Funcom’s “Conan Unconquered” isn’t the kind of real-time strategy game that comes to mind when you picture “Starcraft II.” There’s no campaign, multiplayer is strictly cooperative, and you can pause to take a breather.
Petroglyph, founded by some of the team that created the original “Command and Conquer,” is leaning more on the tower defense genre than anything else for its latest outing. Each game starts players on an empty map with a single headquarters Stronghold building and one of three hero units (Conan, Valeria, and Kalanthes), each with their own abilities and upgrade paths.
Instead of focusing on large armies, players will train a small number of units throughout the match. There are no worker units mining Vespene Gas or chopping trees. Instead, building hovels generates gold and thralls to build combat units, lumber yards placed near trees automatically harvest wood, hunting shacks built in specific areas gather food, and battle standards expand your base’s footprint.
Walls, gates, and towers help create chokepoints to manage the flood of incoming enemies with each new wave. The base-building and combat loop is common to the tower defense genre, but “Conan Unconquered” pushes players to explore the surrounding wasteland.
This is one of the best ways to level up troops and find chests filled with gold and other resources. There are also MOBA-style bosses on the map that offer slottable skills as rewards for the significant challenge.
“You want to keep them fighting,” says designer Renato Orellana. “They’ll gain veterancy and just keep getting stronger.”
Heroes can level up, also. Conan starts with a basic attack, but after surviving a few waves, he’ll be able to execute a devastating area-of-effect spin attack. By contrast, Valeria focuses in on single enemies with her upgraded attack to quickly take out larger, elite units.
Petroglyph is no stranger to working on licensed games. The studio’s 2006 “Star Wars: Empire at War” was a deep and faithful take on managing a galactic empire (or rebellion).
It’s making the most of the Conan license, basing this title on the 1933’s Black Colossus storyline. The story marks an important shift for Conan from leader of a small band of rogues to general of an entire army. It also features divine intervention from the god Mitra, who is featured in “Conan Unconquered.”
In the later stages, players can summon Mitra to stomp on opposing forces. He towers above the battlefield doing immense damage with each step.
Petroglyph is also working in some survival elements. Corpses can spread disease and also attract necromancers. Battlefields are fertile grounds for those who can summon skeletons of the dead. Fire spreads among buildings, but upgrading from wood to stone structures can help mitigate the damage and give you time to dump sand on the flames.
“When you’re building your base, don’t lump everything together,” Orellana cautions. “A single spark can take you back to the stone age.”
While cooperative play isn’t new to real-time strategies, it’s core to the “Conan Unconquered” experience. Players start side-by-side outside their shared HQ. Each needs to build out their own buildings and construction resources aren’t shared.
“PVP creates a specific type of environment that sets people against each other,” Orellana says. “We wanted to create a cooperative environment. We love playing games with friends and family and sharing the story and experience. So we wanted to focus on that now.”
Finding a chest in the wild does benefit both players, and structures like healing fonts can benefit any units in their radius. The line between “mine” and “ours” seems to be drawn to inspire collaboration without players butting heads over scarce resources.
Petroglyph was wise to fudge that line a bit when it comes to repairing buildings. A single button press will allow you to spend gold to repair all of your own structures. You can still fix up your teammate’s buildings by clicking on them directly, though.
Players also share the pause feature. This stops the countdown timer to the next wave, allows you to plan where you want to position troops, and queue buildings for construction and troops for training. You won’t start gaining resources and progressing your base development until you un-pause, so it’s more for taking a moment to gather your thoughts rather than execute grand strategy.
There are no surprises in each wave. Like many tower defense games, “Conan Unconquered” tells you exactly what types and quantities of units you can expect and where they’ll be attacking from.
Coordination is key when it comes to fortifying the base. Walls and towers are critical for protecting vulnerable buildings. Over time, you’ll need to push outward from your original starting position, but your stronghold will always be the center of your world. The loop of building, defending, and exploring feels closer to shooter horde modes (like those found in “Call of Duty’s” zombies offerings or “Gears of War”) than it does to other entries in the real-time strategy genre.
Without narrative objectives though, “Conan Unconquered” feels a bit hollow. Funcom calls it a “real-time survival strategy” for good reason. Players won’t see Conan through on a grand quest. This one is all about seeing your enemies driven before you.