It says something about our collective human psyche that frequently when we create an alien race they’re either giant insects or machine-based. What evolutionary mishap leads to a dominant race of six-foot ants or toaster overlords? I don’t know, but that’s the universe of Conquest: Frontier Wars, the new RTS from Ubisoft. It’s the distant future, and mankind has just discovered the secret of wormholes – the ability to use them to travel instantly to distant sectors. On the downside, during our first exploration of one of these new sectors our survey vessel ends up getting squashed like a bug on the windshield of an alien ship busy chasing another alien ship. That’s what happens when you don’t look both ways before crossing the solar system. We have unwittingly stumbled right into the middle of a civil war between two giant mantis sisters fighting over who gets to be queen of the giant mantis race. We need to develop technologies, mine resources, construct bases, and assemble fleets to survive. In other words, RTS stuff. The single player campaign consists of 16 missions in which you play as the humans, the mantis, and a robot race that shows up later in the conflict called the Celareons.
So, what separates this RTS from the myriad of other RTS games out there? Beats me. In many ways there are no differences. You harvest two resources (gas, ore), build buildings, construct ships, and set up defenses. You then run through the typical gamut of mission types to wipe out the enemy, escort this ship to that place, or establish a base in that location. For comparison, 90% of this game plays just like Star Trek: Armada. Same 2D map space populated with planets, asteroids, nebulas, and unpassable energy ribbons. You construct certain buildings to research ship enhancements in the same way. In ST:A you could build structures anywhere, whereas in Conquest structures are built in orbit around planets (with the exception of defensive platforms) which only have a limited number of construction slots available. That’s a minor twist in your strategy – you can’t build every structure you might like to build because of the planetary slot limitation. On the other hand, several planets are generally available in each sector, so it’s not much of a limitation. I think it is really the inclusion of the wormholes in the game that sets this game apart, makes it a little more fun, than many other RTS games.
The wormholes take you from one sector to another, like the different pages in a book. You can have an overwhelming force stationed in one sector, but as soon as you travel to the next sector your supply lines are cut (unless you have constructed a warp gate on the wormhole). You have to build infrastructure in the new sector to support your fleets, or spend lots of time shuttling supply vessels back and forth. Since you can only travel from one sector to another via the wormhole, defending a sector becomes a matter of defending wormhole points. The computer is pretty good at this, placing an array of mines and defense platforms around the wormhole, soundly pounding your ships as soon as they come in. You can’t see what’s on the other side of a wormhole unless you have a ship there, so you can find yourself surrounded the minute you jump through. That also means that large enemy fleets can appear rather suddenly in your space by coming through the wormhole. The computer is very good at popping these fleets in at weak points in your defenses. You can be doing well, believing you have a well-defended and productive sector, and then find yourself up to your eyeballs in enemy ships. My only complaint about this system is that it’s difficult working several sectors simultaneously if combats are going on multiple fronts, and your ships are not as smart as they could be in combat if you aren’t micromanaging them.
Some of the missions are very short (less than 10 minutes for some), but some are a couple of hours long, with objections modifying as you go along. You can’t always sit back, build defenses, and let the enemy come to you – they often have far more sectors than you do and can construct rather overwhelming fleets, and sometimes you are up against a time limit to complete some facet of the mission goal. In some missions, like meet ambassador so-and-so in this sector, I found the best solution was to just grab my whole fleet and run for it, letting the enemy pick off what they could as I went by. This is the first RTS game in awhile that has actually forced me to alter my strategy in different missions.
Now to the things that annoyed me. Firstly, keeping a ship takes command points – 1 for a small fighter, 3 for a destroyer, etcetera. You are limited to 100 command points total, and while one fleet of 33 destroyers sounds impressive, if you are defending 4 wormholes against incursion, 33 split 4 ways is kind of thin. If you try and augment your defenses with laser platforms and such, you have to keep in mind that those cost CPs too, as do construction and mining ships. And as the humans I couldn’t find any way of dismantling platforms I had already set up or ships I no longer needed. So, as the front kept moving, I would essentially bleed command points all over the battlefield as I would set up and then move beyond a defensive perimeter. I twice ended up with so many command points caught up in defensive structures that I couldn’t advance the front line at all. Kind of goofy. I’m stuck hoping that the enemy will come and destroy my defenses to free up the command points caught inside. And a final complaint on the command points: I don’t think the computer has that limitation at all. I’ve been pounded by and beaten vast fleets only to come to his home world and find two dozen construction and mining vehicles – that would represent fully a quarter of my total available command points, and yet he still had a huge fleet. I’m entirely used to the computer having an edge in RTS games – almost any game with a computer opponent gives the computer some advantage because the computer just isn’t as smart as the human player. And yet this seems like too fundamental a cheat. He can swarm me but I can’t swarm him? Irksome.
On protection missions the computer seems to have a sixth sense about where the object of your supposed protection is, his fleets flying past defensive positions, taking whatever damage you manage to inflict, as they make a beeline for the guy you are trying to protect. Also irksome. Finally, no type of fleet formation system is available, and again smaller, lighter craft will leave the heavy guns in the dust unless you constantly micromanage fleet maneuvers. Tough to do especially when you might have other sectors that need managing.
All three races have much in common. They all mine the same resources, construct similar buildings, and have many of the same spacecraft, though they all look very differently. The three races have a different cost structure for essentially the same buildings or ships. Everyone has a small cloaked spy ship, everyone has a larger destroyer type of vessel, and everyone has a mid-sized fighter. The Celareons lack a carrier type of craft, which I think is a pretty big detriment, but they have particle beam weapons on their destroyers that are fast and pretty powerful. The Celareons also have the most kick-ass defensive platforms available in the game. Additionally, many alien ships have a special secondary attack, which are unique to each alien race. I think the designers have worked very hard to make all these little differences add up to a different playing experience for each race, and yet have a good game balance overall.
My wife leaned over my shoulder as I was playing (she’s not a videogame person at all; in fact calls herself a computer widow when she feels I have been playing too long), and she says “This game looks like crap.” It’s not crap, but no one is going to jump up and down about the graphics either. In addition to playing much like Star Trek: Armada, it looks like that too. In fact, it also sounds much the same as I recall. The sounds are small and tinny – not at all what you would expect for 60 destroyers bashing at each other. The voice acting I have to say is well done. And funny little clips that have the same off-color humor as the first Robocop movie precede the mission briefings (held like conference calls as in Starcraft) – I liked them.
You want me to boil all this down for you? That’s easy to do. If you ever played ST:A, this game is more like that game than unlike it. So much so that if it weren’t for the inclusion of the wormholes, I would think somebody could be suing somebody over something. While we haven’t exactly had a drought of RTS games recently (and it feels as through I’ve been reviewing all of them), I think this is one of the better ones.