Maybe it’s all those formative hours I spent parked in front of Command and Conquer, Age of Empires and their peers, but I have a real soft spot for RTS games and their genre cousin, tower defense. Of course, StarCraft and its sequel sort of walled off the genre into Blizzard’s masterpieces on one side and everything else on the other, but now and again some developer or another shyly pushes a game under the door and hopes that we’ll pay attention. No doubt, Conan Unconquered has the right pedigree, with experienced RTS creators working with a well-known brand that has never quite struck game gold. Sadly, Conan Unconquered isn’t going to be the breakout game. A combination of wave-based RTS and tower defense elements, it collects a lot of ideas and mechanics but fails to mesh them in an entertaining way.
Save some bare bones scene-setting, there is no real story or campaign driving Conan Unconquered. Instead, the solo experience is a series of matches against AI on randomly generated maps that very quickly begin to feel repetitive. The game has a couple fundamental systems: base-building and exploration, with some hero combat tossed into the blend.
Base building and resource collection are both simplistic and progress slowly. Build a lumber camp and you start to acquire wood; build a quarry and you auto-collect stone. As you collect gold and materials and build up your army of melee soldiers and ranged attackers, it isn’t long before the first wave of enemies is literally storming your walls. Like in literally every RTS or tower defense game, the strategic decisions are all about resource allocation. In Conan Unconquered, you can pause the game to make tactical decisions and give build orders but, of course, nothing happens until the clock starts again.
As the title screen outright explains, there are three elements to Conan Unconquered: fortification, exploration and expansion. Part of your resources need to be channeled into expanding your small settlement into a much larger, well-defended fortress. If this was a traditional RTS game, terrain and your starting location and access to materials would define your strategy. All of Conan Unconquered takes place in the same types of desert environment and although it’s randomly generated, map differences are negligible. Environmental events, such as sandstorms, place a dense fog over the entire map, so that any party members away from the base cannot be tracked or controlled. Since there’s no warning of approaching deadly sandstorms, the risk of exploring becomes less attractive.
Most of your time and strategy will therefore be focused on your home base instead of guiding Conan or one of the other heroes around the map, looking for enemies to fight, treasures to find, and even some monstrous mini-bosses to defeat. You can’t just keep your hero safe behind the home walls because exploring is key to expansion. On the other hand, waves of enemies keep coming and the soldiers in your settlement are too dumb to fight or defend unless moved into position. To be fair, sticking with the game long enough eventually unlocks some interesting and more powerful unit types and, of course, each match introduces correspondingly more challenging waves of enemies, but it’s hard to imagine a more soulless experience. RTS games are by their nature abstracted but there are plenty of strategy games with heart, soul and story. Played in coop mode, there is at least some interesting human interaction and balanced home base protection. The exploration also becomes less frustrating.
Conan Unconquered’s slow-moving economy that always seems to lag behind the relentless waves of enemies is frustrating and the fact that there are only two playable heroes — a third is available behind a paywall at launch — and no story or campaign make the game feel like it’s incomplete or at the very least a meager package for the price. Coupled with the repetitious nature of the environments and matches, the uninspired voice work and shallow gameplay, Conan Unconquered is a disappointing hybrid of RTS and tower defense that squanders the Conan brand once again.