Real-time strategy is one of the most revered yet esoteric game genres on PC. Like a sage harbouring ancient wisdom that only the most committed gamers can grasp, it can seem aloof and intimidating, demanding dozens of hours of dedication before you really learn the nuances and tactics at your disposal.
But things are a little different in Conan Unconquered, the first real-time strategy game set in the vicious fantasy universe popularised by a fledgling Arnold Schwarzenegger and hit games like Conan Exiles and Age of Conan. Mixing elements of survival with the brutal Conan mythos, it’s a strategy game designed for RTS veterans as well as those who’ve previously been daunted by the genre’s complexities.
There are few developers with a better understanding of real-time strategy than Petroglyph. The studio is made up of former Westwood staff who worked on the original Command & Conquer games, and went on to make Grey Goo and the Command & Conquer remasters. Revolutionising the RTS genre and revamping old-school RTS mechanics for the modern generation is what they do.
Conan Unconquered is a game of stalwart defence and dangerous exploration. You build a fortress out in the wasteland, and must defend it against waves of increasingly ferocious monstrosities, sent your way by the sorcerer Thugra Khotan. Gather resources through farms and mines, set up your defences, and prepare to spill the tainted blood of bandits, giant scorpions, and other beasts. It’s like a gory, hands-on twist on tower defence.
As well as commanding and grouping your armies, you control heroes from the Conan universe: the pirate Valeria, the sorcerer Kalanthes and of course the big man himself, Conan. Each hero is capable of turning the tide of the battle individually, and there’s a satisfying physicality to them as they splatter swathes of enemy units in veritable explosions of crimson blood.
Each hero has their own special ability, which you gain by levelling up. They can also learn new skills by searching the wastes for formidable bosses called Guardians. Slay them, and you’ll gain artifacts which grant powerful abilities like poison or creatures you can summon to your aid.
Alongside levelling your heroes and armies, you have access to a vast tech tree, which unlocks new buildings and lets you build powerful new units like the Avatar of Mitra - a walking colossus that crushes everything (including your own buildings) in its path.
You can team up with a friend in online co-op too. Playing this way, you’ll need to communicate and coordinate with your teammate as you take on tougher enemy mobs than you would playing solo. You defend the same base and share income, technologies and most resources, but control only the units you build in your own barracks. This forces you to divvy up your duties diligently as you brace yourself for battle.
If you’re not after cooperation and handholding, you can instead compete in bespoke leaderboards against other players. If you complete a map, you can send out a ‘Challenge Link’ to other players, inviting them to try and beat your score on that exact map. A leaderboard then gets created for that map, showing you the scores of everyone who played it through the link, and initiating an endless battle for top spot.
Conan Unconquered picks up a lot of tricks from old and new genres to make it more accessible than your typical RTS game. But be warned: that doesn’t make it an easy game. You’re always having to carefully manage a finite supply of resources, and if you leave corpses piling up after battles, they can spread disease throughout your stronghold. Enemies can even use fire weaponry, capable of quickly turning your fort into a sprawling inferno. These grittier elements heighten the urgency as the enemy waves bearing down on you become fiercer.
Which all brings home the point that this is a fast-paced, high-intensity twist on RTS. It’s a balls-to-the-wall experience that balances tactics with aggressive immediacy, and makes for one of the more unique co-op RTS games around.
If you’re prepared to face Thugra Khotan’s wrath, Conan Unconquered is available to buy now on Steam.