Reviewed: December 2, 2001
Released: August 31, 2001
Real-time strategy games are pretty much a dime-a-dozen these days. Aside from the occasional gem like Command & Conquer, Starcraft or MechCommander 2, most of these games are generic clones in a genre plagued with mediocrity.
A quick glance at the box had me grumbling about “another Star Trek Armada clone”, but in the back of my mind I knew that this game was developed by Fever Pitch Studios, formerly known as Digital Anvil founded by Origin’s Chris Roberts, and the developer of perhaps one of my favorite space shooters, StarLancer.
Conquest: Frontier Wars takes place in the future where Terrans (us) have stumbled onto an alien race that is currently in the midst of a civil war. Naturally, the humans get involved and we join up with a race known as the Celarons. Unlike Starcraft where you got to explore the story through the viewpoint of all the participating races, Conquest only follows the war from the human perspective, although you are able to follow the other races through some amazing cutscenes.
As the commander of the human fleet, you enter an epic struggle for galactic domination. You must master the technology and tactics of three clashing races as you control strategic wormholes, maintain precious supply lines, and forge an empire from hundreds of unique units to attain total control of the galaxy.
The engaging sci-fi storyline chronicles the battle between three unique races over 16 episodic missions. You must also maintain simultaneous control of up to 16 interplanetary battle maps through the use of wormholes and master the strategic possibilities with Conquest’s exclusive supply line management features.
For those of you who have played Star Trek Armada or Homeworld you will have a good feel for this game going in. The interface and layout is very similar to these games yet manages to surpass them in functionality and intuitiveness. While the main display appears to be 2D, all of the graphics are rendered in full 3D and can be freely rotated and zoomed allowing for easy access to some potentially complicated situations.
The firefights possible with this game engine rival the final battle in Return of the Jedi, and you can expect hundreds of ships engaged in heated battle. One of the best features implemented in this game is the real-time damage skins that depict the damage on your fleet. You are no longer forced to monitor those tiny bar graphs above each ship to know who is in need of repairs.
Conquest comes loaded with features you have come to expect from an RTS game plus a few that break new ground. Grouping your units and modifying those groups is as simple as you would expect, and there is a full array of unit deployment stances for almost every situation. Moving around is as easy as clicking on a unit then a location or you can set up waypoints or rally points by holding down the shift key while clicking.
My personal bias against the RTS genre has always stemmed from the boring and often redundant task of resource management. Conquest is no different and has you acquiring up to three various resources at any given time. Gas, ore, and crew are in short supply but can be harvested from the various planets. Each planet has a fixed amount of resources and when they are depleted you must move on to the next planet.
A few things set Conquest above its peers. The first is the ability of fleet management. You can now assign an Admiral to each fleet who will take charge in times where you have no pending instructions assigned to your units. You will be pleasantly surprised at the quality of the AI the fleet admiral will exhibit in some rather complex situations.
A working supply line is another new feature that surprisingly hasn’t made its way into the genre until now. Expect to see it in future games, as this is a most welcome feature and greatly aids you in the complex resource management and unit building functions in remote locations.
And finally, you have the ability to manage multiple maps through the clever use of wormholes. No matter how you explain the process, being able to monitor fleet activity in multiple systems may seem complex, but again, you will be surprised how intuitive the entire process is. Switching your units from one system to another is done safely by clicking on your group then clicking on the wormhole linked to that system. The ships will gather at the entrance to the wormhole and when they are safely grouped together will enter and reappear in the new system.
The visuals are a mixed bag. Ships and units are modeled quite well but can also blend together making it hard to distinguish one from the other. The star field is often fuzzy or blurred which is a stark contrast to the crisp textures of the units.
Special effects are abundant and excellent. Colorful lasers flash about and shockwaves radiate from explosions. As previously mentioned, the ships all depict various levels of damage giving you instant notification of your ships’ status. The ships also emit colorful exhaust trails allowing you to instantly detect movement and direction.
The first thing you will notice about the music in Conquest is the obvious underlying military themes in the tracks. It definitely fits the overall mood of the game and enhanced the gaming experience. The music stays in the background where it belongs and never becomes annoying or repetitive.
Sound effects are plentiful and match the quality and variety of the graphics they are associated with. The voice acting is surprisingly good for a game that doesn’t rely heavily on cinematics. There are a few voices and bits of dialogue that may cause you to wince, but for the most part it is all quite good.
The single player campaign will keep you busy for a considerable amount of time. I played through about half of the missions before writing this and had already logged in over 15 hours. The surprising omission of a level editor – something typical in most RTS games these days - eliminates your ability to create new missions or campaigns.
The huge variety of options at your disposal for completing your mission objectives will extend the replayability of this title, and there is an excellent multiplayer component that allows you to take your quest for universal supremacy online. An expansion pack is also in the works that will reenergize this title about the time you are getting bored with the standard missions.
Conquest: Frontier Wars uses the Ubisoft game network to let you hook up with other fleet commanders, but by not using the traditional GameSpy network they have limited your choices when teaming up for online competition. There simply aren’t that many people playing this game on the Ubisoft network. You will be lucky to find 10-20 people during the peak hours – a stark contrast to the hundreds of people currently playing Ghost Recon.
You aren’t forced to use the service however, and you can always hook up for a LAN game or play online via TCP/IP. Broadband users may like to know that Conquest has some issues with firewalls and you may have some tweaking to do before you can successfully get a game running.
Conquest: Frontier Wars is an excellent RTS game that covers all the traditional aspects of the genre and introduces a few new features that are sure to reappear in future games. The fleet aspect of the game adds a unique dimension to the gameplay, and despite the steep learning curve, those who stick with this game for the long haul will certainly find themselves enjoying once of the finest RTS space games currently available.