Review - GSC's long-awaited follow-up to Cossacks is a blinder, says Keith
Fresh from the makers of Cossacks comes large-scale warfare styled American Conquest, packing plenty of cannon fire and pistol flash. This time the battlefield centres on the colonial wars in America, with historical landmarks including Christopher Colombus' crusade to expand the Spanish empire right through to the War of Independence - playing as either the Britons or Americans.
The game has an impressive suite of no less than eight campaigns that spans forty-two missions, along with nine separate single-player maps if the pressure of the main campaign is too much. In addition, twelve tribes and nations are featured, ensuring all sides of the story are told. That's a whole load of content ladies and gents, but how does it all hang together? Read on, my well travelled reader.
When Two Tribes Go To War
The first few missions of the main campaign mode offer a tutorial in the game mechanics - and you're going to need it. The range of mission types is refreshing, and it isn't all about creating a base here and when strong enough attacking there. For example, certain missions will simply dump you in with troops all ready to go, and no means to create any more, whereas others will have you setting out to loot a village in the complete absence of scruples. There's wonderful variety in the design, which demands far more than just laying waste to all and sundry.
It is warfare on a massive scale though, with the number and diversity of selectable units being positively bewildering at times. Creating war games that focus on huge troop movements seems to be the current trend, and obviously you are going to need an interface that accommodates. Thankfully, playing the game is a breeze, with an interface which never over-complicates and keeps all the important options readily available. Click on any individual member of your armed forces and you will be given the relevant statistics for that unit, along with a command list. One hotkey later and you can select all units of that type and assign them a singular task, or click and drag the mouse to draw a rectangle round a collection of troops you wish to reposition.
Obviously with literally hundreds of units at your disposal (the game handles up to 16,000) the view can be a little restrictive. This is where the zoom out function is invaluable, giving you a much broader view of the sometimes huge battlefield maps. The first time you switch to this view when in command of a large army, I defy you not to be totally awestruck. Imagine drag-selecting the entire crowd at an England football match...
Naturally with something on this big a scale you're going to need decent AI for it to work, and this is an area which has seen much attention. Troops you've sent off into a separate battle don't just go there and slug it out until they all die, they'll retreat if necessary or hold their position. Of course you have the overall say in what they do, but a lot depends on troop moral, another key AI feature. If your troops are inexperienced, and witness everyone around them falling to the enemy, they will become dejected. This will have them scarpering in every direction - in blind panic - and you'll have to scour the landscape for these stragglers and get them back into line. Or just shoot them.
An understanding of realism is key to the composition and success of AC, with awareness of shot distance and accuracy over distance being of particular importance. Capture a village, stick some troops in the buildings to defend and a nice quota of ground forces, and then let the enemy come to you - a nice tactic, but if you move your ground forces out too far, they won't enjoy cover from your building forces, something we learnt to our cost...
The AI isn't without its quirks though, with one of the more common problems being that of pathing. You will click for your troops to go to a certain point, and on the map it looks clear that they can easily reach this. Happy with that, you switch to your next group, only to notice on the radar map the others are wandering off somewhere else! What? On other occasions, they will pass through too narrow an area with no problem at all. It doesn't happen that often, but can cause frustrating delays in your overall game plan when it does. The wild creatures you come across also seem to be ridiculously strong, often requiring a large group of your troops to take down, and inflicting several casualties before they die. Ok, it's a wild creature, but deers don't have sodding armour!
Guns Are Bad
With this much action going on you'd think that the animation would be minimalist, but this is most definitely not the case. Pistol bearers can all be seen reloading in glorious detail, pike-men will move themselves from attacking stance to march as if they really are lifting a heavy weapon, and salvos of arrows rain down convincingly. It really is a sight to behold. All of this runs at an impressive frame rate with resolutions of up to 1600 x 1200 supported. The only time you will experience any noticeable pauses in gameplay is when switching between zoom modes, but with the calculation involved in doing so, it is quite understandable.
Presentation all round is wonderful, with neat menus and excellent spoken historical explanations of all the missions before you enter them. If only history had been this interesting at school I might have avoided so much line duty. Landscape graphics are also fantastic, with some really nice ocean effects, land textures and battle smoke going on. Accompanying the smoke is appropriate battle noise, not layered like symphony but lumped into cacophony - like a proper war. The music is also rather nice, if a little lacking in variety.
And once you're done with the single-player game, multi-player is catered for with a choice of LAN or Internet based warfare. Up to seven players can take part in Deathmatch mode, where you are simply dropped into a map to slug it out, or Historical Battle mode which allows you to re-enact famous battles against yer buddies. However, in the absence of a retail version I was unable to test the game over the Internet - needless to say though, with a game this good for lone players, anything on the multi-player side is a bonus.
There isn't a great deal I can fault American Conquest for - it really is a splendid game. The pathing issues do incur a degree of frustration, but never enough to drop kick your monitor into next door's garden. It's also the sort of game that you can pick up now and again for a quick fix, meaning a healthy shelf life. The amount of content is perfectly balanced, with enough to keep you occupied until the inevitable expansion pack arrives. And, no offense to our American readers, but we get to beat the crap out of those pesky colonials, and given the state of modern politics that makes a refreshing change...