Date of publish: 15/11/2020 19:37 CET
The world of gaming is a vast and diverse habitat, a home to all manner of weird and wonderful creatures. The large and docile herds of vehicle simulations stare vacantly over a watering hole: Train Simulators drinking peacefully alongside the venerable Flight Simulators. They have a quiet life, with their languid gameplay and distinct consumer demographic assuring them a reliable, if unspectacular, share of the marketplace. Over their heads fly a squawking flock of platform games, their repetitive electronic music shattering the calm and sending some of the more nervous role-playing games (the ones with an amnesiac 16 year old protagonist with a dark secret) running for cover amongst the undergrowth.
Inhabiting the plains are enormous herds of grazers such as the powerful yet toothless sports games that reproduce so reliably in time for Christmas each year. Camouflaged management sims, cunningly disguised to look exactly like one another in order to confuse unwary consumers, keep a watchful eye out for the ravening packs of First Person Shooters that stalk through the long grass in search of prey. The kings of the PC gaming jungle, however, are the three main branches of Real Time Strategy, comprising the Blizzard, Ensemble and Westwood families who have vied for supremacy of their ecosystem for many years. This triumvirate has a distant cousin, though, a strange scion of their line that thrives in a habitat of it’s own that is practically a genre unto itself: the German Real Time Strategy Game.
American Conquest: Fight Back is one such game, coming as it does from CDV Software who are also the publishers of the Cossacks series. Although ostensibly an expansion pack to the original American Conquest, AC:FB actually works as a stand-alone game. The price reflects the rather unusual status of this game; it’s cheaper than a full sequel and a little more than you would usually expect to pay for an expansion pack. Fans of the series will forgive that, however, if the improvements and added features are worth the extra cost, and on paper they would certainly seem to be. There are more additions here than the average expansion pack. The dozen nations from the original game are boosted to 17 with the inclusion of Germany, Russia, Portugal, Netherlands and Haida (which this reviewer confesses to have never heard of before). The existing nations haven’t been neglected, however, and receive their share of the total of 40 new buildings and 50 new units.
Those who have beaten the original game will be glad to hear that 25 new missions spread across eight campaigns are included in AC:FB. The theatres involved are extremely varied, from the trek through the jungle in search of El Dorado to the conquest of Alaska, which go further than just providing some different scenery to look at and give each a distinct atmosphere that can only add to the game’s longevity. There is a commendable variety of mission types, with the standard RTS format of “build up your base and attack” complemented by some more interesting variations, such as the mission where you are given an army and must capture gold and peasants from the natives. The briefings before each mission are very much a mixed bag – on the one hand they are very historically informative and, if you like that sort of thing, will no doubt be interesting. However, they are also extremely long and take ages to read, with the small display area and the slow scroll rate (which as usual assumes that the reader is a dyslexic chimpanzee) not helping.
As if this was not all enough there is an entirely new game mode to play with. The Battlefield missions enhance the single-player experience that free you from the distraction and responsibility of base building and let you focus exclusively on the strategy and tactics of combat.
AC:FB has large, colourful and detailed sprites, but it is a sign of the times that the graphics look a little dated due to the lack of a third dimension. This 2D isometric view seems to be a staple of the German RTS market and it is difficult to criticise the developers for sticking with it when it serves the purpose perfectly well. The tacking on of a 3D engine is no guarantee for good visuals or commercial success, despite what many publishers seem to think, and by following the old adage of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” the developers have avoided the risk of alienating the fans. My biggest gripe with the graphics engine, however, is that the units often seem to overlap each other and bunch together far too much, which can make areas of the screen extremely busy – a major problem when you’re trying to micromanage a battle. The one area where the graphics really stand out is in the animation, with the units moving very smoothly. A definite thumbs up on that score.
