Total Annihilation: KingdomsReview date: 2 July 1999. Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
I played a fair bit of Total Annihilation, the robots-and-tanks precursor of Total Annihilation: Kingdoms. The new game is trolls-and-wizards, but the interface is familiar. If you're expecting TA-only-more-so, though, Kingdoms will surprise you. It's a quite different game from the first TA, and for this reason some fans of the first game say they hate it.
I don't agree. There are some things about Kingdoms that annoy me somewhat, but overall I think it's a really good game, and could turn out to be the "connoisseur's" Real Time Strategy (RTS) game. Rank beginners can have fun in Kingdoms just bouncing all the weird units off each other, but only if they're playing other rank beginners or very indulgent more experienced players; to play this game competently you need to actually use a bit of tactical thought.
A few days ago as I write this, Cavedog released the v2.0 patch for Kingdoms. It twiddles some units, adds a couple more maps, and greatly reduces Kingdoms' system requirements. V2.0 is roughly twice as fast as earlier versions. If you install DirectX 7, you'll get a little more performance again. The v2.0 patch pretty much cures the most serious problems with Kingdoms, and upgrades it from a good-but-flawed game to a hard to beat one, in my opinion. I've inserted comments in red throughout this review, where v2.0 has made a big change. You can get the 2.0 patch from here.
What the heck is it?
First, a quick backgrounder for those who never played TA. Both TA and TA: Kingdoms are real time strategy games, like Command and Conquer or Warcraft 2. You view the battlefield from above, you build and deploy lots of little units, you do unto others like a good little war-god.
Unlike Command and Conquer and the other old-time stalwarts, the TA twins both use vector graphics - units made of polygons, just like the inhabitants of games like Quake, only much smaller and more numerous. TA's robots and tanks look like, well, robots and tanks; Kingdoms' "organic" units are a graphical tour de force, and don't actually look very polygonal at all. Polygon units have an inherent advantage over flat sprite-based ones - they have smooth animation at all angles, so units can climb slopes realistically and get knocked around by weapon recoil and hits. But the down side of the vector approach is that TA and, especially, Kingdoms, are big fat resource hogs.
Total Annihilation, according to the side of the box, will run on a P-133 with 32Mb of RAM. Well, with not too many units in play and in 640 by 480 resolution, yes, it will. But if you want to run 1024 by 768 or higher, and play multiplayer games with hundreds of little violent minions dashing about, a fast P-II class computer is a must. My 450MHz overclocked Celeron machine can handle 1280 by 1024 TA multiplayer games, but it bogs down in big battles. Plain old TA still has the ability to bring an arbitrarily powerful PC to its knees.
And Kingdoms is worse. It uses 16 bit colour versus the 8 bit of TA (65,536 colours versus 256), and its organic-looking units use more polygons than the robo-warriors in plain TA. This makes Kingdoms really, really pretty - not up to the standards of recent first-person action games, but arguably the most visually impressive real-time-strategy offering yet - but it also makes it still more hardware-hungry than its predecessor.
The side of the Kingdoms box says you need a 233MHz Pentium and 32Mb of RAM. Well, that much processor might cut it for low resolutions, but that much RAM probably won't. Plenty of people with 64Mb systems are complaining about ghastly performance, thanks to the giant bitmapped images that both TA and Kingdoms use for their maps causing lengthy load times and painful disk-hitting during play. Smaller maps are OK with 64Mb, but bigger ones are a bad idea. 128Mb of RAM, on the other hand, works great.
A 450MHz, 128Mb machine is no longer a ludicrous super-PC, but it's still more computer than a lot of people have on their desk. And it's not enough to run Kingdoms silkily at high resolutions. The game's playable enough on this machine in 1024 by 768, but it's not at all as smooth as plain TA; unit mobs in Kingdoms tend to be smaller, so it's not quite as bad as you might expect, but you'll nonetheless pine for a 1GHz processor.
With 2.0, Kingdoms requires 24Mb less RAM, and is roughly twice as fast. This makes it far more playable in high resolutions, and means 128Mb is less of a necessity. It's still nice to have, though.
Kingdoms supports hardware video accelerators, but paradoxically, software mode is faster. This is because TA uses lots and lots of teeny little polygons, as opposed to the relatively few, larger polygons and big pretty textures that video accelerators are optimised to deal with. In hardware mode the spell effects look cooler, but most graphics are exactly the same and the game plays no better; I'd take software rendering and a higher resolution for the same game speed any day.
Kingdoms in Direct3D mode is, by many accounts, very buggy; it fouled up utterly on my TNT2 card in 1024 by 768, and although it's apparently fine in 800 by 600, I wasn't going to sacrifice screen space for prettier fire effects. Apparently Glide mode works just fine, so 3Dfx patriots will, once again, have the chance to point and laugh at the upstart owners of other 3D cards.
