Date of publish: 10/11/2020 18:51 CET
Two beaches, 400 years and 5,000 miles apart, saw the birth and death of Europe’s medieval era. In 1066, William of Normandy landed on the English coast, ground his fingers into the sand and declared it his kingdom. But when Christopher Columbus’ boots sank into a Caribbean beach in 1492, he had no designs on the crown of its “Indian” ruler. That was left to the conquistadors and colonists who came in his wake, forging a new era in a New World, and whose exploits GSC Game World have recreated in American Conquest.
Some developers have a knack for picking intriguing subjects. The Ukrainians at GSC certainly fit that bill with their Cossacks series of real-time strategy games. Their new release is just as unique, offering nothing less than a chance to rewrite the founding events of the modern West, beginning with Columbus’ footfall and culminating in the American Revolution three centuries later. The many refinements to the Cossacks formula include a complex morale system, even bigger epic battles and a host of European and native factions. Furthermore, GCS have eschewed the recent trend toward 3D soldiery and fantastic scenarios, favoring historical realism and complexity over technical wizardry.
American Conquest opens with a scene-setting intro: European settlers descend in ever-greater numbers upon American shores, choking out the native civilizations and appropriating their land. In the single-player campaign, Columbus’ first explorations kick off the action, followed by a chance to relive Pizarro’s sacking of the Incan civilization. Later campaigns commonly leave it to European powers to fight among themselves, giving players the chance to lead Britain, France, Spain or the seditious colonials to victory.
From the historically doomed Mayans and Aztecs to the Sioux and Iroquois, native forces also add an interesting element of imbalance to the game: Pitting old and new technologies against one another doesn’t necessarily mean victory for the invading Europeans. Every culture has its own distinctive architectural style and units, including the many native tribes that are available for command in the skirmish and multiplayer modes.
The Columbus and Pizarro warm-ups precede the Seven Years War, Washington’s rebellion and Sioux chief Tecumseh’s quest to unite the native tribes. Each of the three major historical scenarios allows command of either side, for a total of eight campaigns. There are a further nine extra missions, each reprising a famous (or infamous) event from American history. Promising a long-term challenge, the 42 individual missions are each prefaced by a narrated history lesson. The early campaigns are designed to ease the player into the complicated controls, with simple objectives such as finding abandoned, gold-filled temples or establishing iron mines. They also provide plenty of time to admire the lush scenery before obsidian-wielding natives arrive to chop you to pieces – in hordes of up to 16,000, according to publisher CDV’s literature.
It might take time to build up the huge armies necessary to respond, but one of American Conquest’s selling points is the tactical control given to players. This allows would-be field marshals to gather forces into a variety of classical military formations. Musket squares, cavalry wedges and serried ranks of archers are no problem, so long as officers and standard bearers are judiciously assigned to the teeming accumulation of troops.
Just as importantly, many factors that affect morale come into play when a battle is joined: No amount of base-building and resource gathering expertise will help you if your troops flee the Spanish Main at the first sight of Mayan plumage. Using a chosen civilization’s troops correctly is only part of the picture, but generals have plenty of options to choose from; native warriors might be limited to the tomahawk and bow, but exist in vast numbers. Moreover, the native lifestyle is simpler, with a truncated tech tree and less economic management to fret over. European settlers must establish mines and a variety of support structures – just as they must keep in mind that their professional soldiers can’t operate without ample resources.
As time changes, so do technologies and, hence, the best means to decimate one’s opposition. But American Conquest also features a diplomatic system for those of a more peaceful inclination – or for those who want to divide their enemies in more subtle ways.
Each game begins with a troop of initial workers and soldiers, surrounded by the fog of war and the fragile defenses of a palisade fort. Depending on the mission and its objectives, players might find themselves with a series of tasks to complete; mining, establishing churches, ransacking abandoned provinces and forging alliances with natives can be at the easy end of the stick. Later missions that require you to fend off huge attacks, with no means to train more troops, make life less comfortable.
Amid all the chaos – and this game definitely gets chaotic – the many standard RTS features are in force, from basic farm-and-mine finances to detailed networks of alliances and pitched battles. In the usual turn of events, your peasants or tribesmen will have a base of some kind to build and defend, and in this respect, American Conquest promises no more or less than would be expected for a real-time strategy title. Dwellings must be constructed, followed by mills and wood-stores to get the economy started.
