Reviewed: March 12, 2003
Released: February 7, 2003
If youíve ever wondered what Custerís last view looked like, then this is the game for you. Just like Custer, you can have the lovely feeling of dread, seeing the hordes of natives streaming at you like snow in a blizzard. Thus we come to American Conquest, the game of North Americaís initial discovery and strife. Brought to you by the makers of Cossacks, namely GSC Game World and CDV, you canít fail to notice the same characteristics in American Conquest (AC) that were in Cossacks. So whatís new, you ask? Oh, only about 15,000 more units playable on the screen. Thatís right, you can have up to 16,000 units on the map at the same time, but more on that will come later.
American Conquest features:
The main running of this game is similar to all RTS games. Step one is to start generating resources. Step two is to build up your town and researches to rise to greatness, while making and maintaining enough forces not to die. In multiplayer mode, you also take this time to disrupt your opponentsí resource gathering processes. Step three is to build an army the size of China and blow through your opposition like a Jedi through stormtroopers. The infrastructure of this game is also slightly different from most successful RTSís.
The first change is that the military units have to be trained up from more basic units. For example, a British Halberdier is made by putting a peasant into the fort and training him to use the big axe-on-a-stick. The second big change is that peasants are only useful for labor. They have no combat value whatsoever; even worse, if the building they are near gets captured, they get converted as well. There is also no Town Hall or similar building. There are dwellings to generate peasants, and then the only buildings needed for resources are specific-purpose buildings, such as mines and farmhouses.
Now, to the crux of this game. Six. Teen. Thousand. Units. Sixteen Thousand Units. 16,000 Units. Itís hard to get over. After a long history of games where the magic number 255 stood for a long time, 16K seems more like a processor speed than a game statistic. It was mentioned in a special on the making of J.R.R. Tolkienís The Two Towers that the special effects gurus developed a program that gave each orc in the horde the ability to choose itís own actions. Thus, the armies of Sauron actually looked like a mass of individuals than a bunch of comptrolled automatons. Well, like that movie, the CPU actually controls these units fairly effectively. Individual units donít get hung up in terrain dead-ends, recapture buildings, and sometimes charge ahead of the pack or straggle behind. This factor makes American Conquest a benchmark game among RTS games.
Unfortunately, this benchmark is not completely good news. This is one of the steps that come closer to the reality dreamed up in War Games. How about another game of American Conquest, Joshua? Seriously, while the CPU can handle thousands of units on the field effectively, most humans simply cannot. Pouring more oil on the fire, this game also moves way too fast for the learning curve to ever catch up. There will be many times that you have 500 plus units, and when a horde of screaming baddies start streaming at you like rain, youíll scramble frantically with your mouse and the pause button, and still your units will fall like AT-STís in an earthquake. The learning curve problem is further exacerbated by the lack of a good tutorial. Almost every RTS has a tutorial, and all of the successful ones do. However, here it takes a good four or five defeats to get the hang of the game in general, and even then youíll be missing the subtle tricks and nuances that make the master player.
For a game that features 16,000 units, itís essential to have strong playability and control. American Conquest unfortunately did not take that into consideration. The biggest concern is that there was no method of grouping military units for quickly finding and controlling them. This makes handling your armies extremely difficult, especially when you have two separate fronts. Furthermore, hotkeys in general were decidedly lacking. As in Cossacks, the lack of good hotkeys makes building slower and less efficient than they should be.
As for in-game issues, there are a few flaws as well. The largest and first is that only officers can effectively control units. Without an officer, your units will not adopt formations or be as effective as they are without. This is not a great issue, but an officer can only control 15 other units. Any more than that and the bonus is lost. Considering that the average army size is now in the hundreds, 15 is an absolutely ridiculous number. Itís much like trying to herd a thousand cats with a mouse. It is also odd that peasants get converted when their buildings get captured. It just doesnít seem logical that if some Mayans stormed their house that they would suddenly become Mayan.
All of these issues aside, AC is fun to play. If nothing else, itís interesting to re-enact a historical event that isnít WWII or the War of the Roses. More than that though, it really emphasizes an aspect of war often pondered in RTS gaming: quantity vs. quality. As a rule, the European (and USA) troops are definitely stronger than their native counterparts. But those native tribes can really crank out the troops, and can easily overwhelm their technologically superior foes. GSC did a great job of achieving a level of parity between the different factions, and RTS gamers will have a lot of fun exploring the different scenarios of quality vs. quantity.
For those of you that have seen Cossacks, the graphics here will seem familiar, as they are almost exactly the same. The designers did a great job of making map sizes huge, most likely to accommodate armies that look like mosquito swarms. However, they lost a bit of detail in making the maps so large. Units and icons are distinct though, and thatís really the most important thing in any RTS game. The buildings are excellently done, especially the native buildings like temples and shrines. The zoom functions are pretty cool in this game. Itís not really necessary much for practical reasons, but itís fun to play with. All in all though, the graphics are solid and well done, but not fantastic.
Again, this is a page directly from the Cossacks book. The music is stereotypical RTS classical background, but with that grandiose American sound that you hear in Gerschwin and similar pieces. The combat sounds are stock rings of metal, gunshots and yells. Again, the sound is done pretty well, but there is nothing special to hear in this game.
Retailing on the shelves at $39.99 (USD), American Conquest is certainly worth checking out, despite the flaws I have mentioned. It offers easily 60 hours of gameplay, and tons more than that if you are an online multiplayer. Even if you are a single player, it has six challenging campaigns and you can play a slew of skirmishes to keep you amused.
If you are a serious RTS gamer, I strongly recommend this game. It is fascinating seeing a ton of units on the board, and the implications of this are staggering. AIs will soon be developed to help you run these units effectively and gaming as we know it will change completely. It could be very possible that Hal will be your next assistant three years down the road. Isnít that right, Dave? Dave? DaveÖ?
Numerical Cossacks óahemó American Conquest is a landmark that will set the bar for all future RTS games with multiple units. However, the creators, in their efforts to make system that can handle this many units, lost sight of making this game truly new and unique. This game is so similar to Cossacks that it hardly seems worth a new title. That fact not withstanding, American Conquest is a game that is fun to play and worth getting.