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The Custom Mod switching utility for TA

Games like Half-Life give players easy access to custom mods; you can switch between them like channels on a TV, and installation is a snap. In effect, buying Half-Life gives you access to a lot of (freely downloadable!) games. The official Team Fortress Classic and Counter-Strike are two classic examples where the custom mods are now more popular online than the original. Half-Life is not so much a game as a FPS operating system...

Total Annihilation can give you a similarly supercharged experience, and once you've played several custom games you may not want to go back to the original. However, for all its open structure, Total Annihilation predates the in-built switchable custom mods of more recent games. This used to mean that using custom units, AIs or other mods meant endless wasted hours modifying your game install or reinstalling when things went invariably wrong. Or, having lots of different modified TA installations filling up your hard drive. And let's not get into the horrors of trying to get two - or more! - people to play a netgame with any customs! Making sure all participants had exactly the same elements installed practically made it unworkable. Conflicts between custom units were a perpetual problem, and if the players didn't have the same game configuration on their PC's, then TA either crashed midway through loading or half the units in the build menus would appear greyed out. This is where the "conflict-crusher" utilities came in; they basically sorted out clashes between different custom units fighting for the same "unit slots" (think of a slot as a reserved parking space in the TA unit car park) so that different custom units from different sources could be used in the one game.

In these more enlightened times, thankfully, things have changed.

TA Mutation (or TA:M) is a third party utility that "switches" between multiple custom mods, AIs, maps and units for Total Annihilation - without the need to reinstall the game each time. It also sets up networked multiplayer games, providing players with simple chat and IP functions and the ability to synchronise everyone so people all start with the same configurations. With TA:M, all players can instantly see which maps or units they don't have, and can take steps to ensure everyone is compatible. It will also let you configure TA netgames from within ICQ.

TA:Mutation is a total solution: you don't half mix it with any other custom installers or fiddle about with files by hand when you're running it. Custom mods have to be in TA:M format in order for its switching system to identify them. This is because TA:M works by moving the relevant game files around. When the TA executable first fires up, it blindly reads in all the data files in its main folder. So, files that are "turned on" are merely left in here. Files that are "turned off" are stored out of TA's sight in the TA-Mutation folder, created when the utility is first installed. Things can (and will!) get screwed if you try and meddle with the files by hand whilst TA:M is running.

While total conversions and mods you want to switch between must be in TA:M format, regular .ufo unit files and .hpi map library files can be installed and used normally.

Finding it

Quantum Design weblink

TA:Mutation is produced by Quantum Design. Current version is 1.0.2, but TA:Mutation 2 is currently in development. This is strictly a PC utility: Macintosh players would use the MacUTATOR program instead.

TAM and OTA formats

You'll often see custom mods and total conversions coming in one of two versions: TAM format, where the mod is adapted to only work with TA:Mutation, or OTA format. OTA is simply fanspeak for Original Total Annihilation. An OTA format mod is a "regular" custom mod, done the old way and installed over a pristine copy of the original game. OTA format mods permanently alter the game, and render that installed copy incompatible with any other mods. OTA mods aren't switchable, so many people will have multiple copies of TA all kitted out differently on their hard drives. You can run them quite happily independently of each other, provided you've got the original game installed somewhere.

TA:Mutation Features

TA:Mutation allows you to select between custom mods, organise individual custom units, switch between custom AI's (provided they're compatible with the mod concerned) all in the one game install. Juggling different mods, maps, AI's and unit .ufo's can result in so rather esoteric configurations, but you can Snapshot a working configuration and come back to it later. If worse comes to worse, you can hit the Disable all TC's Mutator's and AIs button and revert back to the original, unmodified game. Snapshots come in very useful when you want to play back any recorded games that used any kind of involved set up. You can record TA games using the Swedish Yankspanker's TA Demo Recorder utility.

TA:Mutation also has a system of Mutators, which is a system that allows live, custom hacks to the game. They're sort of the custom mod you have when you're not having a custom mod. For example, you may change all the colours in the game, or turn the Commander into a giant Krogoth (the most powerful K-Bot in the game), or make all metal extractors work at double or half the rate.

You can find a fair number of downloadable mutators from the Mutation Clearing House at (Kirkwarz, incidentally, is not a warez site). Another good site is Mutation Manifestation, hosted at the TA FanSite. TA:M also lets you modify the game is other ways. It lets you resolve conflicts between different mods, individual units and weapon slots now, even optimising how the build menus work. It will also let you expand the size of your left hand build menus in the game to fit larger screen resolutions. However, in order to use these features in a netgame, every player must set their settings to the same configuration - otherwise many of your build menu items will be greyed out.


These suggestions have come from our experiences netgaming with TA:Mutation. (Note: we usually play Direct TCP/IP, so never really used the in-built Lobby.) When using a large mega unit pack, all netgamers should disable the resolve conflicts menus. By leaving these settings disabled, you avoid the risk of TA:M arbitrarily deciding to rearrange a mod's data differently to other players and thus greying out half your units or crashing the game. Most specialised total conversions have resolved these issues anyway. We've successfully played the game between different TA:M versions, and even played a TA:M version against a "regularly" modified install without any problems - but only when the TA:M player turned off the conflict crushing and menu optimisation features.

So, one of the first things I do after installing TA:Mutation is disable all these advanced features in the Settings menu before I even get around to installing a custom mod. About the only time you'd want to use such features is when you're playing around with lots of individual custom units in a single player Skirmish. I'd be really surprised to see anyone successfully pulling off a huge mix of lone units into a successful netgame without something screwing up or spending hours of careful coordination so that everyone's' configurations were identical. All parties would need the same downloaded units (and some come in different versions!), and have exactly the same TA:M configuration otherwise crashes or greyed out custom units is practically guaranteed. You could try swapping "snapshot" files, but all parties would still need to have downloaded the appropriate maps and units with each other. Most TA players who get into lots of single custom units or mix and match tend to play by themselves with the Skirmish AI anyway.

TA Commander

There is, in fact, another mod switching utility for Total Annihilation: TA Commander (TAC), by the Antirral Royal Engineers (ARE). This is, as I understand it, simply a graphical front end to shuffling files around your TA game folder (with a few extras). Its much like TA:Mutation, except TAC doesn't require the mods it shuffles to be in any particular format and I don't believe it has mutators. Current version: 4.0 beta. More on that when I get around to looking at it. (Somedayyyy....)

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Last modified Tue, Mar 8 2005 by Lindsay Fleay.