New England Gamer
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