Real-time strategy is a criminally underloved genre of late. There have been a handful of interesting titles over the last few years, but whatever happened to the simple joy of starting with a simple base, gathering resources, building an army and decimating your opponents with sheer overwhelming force?
Conan Unconquered wants to channel the best of classic RTS design, but with a new twist: The entire experience can be cooperative.
I went hands-on with Conan Unconquered at GDC 2019 in San Francisco, and it seems like a tight, intense experience that requires constant communication with a trusted teammate. At the same time, it's also immensely rewarding, thanks in part to the vast asymmetry between the characters you control and the enemies you'll fight. Just like in one of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, the good guys can carve bloody swathes through hordes of foes — but that also means that every lost soldier on your side can be potentially devastating.
Here's the basic setup: Conan the Cimmerian (you may know him from the cheesy Arnold Schwarzenegger film) must defend a remote outpost from a horde of encroaching monsters and warriors. To this end, he recruits a friend (Valeria, from the short story "Red Nails") and starts building up a fighting force. Conan fans will probably enjoy all the little touches that make the setting feel authentic, but even a neophyte like me had no trouble picking up the core idea.
If you've played other RTS games, the central mechanics in Conan Unconquered should feel pretty familiar. Residential buildings generate gold; battle standards let you support additional population. You and your co-op partner share certain resources, meaning that you'll have to communicate about your spending priorities. You can recruit soldiers, construct additional buildings or research new technologies. It's all about what will benefit you in the short-term versus the long-term.
And you need to think about the long-term, because Conan Unconquered is wave-based. Depending on the map that you're playing, you could wind up taking on more than 20 waves of foes, which get increasingly difficult as the match progresses. Soldiers aren't cheap, either; even basic units like swordsmen cost a fair bit of gold and population, while more specialized units like cavalry can really put a dent in your savings.
The flip side is that the units you recruit are extremely powerful. Conan and Valeria themselves are walking whirlwinds of destruction, carving their way through giant spiders and enemy soldiers with ease. But while your standard units can't quite defeat whole battalions by themselves, even the lowliest swordsman can fight off multiple foes and withstand tough assaults from dangerous enemies. This is important early on, as it means you can build up an effective fighting force right away. But it's also devastating when you lose a lot of units, particularly when you have to sacrifice a much-needed upgrade in order to replenish your forces.
The game will employ randomly generated maps to keep things fresh, although Conan aficionados may be disappointed to learn that there's no real story campaign in the game. The first map imparts a lot of lore about the setting and why Conan and his forces are fighting, but the game has no real narrative arc. It's mostly just about seeing how long you can withstand the forces of evil. You can also play the game without a partner, but the experience seems optimized for two players working together.
I don't know if Conan Unconquered is going to rewrite the rules of the RTS genre, but it seems like a creative take on a beloved mythos. Furthermore, PC gamers can always use a new polished RTS game. The title will be out sometime in Q2 2019, with no pricing information available yet.