Funcom has teamed up with the RTS veterans at Petroglyph for their next game set in Conan's universe, a wave-based survival take on the genre, somewhat akin to They Are Billions with a large focus on co-op and a neat mix of base building, combat, and exploration. At first, you pick a hero to play as and the Gamereactor crew employed Valeria and Conan as we explored the early portion of the game during a brief demonstration.
Your first order of business will be to try and organise a camp and set up your economy much like you would in any other real-time strategy offering. The difference here is that exploration is rewarded as you'll want to defog the map around you to uncover mobs and treasure to help further your efforts. This can include giant scorpions, bandits, and even mini-bosses of sorts, but to some extent, these encounters represent distractions as your main focus needs to be on defeating the waves of enemies that spawn and head for your camp at regular intervals. In other words, there's a neat risk and reward system at work, where you'll want to explore for resources but not get pulled away too far from your camp if you need your hero to defend it. Once you've got a set of troops and some nice defences set up you can spread yourself out more and wage war on the enemy with attacks on multiple fronts.
"You start with the basic stuff like it's all made of wood," says Petroglyph designer Renato Orellana. "It easily catches fire. And each wave as you go you're going to continue earning resources and you're going to expand out and you're going to find other places to build, like lumberyards or mines, the gain iron and stuff like that. And then you're going to do research to move up the tech tree and that's how you keep fortifying your space."
The amount of information and resources displayed in the HUD was at first a little daunting, but the first few waves of enemies proved gentle enough that we could get to grips with it. There's both tech tree progression and hero progression, and there's also a bit of strategy involved in placing your buildings to maximise output. Each map you play on is procedurally generated, meaning that you'll want to exploit the various geographical features like rock formations and bodies of water to aid your economy and your defences.
The player will get a bit of information on the rough outlines of enemies arriving with each wave and from what direction they're coming in, offering you a decent yet small window to change your tactics accordingly. Watching later waves during the presentation, it's clear that this becomes more intricate and challenging as some enemies will, for instance, try and set fire to your camp which can cause issues if you've built a strong defence to turtle up behind as the fire can spread and cause mayhem. There are towers you can build to provide support and direct damage too.
Co-op is a major appeal here and it is obvious the game has been designed with this in mind from the start. You each build your own buildings and control your own units, which may seem a little odd as your base will need to double up on the basics, but once you venture further down the tech tree there are opportunities to specialise or double down, depending on your strategy. In our brief time with the game, we didn't really get to explore this, but there was definitely some great moments where we either split up to tackle to different objectives or banded our troops together to eliminate a larger threat. However, there's an element of competition as well, especially when it comes to loot and perks; taking down a mini-boss gave us a random benefit that saw all enemies drop extra gold, but only one of us could get this power-up. However, the economy is shared which allows for specialisation; one player can focus on buildings and defences while the other focuses on building an army and exploring the map, for example. It's important to note though that you cannot control the other player's units so if you specialise too much it means one player will have an awful lot to do during crunch time.
"It was something that we found was kind of missing," says Orellana of co-op. "There are other survival-RTS out there and we're inspired by them, right, but we found that we like to play games cooperatively. We like to just get together and have a good time. What this does to the game, as opposed to the solo thing, you will be seeing more creatures coming at you, but mainly we do that cause you can move faster through it. You can actually assign the role if you and I are playing together, I'll take care of all the research, I take care of building all the structure, the base, I can manage that. In the meantime you can start building units, just getting an army set up and putting people in turrets and stuff like that. So when it comes to co-op you can try and divide tasks or we could be more of an equal partnership."
When things get truly terrible you may call on some divine intervention, and we're not talking about your co-op partner here. As you progress further into the game you'll unlock a summoning ability that lets you call a giant god called Mitra into action, trampling your enemies during a short, but otherwise highly entertaining show of strength. As with your special ability, there's a cooldown so it's important to time it just right for maximum devastation.
It's always potentially deceiving to sit down and play a game briefly at a convention with a colleague as the enjoyment of co-op tends to overshadow any flaws in the game, particularly during a quick session, and so while we had a good time with Conan Unconquered, we would mainly like to have seen a cleaner user interface, and it may not be the most advanced RTS we've seen in recent years. That said, it seems to offer plenty of strategic depth and lots of tactical decisions, and the co-op fun factor is certainly powerful with this one.