Along with Dark Earth, this was one of the games that was on the first computer I (well, my parents) ever had. This is a game that, rather than featuring named and voiced individuals fighting against darkness or red-clad ninjas kicking ancient magic in the face, Total Annihilation starred endless hordes of literally faceless robots.
It’s a Real Time Strategy game, which means that you control an army and try to… totally annihilate… your enemies. You’ve got to harvest and manage resources to build up your forces, and build tanks and robots and etc. etc. I won’t go into gameplay details except to say that it’s good enough that there’s still a reasonably-active modding community making new content, eighteen years after its release (and sixteen years after the closure of the company that created the game).
There are two sides in the game: the Core, who occupy the core of the galaxy and have uploaded their minds into computers, and want to force the rest of humanity to do the same; and the Arm, who occupy the spiral arms of the galaxy and… disagree. When the Core create one of their fighting robots, they just upload a copy of a mind into it; when the Arm create their war machines, they whip up a clone to pilot it. Though the Core are coded as the bad guys (especially due to their plan in the campaign of one of the expansion packs, which would see them destroying the entire galaxy in order to start again without any opposition), the truth is that both sides have been fighting this war for so long that there is barely a difference between them.
This is reflected in the gameplay: the units on each side nearly all have direct equivalents on the other side. This may look like simple laziness at first glance, but I think it’s actually a good example of the writerly cliché show, don’t tell. These aren’t two different civilisations coming into conflict, or an alien invasion: this is a civil war between two factions of a single society. Of course their technologies are similar.
There’s a common break with reality in RTS games, and that’s that you must build everything you use in the field. This is, of course, normally ridiculous: in the real world, armies aren’t going to build up a factory half a mile from the front line and start churning out tanks to throw against the enemy. The Dawn of War games have you drop in barrack from space, which is at least awesomely ridiculous; most games just wave their metaphorical hands. Total Annihilation, because it stars robots, uses nanomachines as its excuse, tapping into the idea of the Von Neumann machine. It calls this ‘nanolathing’, which I think is quite an evocative word: the raw materials are being shaped into what is needed, sheared and ground at an atomic level. Given enough time, one can imagine all the mass of the galaxy being converted into either Core or Arm weaponry.
There’s a campaign mode, where you have to control a single commander as you lead one of the factions from the brink of complete defeat to the total annihilation of the other side, rampaging from planet to planet through ‘galactic gates’. It’s all good fun, except that ten-year-old me couldn’t get past the forth mission of the Arm campaign. There are voice briefings before each mission, which charmingly refer to the enemy as either ‘Core scum’ or ‘Arm vermin’, and the music is pretty great.
It’s yet to be beat, as far as I can tell. Everything about it is done extremely well – gameplay, story, music, visual design – and those elements all combine to make something magic.