Playing the game
Kingdoms provides a better single player experience than TA did, but TA's single player missions were only average. The single player campaign game alternates between sides, telling a story of epic conflict as you control first one side's troops and then another's. There are more than 45 levels, which makes up for the fact that they don't start getting challenging until around level 20. Hey, it's a learning curve thing for the newbies, fair enough.
New players will have an easier time with Kingdoms than with the first Total Annihilation. TA, especially TA with the Core Contingency expansion pack, has several units for each side that do similar things. The Core side in TA, for instance, has a regular little tank, a laser tank, a "riot" tank, a hover tank, two kinds of heavy assault tank, and an amphibious tank. Kingdoms has a similar number of units-that-do-much-the-same-thing, but they're split between the four sides, so any given player doesn't have to deal with such a bewildering number of options.
There are a total of 106 units in Kingdoms, including buildings but not counting the Monarchs (the equivalents to the TA Commander, the unit you start with in multiplayer games by default) and the four gods which may eventually appear when you've got a top-level construction unit (I've never seen one; apparently they appear 30 to 60 minutes into the game, if they appear at all). The sides have between 23 and 31 units each.
You make things with construction units; factories and mobile construction people of different kinds, and, as in other RTS games, these units use stuff up as they work. Kingdoms has only one resource, which Cavedog apparently originally referred to, during the game's development, as "funkitude". It is officially called mana.
The single resource model's nice, provided you don't actually enjoy balancing multiple resources. In regular TA, the only resource you really had to manage was metal; the other resource, energy, was chiefly useful for the creation of more metal, via the different metal maker units. Kingdoms cuts out the extra complexity and only gives you mana to worry about.
But I prefer to call it funkitude.
The only thing I dislike about the Kingdoms resource model is that the only mana generators (except for construction units, which make a little mana just by living) are the Lodestone and the Divine Lodestone, which you build on special mana sites. As with TA's Metal Extractor and Moho Metal Extractor, you have to get rid of the little Lodestone in order to build the big one. The big one doesn't do a thing until it's finished, so you lose all mana from one site while you're constructing the Divine Lodestone (which takes a lot longer than the plain one to build), as well as the mana you have to spend to create the thing, not to mention the mana you had to spend to make the top-level construction unit which is the only thing that can make Divine Lodestones.
If the top level constructor for each side just upgraded existing Lodestones, with the extra capacity coming on line when the job finished, it'd be less of a sacrifice to upgrade. As it stands, it's hard to judge when it's worth upgrading and when it isn't.
On the other hand, the Lodestones are nice and tough. A single Jeffy or Weasel reconnaissance vehicle in TA could dispatch a metal extractor in a few shots, making the speedy little buggies a popular favourite for early-game harassment duty. In Kingdoms, a single low-powered unit has to beat on a Lodestone for some time before it succumbs; on the other hand, mana sites are rarer than metal patches were, so losing one Lodestone is a bigger deal than losing a couple of metal extractors.
The big difference
Kingdoms has four quite different sides, against the two broadly similar sides in the first game. TA's Core and Arm were different, with Core tending towards slower and tougher units (with pleasingly butch names) that gave it an advantage in the later game, while Arm's nimbler, weaker units made it the early rusher's friend, but there were no huge differences between the sides.
Kingdoms, on the other hand, has four sides based loosely around the four classical elements. Aramon is the Earth side, with cannons and heavy-duty fortifications, but no air power or fancy magic units. Veruna is Water, with a powerful navy - they're utterly superior in sea combat, which could be why there seem to be no mostly-sea maps - and surprisingly competent land forces, as well.
Taros is fire, and has lots of undead and demonic units, including a passable air force and the Ghost Ship, which is a Level 1 unit that ignores all terrain and walls, but has lousy firepower, and seems pretty pointless, until you realise that like other ships, the Ghost Ship can carry units. This gives Taros the ability to deliver troops anywhere, regardless of terrain. Tarosians probably drink in the same pub as the narrator from Dungeon Keeper, as they exhibit the same utter contempt for trees, thatched cottages and little fluffy bunnies.
Zhon is Air, with the only flying Monarch (very handy for early game base expansion), lots of mythological creatures for units, and practically no stationary buildings at all; Zhon "factories" are plain walking units, most of which can defend themselves quite well. Zhon does, however, get what seems to be the best defence tower in the game, the lightning-zapping Death Totem.
The only real super-gun in the game, analogous to the original TA's Intimidator and Big Bertha, is Aramon's Trebuchet. This hefty stationary unit can lob explosive projectiles almost all the way across smaller maps and, like the TA superguns, will be a leading cause of dissatisfaction among newbies who let their opponent build eight of the things.