When it comes to sheer might on the battlefield the European nations are, predictably, technologically superior to the Native American tribes. The access to gunpowder and advanced cavalry make a big difference on the battlefield, and even taking into account the many factors that affect combat, the Native Americans simply can’t compete when it comes to straight out power. The inclusion of artillery to the Old World arsenals is the most telling advantage, since the European powers have the ability to deal death to units and buildings from a great distance. What they Native Americans do have going for them, however, is speed and strength in numbers. They can produce troops such as tomahawk throwers, spearmen, archers, and mounted troop much faster than the Europeans are able to, which as any seasoned RTS player will know can be a huge advantage in the hands of a skilful player. What is more even the peasant units of the Native Americans can be competent fighters when they have to be, although if you’re having to resort to fighting peasants chances are you’re in big trouble. They do serve to make raiding your opponent’s economies a more dangerous enterprise though.
The key to success, as with any RTS, is precise control over your units. The default scroll sensitivity is far too high, in my opinion, and makes it hard to navigate the map accurately, but it can be turned down easily so it wouldn’t be fair to take the game to task for this. What I have a bigger beef with is the fact that the on-screen indicator of which units you have selected isn’t nearly as clear as it might have been. On many occasions I moved several units by mistake because it wasn’t possible to tell at-a-glance that they were selected. Some might say that I am simply an awful RTS player (and I would find it hard to dispute that charge), but notwithstanding my incompetence I felt that this aspect of the game was needlessly confusing.
Thankfully AC:FB largely avoids the crutch for game designers that is the rock-paper-scissors method of unit balancing. Although clearly some units are more effective than others in certain situations the whole thing feels much less pre-determined. The main reason for this is that there are many factors that effect combat results. Ranged units for example are powerful at mid-range, but from longer distances miss rather frequently and in close quarters their reloading time leaves them very much at the mercy of close-combat troops. Flanking the enemy or attacking them powerfully from the rear will help you deal large amounts of damage in a short period of time, but the advantage doesn’t stop there. If a significant number of troops get killed in a short period of time then they will suffer a loss of morale, which can cause you to lose the ability to control them as they scamper off into the distance. As you might expect this game mechanic is a masterful piece of design when the enemy is on the receiving end, but when your own troops turn tail and run it suddenly becomes to your mind an ill-conceived and poorly-implemented disaster of an idea. Such is life. The wise general can counter these effects by employing drummers and standard bearers to keep the spirits of your soldiers up, and grouping them in formations will stiffen their backbones with the strength of numbers.
Your intrepid reviewer couldn’t help but feel frustrated throughout his playing experience with this game. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why this might be because no one aspect of the game stands out as being particularly deficient. There is no doubt that American Conquest: Fight Back isn’t helped by the presence of so many other heavyweights in it’s genre, but it would be grossly unfair to compare AC:FB with Warcraft III or Age of Mythology because although they are part of the same broad genre they really are completely different games.
The bottom line is that there is very little that is wrong with American Conquest: Fight Back (although it should be noted I have not had the opportunity to explore the multiplayer options yet), but there is also very little to get you excited. It deals with a neglected period of history that it is refreshing to experience, that at least can be said in its favour. The combat model is engagingly implemented, with morale particularly intriguing, but even that isn’t new as it was present in the only recently released original version of the game. The game suffers, though, from a variety of niggling annoyances that bubble to the surface just as you think you’re beginning to really enjoy the game. To take the biggest example; controlling your armies, always an absolutely crucial part of any RTS game, is simply not implemented well enough in my opinion.
The phrase “Buy the sequel if you liked the original and want more of the same” is a reviewer’s cliché for a reason: because it’s often true! This game falls into that category – so I predictably suggest you buy it if you liked the original and fancy an updated version with a few new bells and whistles. My money, however, shall be staying in my pocket.
Do we give ratings? Hell, I do, so here’s one: 7/10. Thoroughly respectable mediocrity, but mediocrity nevertheless.
Written by Stuart “fp” Goodwin
Original date of publish: 28.08.2003