Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
February 2013


I had set up this match of Conquest: Frontier Wars to be a nightmare scenario.

I would be on my own against four opponents. I didn't expect to last long and sure enough, after a few minutes enemy warships began streaming through the wormhole leading to my star system. I had been smart, spending my early moments and resources building up my defenses, and so I was able to hold them off. But even as my forces repelled theirs I knew that victory was a long shot at best, impossibility at worst. I just wanted to see how long I could last.

The enemy forces were relentless. They were acting independent of one another but still in an accidental sort of tandem. Every few minutes they would, one by one, come barreling at me, guns blazing. For a time I was hanging on by a thread, cursing each time one of my ships - made all the more valuable for their scarcity - would succumb to its damage and blow apart.

After a time though, I began to fall into a defensive rhythm. The enemy AI was decent but not brilliant, and I came to recognize patterns in their assaults that I could exploit. I redesigned my defenses, focusing less on brute force and more on utilizing the skills of my various units. I was soon losing fewer ships even as the enemy invasion fleets grew larger and more powerful. I began to entertain the possibility of actually winning.

My first steps were small. I began building new ships while siphoning those from my defenses that I felt I could spare. It was a risk; my defenses relied on a delicate balance and I was intentionally disrupting it. My fears were somewhat validated when, upon deploying my newly-assembled fleet, my forces were quickly and succinctly trounced by the enemy's defenses. In the hours that I had spent pushing back wave after wave of enemy ships, they had been expanding across the battlefield, capturing every other system in the match.

I was an island surrounded by a sea of hostility and it would take days of intense tooth-and-nail fighting for me to defeat my foes. It was one of the most intense experiences I've had in a real-time strategy game. Not at all bad for a game I picked up for three dollars from a bargain bin on a whim.

Conquest: Frontier Wars was not a successful game and, even among fans of the real-time strategy genre, is largely forgotten. Despite receiving a positive response from critics, the game's lack of publicity coupled with its blatant aping of other popular RTS games meant that next to no one knew about it, and those who did were likely to think it a mere rip off of other popular games like Starcraft.

None of these things bothered me when I first played the game. A veteran of Starcraft, I certainly noticed the similarities, but Frontier Wars told its story with enough competence and sincerity to engage and invest me. More importantly though, Frontier Wars played like a dream.

I am, admittedly, not a tremendous devotee of strategy games. I enjoy them, but I also tend to play them in few-and-far-between spurts, mostly because strategy games tend to be the domain of PC gaming and I, for much of my life, have been primarily console based. Even so, I can say with a modicum of confidence that Conquest: Frontier Wars is probably one the best RTS games ever made.

It attains this level of excellence with surprisingly little change to the classic RTS model. You are the commander of a military force. You build bases and fighting units and try to control the battle map's resources while striving to destroy your enemy. Frontier Wars should feel immediately familiar to anyone with even passing experience with the genre. What it does so well and what makes it so special are a bevy of small changes to the standard formula that result in a unique and brilliant experience.

Wormholes and supplies are the best examples. Taken individually they're simple ideas, but Frontier Wars uses them to clever effect. In most RTS games each fight takes place on a large map with yours and your enemy's bases scattered about the terrain along with resources that you need to expand your forces and win the game. Terrain does play into things, but often battles quickly devolve into contests of who has the biggest army. I managed to beat a bulk of Starcraft by simply pumping out my cheapest units en masse and then overwhelming my enemy's defenses with sheer numbers.

You can't do that in Frontier Wars. Maps are segmented into smaller star systems interconnected by wormholes that are easy to defend and often hard to capture. Jumping into an enemy system almost guarantees you're flying into defenses carefully prepared and more than capable of obliterating even the most powerful fleets. I can remember countless occasions of spending resources on the best ships my faction had to offer just to see them torn to shreds by enemy defenses. Additionally, unlike many RTS games, warships in Frontier Wars have limited ammunition. You can build the biggest, most fearsome fleet in the galaxy, but if you push it too far or your opponent disrupts your supply lines then it will quickly amount to nothing.

The game gives simple but effective ways to counter a powerful opponent, allowing for unlikely comebacks and battles that can go back and forth with a clear victor only emerging after hours of long and brutal battle. Whatever deficiencies Frontier Wars might have in the areas of originality and standing out from the crowd, it scored where it really mattered: the actual strategy.

Conquest: Frontier Wars is a great example of a game that, for lack of a better cliché, is a diamond in the rough. It had its lesser qualities, but the sum of its parts vastly outweighed its rough edges. It's one of the true greats of the genre, even if it never rose to the same status and wide renown as more popular franchises.

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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