Veruna has a slightly down-powered version of the same weapon on their imposing Trebuchet Ships, but they can't build these on land-only maps and often can't put them where they'd like to on maps with water. They make up for this with the Mortar, a reasonably cheap stationary cannon with, impressively, something like half the range of the Trebuchet - but a very high trajectory and lowish rate of fire which makes them no threat to anything that's moving. The two evil sides have no super-gun at all, and nobody has an equivalent of the nuke, or even of the crawling bomb.
The Monarchs fight with magic, and have three selectable spells at their disposal - most magic-capable Kingdoms units have more than one spell. The Monarch spells aren't the kill-anything super-zots that TA players are used to from their Commander's Disintegrator-Gun; the Monarchs' top level burst spell will clear the area surrounding the Monarch of weaker units, but the other two spells aren't enough to see off more than a token assault. And since the Monarchs, like all magic units in Kingdoms, cast spells from their personal mana store and not from the main reserve you use to build things, a Monarch can't hold off even a Level 1 unit rush singlehanded, if there are enough of the little blighters.
In TA, a player with lots of energy can D-gun all the live-long day, and so a Commander off building stuff in the hinterland is fairly safe from early-game attacks (except, perhaps, for the cheesy but very funny Commander Abduction tactic, where you send a few transport planes after the boss-man). A relatively small number of well-managed Level 1 units in Kingdoms, on the other hand, can take an unguarded Monarch down fairly quickly. Thirsha, the Zhon Monarch, can just fly away (and she needs to, because she's got fewer hit points than the land-bound Monarchs), but the others can get hacked up fairly easily.
Theoretically, a single missile unit can do the same in TA by staying out of the Commander's weapon range, but only the computer opponent is dumb enough to fall for that one.
NOT featuring the voice of Sean Connery...
Kingdoms has another super-weapon, of sorts: dragons. Each side has their own dragon, only one of which can be summoned, and only by the highest level construction unit, which is only capable of making the dragon and the Divine Lodestone - the upgraded version of the plain mana-extractor. Since, contrary to what the manual says, construction units can only assist with construction of things which they themselves can make - except for the Monarch, who can help with any construction - this makes the top level construction units for each side not actually terribly useful. Presumably Cavedog will come up with more things for these units to make when the downloadable units start turning up; the first downloadable unit, a flying builder for Aramon, is indeed made by their top level constructor. The second downloadable unit, the Taros Rictus bony-artillery-thing, is just made by their second level construction building.
I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that construction-helping is restricted. I wasn't crazy about the zillions of hovering construction planes that tended to adorn TA factories. But it does leave a lot of construction units standing around picking fluff out of their navels and quietly generating piddling amounts of mana.
Anyhow, the dragons are fun. They're not a nuke-type weapon; they're more akin to a flying Krogoth (the monstrous Core walking death machine from the Core Contingency TA expansion pack) with less firepower and fewer hit points. Dragons are still darned tough, and the fact that they can fly means they can be pulled out of most battles for healing if it looks as if the defences are too much for them. A Krogoth by itself could smash a big hole in pretty much any base in TA; a dragon is less dangerous in Kingdoms, but works well as part of a regular assault, to soak up defensive fire, clear out the entryway of pesky Level 1 troops (they've got three spells each, like the Monarchs, and the top one's another room-clearer) and soften up tougher opponents. And, because Kingdoms has multiple levels of veteran status (see below), every fight your dragon has and survives will make it a tougher contender - although healing a heavily damaged dragon back up to full hit points can take a long time, and cost a lot of mana.
The four sides' dragons are genuinely different, continuing the pleasing side differentiation. Different speeds, different hit points, different spells. They all have the same wimpy fire breath as their number one attack, though; when they've burned off their mana, it's a good idea to pull them back to recharge rather than hang about collecting arrows and trying to breath-toast individual enemy troops.
Grunt rushing, so named from the popular but boring strategy that has delivered any number of wins in Warcraft 2, is a crummy idea in Kingdoms. TA was rush-prone as well; hordes of Flash tanks were the favoured weapon of many unimaginative rushers, and could only be countered consistently by building your own horde to hold them off. The best TA players discovered that hordes of missile units were a hard-to-beat strategy, as well; many games between players with considerable tactical talent simply degenerated into missile unit slap-fests, because that's what worked.
Kingdoms is different. A horde of one kind of cheap unit can be butchered, horribly, by a few more expensive ones. A necessary consequence of the inclusion of various melee units (swords, axes, clubs, talons... close-in fighters, in general) is that they're defenceless against air units. In TA, practically everything could at least have a go at shooting practically anything else. Goliath tanks and static artillery emplacements would sluggishly traverse their monster weapons to try to aim at passing planes - and, now and then, a large-calibre shell would smash a surprised fighter out of the air, by a pure fluke. Not so, in Kingdoms; a crowd of sword-swingers can be murdered to a man by one bombing Iron Beak.
