Conan Unconquered is the latest game – but surely not the last – featuring the ruthless barbarian. Since Funcom snagged the rights to develop video games based on Robert E. Howard’s franchise, we’ve had our share of bloody adventures. From MMORPGs (Age of Conan Unchained) to survival MMOs (Conan Exiles), the time has come for a survival RTS.
I’m not an expert in real-time strategy games anymore, but I’ve grown used to the genre pretty much since its genesis. Dune 2 may not be the game that spawned an entire genre, but Westwood Studios’ game was surely the one that made it mainstream. After that I’ve played a deluge of RTS hits that include Command & Conquer, Warcraft, Age of Empires, Total Annihilation and many more.
While it isn’t exactly a case of going full circle, it’s comforting to know that Petroglyph is at the helm of Conan Unconquered. Founded by former staff from said Westwood Studios, this company has a track record mostly comprised of strategy games and is now at home with this new game. A bloody, battered and brutal home, but a home, nonetheless.
What is this thing that Petroglyph is selling as a survival RTS? Aren’t most RTS games about survival anyway, crushing wave after wave of player or AI-controlled enemy hordes and making a run for it when you find an open spot? They Are Billions immediately comes to mind and is one of the few games that often draws direct comparisons to Petroglyph’s latest project.
However, Conan Unconquered takes it a step further and completely focuses its sound real-time strategy mechanics around the straightforward premise of resisting the enemy onslaught. It’s not that far from a tower defense game, in that you have a short period of time to develop your stronghold and strategize before the next wave comes crushing everything in its path. Make no mistake, this is a challenging game with a barbaric difficulty level (pun not intended) that will make you tear your hair apart when you collapse to the last enemy wave.
This approach comes with both pros and cons. It feels somewhat restrictive and limited in its scope, making you feel confined to your stronghold and adjacent territory while there is a world out there to explore, albeit a small one. You must take your chances to destroy spider and scorpion lairs, not to mention those bloodthirsty ostriches, for some reason. Seek some valuable resources and increase your hero’s experience, only to return double-time or risk seeing your buildings razed to the ground.
You feel restrained, you seriously consider the risk and reward ratio in sending a decent army to explore the terrain. On the other hand, it is a deliberate choice and ultimately it pays off, especially for battle-hardened players in search of a challenge that always keeps them alert. One mistake too many and the battle is over, forcing you to restart from the first wave.
Conan Unconquered is challenging and it can get a bit draining as well, due to its design that favors trial and error. Lose the battle and prepare yourself for another set of waves, hopefully getting your stronghold in better shape for the final showdown. It is slow-paced as well, a decision that may not be in everyone’s tastes, as your hero slogs back to base just in time to watch it burn. It doesn’t quite detract from the gameplay, but it takes some getting used to.
Before you set your feet in the battleground, you must pick one hero unit, which is infinitely tougher than your regular cannon fodder and comes with a powerful ability. Will you go with the main man Conan, or do you prefer Valeria? Maybe you want to step into Kalanthes’ blood-soaked sandals, but for that you have to purchase the Deluxe Edition of the game. Wait, what?
Having one hero out of three locked seems like a tactic straight out of the worst examples of free-to-play, and Conan Unconquered is a premium game that shouldn’t keep its heroes behind a paywall. In the future, when the roster is loaded with assorted heroes, it won’t be the right thing to do, but will be forgivable; right now, it feels like a punitive shove in the direction of a more expensive edition for not much reason whatsoever.
“You Hesitate… You Die”
No truer words have been spoken. Conan Unconquered is a game where second chances are few and far between and while your hero unit can die only to return a minute later, this cooldown period may jeopardize your efforts. Your hero levels up as he slays minion after minion, becoming a powerful warrior that can singlehandedly turn the tide of battle, but he needs the valuable support of Swordsmen and Javelin Soldiers, to mention just a few, with the latter being incredibly useful when it comes to hitting enemies at a distance or over a wall. Pathfinding needs some polishing, as they often engage in a frenzied and futile run through the mountains instead of simply approaching the wall and throwing their javelins.
That brings me to walls. Never, ever underestimate the importance of a judiciously positioned wall. Since the fail state in Conan Unconquered happens when your fortress is destroyed, well-placed walls can slow down the enemy and buy you some vital time to attack their forces. There is an intricate economy in place with a robust tech tree for you to despair over, but early beginnings usually require you to fortify your defenses. Later, things like a ballista tower are a barbarian’s best friend during those massive sieges, but good luck unlocking the mandatory structures to get what you were initially hoping for.
Conan Unconquered isn’t just about building structures and enjoying the view; there is an upkeep for most buildings and troops, with resources such as gold, food, wood, iron or stone to keep an eye out for. It’s a delicate balance and the destruction of a single hovel may throw your plans under the desert bus (bonus video game reference), setting in motion a chain of events that will see the obliteration of your economy and power. Let’s not forget about the micro-management that is necessary to put out those pesky fires, otherwise brace yourselves for a glorious spectacle of flames, as half of your stronghold burns to the ground in no time.
As it happens with most things in life, Conan Unconquered is best enjoyed with a friend, or a stranger. The co-op mode pits you and another warrior against waves of savages, but with a few twists in comparison to the solo mode. While you get to build a shared stronghold, resources are split between each player, so you must be responsible for your buildings and your army upkeep. The upside of this is that exploration is now more tempting, as you and your teammate may agree on methods to scout the map and scavenge every nook and cranny for useful resources. The downside is that the game is now even harder, as the enemy waves are more numerous and more determined than ever.
Thanks to random maps and the unpredictability of a human partner, this is where Conan Unconquered truly shines. But this is also where the odds of a nervous breakdown are at their best, not to mention the likely ending of a friendship or two.
Conan Unconquered is ruthless, no matter how you look at it. It’s a fierce challenge that feels utterly rewarding when you manage to nail those beasts, but it’s rather niche and would greatly benefit from 1v1 multiplayer. Fighting alongside someone is fun, but it’s supremely more entertaining to challenge someone directly, while still having to occasionally fend off the assault of AI enemies. Conan Unconquered may feel like busywork at times, but it’s worth persevering through if you dive in with the right mindset.
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