The new houses generate new workers, which can then build advanced services like smithies or coal, iron and gold mines. Each type of structure can be progressively upgraded to increase efficiency, speed and power – as can the fort, in which workers can be trained into fighting men.
Early periods feature medieval units such as Halberdiers and Harquebusiers; as technology progresses, European factions develop dragoons and modern infantry. In skirmish games and the majority of missions, colonists and natives soon come into contact with one another – or with rival factions – and kick off the festivities. Later campaigns are centered on large historical wars, and in these cases, the good old RTS base becomes less a community and more a reinforcement factory for your army ranks in the field. That’s not to say buildings become unimportant once the buffalo dung hits the fan; all can be captured and occupied. Even the most humble are dangerous when occupied by gunners, who can aim with impunity from high windows. The primitive firearms of the era are short-range and inaccurate – making melee combat very dangerous for any friendly troops embroiled within – but they can have a devastating effect when used well.
The first deviation from the norm most players will notice, unless they’re Cossacks veterans, is how quickly their armies grow. A few dwellings can spit new peasant workers out faster than you can count them, and the fort turns them into warriors almost as quickly. Special units, from drummer boys to officers, form these multitudes into effective armies, and allow the player to simplify his command of them. The result brings a dimension to American Conquest that’s similar to that found in the Total War series: Click on one combatant, and his whole battalion reports for duty.
A standard select and click interface provides the means to do all this, with a click on a building or trooper presenting the available functions, actions or upgrades. Information windows provide details on troop morale, diplomatic information and base statistics. Each can be summoned and dismissed as needed with intuitive keyboard shortcuts, depending on how much visual real estate the player wants for the current task. A resizable minimap occupies one corner of the screen, and military information is tucked away at the top, showing the size and nature of your forces. A long-shot zoom mode allows awe-inspiring views of the map, which also helps when coordinating particularly massive armies. As is now the norm in strategy games, unit orders can be issued while the action is paused.
In battle, units must be deployed sensibly and used properly, or face decimation at the hands of more organized opposition. Gunners work better in thin rows than in tight packs, and can’t be expected to fight effectively in a melee. Cavalry can trample common infantrymen, but wither at the sight of pikes and other “anti-horse” measures. This isn’t hyperbole; morale can see tides turned in American Conquest, even when the imbalance of forces seems overwhelming. Fatigue, encirclement, flank attacks and inexperience can rout a unit all too easily. Even the loss of a banner or just moving too far from home can invite panic.
Graphics: – Good American Conquest might be portrayed in the isometric viewpoint that’s long been the genre’s workhorse, but it does so with unmatched style and depth. Andrey Zavolokin’s artistic team paints in the corners: Farmers, swathed in heads of corn, leave rough patches as they till the fields. Frantic soldiers clean their gun barrels in the face of enemy advances. Swordsmen whip out sabers and dive into the fray; mounted conquistadors lift their pistols as they spur on their horses.
Such attention to detail complements American Conquest’s historical theme, but it’s sometimes easy for units to get lost behind trees and large, screen-dominating buildings. It also overwhelms the hidden 3D geography, making an ugly grid overlay necessary to solve pathfinding problems when they arise. But that’s a small price to pay for beauty, and American Conquest’s pathfinding issues are no fault of the artists.
The epic scale requires a screen resolution of 1024×768 and higher: The immense structures alone would probably overwhelm anything less. The downside comes in the recommended system specs, which are steep for a 2D game. The manual even includes a glib admission that the minimum configuration is only sufficient to run American Conquest with a small number of units on screen. This isn’t an easy status quo to maintain, as players will discover the first time they see thousands of Incas swarming toward them through the steaming jungles of Central America.
Such battles are taxing on higher-powered systems, but not too much so. Though slowdown noticeably affects the frame rate, controls remain responsive enough to do battle. Given that populations of workers tend to rise as fast as those of soldiers, however, long missions became tolerably sluggish on my test system (1.4 GHz processor; 512 MB SDRAM; Radeon 8500 64 MB).