With magic-using units that can create devastating rains of fire or ice (a few of 'em can take out a Monarch in seconds!), and burst effect spells cast by Monarchs and dragons that slaughter anything with the hit points of a Level 1 unit for a radius of 200 pixels or so, a swarm of swordsmen or archers or goblins will only overwhelm a newbie opponent. A big mob of melee units isn't able to be particularly effective, anyway, since they can by definition only attack adjacent enemies, and so spend a lot of time milling around in search of a target.
When the limited utility of hordes in Kingdoms first dawned on me I was nervous, because the game started to look rather like turning into a micromanagement ordeal, like Starcraft or Warcraft II. The best TA players tend to do a lot of micromanagement, with hordes of stealth fighters nipping forward, firing a volley and wheeling back, or carefully timed self-destruction of crawling bombs hanging from transport planes to cut circles out of an enemy base. But this sort of fiddling only becomes necessary at really high levels of playing competence, not the average-Joe level that I'm happy to inhabit. In Blizzard's 'craft games, though, you can't play a competent game at all unless you carefully micromanage your magic units (which, in Starcraft, are still really magic units, no matter what psionics or super-technology are invoked to explain their "spells"). The more micromanagement you have to do, the more the game turns into a reflex-testing clickfest, and if you want one of those, you should be playing a first person action game, in my humble opinion.
Fortunately, Kingdoms isn't that bad, and the reason is pretty simple - formations.
You can group units, as in TA, by hitting Control-<number>, for ten army groups (and Kingdoms defaults to the sensible press-the-number-to-select-the-group behaviour that you had to turn on with the +switchalt command in TA). But if you hit alt-<number> instead (which was how TA, by default, selected groups...), your units will be in a "formation", which means they're all tied to each other with intangible rubber bands and don't move faster, overall, than their slowest member.
The rubber-band system means that units will, by and large, hold the relative location in the group that they started in, so you can put a mob of archers with a couple of spellcasters in the middle behind a crowd of sword-swingers and formation-ify them all, and they'll march off towards the enemy with the tough guys protecting the weeds. If you tell them to march the other way then the archers will be in the lead, of course, and there's no way to specifically tell the melee units to intercept incoming enemies trying to flank the formation, but it's not a bad system. Aficionados of Bungie's most excellent Myth and Myth II, in which formation and careful squad control are everything, will sneer at the undisciplined rabble that Cavedog have the nerve to call a formation. Myth units may bumble about a bit while they get into formation, but once they're there everyone is and stays where they're supposed to be, and the trouser-seams line up. But given that the standard in most other RTS games appears to be closely modelled on the Mongol horde, with no elegant way to keep units of different speeds together (remember newbie infantry rushes in Command and Conquer, where the grenadiers galloped in to die first, closely followed by the minigunners, with the poor old 25 hit point bazooka dudes bringing up the rear?), Kingdoms' formations are pretty cool.
The only problem with formations is that the rubber-banding means a formation that accidentally includes some far-flung unit - you hit Control-Z to select all units like the ones you had selected, and forgot the matching picket units miles away, for instance - will march off cheerfully towards some central point that's almost definitely not where you actually want them to go, before turning and heading to their destination.
Once you realise that mixed forces really are essential in Kingdoms, whether you implement them by manually coordinating separate groups of different units or by formationing your groups, the game becomes a great deal more interesting, not to mention fiendishly complex.
Other nifty stuff
Most, if not all, damaged units in Kingdoms slowly heal back up to full hit points (I'm not sure about undead). This is cool; it reduces the need for micromanaged construction units to patch up henpecked troops, and lets far-flung defence forces take care of themselves better. There are also healing structures - Veruna's Pillar of Light and Zhon's Sacred Fire - that more quickly repair nearby friendly units without construction-unit involvement.
The line-of-sight and weapon range effects of elevation are exaggerated in Kingdoms, compared with TA; many ground units have a pathetic view range when they're at ground level (in scale terms, some seem to be able to see only about 20 feet...), but everything can see noticeably further when at altitude.
The two evil sides (Taros and Zhon) have units that can convert enemies to their side - the Mind Mage and the Harpy, respectively. These units aren't as terrifying as they sound, because like all magic units they cast their side-conversion spells from their personal mana store, and so can only loose off a couple of blasts before they need to fall back to recharge. You can leave them in the front line if you like, but they're none too tough and so will probably fall to the enemies they failed to convert before they get enough mana together to cast again. They also need a bit of micromanagement to stop them shooting at things they can't convert, like units that are being built, and buildings.
Conversion units are more effective against the computer than against a reasonably practiced human opponent, because their low hit points mean both the Harpy and the Mind Mage are easy prey for a collection of cheap archers. Using the conversion units on Level 1 troops is a waste of their abilities, although it can cause a bit of chaos in the enemy ranks if there's nothing better to capture. Escorting attackers with a smattering of archers means conversion units are unlikely to give their owner particularly good value for money. Only newbies are likely to be crippled by an enemy harpy horde. It works out like the early-game Commander abduction strategy in TA, which should only work once on any opponent before he or she learns to escort a roaming Commander with a few anti-air units.
