun with Acronyms: "Kbot" stands for "Kinetic Bio Organic Technology". Although often spelled with capitals, ARM and CORE are not examples—they refer to the fact that the two factions' power bases are in a spiral arm versus the core of the galaxy.
Game Mod: Many, many mods. Many even continue to this day.
Gatling Good: The Vulcan and Buzzsaw weapons are Gatling versions of the Big Bertha and Intimidator superguns, whose shells are powerful enough to destroy entire buildings! However this is also a case of Awesome, but Impractical, as the Gatling versions have a slightly shorter range and consume insane amounts of power when they fire.
Ghost City: Urban maps, which consist of ruined cities with derelict buildings and streets clogged with wrecked cars.
Heroic Mime: Taken to extremes; neither faction's Commander has any personality to speak of, and everything else is a plain robot.note Although technically, so is the Core Commander..
Hoist by His Own Petard: In both campaigns, the protagonists use the enemy's own Galactic Gates to launch a counterattack and reverse the course of the war.
Hopeless War: When an entire civilization can be built from nothing as fast as you can tear it down...
Humans Are Cthulhu: Both of the sides are humans are their core, and in the crossfire of their war they destroyed nearly everything else.
Humongous Mecha: Depending on your scale, either everything from the infantry Kbots on up, or just the seriously big ones like the Core Sumo and Krogoth.
Invisibility: In the original game only the Commanders were capable of cloaking, and this is usually only feasible if they are standing still—the cloaking device absorbs exponentially more power if they start moving, and you need the late-game energy production buildings to supply that power.
The expansion pack adds cloakable spy kbots and a cloakable version of the Fusion Reactor (although activating the cloak uses up most of its own power, so it can't be left cloaked all the time).
Invisible Wall: Zig-zagged. You can't order units off the edge of the map, but air units will happily disappear off the edge for a moment while maneuvering.
Lost Technology: Commanders and Galactic Gates, both said to be "technology level 10" (everything else is 1, 2, or 3) are implied to be this. It would make sense, as even the opening narration states that what remains now are mere remnants of the original ARM and CORE.
Aegis: Empyrrean's moon, called its 'guardian', and the Core has to fight its way through it to reach the Gate to Empyrrean - Aegis is a Greek word for a type of shield.
Barathrum: Boiling lava seas and dead rocky ground - a Latin name for Hell or the Abyss.
Empyrrean: The green and paradise-like Arm homeworld is a variant spelling of Empyrean, the highest heaven and abode of God in Christian theology (e.g. the Divine Comedy).
Gelidus: An ice world, named after the Latin word for 'frozen'.
Hydross: A totally water-covered world, named for the Greek word for water.
Lusch: A jungle planet whose name is a Germanic-sounding corruption of 'lush'.
Rougpelt: The 'roug-' suggests 'red', and Rougpelt is indeed a red world (early game documentation suggests it was based on Mars). The 'pelt' comes from the fact that the planet is constantly pelted by meteor showers. Which can really ruin your day.
Thalassean: A sea world, named for the Greek word for sea.
Tergiverse IV: Possibly an Incredibly Lame Pun. "Tergiverse" in Latin means to 'desert' in the sense of abandonment, and the planet was 'desertified' in the sense of having all its water drained and being turned into a desert world. And it's also possible that it was supposed to be drained of resources and abandoned from the very beginning, which would mark it as disposable.
Temblor: An American Spanish word for 'earthquake', which Temblor is afflicted by.
By contrast, the name of the Core homeworld and its moon - Core Prime and Dump - are very blunt and direct, reflecting the machine nature of their inhabitants.
More Dakka: Energy Machine Gun units (like the Peewee kbot and Flash tank) and the Gatling superguns mentioned under Gatling Good. The Arm's Phalanx flak unit was formerly one of these due to a Good Bad Bug, but its rate of fire was slowed in a patch.
Nanomachines: Ubiquitous, used for construction, reclamation, repairing and just about everything else.
No Canon for the Wicked: The Arm campaign victory was confirmed as the canon one by the story in The Core Contingency.
No Name Given: Two Core units' names were accidentally missed from the game files so they are identified in-game by their unit type description instead ("Mobile Artillery" and "Missile Frigate", the equivalent of the Arm's Lugar and Ranger respectively). Apparently the real names were supposed to be "Pillager" and "Hydra".
Portal Network: The Galactic Gates work like this. The two campaigns see the player jumping between the different planets in sequence, the Arm starting at Empyrrean and working their way to Core Prime and the Core doing the reverse - but not necessarily by the same route as the sequence of Gates they capture is different.
Sea Monster: The fire-breathing Serpents of Hydross in the Core Contingency campaign.
Separate, But Identical: There are small differences when playing each side, even though the overall unit selection is largely identical. Arm focuses more on Fragile Speedster, so their units are faster with less armor, and they outright have better level 1 units (for zerging). Their level 3 superweapons are also better. The Core is Mighty Glacier, so better armored but slower units, and their level 2 ones are stronger than Arm. They also have better range on their artillery.
Arm as a whole tends to favor conventional ordnance and rapid-fire weapons while Core favors slower but more damaging weapons and Frickin' Laser Beams.
