In this edition of Retro Revisited, we travel back to 1997 and revisit KKnD, a real-time strategy developed by the Australian development studio, Beam Software. It’s a game that adhered closely to the template laid out by Command & Conquer (Westwood Studios) and Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (Blizzard Entertainment), with players constructing bases, harvesting resources, and commanding armies of units in real-time to do battle with one another across a variety of war-torn landscapes.
For this particular retrospective, I’ll be concentrating almost exclusively on the single-player campaigns. The game does support network play over IPX, but it’s lack of support for TCP/IP and the general absence of online multiplayer services at that time meant the single player was the main attraction for most players.
Set in the year 2140, human civilisation has come crashing down, brought about by the catastrophic war of 2079. The launching and subsequent detonation of nuclear warheads across the globe obliterated over a quarter of the world’s population in a matter of days, with fallout and radiation claiming countless more in the months ahead.
Like cockroaches, humans are notoriously difficult to stamp out completely. Despite all odds, humanity managed to survive, although the remnants of Earth’s population has become polarised, divided into two distinct factions. The conflict between these factions is chronicled in two single-player campaigns, each consisting of 15 challenging missions, all set across the kind of theatre that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mad Max movie.
The ‘Survivors’, the militaristic remnants of pre-war civilisation, fled to the safety of their bunkers and fallout shelters before the bombs dropped. They’re a well-equipped, disciplined fighting force, who have absolutely no qualms about using – and abusing – Earth’s remaining resources in reconquering the surface and establishing a new world order. They wield a formidable arsenal that includes assault rifles, tanks, mobile missile launchers, as well as other military-grade equipment. It might not hold a candle to the kind of future tech of the pre-war era, but make no mistake, the Survivors have the gear and know how to use it.
Those left top-side to fend for themselves in the wake of the nuclear holocaust enjoyed no such luxuries. Mutated almost beyond recognition by radiation and mutagenic viruses, natural selection is truly in effect, with only the hardiest of souls managing to survive. Those who endured have banded together to form a coalition of tribal factions, referred to collectively as the ‘Evolved’. These tribes have adopted a quasi-paganistic lifestyle, scavenging old technology and harnessing their affinity with other surface-dwelling creatures to fight back against the encroaching Survivors, intent on averting the impending threat of another nuclear war.
Each of the single-player missions is preceded by an FMV cutscene, where your commander general briefs you on upcoming objectives and success criteria. The original Command & Conquer had set a benchmark by book-ending missions with live-action set pieces and rendered CGI videos, but whereas C&C played it straight, KKnD is much more light-hearted. The actors deliver performances consistently over-the-top, and are most certainly tongue-in-cheek, but they actually feel pretty convincing, and the game manages to avoid the embarrassing “Jill sandwich” syndrome. Best of all, players will enjoy picking up on amusing messages and animations popping up on the various displays of the comms. systems during these sequences, yet another feature of this idiosyncratically Australian RTS.
Motivation aside, the prize which Survivors and Evolved covet is oil. It’s the game’s single form of currency, which is used to create new units and buildings; those with it hold the key to power, whilst those without will wither and die. Many of the missions in KKnD involve fights to control oil fields, and those can exploit this natural wealth the fastest will typically emerge the victor. Suitable drill sites are easily recognisable by the large pools of black crude oil bubbling to the surface. A mobile derrick must be constructed and deployed over the top of the resource site, at which point tankers can begin harvesting oil, then transporting back to your power stations for refining.
Like everything else in KKnD, maintaining an efficient oil supply line requires careful management. Destroying your opponent’s tankers and derricks is one of the quicker roads to victory, The AI pathing often means tanks bump into each and get stuck, block each other in at depots, or have trouble navigating through troop formations on the open field; you’ll need to make sure new units emerging from barracks and factories don’t block tanker access, else you’ll find yourself without funds to create new units when it matters most.
In terms of actual mission structure, you’ll either have a fixed number of units with which to complete a mission, or you’ll need to construct a base and army sufficiently powerful to steamroller the opposition. The game seldom makes getting to that position easy, and the developers have designed many of the missions so the player is fighting an uphill battle against a deeply entrenched CPU opponent, often with a full tanker supply line and research options unlocked. The early phase of such missions is often a careful, not to mention frenetic, balancing act of using what few troops you can scrounge together to fend off attacks, whilst expanding your own sphere of influence to bolster your oil supplies and research new technology. Most poignantly, you quickly discover that the classic turtling strategy à la C&C rarely works, and the only way to hamper the enemy’s progress is to disrupt its oil supply.