The Harpy can fly, but the Mind Mage has a higher level version of the converter-spell that can turn a whole group of enemies to your side (yet another reason not to clump a pile of grunts together). Both of them seem to be capable of converting any mobile enemy unit except Monarchs and dragons, which means you can steal enemy construction units.
When you've got construction units from another side, you can build that side's stuff, up to and including that side's dragon. The enemy side can still make its own dragon, but you get to have two, or three, or even four of the monsters. Sending multiple dragons in to attack one well 'ard enemy emplacement is an option, but splitting them up or sending them in as a relay seems more practical for most purposes.
In skirmish play as Zhon, I found myself ending up with more captured enemy constructors than I knew what to do with. As in TA, constructors contribute a little to your resource pool just standing there, but just standing there is what they seem likely to be doing in many bases. You can build whatever nifty fortifications and factories you like with them, of course, or set them to patrol around your base to repair things, but if you're getting close to the number-of-units limit (150, by default, against TA's 250) then you might as well group 'em up and hurl them at the enemy.
Useless units can also be dismissed, with the TA-esque Control-D command. Dismissal, unlike TA's self-destruct command, doesn't cause an explosion; the unit just melts away. Dead monarchs don't go boom, either, which together with their weaker weaponry makes the Monarch-rush strategy not very useful in Kingdoms. In TA, Commander rushing was a valid, if cheesy, strategy, because the Commander went off bang in a big way, doing enough damage to set off any other Commander in range. Such rushes could only be prevented by enabling the Commander-death-ends-game option, which in turn gives rise to nearly as cheesy zap-the-Commander strategies to win.
As a matter of fact, explosions in general are pretty much unknown in Kingdoms, and the plentiful flying wreckage from the first TA is also gone. Mind you, there's blood. When regular living-creature units are cut or smushed, they leave a brief red stain, which can be pumped up by hitting enter and typing in the "+LOTSABLOOD" cheat code. Unless you live in Germany, where I presume the blood will be absent. Command and Conquer in Germany had black "blood", since the units were redefined as robots to get around that country's censorship laws; German copies of Carmageddon and Carmageddon II have "zombie" pedestrians, with green blood. These measures will clearly stamp out all violence in Germany any day now.
Getting back to Kingdoms - I think the Commander-death-ends-game option (now called "Monarch Expendable") could still be a good idea, even in the absence of Monarch-rushes, as a siege-breaker for less skilled players or those after a speedier game. It's quite easy to "porc up" your Kingdoms base into a nigh-impregnable fortress, especially if you're playing Aramon, and to keep it reasonably well defended even when the enemy holds most of the map's mana sites. If an enemy has a force tough enough to wear the onslaught of your defences while they smash your Monarch flat, I think it's not unfair to say they deserve to win. The alternative can be a long and agonising grind, with the the fortified player trying some wild-ass scheme to defeat his enemy or just hanging in there hoping to bore him into resignation.
You can hit TAB to display a "mega minimap", a view of the whole map that takes up the standard view area, and lets you select and move units. It's a great way to get an overview of what's going on.
TA units that got more than five kills became "veterans", better able to cope with serious damage and more accurate. Kingdoms expands on the idea; there are now multiple levels of veteranhood, with units changing appearance as they get more experienced. A unit with some gold highlights has got to fifth level; at tenth level, more gilt shows up. This is not a hard and fast rule; the Rictus gets gold very early, and gets lots more of it over time, which means that not very experienced Ricti can look very impressive indeed. The unit picture when you wave the cursor over a unit gets a shield added to it; bronze, silver and gold, on fourth, seventh and tenth levels.
This gives a considerable incentive to use units as something other than cannon fodder - the usual fate of RTS troops - and also makes it even harder to successfully rush a foe, as every wave you throw at him makes his surviving defenders better fighters. Static defenses can become Veterans, too; it's pretty cool to see Aramon cannon towers with gold cannons!
If there are "uber-units" in Kingdoms, like Flash tanks and missile units in TA, I have yet to find them. There are units that work OK in a horde - Veruna dirigibles (the dirigible has been shrunk and de-powered in 2.0) and Zhon stone giants, for instance - but none seem to have the crush-all-opposition power of the TA horde units, and none are Level 1 cheapies. On watery maps, Veruna can get a massive advantage if it's allowed to build a navy, but few maps give them any decent chance to do it. Whether some units for the other sides are clearly better value than others, I'm not sure yet.
