The barbarian hordes and other monsters are at the gates. They are hacking, clawing and biting their way through the wall. Any moment now they’ll break through and the few defenders within will be slaughtered mercilessly. Then out strides Conan, sullen-eyed with sword in hand. He sweeps his blade before him and the horde goes down like that much wheat before the scythe.
This is Conan Unconquered, the latest game from RTS veterans Petroglyph, creators of games like Empire at War and Grey Goo. In Conan, they forego the standard RTS formula for something more akin to 2017’s They Are Billions but set in the unforgiving world of Conan the Barbarian.
Your goal in Conan Unconquered is to defend your base against ever-increasing waves of enemies. In order to do so, you will have to expand your economy, gather resources and put up fortifications. In addition to the base and army building itself, Conan Unconquered also puts emphasis on exploring your surroundings.
Building your base is straightforward enough and it is very easy to learn how to get simple defensive and economical buildings up and running. The challenge here is knowing when and how to expand. This is because the economy can be merciless and if you build up your forces or expand your base too quickly, you’ll soon find yourself in a deficit. In the same vein, it is not always beneficial to research new tech too quickly as this will also tax your economy.
Rather, Conan Unconquered is a game to be played methodically. Scouting ahead and determining where the choke points are and expanding your base in the right way is paramount to success. It is also during these scouting sorties that you can encounter creeps out in the wilderness. Fighting these is not only a chance to level your hero up, but it is also a good way to earn some extra resources quickly. It is also here that we get the most Conan flavor as the wilderness is full of prehistoric beasts and monsters. Creatures like giant scorpions and ostriches as big as horses roam the desert plains.
Aside from the creeps and their nests, colossal bosses are also found stomping around on the map and taking them down can be a very challenging but rewarding endeavor. This is because they give you a ton of XP and an artifact when defeated, and artifacts can grant you magical abilities such as an AOE heal. Leveling up your soldiers and heroes is also very important as an upgraded unit is naturally much more effective than a fresh rookie. Heroes also gain access to a devastating skill, like Conan’s round sweep, which kills almost anything standing around him.
Another way in which Conan Unconquered differs from They Are Billions is the focus on boss enemies and hero units. Making good use of your hero is an essential part of succeeding both in the early and late game. In the early game, Conan can almost single-handedly manage one flank while other defenders deal with the others. They get less effective at this as waves grow larger, but by the late game, they are the only units capable of taking out the final boss enemies that are thrown against you. Except for the Colossus of course.
True to their roots, Petroglyph included a Command & Conquer style super-weapon in their RTS, and in Conan, this translates into the Colossus of Mitra. The Colossus is a gigantic statue that comes to life, stomping and smashing anything before him. It is a very satisfying thing to witness, should you have the resources to pull it off.
There is a lot of fun to be had in Conan Unconquered. The gameplay is a bit simple, but by keeping the matches relatively fast-paced and easy to understand, it actually makes for a lot of replayability, especially if you are playing with a friend. In all honesty, I’d recommend against even buying the game if you are not planning to at least semi-regularly play with a friend.
The simplicity of the mechanics means that playing it idly while chatting with a friend is quite enjoyable, but it also has enough depth and strategy to it that makes coming up with new plans together and developing strategies a lot of fun. When you have a friend by your side, you are also freer to explore more of the map, set up more intricate defenses and simply just use more of the things that are given to you. All resources are shared in co-op so there is really nothing to compete or bicker with each other about, which lets you focus on the task at hand.
Conan really stumbles when it comes to content, as there’s only a single, albeit randomly generated, desert map. Likewise, the enemies all draw from the desert cultures of Conan’s world. While deserts and Stygian necromancers play their part in the Conan lore, they are far from the only setting Robert E. Howard had his barbarian visit in his books. There is a great missed opportunity here to feature all sorts of locations and enemy types as there is a very rich tapestry to draw from.
The age of Conan is supposed to be a prehistoric Earth replete with cultures, ruins, monstrous beasts and other less natural things. It is often about taking something that is familiar to us and imbuing it with something that is less so. A simple snake can become a gigantic primordial monster, full of intelligence and malice. Abandoned ruins are not just part of lost civilizations, they’re filled with forgotten knowledge and other, more unspeakable things. Unconquered lacks most of this sense of wonder and exploration. There is only a grey and brown desert.
Likewise, we aren’t treated to any kind of story to talk about, no set up for why Conan is down in the desert and helping people to defend their castles. The single player consists of five tutorials and each focuses on different aspects of the mechanics. Once you are done with this, all that’s left is repeatedly playing the multiplayer mode by yourself. Again, it’s disappointing as the Conan lore is filled with interesting characters and creatures which could have been used to make the single player a lot more interesting than it is.
Technically it’s also not the most stunning game on the market. The hordes are huge and the fights are very brutal, and after a fight, a big pile of corpses can actually cause disease to spread in its vicinity, which is certainly a unique and welcome gameplay challenge. Unfortunately, the design is just a bit bland and low fidelity.
On top of this, the loading times are strangely long and the performance can sometimes drop for no discernable reason. Go to where the fighting is the thickest — stable framerate. Go to the quiet center of your base — the game can start to chug. It is usually only for a moment or two, but can still be a bit irritating.
Conan Unconquered’s core mechanics are fun and playing with a friend can be a blast. I just wished there was more content as it has some cool ideas, like using achievements to unlock new and harder difficulties for instance. As it stands though, the game is very repetitive, doubly so if you are going at it alone. You fight on the same map and against largely the same enemies again and again. This means you will be employing largely the same tactics in every game, further hampering the longevity. I suppose there is hope for future expansions, but with nothing currently announced, we’ll have to wait and see.
A fun albeit barebones survival RTS best enjoyed with a friend, Conan Unconquered is hampered by technical issues as well as a serious lack of content.