It's about time for a new Conan game and with Funcom owning the rights to the barbarian in video games, the company is publishing Petroglyph's strategy experience, Conan Unconquered. Funcom recently released the excellent Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden and before that, one of our favourite adventure games of recent times, The Longest Journey. Half of their releases, however, revolve around the muscular barbarian. Conan Unconquered's story is one of blood, sex and, as described by the developers, "the smell of sweat, horses and piss" - lovely. The game was developed by Petroglyph, a studio with Star Wars: Empire at War and Command & Conquer veterans on the payroll, so there are plenty of suitable developers working on the project, considering Conan is venturing into the realm of real-time strategy.
Conan Unconquered is of unusual size, considering the story is completely detached from the rest of the game. The story, you see, is told through a comic book that the player has to access from the main menu and as you work your way through the six scenarios that the game offers, you unlock more pages of the story comic. The word 'scenarios', however, is to be taken lightly because the paths you take don't have much to do with the story other than you fighting specific enemies mentioned in the comic book. The story is difficult to keep track of as well because you have to go back to the main menu to read about the next scene's narrative. It would have made more sense to see a recap of the story in between the playable episodes. We should also mention that the user interface isn't very user-friendly. When reading the comic book, for example, you can zoom and enlarge the image up to three times, but if you accidentally run the cursor off the page, the magnification disappears. Reading can thus be very frustrating.
The story, to give you a brief summary, revolves around Conan who interferes in a war between two factions, eventually winning the battle for commander Almaric. After the battle has been won, Conan offers his warrior skills to the commander, who accepts on the condition that Conan proves his worth in battle (as if winning the war for Almaric wasn't enough). While this is happening, Natohk is travelling the desert with his army of scorpions and he is the first opponent against which Conan has to show his worth. This story, like the rest as we briefly touched on earlier, is told through the comic book. Narrative-wise, the game is rather unfocused and a bit brief, however, it is beautifully drawn. It would have been nice to have had the story narrated between missions and the lack of narration points to a lack of time and resources from Petroglyph and Funcom. Long story short, don't buy Conan Unconquered for its story.
While the game is lacking narrative-wise, it shines in terms of mechanics and balance. Conan Unconquered is, as previously mentioned, an RTS game that seems to have grabbed its inspiration from Dota and a generic horde mode, mixing those sources of inspiration together to create something unique. Before embarking on a mission in the game, one has to pick one out of three heroes, all with different abilities that benefit the player in different ways. You can, of course, choose to play as Conan, or you can pick Valeria and Kalanthes (although they're locked behind a DLC paywall). The fact that the player has to actually buy two of the three heroes separately we find rather greedy and the character selection isn't the only aspect hidden behind a paywall either. The game doesn't offer much if you don't pay extra, which is disappointing, to say the least.
You start each mission in the middle of a randomly generated map where you then have to defend your base against waves of enemies that'll come charging towards your defences. You'll be more successful if you focus on securing an economical and resource-rich foundation early on instead of focusing solely on the incoming waves since you'll then be able to pay for the defences you'll need around the third or fourth incoming enemy wave. Roaming the map, killing various creeps and animals will give you more resources while killing bosses along your travels will award you with new skills for your hero. That said, it's hard to find the time to explore, especially ahead of the later waves, as when you're greeted by the later attacks you barely have enough time to build and keep up the defences needed. We never felt we had enough time to explore before the next wave of enemies came charging in towards our base and the waves just kept getting bigger and more difficult to control. For example, the first wave only throws swordsmen and spearmen in your direction while the next wave may add cavalry and giant scorpions to the opposing army. You'll be able to see what units will attack in upcoming waves at the top of the screen, which is both good and bad. One the one hand you'll be able to plan ahead and on the other, it eliminates the element of surprise.
One's base must, as we mentioned earlier, have resources stacked and those resources are food, wood, gold and 'command points' - and all of these resources can be obtained by building various structures. You have to constantly keep these structures safe and upgrade them when you're able to which will amplify the number of resources they'll be able to produce because you'll definitely need the extra resources for the waves yet to crash on your defences. You'll also have to open up various guilds, each of which brings new technology and better units. With these guilds being so integral to your success, the game is a struggle against time. The four guilds, engineers, craftsmen, academics and warriors, focus on the quality of one's structures and the quality of what and whom the structures produce. While the idea is a good one, we found ourselves doing nothing other than waiting for the guilds to complete their research. If they didn't finish in time, the battles were inevitably, eventually lost. You can tap space to pause the game and catch a breath or two while you get an overview of what's happening, which can help, although it doesn't really help with the guild waiting game.
One thing we found puzzling was how more and more waves came rushing in throughout the campaign with very little variation. Sure, the map you're playing on is randomly generated but that's just not enough to keep one's interest. Each run felt like the previous one and one had to go through the same procedures each time. The first five waves were quite easy and didn't require great defences. Waves six to ten were harder and required walls and more defences. Waves 11 to 15 required guilds to be present and so on, and so on. Everything just got a little monotonous and this blend of gameplay is all that Conan Unconquered has to offer. Even though you can play it with a friend in its co-operative mode, the game doesn't offer a lot of content for the money it costs. It all seems rushed and if Funcom and Petroglyph Games would have spent more time on the project, the game could have been great. Conan Unconquered instead ended up being a mediocre experience despite its potential. Maybe more DLC will release later on, bringing more variety and content to the table. One can only hope.