Given the complexity of a four-sided game with four genuinely different sides (the two sides in Warcraft 2 look different, but are actually close to identical), the fact that Kingdoms doesn't seem to have any uber-units is a big, BIG tribute to Cavedog's skill. Westwood has a one for one record with games that have only two different sides - GDI and Nod in Command and Conquer were quite different and both had their attractions, but the Soviets and the Allies in Red Alert just didn't work, with brutish tank-rush strategies the order of the day and the Soviets the clear superiors. Four sides isn't twice as hard to balance as two sides, it's eight times as hard - or worse, when you consider alliances - and Cavedog seem more or less to have done it, and without turning the game into the complete scissors-paper-stone unit and counterunit festival that Starcraft becomes at high levels of play. Kudos to them.
It does seem that some units have been "balanced" by handicapping them in unexpected ways. It's logical, for instance, that Stone Giants are too heavy for the Zhon Roc air transport unit (which can lift multiple smaller units) to move, and it's also logical that they're too weighty for transport ships, I suppose. But it's less logical that they're unable to climb or descend even quite gentle slopes. Since the Zhon constructors are mobile, of course, you just have to establish a beachhead in whatever inaccessible location you want your Stone Giants to occupy and then build them on-site, but this doesn't cure the newbie I-built-these-units-and-now-they-can't-get-out-of-my-base-dammit problem.
On the subject of transporting units, now it actually works. The transport units in TA were and are a pain to use; the ships and the hover transports (from the Core Contingency pack) load and unload with an ungainly robot arm arrangement and are pathetically unable to just get on with the job without micromanagement. And the single-unit air transports are too fussy for other than small missions.
In Kingdoms, you just tell a transport - the Roc, or any ship - to load a block of units, and they sort the problem out themselves. Units magically teleport onto and off ships, and don't get in each others' way when unloaded onto a beach. Perfect. Well, nearly; in order to avoid traffic jams, units coming off a transport charge inland for a while, which can alert the enemy to your arrival earlier than you'd like.
When units have a queue of orders, you can hold Control and give them another order, and they'll do that before returning to their queue. This isn't as good as some hypothetical order queue editor (I can't, offhand, think of an elegant way this could have been done, and presumably Cavedog had the same problem), but it does let you deal with those situations where your Monarch has 1001 things to do queued up (a condition I like to refer to as "queuestipation") and some impudent enemy unit turns up and starts pounding away. With Control, you can order the big guy or girl to smack down the interloper, and then your monster queue will recommence.
Kingdoms also comes with Cartographer, a map editor. You can use all of the gorgeous 16-bit tiles from the included maps, so there's nothing stopping you making maps as pretty as the standard ones - except, perhaps, the relatively feature-free nature of the editor. There's no undo, no easy height viewing, no way to import other tile-sets. You can, however, write scripts as baroquely complex as you like, using a Visual Basic-esque interface - but you're going to have to figure out how to do it for yourself, since there's not a skerrick of documentation for Cartographer included. You also can't make single player scripted missions, only multiplayer ones. A better editor might be released at some point, but as it stands, without docs, Cartographer is really only useful for making straight multiplayer maps with no scripting.
Aside from the problem of performance on slower machines (not such a problem with 2.0!), Kingdoms out of the box has one other serious annoyance. Units ordered to move somewhere won't fight on the way. This is a "feature" straight out of Starcraft, but Starcraft lets you use the Attack command on the destination, which orders the units to fight their way there, if necessary. Doing the same thing in Kingdoms tells the units to walk peacefully to that spot and then frantically attack wherever you clicked, which is probably a patch of dirt.
At first, the only solution to this problem was to use the Patrol command, setting a patrol waypoint at the destination. With a formation of units this is pretty effective, provided you catch up with the units before they get where they're going and turn around to come back. Fortunately, the 1.1BA patch included a new "Fight" move command, that tells units to mix it up with anyone they meet on the way to their destination; the 2.0 patch of course has the new command too. Sometimes units still display a mysterious inability to detect the enemy, even when they're rubbing elbows, but by and large it works.
Kingdoms has only three unit attitude settings - Passive, Defensive and Offensive (versus TA's Hold Position, Manoeuvre and Roam movement settings and Hold Fire, Return Fire and Fire At Will attack settings). Units set to Offensive should take on all comers in all situations. Defensive units should attack targets of opportunity as they pass but not pause to fight. Only Passive units should march on by with their swords sheathed and catch enemy arrows without complaint. If you use the plain default Move command, though, your units will behave as if they're forbidden to fire, lest they rupture the coolant lines for the fusion reactor, until they reach their destination.
Incidentally, unlike TA, Kingdoms doesn't let you set a factory's aggression level, to apply that level to every unit that comes out of it. Units seem to come out with one or another aggression level set by default according to their unit type, and you have to manually change it. You also can't set destination or patrol paths for units made by Zhon "factories", because they're individual units themselves and would just head off to wherever you set.