Interface: – Average It could be said that the genre is moving into a Baroque phase; control systems alone can seem like challenging puzzles, with a wealth of stances, statistics, unit orders, formations and upgrade options loaded into point-and-click interfaces. American Conquest follows the conventions and does its best to make it all navigable, with common-sense shortcuts and no unusual surprises. Anyone familiar with Cossacks or the Age of Empires series will feel at home, though the expanded array of tactical option icons can be fiddly, especially at high resolutions.
A large part of this game’s appeal lies in giving the player command over thousands of troops, and CDV valiantly attempts to make this as smooth as possible within the constraints of its aging format. Instead of providing the customary group selection functions found elsewhere, a unique army management system is substituted. With the aid of the aforementioned special units, troops can be gathered into useful military formations.
This system works well, but sometimes groans under the weight of the demands placed upon it. For starters, it’s sometimes difficult to implement decisions quickly during the heat of battle, especially given the constant base management that good strategy demands. Maneuvering between armies and through the list of upgradeable buildings is a chore in peacetime, let alone amid a hail of arrows or musket shot. Rallying the scattered remains of a mauled battalion amid a sprawling battle can present serious headaches. Though arguably realistic in effect, it feels more like the results of unwieldy controls. GSC can hardly be faulted: this is the result of years of evolution in a classic formula. There’s just a lot to do, and it takes a lot of clicking to get it all done.
Troops have two aggression settings: standing ground, which comes with a huge defense bonus but lasts only until your next order, and a more vigilant stance, where they’ll attack and pursue the enemy. Slowing the pace down in such hectic circumstances is desirable, but the speed control feels like a hack instead of a genuine feature. Lowering the slider slows down everything, including the apparent frame rate, making play sluggish. A “fast” and “slow” mode switch alleviates this effect, but seems a strange way to go about it.
More general configuration features are accessible in-game, and a map editor is available from the title screen. Vital sound and video options are present, but some standard features, such as brightness controls or a color depth selector, are missing. The in-game camera doesn’t rotate, even at 45-degree angles. At least you’ll always know which way is north.
Gameplay: – Good Strategy veterans will be right at home. This game works, and it works well, so if you want to conquer the West Indies and do it in real-time, American Conquest is your dream come true. For the rest of us, it’s another polished and playable excursion into the world of gathering resources, building bases, researching technology and smiting thy enemies with it. Apart from pointing out that American Conquest allows outrageously large armies, it’s hard to say much more, because it’s been said already about a dozen other games.
The control system works well enough to keep everything moving, even if it nearly collapses under the strain of everything GSC have packed into the game. You can point, select and move more units than any genuine RTS that came before, and do it with an admirable degree of historical accuracy. The ambitious scale of combat is no problem thanks to the optional wide-angle view of the action, but players of recent 3D offerings in the genre might miss the ability to arbitrarily rotate and zoom.
The single-player campaigns engross the player in the colonial epoch, with scripted events nested inside missions to provide added form to the basic mechanics of play. Some campaigns, such as Columbus’ early landings, develop from first-contact skirmishes to full-scale attacks on enemy strongholds. Later comes Pizarro’s desperate defense of a fort from a huge Incan mob, and eventually players can reverse the American Revolution’s outcome. Technology and style match the nations they purport to represent, and it all adds up to a considered and well-executed gaming experience.
Nonetheless, a point is arriving in the progression of this genre where common problems should be forcing developers to find new ways to implement old ideas. Micromanagement is surely one such offender, even if it remains a popular fetish for many gamers. American Conquest has it in spades, and it’s thus this title’s one major caveat. This derives in large part from marginal unit AI, interface issues and dodgy pathfinding. In fact, simply keeping control of your peasants, soldiers and cavalry requires an inordinate amount of herding, even with the inventive army management controls. Some will grind their teeth at the degree of general involvement needed just to keep their colony’s engine ticking over, but others will relish it.
The only true disappointment is far from unique: American Conquest’s manual is a disgrace, conveying only the basics of play and continually referring to a directory of PDF documents stuffed away on the disc. Only there can important information, such as how to register for online gaming, be found. Even then, it’s in a horrible layout for screen viewing, having evidently been prepared for print publication.