This template for mission design is found throughout the game, but is exemplified by the final mission of the Evolved campaign, a particularly brutal affair that’s sure to put any player’s micromanagement skills to the test. I had concluded that, after many failed attempts, it was simply impossible to hold off attacks on two fronts at once. The key to success lies in using the initial complement of units to launch an early offensive against the northern, less defended outpost, taking out a derrick and tankers en route; this early disruption granted me the breathing room needed to establish an army with which to take the fight to the enemy, a strategy that eventually resulted in victory. It might be somewhat contrived, but discovering – and executing – the strategies that lead to victory is perhaps more satisfying that the moment-to-moment action of the individual battles.
Lower tech units, especially the Evolved shotgunner and Survivor SWAT units, are surprisingly effective in large groups. Their combined damage is not to be sniffed at, but having groups of these units spearheading the attack exploits the AI opponent’s predilection for attacking the closest enemy unit in range, which helps preserve your more valuable units.
The game also implements a veterancy system, with battle-hardened units gaining improved rate of fire, as well as slightly extended ranges. Experienced foot soldiers will even heal themselves over a period of time, giving them the edge in further conflict.
Some of the maps play host to bunkers containing pre-war military technology, units which possess considerably more firepower than anything available to the Survivors or Evolved. Locating the bunkers should be a top priority, as the enclosed unit – typically a futuristic mech or plasma tank – can chew through enemy ranks, not to mention causing a severe headache for you if it falls into enemy hands.
The AI governing the CPU opponent is something of a mixed bag. It’s surprisingly capable of assembling mixed, tactical groups of units comprising anti-infantry and anti-vehicle troops and launching attacks, and it will even attempt to pull troops back when it senses losses are too great. On one particular mission it even attempted to re-route its tankers after I used vehicles to blockade access to one of its derricks; the new route took it straight through the middle of my base, but it was interesting to see adopt an alternate, if ultimately flawed strategy.
Unfortunately, it also lacks the wherewithal to prioritise defence of its tankers derricks over and above any pre-scripted behaviour given by the developers. It is generally smart enough to prioritise the replacement of these units, but players can exploit this apparent nonchalance towards supplies, bleeding its oil reserves dry as it constantly tries to create new tankers.
To give KKnD credit, it’s a solid RTS game that, by and large, implements the tried-and-tested formula very well. It does some things differently, and the post-apocalyptic aesthetic – scrubby bluffs and sand-blasted wastes – are beautifully realised. I particularly like the attention to detail in the unit artwork – muzzle flashes, shadows and detailing – that you don’t really appreciate until examined more closely. You also can’t argue with the fact that a giant minigun strapped to tank tracks, or a missile-launching crab, aren’t some of the coolest units to ever feature in a strategy game.
On the other hand, there’s no escaping the fact the game feels particularly old-school, especially compared to Total Annihilation, Chris Taylor’s acclaimed RTS released that very same year. It doesn’t feature much in the way of music, certainly nothing as iconic as Frank Klepacki’s compositions for Westwood, and there’s also the fact the original release was for MS-DOS, an operating system considered positively antediluvian by 1997. A native Windows version – KKnD: Xtreme – would launch not long after, but one has to wonder whether Beam should have simply focused on this version instead.
Despite these shortcomings, the game must have sold in sufficient numbers to warrant a sequel. KKnD 2: Krossfire would arrive in 1998, featuring a third faction, more units and tactical options. I’m not sure the more cartoon-like art style was a huge success; there’s something about the gritty realism of the original game that I prefer, but the sequel is a game for another day.
Having now played through both the Evolved and Survivor campaigns, I’ve learned to appreciate KKnD far more than I ever did at the time of release. The smaller maps make for some very scrappy and fraught encounters, and each hard-won victory is a genuine cause for celebration. Perhaps above all else, the humour – particularly the FMV cutscenes – elevates the game to a status it might not have enjoyed had it been played straight; it’s an enjoyable, scrappy affair that’s still fun to play, and should be near the top of any RTS fan’s list.