As if that wasn't enough, Level 1 construction units and Monarchs can build walls (except for Zhon, which has no walls), and you can hold down shift and drag out as long a wall-line as you want, and leave the constructor to build it without supervision. Incidentally, the shift-click-drag method is also a way to queue up batches of units for the Zhon construction dudes; you paint a phantom army of units-to-build in a clearing somewhere, and they head off to make 'em. So far, so good.
Walls in TA (Dragons' Teeth and the later-released level 2 walls) could be pounded apart by heavy units, or reclaimed in an eyeblink by any construction unit, as long as they had no nearby defenses to blow the construction unit away, of course.
You can bash down walls in Kingdoms, but it takes a fair while, and doing it with units that only have a melee attack is painful - if you tell multiple sword-wielders to hack at a square of wall, the wide damage arcs that many of them have mean they seem to hit each other nearly as often as they hit the wall. You have to order individual fighters to attack individual squares of wall, and wait. Catapults and bomber-birds and other long range attacks can remove the obstacles more elegantly, but walls are still considerably more permanent than they used to be; construction units can't clear them at all.
This gives rise to one slight problem. If you tell a construction unit to build a multi-layer wall-block somewhere - to conclusively plug a choke point, for instance - you'd better hope he or she doesn't build all around him/herself and wall him/herself in. In TA, that was annoying, but you could just tell the walled-up unit to reclaim a couple of squares of wall and then go about its business. In Kingdoms, pounding down the wall may well kill the unit. If you're playing Zhon you can build a Roc and lift the unfortunate unit out, but anybody else might as well just chuck a Rubik's Cube over the wall and leave the builder there, 'cause he's probably never coming out.
By default, Kingdoms doesn't support "spawn" installation; multiple game installs from one CD, with the machines without the CD only able to join network games. It's not alone in having annoying network gaming restrictions; Starcraft only lets spawned copies installed with the same CD key number as the disc in the host machine join network games, for instance. The original TA let three people play with one disc, six with two discs and ten with three discs, but for Kingdoms, it's officially one disc, one player.
You can start a network game with only one disc by putting the disc in each machine just long enough for the game to load, but fortunately it only took a few days after the game's release for a patched version of the game executable to show up at Megagames (the file was here, but isn't any more). This executable only lets you join network games if you don't have the CD, and Cavedog are apparently happy enough for it to exist. I don't know if it works properly with the 1.1 and 2.0 patch versions of Kingdoms, but I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't.
There's also a downloadable silencer for the irritating "bong" noise that plays every time you issue an order. Get it from here.
Statistics fans will also be irked by Kingdoms, because you can't tell how many units you have at any moment, so you don't know how close you are to the limit. You also can't tell how much mana each individual unit is contributing or consuming (repairing units seems to take a pile of mana, and Zhon's Sacred Fire unit-healer, for instance, uses mana unless you turn it off, but there's no obvious way to know that it's doing it).
Mana sites, like TA's metal patches, have variable values - but you can't easily tell how much a given one is contributing to your income, unless you take note of your income before and after building a Lodestone there. Higher powered mana sites look more impressive (more complete rings of monoliths around them, and a bigger glowing thing in the middle...), so this isn't a huge problem, but it will further irk players like me who like to have all of the numbers at our fingertips, even if we don't often have time to weigh them up.
The Kingdoms "radar" is also somewhat mystifying; there's no equivalent to the radar towers and units in TA, and yet you can see on the minimap dots indicating nearby enemy units, which are outside the sight range of your units. Perhaps this represents your units perceiving some sort of thingy in the distance but not really knowing what it is, but there's no way to tell how big this detection range is, so it's hard to tell when and where you've got a decent early warning capability. Having a few scout birds (or, for Zhon, bats!) flapping around your base is not a bad idea, but Kingdoms practically FORCES you to, and still leaves you in the dark about exactly where you can perceive the enemy.
Another little whinge: Every side but Zhon can build gates in walls, which are opened and closed manually. Gates can only be made in horizontal (east-west) walls, not vertical ones, apparently for aesthetic reasons (units going through a vertical gate have to be behind the southern post but in front of the northern one, which the game engine didn't handle). Gates aren't actually tremendously useful, though, so it doesn't matter much either way.
Kingdoms' sound is pretty ordinary. The music is peaceful pseudo-medieval tootling, versus the magnificent orchestral score of TA, and it's OK if you like that sort of thing. But the effects engine seems to have a problem which causes it to fail to play some effects, resulting in mysteriously silent attacks some of the time.
28 maps are included with the game, but there aren't ANY plain flat simple maps. This will be remedied soon enough by the fan base, of course, but it wouldn't hurt to have a straightforward equivalent of TA favourites like Greenhaven and Painted Desert included with the game.
