Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Conquest: Divide and Conquer Review

Conquest: Divide and Conquer, developed and published by Proxy Studios.
The Good: Straightforward mechanics, favors using the correct counters over simply massing units, automated production, some interesting strategic tools, randomly generated maps, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Extremely tedious unit movement, limited unit variety, no offline play, no comprehensive tutorial or game documentation
What say you? A simple strategy game with a little room for improvement: 6/8

NOTE (1/10/11): Recent patches have offline play and added indication of how units are destroyed.

How do you make your game stand out? Well, you could do what the big publishers do any add tons of features the AI can’t handle in order to add bullet points to your shiny game box. Or you could do what the indie publishers do and actually think of something different and original. Crazy, right? Conquest: Divide and Conquer (hereafter referred to by its maiden name “Conquest”) boils down the strategy genre to its integral parts: ordering units around to conquer territory. The game only has three units that are produced without user intervention, but these simplifications are offset by some map-based abilities and counter-oriented combat. If anything, I am a slave to suggestion, so let’s check out what Conquest has to offer.

Conquest features some simple 3-D graphics that work well. The game is hex-based, but the map tiles are easily identifiable (plains, mountains, lakes) and there are some nice environmental effects superimposed like rain and dust. Cities look like piles of trash (I had no idea what they were supposed to be initially), so they could use a little work. The units are also easy to recognize, with some minor animations during movement. Combat is a simple explosion that doesn’t show how the units were eliminated. The game also doesn’t space units out automatically, which can make selection problematic. The simple sound effects and background music rounds out a solid package. Conquest certainly isn’t going for graphical prowess, but it delivers a good 3-D presentation for a turn-based strategy game.

Conquest: Divide and Conquer is an online turn-based strategy title where you move troops and conquer territory. You must have Internet access in order to play, even if you are going up against the AI (offline play is planned as a future feature). That said, the game features a nice server browser that looks for available games and offers both ranked and unranked games for up to six players. Conquest does not support server-side play by e-mail, all the rage in turn-based games these days such as Battlefield Academy and Frozen Synapse. Conquest does give you custom rules options that control the time limit per turn, number of turns for a game, map size and specifications, and initial force size. Conquest features a really short (and profane) tutorial and lacks a manual, so you’ll need to consult the wiki to figure out what’s going on. The game does occasionally feature small hints along the side of the screen, but this is not a replacement for full documentation. The game automatically downloads updates when you log in; these have been quite frequent (on a daily basis), which bodes well for future improvements and development. Finally, I am proud to report that Conquest works on all three major operating systems: Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. Suck it, OS/2.

The hex-based maps are randomly generated when you start a new game, and consist of four different tiles: a city (minor and major), plains, mountains, and lakes. Infantry units get a bonus in mountainous territory, while only flying units can traverse over lakes (apparently nobody in the future has heard of a boat). Cities are the center of production: you must house a unit on a city tile in order to construct new units. Production is completely automated: each city adds a point or two (for major cities) towards new units, and they are involuntarily dispersed to your most centrally located towns. This removes some strategy involving distribution of your forces where you want, but streamlines and speeds up the game’s pace.

There are three units in Conquest: troopers, tanks, and bombers. While some players will scoff at the limited items at your disposal, Conquest is going for a more simplified approach overall. Each unit has a movement rating, offensive power score, and production cost. The game utilizes a rock-paper-scissors approach to combat where units receive a bonus against one other type, and a disadvantage against the other: tanks against troopers, troopers against bombers, and bombers against tanks. This means it’s often better to field counter units instead of simply grouping a bunch of units together, as inappropriate units will actually decrease the overall effectiveness of your army; you can see suitable counters here. Conquest summarizes the last turn’s action in an event list, which makes it fairly easy to keep track of the action.

Unfortunately, the most annoying part of Conquest is something you’ll be doing quite often: moving troops. You must click and drag each unit to its destination, which is quite tedious when you have a large army. Where is box or control or double-click selection? Conquest is especially painful to play on a laptop that lacks a mouse. The game also likes to place units really close together in each hex, so sometimes it’s hard to tell which units have been issued movement orders (indicated by arrows) and which have not unless you zoom really far in.

What saves Conquest from being a really conventional game is operations. You are given three special abilities: a satellite can reveal one hex on the map, a missile destroys all units in a hex before they move, and a drop pod sends six units anywhere you’d like on the map. These aren’t given every turn (two, four, and six, respectively), but they are potentially game changers. The strategic possibilities for the use of missiles and drop pods are interesting, to say the least. You can never be quite sure where the enemy will be, and losing teams can quickly turn the tide by spawning behind enemy lines. Because of these mechanics, Conquest features a lot of swapping cities back and forth, and it’s quite difficult to keep a lead and reach the 75% control level required for victory. Because of missiles, it’s better to utilize small groups of two to three units to take cities, as a considerable portion of your army can be eliminated in just one shot. The subtle differences Conquest adds to a conventional strategic presentation make it a notable title.

Conquest: Divide and Conquer reduces the commonly complex strategy genre into its basic elements, and the result is a usually entertaining game. The game’s focus is on adept territory control, promoted by the combat calculations that favor using correct counters as opposed to simply massing lots of units together. Missiles, which can be called in and instantly destroy all units on any tile, make sure that you are constantly on the move in an unending search for the next available city to conquest (hence the game’s name). Drop pods also allow you to sneak behind enemy lines, requiring players to keep an eye on their flanks as the games progress. The game features a solid options list: an online server browser and custom rules for games on random maps supporting up to eight players. Moving the game’s three units around is very tedious, though, and almost makes playing Conquest a chore. The game is a bit too fluid, resulting in longer games that should have been finished long ago, but that does allow for teams to come from behind, which I suppose results in more entertaining games. While Conquest might lack the depth of rival strategy games, the reduced mechanics do work well for quick online competitions.