Better late than never--that well-worn phrase has been granted new life by Conquest: Frontier Wars, a real-time strategy game set in space that spent much of this year without a home. Numerous problems turned the game from a Digital Anvil production being published by Microsoft during the 2000 holiday season into a Fever Pitch Studios production being published by Ubi Soft in August of 2001. Members of the development team, including Wing Commander guru Chris Roberts, should count themselves lucky that the game survived long enough to reach stores at all. Actually, we should all count ourselves lucky that Conquest made it to retail, since the game is a remarkably fresh look at traditional real-time strategy gaming.
Conquest succeeds in large part due to an epic atmosphere and a number of unique design elements that convey the complexity of waging war, from establishing supply lines to commissioning talented commanders. There is a level of depth in the game that goes well beyond what we're unfortunately accustomed to seeing in real-time games. Frantic mouse-clicking has been abandoned in favor of sober second thought. Tactical considerations govern your victory and defeat--not hand-eye coordination.
You don't expect this sort of innovation in light of the game's plot, which places you in the role of a Terran military commander assigned to investigate an encounter with hostile aliens in unexplored space. This soon degenerates into open warfare with insectoid creatures dubbed the Mantis, and the remainder of the campaign is spent dealing with the threat that the Mantis pose to human survival. Along the way you'll meet another alien species called the Celareons. Highly intelligent beings of pure energy encased in metal shells, the Celareons are bitter enemies of the Mantis, and thus your allies.
Neither the Mantis nor the Celareons are playable in the campaign, although this is not as big a loss as you would think. The Terran campaign alone consists of 16 huge missions, each with multiple goals spread out over large areas. Completing even the basic early assignments often requires more than three hours. Furthermore, there wouldn't be much point to playing campaigns as either the Mantis or the Celareons. Aside from some subtleties about resource gathering and the distinct look of each side, there is little to separate the three factions. The Mantis and Celareons each feature a technology tree that's remarkably similar to that of the Terrans. Units and buildings match up in nearly every way. This doesn't do much to distinguish the three different races, though their similarities are to the benefit of Conquest's quick battle (skirmish) mode and multiplayer mode. In these modes the presence of counterparts on every side balances out games and ensures that strategic concerns are paramount. Combine that with skirmish maps that can be fully customized, the ability to train cunning computer-controlled admirals to command fleets (a feature unfortunately not available in the campaign), and the dedicated Ubi Soft game service, and Conquest has a lot to offer outside of campaign play.
Regardless of the limiting campaign option, it's hard to imagine anyone being disappointed with the campaign itself, which presents one of the most realistic depictions of futuristic warfare ever seen in a real-time strategy game. Most significantly, the design team has added the need to supply units. All vessels in the game, right down to stationary gun turrets, have finite sources of ammo and must be reloaded on a regular basis. Accomplishing this isn't as easy as it sounds. Because missions typically stretch across numerous planetary systems (each as large as a single mission map from a typical strategy game) connected by wormholes, you'll need to establish supply lines. An offensive from one system to another will quickly run out of steam unless you construct jumpgates around wormholes and secure new planetary bases upon which headquarters and supply platforms can be built and supply ships can be loaded. Proper planning and strategic thinking are required elements. Rushing to a mission's conclusion by massing units and sending them forth (made difficult at any rate by the strict use of command points linking unit construction to base structures) is tantamount to suicide. Careful advancement is the only way to go.
There are a few weaknesses in this otherwise effective approach. For starters, the emphasis on supply lines can slow the game to a snail's pace. During some of the challenging later sorties, you'll spend more time twiddling your thumbs resupplying your ships in dry dock than blasting away at the enemy in a firefight. Some mission design is also a little tedious. Planets are occasionally used as mere stepping stones, requiring you to inch across a sector with too much repetitive base building and resource gathering, and too little action. Still, although you might yawn occasionally, you won't stop playing.
Map design further enhances the experience. Conquest features fully 3D models on a 2D plane, meaning that the action plays out more like Command & Conquer than like Homeworld. This background is anything but flat and lifeless. Every system has different types of planets, moons, nebulae, and asteroid belts that can be either hazardous or healthy. Earth-type planets are the most beneficial to the construction of bases, as they permit the most building styles. All have the same number of orbital building slots, though, so don't expect to cram more facilities into a planet just because it's a gas giant. With the construction of a refinery, Earth-type planets allow for the collection of the game's three resource types--crew, ore, and gas. The latter two elements can also be gathered from asteroid belts and nebulae, "terrain" features that cause serious problems to vessels. Floating fields of rock force ships to slow down as they navigate through them, and nebulae wreak havoc on ship systems. This effect varies depending on the type of nebula encountered. For example, hyades cause physical damage, while celsiuses lock up your supplies and ions bring down your shields.
All of these special features have been nicely realized by the graphics engine. Planets boast moving cloud systems, asteroids tumble against a sparkling starfield, and nebulae provide a pretty, multicolored light show. Unfortunately, the rest of the visual presentation isn't nearly as satisfying. Conquest's protracted development time is obvious at a glance, as nobody is producing big-budget games that look like this in 2001. The blocky in-game interface occupies nearly a third of the screen, a serious annoyance despite the ability to remove it entirely, because you'll need it much of the time. Video resolution is limited to 1024x768. Vessels are curiously flat, failing to stand out from the starry background despite being rendered in 3D. Dark-colored Terran and Mantis ships are often hard to pick out at all without using the camera's zoom feature. There are few other reasons for going in for a closer look, as the ship models are angular and their textures are bland--though they do allow for the display of dynamic battle damage.
The quality of the audio in Conquest is similar to that of the graphics, in that the bad aspects tend to outweigh the good. The musical score sounds like something that John Philip Sousa composed as a toddler, full of bombast that seems to be leading to a crescendo that never arrives. Weapon effects are equally irritating, thanks to bloops and beeps that would be more appropriate coming from a Sega Genesis. And it's hard to know what the designers were thinking when they popped in that siren announcing a new mission objective. The one saving grace is acceptable voice acting that balances melodrama and good humor. Terran naval radio excerpts that preface every mission briefing add a lot of color to the story, even if much of this has been freely cribbed from Paul Verhoeven's movie adaptation of Starship Troopers.
Minor problems aside, Conquest: Frontier Wars is akin to a cold splash of water in the face of the weary real-time strategy gamer. It's particularly welcome these days, both as a reminder that something worthwhile can still be pulled out of an archaic concept and as a notice that not all developers are making due with cookie-cutter designs. Although the game's measured pace might not be to everyone's taste, those who can remember that this isn't the typical real-time strategy game will almost certainly warm up to its unique charms.