On the other hand, Kingdoms introduces scripted multiplayer maps, which can include the same sorts of special features that single player levels can. The standard maps include one where one side has to storm a beach within 40 minutes, and another where the winner is the first to build three guard towers in a row in a Tic-Tac-Toe grid, not to mention Capture the Flag and King of the Hill maps that should appeal to Myth players no end. You can't play these maps in skirmish mode against the computer (for some reason, they're still in the list, but unselectable), but they add a new dimension to multi-human play, and no doubt various other ingenious scripted maps will be along Real Soon Now from users, and presumably also from Cavedog.
The Kingdoms manual is heavy on the back-story and light on the nitty-gritty. I don't know about you, but I couldn't care less about the origin of the four sides and their ultra-powerful father and who does what to whom and why. I'm one of the people who turns to the how-to-let-some-blood chapter first (remember the Frontier manual, whose Weaponry chapter starts with the words "In case this is the first chapter you turned to, welcome to the manual"?).
If you like to get involved with the motivation of the little dudes on the screen, you'll love the Kingdoms manual. To be fair, it does tell you almost all of the commands, including the very handy Control-click construction option, which lets you set a factory to produce a given unit forever. This even works for Zhon builders; Control-click a unit in their build menu and set it down somewhere and the new unit will move aside when it's finished, so the builder can make another, and another, and another...!
The manual also gives you a statistic-free rundown on the available units. If you want greater detail, I'm sure unofficial strategy guides replete with munchkin-friendly data will spring up like mushrooms shortly. If you're impatient, you can winnow a lot of useful data out of the game yourself with TA third party utility luminary Joe D's "HPI Dump", available here, and Cavedog have made some pretty raw unit stats available for download at their site here.
Along with the manual, you also get a map of Darien, which is good for nothing in particular. There's a tournament who-plays-who chart printed on the other side, which someone might I suppose use.
The Kingdoms computer opponent isn't going to win any awards for brilliance. Coding a real-time-strategy opponent that can actually give a half-decent player a serious workout without a huge advantage of some kind (five computer players versus one human, or lower unit prices for computer players, for example), is an exceedingly challenging task. People prone to complain about "dumb AI" should note that people who are probably rather smarter than them have probably spent a lot longer thinking about the problem than they have.
That said, the Kingdoms AI exhibits some of the same problems as the stock TA AI, which were cured by some third parties later on with replacement AI files (TA's AI is readily patchable with simple text files; I don't know if Kingdoms is as easy to change). The Kingdoms computer opponent has a mania, for example, for sending construction units to mana sites in your territory, with predictably bloody results. But at least it lacks the nasty problems of the stock TA AI, which also tended to send its Commander wandering into your base in search of metal.
AI problems extend to the behaviour of your units, too. As in TA, stationary ranged units firing on a target they can't hit because of terrain or walls will keep on shooting forever, hoping eventually to get lucky. A zero-hit-chance unit, like an archer behind a wall which he can't shoot over, will keep twanging away indefinitely, and may actually hit the target after who knows how many arrows have finally knocked down the wall, and let the unit he's shooting at in to make archer-kebabs. Fortunately, unless you've specifically ordered that unit to fire on that unhittable target, he will shoot at other targets if they wander by. But if the dumb unit has a personal mana store, it'll consume it all in the futile attack and thus be of little use if an actual hittable target shows up.
Kingdoms has no AI difficulty adjustment built in, so the AI you get is as tough as it can be, at least until someone patches it.
As with TA, Kingdoms can be expanded with extra units available via download from Cavedog, who will probably come up with extra maps, and no doubt game patches, as well. The downloadable TA units were, on average, not that exciting (masterpieces like the Floating Metal Maker and Fortification Wall might have been strategically useful, but they're not likely to be available as limited edition sculpted pewter miniatures any time soon), but who's going to turn down a free gift? As of now, shortly after the release of the 2.0 patch, there have been four units released, with more to come.
Kingdoms supports TCP/IP LAN and Internet multiplayer games, and Cavedog have pretty much worked the bugs out of their free Boneyards multiplayer match-up system, which allows Kingdoms players to compete to see which race can conquer Darien, not to mention endlessly obsess over their win/lose statistics.
You can view the not-terribly-interesting Kingdoms game credits by clicking the mouse on the eye of the dragon in the big "K" of "Kingdoms" on the main game selection screen. The fact that moving the cursor over the dragon's eye causes it to light up and the dragon to blow a puff of smoke is something of a giveaway.
You can see the health bar of an enemy Monarch by passing the cursor over him or her, just like any other unit. In TA, the Commander's hit points weren't viewable by the enemy, which made it harder to judge when a Commander assassination was likely to succeed.
Kingdoms does a lot of things right, and with the 2.0 patch does very little wrong. It's a mighty achievement in game programming, and any RTS fan should check it out. If you loved Starcraft and hated TA, Kingdoms may be more like what you're looking for. If you have the opposite views, though, Kingdoms will probably initially annoy you. But stick with it and you'll see its charm.
Kingdoms is fairly accessible, has a lot of depth, looks great and plays quite well, even before the patch. Get it.