Multiplayer: – Good Deathmatches, pitched battles and all the other usual suspects await anyone tired of the single-player campaigns. Up to seven players can hook up over the Internet, but as with everything else out there, running with more than a couple of players suggests the host should be operating a fast connection. Players can also meet over a LAN or via direct IPX or TCP/IP connections. Maps can be randomly generated or created with an editing package supplied with the game; four climate types and a variety of geographical painting tools allow a lot of versatility for landscape architects. Players can configure matches to start with anything from a tiny crew of workers to fully equipped armies, and for those shy of human contact, the computer is always on hand to play punchbag in skirmish mode.
The Internet multiplayer lobby is neat and efficient, allowing games to be joined or hosted with ease. The ratings of the best players can be pored over, as can lists of their recent victories. An interesting statistics screen reveals that native factions, with their low technology and fast unit production rates, tend to crush any European competition they meet. Players don’t enjoy the historical irony, however, with many inserting “No Indians” into the titles of the battles they host.
American Conquest’s unusual balance of strategy and tactics affects the online experience: It is a basic RTS at heart, urging the player to exploit, skirmish, then rush the enemy as soon as possible. A large part of this game’s appeal, however, is in constructing armies of massive proportions, arraying them for battle and sounding the tocsin of war only when the time is right. A “peacetime” option helps arrange this, specifying just how long players get to amass their forces. Its duration lasts from the mandatory five minutes to an unappetizing four hours. An online auto-save function aims to dull the pain of long matches ending in connection failure during lag-swamped climactic battles.
While many titles chuck in GameSpy and the basic multiplayer protocols, letting the players take it from there, CDV have focused a lot of attention to their tournament website, war-of-independence.com, which hopes to host the largest official online tournament of all time. Running from February to May of 2003, it’s “Britain versus America” theme matches the game’s historical period well. With a promised $20,000 worth of prizes, this could generate a lot of interest in this product and prolong its longevity in the crowded PC strategy market.
Sound FX: – Average Conquering the Yucatan sounds as one would expect, with lots of hoof beats, gunpowder and whooping natives. Everything attempted is done well, from the spit and crackle of fire to battle’s droning roar. The voice acting is strong enough to describe historical events with conviction, though without much drama. Ambient sounds do the right thing and stay ambient, with GSC sparing us flamboyant birdsong and other common horrors of the genre.
Musical Score: – Average The music is appropriate and evocative, but synthetic; the few tracks that exist also play at random or not at all, so once they’ve been heard a few times, they’ll start to grate. This was an avoidable situation, as the melodies are engaging; there are just not enough of them to keep it fresh. It’s a good advertisement for the Ogg Vorbis encoding format, however, as the sound quality is impeccable.
Intelligence & Difficulty: – Above Average Units are far from smart, which is perhaps understandable, given the sheer number of them that American Conquest can process. Nonetheless, that doesn’t make the AI’s decisions any less frustrating. Missile units don’t skirmish well, preferring to close for melee combat when the enemy advances. Significant numbers of “cold steel” fighters can peel away from battle to chase lone, insignificant enemies into the sunset. The most psychopathic wildlife in gaming history preys upon dumb, wandering peasants. Wherever you look, mangled flesh accretes. Fortunately, none of these are critical problems, and the game’s strategic AI is firm.
Difficulty levels range from “easy” to “impossible,” and don’t appear to rely on artificially crippling or boosting the computer’s finances to achieve their effect. On high levels, some interesting battles can be fought, though nothing that matches the chess-like character of the Total War series or some of the Napoleon-’em-ups that are out there. That said, hard means hard, so casual gamers shouldn’t be too ambitious. Normal is only “normal” for real-time strategy addicts, but the easy level takes the bite out of enemy attacks and seems to tilt morale effects in the player’s favor. The sole attempt at playing American Conquest on “impossible” mode resulted in the swift annihilation of this player.
Overall: – Worth the Price for Fans American Conquest’s combination of base-building and epic battles is a good one, if not a great one, and deserves the attention of any RTS aficionado. Rich, detailed visuals and effects impart life and atmosphere to the New World theme, and gameplay demands both strategic planning and tactical skill. Its mechanics translate well through the various modes of play, ably presenting scripted missions, pitched battles and online skirmishes. On the other hand, pathfinding and micromanagement issues highlight American Conquest’s overcrowded interface. A solid production, American Conquest stands at the pinnacle of its genre.
Written by Rob Beschizza
Original date of publish: 05.03.2003