Shifting Sand Land: Tergiverse IV, though it's actually a variant on the usual desert world setup as it used to be a water world before the Core drained all the water.
Shown Their Work: The manual's glossary explains much of the technology in TA as according to real-life science. One example: the Moho Mine, which is an advanced metal extractor, is short for Mohorovicic Discontinuity, which is the distance between a planet's crust and its mantle. As the manual says, the Moho Mine drills for metal at distances anywhere between 10 to 50 kilometers deep, depending on the planet. The glossary also goes into ridiculously detailed science as to how the Commander's Disintegrator Gun works and why nothing can defend against it.
Single-Biome Planet: Mostly; occasionally several different styles would be used on one map to suggest climatic variations, e.g. ice + temperate + urban.
Sprite/Polygon Mix: All units are polygonal, as are some projectiles like missiles, whereas the maps and other projectiles are sprite-based.
In a more literal way, the units and projectiles are not rendered onto the screen as one scene. Each unit is instead rendered separately, and drawn onto the screen as a regular sprite. It's hard to notice it because the "sprites" are re-rendered each frame, but the way adjacent units overlap instead of intersecting, and how some of the extremely large modded units run into the limits of sprite size, gives it away.
Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Although the game noticeably lacked much background material, what does exist is extremely dark, focusing as it does on the descent of a fundamentally idealistic civilisation into a civil war of utter annihilation.
Stun Gun: The Arm Spider unit is armed with one. Somewhat a case of What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?, because the point of the Spider is that it can scale even the steepest terrain, but you need a way to get other units over it anyway if you want to do more than stun the enemy when you get there. It can, however, be effectively used to stop the slowest (and thus heaviest) reinforcements from arriving into the battle, and often that's enough to move the equilibrium.
Using the Spider to stun a unit for capture is actually a great way to get the opposing side's technology!
Super-Persistent Missile: More so than in most RT Ss, anyway. Particularly noticeable if you fly a super-fast Peeper or Fink spy plane over the top of a load of enemy missile units.
Teleporters and Transporters: Galactic Gates. It's implied that using them consumes huge amounts of energy, making it impossible to teleport troops en masse. Hence only the Commanders are sent to conquer the enemy worlds.
The manual outright states that tremendous amounts of energy are needed merely to open a Gate: it has to be charged up for weeks before it can be activated, and considering the amount of energy that these civilizations are capable of producing, that's saying something. In addition to the energy limitation, the Gate collapses as soon as a few thousand kilos pass through it, which makes it most cost-effective to send a Commander through most of the time.
The official strategy guide mentions that Galactic Gates are technology level 10, like Commanders (everything else is 1, 2 or 3) which also implies that they are a Lost Technology that can no longer be built—explaining why it's so important to capture them intact in-game.
Title Drop: Subverted at the end of the intro, which explains why the game is called that (because the war between the Core and the Arm is a fight to the death, it must be a war to the total annihilation of one side or the other) but uses the synonymous phrase 'complete elimination' instead.
Under the Sea: Hydross, which has no dry land at all (though a Commander can climb onto a coral reef to surface, he cannot build on it.
Weapon of Mass Destruction: The nukes, obviously, but the expansion pack's plot revolves around a plot by the remnants of the Core to destroy THE ENTIRE GALAXY with their appropriately named Galactic Implosion Device, which appropriately is the biggest structure in the game by a long way.
We Cannot Go On Without You: In skirmish and multiplayer games, you have the option to set whether destroying one player's Commander takes the entire side with it, or not. The latter seems to be the 'canon' option, as destroying the enemy Commander in the last campaign mission does not take everything else with it.
We Have Reserves: Neither side attach any importance to the lives of its individual units; the Arm clone all their pilots, the Core can simply download another copy of the pattern.
Variable Mix: This was performed by switching music tracks on the CD. This resulted in a jarring transition whenever you entered or left combat. In addition, the version before any patches were applies would always select the first music track, which cut down on variety.
Vertical Kidnapping: The air transport units can grab enemy units as well as transporting your own. One quick-victory tactic used in multiplayer is to quickly build one, send it over to the enemy base and snatch their Commander before they have any anti-air defences.
You can also use this trick to capture constructor units and get the opposing side's technology.
Walk, Don't Swim: The Commanders, the Action Bomb units Invader and Roach, the Triton and Crock amphibious tanks, and Core's Gimp amphibious Kbot. The Arm's equivalent to the last does in fact 'swim' on the surface rather than walking on the seabed.
Thankfully, both resources are infinite. The only annoying problem is when usage outstrips production and you run out of one resource during construction.
Your Size May Vary: As noted above, the only difference between the cutscenes and in-game is that the Kbots are scaled differently. The objective scale of the units is hard to define due to the absence of anything to measure it against, but the expansion pack adds urban maps with the wrecks of futuristic cars: if these are similar in size to our contemporary ones, even the smallest Kbots in the game would qualify as Humongous Mecha.
Zerg Rush: Arm's "Flash" Light Tank is the staple unit for one of these, offering a very nice balance cost, speed and firepower.