Game review: Ancient Conquest: The Golden Fleece
(IDG) -- Ancient Conquest revives my faith in the ability of developers to extract good ore from the heavily-worked mine shaft of real-time strategy.
The setting is the Greece of ancient legends, and, specifically, the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason's uncle has unlawfully withheld his kingdom after the young man's coming-of-age, but agrees to return it in exchange for the legendary Golden Fleece. Jason gradually acquires skilled teammates (including the demi-god Hercules), sets sail, and succeeds.
Of course, there's more to the tale; and more to the game, which only loosely uses the Argonaut's tale for its own purposes.
Its most distinctive feature, as it unfolds over 14 linked and another 15 stand-alone scenarios, is that nearly all significant activities take place on water--on boats that gather resources of fish and amber and various warships that explore the unrevealed map, fulfill missions, and destroy enemy convoys. You don't land soldiers to destroy a Persian stronghold, but bombard it from the sea. Ship-to-ship combat tactics include ramming, firing upon, and boarding the vessels of your enemies.
The difficulties associated with fleet combat give Ancient Conquest its unique flavor. Ship speed changes according to wind direction; bombardment and ramming require specific angles of attack. (You don't have to figure any of this out yourself, of course, but you'll want to keep it in mind, because the player who fires weapons first has both an undeniable advantage.)
Your ships will also have to deal with hazards that increase as quests grow more complex: sirens, harpies, sharks, dragons, waterspouts and wizards that cast fireballs.
Enemy AI is among the best we've seen. Each ship knows when to retreat, when to ram, when to bombard, and so forth. High marks also go to controls that allow you to create patterns of behavior for your own fleets. You can set them to concentrate on specific attack modes, patrol, scout, guard zones and form convoys.
In later stages, the game focuses a bit more on research. You'll be able to create temples and cast spells, using your gathered resources for power, and erect workshops and sage buildings to design better projectile weapons and armor. The research tree is relatively simple, but that's all to the good. In a real-time startegy game, you can't afford to neglect the battlefield while musing over hulls and sail fabric.
You can play with up to seven other people--either allied or in a free-for-all--over a wide range of connections on the 25 included maps or create your own with the Scenario Builder. If multiplayer doesn't stand out as much as it might, blame the enemy AI in the single-player game. You don't feel the lack of an opposing intelligence.
Now, Ancient Conquest isn't all that new or striking. It doesn't offer anywhere near the number of buildings or units that C&C does. It doesn't let you play three sides with distinct strategic advantages, like StarCraft, and it lacks the visual punch of Myth II. But its distinctive setting and challenges, sea combat, generous scenarios and exemplary AI kick much-needed life back into the RTS genre.
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