Conan Unconquered shows promise, but it will need to stand up to the hordes of past RTS greats

By Ian Boudreau 08 May 2019 0

On paper, Conan Unconquered reads a lot like a Hyborian Age version of They Are Billions, and the comparison is a fair one. Conan Unconquered is a “survival RTS” that has you building up a defensive base in order to recruit units and fend off increasingly challenging waves of enemies. Both games are based around the simple joy of turtling, but Conan Unconquered is its own beast, and it makes some smart decisions to keep the action dynamic and interesting.

I first had the chance to play Conan Unconquered at GDC, in a closed-door press event with developers Petroglyph that gave me an hour of hands-on time with the game. Last week, I played an updated build, again for an hour with one of Petroglyph’s developers, Renato Orellana. In both cases, the time flew by, and I think it’s largely thanks to how well Conan Unconquered paces itself. You see, you’re not merely building a base and raising an army to wait for the next invading horde, you’re also taking on the role of one of the heroes of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and heading out into the wasteland for adventure.

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During this most recent session, I opted to play as Conan himself. During my time with the game in March, I’d chosen the pirate warrior Valeria, and I wanted to get a sense of how the different characters feel. While I’m still unsure of how different they are on a tactical level, I was pleased to find that Conan certainly feels much different in battle than Valeria does. Where the agile Valeria can use a special ability that amps up her attack speed, Conan has a massive cleave ability that, appropriately enough, has him swing his huge sword through masses of enemies, mowing down anyone foolish enough to be standing nearby.

Pushing out into the desert is a chance to find valuable resources to use back at base, but these are typically guarded by giant scorpions or bandits. Head far enough toward the edges of the procedurally-generated map, and you’ll stumble across Temple Guardians, which are huge mythical beasts that each have their own particular brand of nastiness to use against your heroes. You’ll want to level your character up a few times before taking these on.

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It’s easy to get distracted by these expeditions to the far corners of the map, but you’ll always want to be keeping an eye on things back home - particularly since there’s always another enemy horde on the way. Base-building is reminiscent of RTS classics like Age of Empires, and there’s a fairly complex research tree that governs the buildings you can unlock and units you can recruit. The two hour-long play sessions I’ve had with Unconquered haven’t provided enough time for me to really dig into these systems, but eventually you’re able to summon a towering brass avatar of the god Mitra, which will stomp through enemy hordes, pulverizing troops underfoot.

Did I mention that this game is delightfully absurd? It’s as over-the-top as its source material demands: Build walls to keep the raiders out, only to see them inundated by a roiling sea of giant spiders. Leave too many corpses lying around your base, and they’ll be raised as bloodthirsty skeletons by an enemy necromancer. Giant scorpions roam the desert, and winged demons guard treasure chests in the rocky reaches. You’ve only got so much time to spend seeking out these monstrosities, though, since your hero and armies will be urgently needed at your base when the enemy starts attacking your walls in force. Your basic troops are hardy enough for one-on-one with most common enemies, but you typically want them massed, with a few pike throwers stationed in guard towers overlooking your ramparts.

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Petroglyph has made some adjustments to the game’s co-op mode since I first played it at GDC. In that earlier version, there was a somewhat arbitrary-feeling scheme that had players sharing certain buildings while having sole custody over others. That’s largely been removed, and buildings that generate resources generate them for both players now, which simplifies base management and generally makes a lot more sense.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both my sessions with Conan Unconquered, and it’s a game I’m looking forward to playing in full. But I find myself wondering how it’ll fare as a strategy title. I mentioned above that it’s built around the somewhat passé but enjoyable practice of RTS turtling, and I don’t mean that pejoratively whatsoever - turtling in StarCraft II was a lot of fun, and I resented the game for pushing me outside my base. For me, designing and building an impregnable fortress was a reward in and of itself, but it wasn’t a particularly strategic pursuit. Conan Unconquered adds exploration and character levelling to this base building core, and it’s produced a highly entertaining game, but it may leave players cold if they’re looking for a complex tactical challenge.

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Now, I say that having only played the first seven waves or so, and I’m certain things get quite a bit more demanding as time goes by. I’ve only seen the beginning of the tech tree, and I’ve only been able to recruit the most basic units into my army. There’s plenty of room for complexity in Conan Unconquered, it just may not be the kind of complexity that strategy fans are after.

Personally, I’m excited to play more of Conan Unconquered. There’s such a satisfying rhythm to it as you alternate between fortifying your base and exploring the world, each round punctuated by an increasingly frantic invasion wave to fight off. Whether it holds up as a strategy title remains to be seen, but for now I know for sure that it’s a lot of fun.

Conan Unconquered launches on Steam May 30th.

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