Total Annihilation: Kingdoms - The Iron Plague Review
By Monica Bair |
This game raises an interesting question: Can a game survive with both a colon and a dash in the title? It may sound stupid but it's about the most meaningful issue I can raise at this point. Sadly, Iron Plague merely continues the mediocre legacy of its predecessor, Kingdoms. These 25 new missions merely add to the quantity of the last title. Rather than achieving any innovations in gameplay or design, Iron Plague seems just like more of the same. If you liked Kingdoms, that's a good thing. Well, it's not a good thing that you liked Kingdoms, but you get my point. If you didn't like Kingdoms, then you're not going to find anything here to turn your head.
The story picks up at the tail end of Kingdoms. Garacaius, father of the Four Monarchs and Emperor-gone-astray has abandoned magic and fled to the land of Creon. There he builds a new society dedicated to "reason and science." Although the game claims that the technological elements of the Creonite army will sharply contrast with the magical strategies of the other four races, that's simply not the case. Ultimately the Creonite units and structures are merely the same type of units from the previous game but with a different visual representation.
Iron Plague also continues the unfortunate practice of switching between races during the campaign. Each mission is preceded by a little bit of story (which is pretty good) and then you're thrust into the command of whichever civilization that happens to have the most action coming. This undesirable narrative device is supposed to give you the chance to play with all the different units in the game. What it does instead is keep you from gaining any real proficiency or familiarity with the units. Don't get me wrong, I usually get sick of seeing Titans and Wolverines by the end of Command & Conquer too, but to have to switch between five separate armies from one mission to the next is just confusing.
So you're already familiar with the forces of the Four Monarchs, right? Right? So let's talk about this fifth race of Creon. The Creonites (what a name) have a society based almost entirely on science and technology. Since they have a natural distaste for magic, you'd assume that they'd construct their buildings and units out of some material other than mana. You'd assume that but you'd be wrong. The Mana Refinery, despite all the assertions to the contrary in the manual, function exactly like the Lodestones of the other four races. And how magical energy gets converted into mechanical constructs is never fully explained. If the Creonites hate magic so much, why the hell are they using it? I guess since it's the only resource in the game, they had to adapt or else. Now introducing a new kind of resource would require some serious rebalancing of the game, but the rationale behind the Creonite use of mana isn't convincing. The Refinery is just a Lodestone that doesn't look like a Lodestone.
Now that we've got that out of the way, we can talk a little about the units (the Creonites, like most of the other civilizations have only a handful of buildings). The naval units include the Iron Clad, your basic attack ship; and the Steam Wheeler, a transport vessel. The Submersible is an underwater vessel that can be spotted and fired upon by other units even if they're not underwater. Come on, what's the point of that? If the vessel can go underwater, shouldn't there be some sort of concealment bonus? Sigh...In any case, the ships don't move so well so sea fights are touchy affair at best.
The first aerial unit you get as a Creonite is the Barnstormer, a wimpy but nimble scout. The next level up (and it's a long way up) is the Neo-Dragon, a mechanized, flying lizard-like creature that can use three separate breath attacks on your foes. The Aerial Juggernaut is next, and is the most devastating weapon the Creon can build. Although I thought the game could have used more aerial units to fill out the gaps between performance, fighting in the air isn't a huge part of the game. Most of your ranged units and your towers and guard posts will take care of anything in the air without your even having to think about it.
Now we come to the land units. The Automaton, your basic grunt, wields two warhammers and smashes anything that gets in his way. At least that's the way it's supposed to work. The Shock Trooper is a much better unit in my opinion because it can deliver a devastating blow at long range. And in Kingdoms-style play, that's a big plus. The role of assault vehicle is filled adequately by the Tortoise -- a steam tank -- and the Fire Wagon -- a wagon...that shoots fire! Both of these units have a decent ranged attack. So does the Beast Rider, a giant rhinoceros with a turret strapped to his back. I guess there's no such thing as the SPCA in Darien. In most cases the only thing to differentiate the units (apart from the range of their attacks) is their cost to firepower ratio. I'll harp a little more on this later.
Like I said, the Creon civilization has a shortage of buildings. Apart from the Smithy, Navy Yards and Academy (which build all your units), you can build two types of Mana Refineries. The three active defensive structures -- the Gatling Crossbow, the Prismatic Mirror and Bomb Sprinkler -- are all a quite powerful. But since this is an imbalance common to the static weapons platforms for all the civilizations, it doesn't throw the game too far out of balance. With Walls and Four-way Gates completing the defensive perimeter around the base, you'll be hard pressed to gain access to the more heavily guarded Creonite stronghold.
One of my biggest complaints against Kingdoms (and now against Iron Plague as well) was the sameness of units. Not that there isn't a huge difference in power among the units; some of the later ones are quite powerful. What I'm referring to is the fact there doesn't seem to be any difference among the roles of the units. Sure there are flying units and builders and ranged units and brawlers, but there isn't enough to give the units the unique character and abilities that make formations and refined battle plans a viable option for the player. While there are undoubtedly people out there that can find a way to make it work for them, most of us simply don't have the patience to deal with it.
But, hey, since the unit control is just as clumsy in Iron Plague as it was in Kingdoms, then there's not really anything to worry about. Selecting units and ordering attacks isn't as easy as it should be. Like I said, most of us don't have the patience.
Another thing that contributes to the lack of tactical finesse is that the resources (or maybe I should say the game's only resource) were virtually unlimited. Since the supply of mana never ran out (at least during the whole time I played), the game tends to degenerate into battles of quantities. As in Kingdoms, you'll spend your time building up huge armies and throwing them into the teeth of the enemy. And it's not that you don't have the desire to try something a little more sophisticated. But to take full advantage of the bottomless resource wells, you'll want to build more units than you can hope to control strategically.
Like I said, I don't have the patience for it.
And in the end, that's how I felt about the game as a whole. If you enjoyed all the frustrations and limitations of Kingdoms, then Iron Plague is right up your alley. If however, you thought the units were too similar, the resource model shallow and the control interface awkward and unwieldy, then Iron Plague's not going to do anything to win you over. Unfortunately there's not much we can do for you poor souls who have already caught the Plague. All we can suggest is that you rush right out and pick up some streptomycin.
-- Stephen Butts