It’s a beautiful new Tuesday and I have a bargain for you. I’ve decided that this is segment is going to be the complement to Mechanic Monday, which I have decided to call $10 Tuesday. The point of the segment is to provide you, the gamer, with games that are available, right now, on the cheap. The game in question might be part of a special deal on Steam, Good Old Games, or elsewhere; or maybe it is an indie game; or perhaps the game is just so damned old that you can find it in the bargain bin at your local Target for $10 or less. In any case, I’ll do a quick description/review of the game and put in my two cents about why it’s worth the cash. The plan is to alternate each week doing one of these segments to help pace Mechanic Monday reasonably. So, on with the game!
If you go along and hop onto Good Old Games, you can find Total Annihilation: Kingdoms for the super low price of about $6.
Kingdoms is the sequel to Chris Taylor’s 1997 hit, Total Annihilation. Unlike it’s predecessor, however, Kingdoms abandons the sci-fi universe of galatic warfare and instead goes into the fantasy realm of Darien, where four (or five, if you’re playing the game’s expansion, Iron Plague) factions vie for supremacy through a mix of magical spells and warriors.
The real-time battles in the game revolve around controlling nodes that provide mana as a resource for buildings and training units. The player has a pool of mana that fills based on the number of nodes claimed and diminishes based on the number of units and structures being built. One thing I like about the game is that the player can begin building a unit whenever they want, but it will only be finished once the entire cost of the unit has been paid, so the player must make choices about whether to build fewer units and have a positive flow of mana, or drain the entire pool and slow down all of his or her construction. I like this model because it feels more in line with how actual construction takes place: you don’t need to have accumulated every single resource that will be necessary in order to place the first brick.
The battles are fun but nowhere near revolutionary. One thing that separates this game from others is the importance of line of sight. Aerial scouting units are absolutely critical for success as basic units have extremely short sight ranges, often much shorter than missile troops’ attack ranges. The aerial units should accompany the army in order to keep watch, which is a bit of a pain since those units also die in a single hit, so expect to build a new pack of scouts whenever the army moves out.
What differentiates Kingdoms from any other RTS of its time is its unique campaign. Instead of choosing one of the factions and playing through a series of missions that highlights that faction’s rise to power, the focus is on the story, the intertwining story, of the war. The player’s faction for each mission is determined what is going on in the story and whose perspective it is taking, often counter to previous missions.
A good example of this is near the beginning of the game when an expedition of Verunan troops arrives at the shores of Zhon and the player’s mission is to storm the beach, fight off the Zhon beasts, and build a few towers for defense of the beachhead. In the very next mission the player then takes the role of the guerrilla Zhon fighters and must destroy the towers that were so recently constructed. It’s good stuff.
This rotation of factions makes the Kingdoms campaign highly memorable, but it isn’t the only reason why. In-between missions the player is rewarded with beautiful illustrations, shifting and fading to simulate movement, which give hints but also leave much to the imagination. Narrators speak of the unfolding events, only to break into different voices for the characters, as if the player were hearing the story told by a bard or watching a History Channel special on the history of Darien. It’s quite remarkable how effective it is, and I’m sad that it’s so rare to see in games.
Each faction has a distinct feel both in terms of gameplay and art direction. The factions are divided by the classic elements of earth, wind, fire, and water.
Aramon [earth] is the most traditional fantasy faction in the game, sporting armored swordsmen, archers, cavalry, and even cannons in the late game. Aramon units tend to be slow but sturdy. Zhon [wind] is probably my favorite faction, as it is filled with all kinds of quick-footed wild beasts and a large number of fliers. Zhon is also unique among RTS games as all of its unit production comes from “beast handler” units, rather than buildings, allowing the cunning Zhonian commander to move his trainers closer to the fight to allow for faster reinforcement. Zhon also has access to an awesome basilisk unit that “charges up” and then instantly turns an enemy unit to stone, killing it.
Taros [fire] is the evil faction, with a large number of magical units and undead creatures. A few of their units also breathe flame or have powerful ranged attacks. Also, Taros’ Black Knight unit is a rider on a yak with a bow… so it wins the award of coolest unit ever. There is also the nation of Verona [water], which has a wide range of capable land units, but utterly dominates at sea. Verona also has the widest range of naval units, including battleships that can rain down cannony death.
Many of the units serve similar purposes across factions, but I found myself playing one faction or another because I’d see something that made me go, “Wow, I want one of those!” Aramon cannons in good defensive position (with spyhawks for spotting) can take out huge numbers of enemy ground troops; Zhon’s fire drakes burn through anything that can’t shoot into the sky, and most things that can; Taros has access to fire-breathing lizards and powerful skeletal archers; Veruna’s battleships are absolute monsters to anything on the ground.
While I haven’t dived into Iron Plague much yet, from what I gather the last faction, Creon, is a steam-punk inspired faction with automatons, Renaissance-inspired aircraft, and tanks shooting all manner of nastiness at the enemy.
The game isn’t the best game ever made. The need for scouts can be annoying and the units don’t have have as much vocal character as in, say Warcraft 2. However, it is a solid strategy game with unique factions and some great art. The plot isn’t going to win any awards, but the manner in which the campaign unfolds is both unique and highly enjoyable.