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Graphics: Medieval Conquest is a real treat for the eyes. Built using an in-house Direct3D display engine dubbed “CatCore,” it maintains a solid sense of consistency both in detail and texture, as well as fluid frame rates. There is a smooth system in place for zooming in and out of the action (more on that later), and there are no stutters or burrs in the events as you do this. In my experience, most RTS releases are content with using sprites for their backgrounds. Medieval Conquest doesn’t do this, providing a clean, pretty viewing experience regardless of your perspective.
While there isn’t anything really cutting edge going on – no pixel-shaded oceans or mirrored-glass surfaces to dazzle you with – there is a wide plethora of particle-effect lighting, courtesy of all that magic. There’s more to be seen than just pastels and polygons; the mages throw around enough sparkly bits to add spice to the mix. The models are cartoonish, in keeping with the theme of the game itself. Your units look like animated bobblehead dolls, touching on the lighter side of hydrocephaly that tickles the kid inside each of us. The creatures are just menacing enough to convey that they are, in fact, never-do-well beasties. Beyond that, the over-exaggerated fangs, stingers, and pinchers just can’t be taken seriously. To sum up, the art and modeling team have done a bang-up job in creating the heroes as well as the Medieval Conquest bestiary.
There are a few small things about the overall graphics that aren’t quite up to snuff. As I touched on earlier, the maps are massive in size. This alone isn’t a detriment, the problem lies in the fact that they don’t alter significantly enough. You’ll be spending a great deal of time in geography that looks essentially the same all the time and it grows a bit repetitious after the first couple hours. Don’t get me wrong, it looks great, it just doesn’t look great in as wide a variety of ways as it could to keep things fresh. Also, the faces for the characters have no animations at all; they’re just a single bitmap texture. This might sound like a semantic concern, but trust me when I say that it stands out.
Beyond these small issues, there is little more I find at fault when it comes to the graphics. Even down to the design aesthetics of this little fantasy world, I think CatDaddy has done a remarkably good job in crafting together an attractive package that has as much to offer or more than contemporary 3D RTS titles.
Interface: Medieval Conquest is a mouse-controlled game. Everything you need to do is a simple matter of point-and-click. Some commands have keyboard analogues, like the camera controls, however, I find the responsiveness of the key commands to be sluggish compared to the mouse. At no point did I ever find this to be a liability, as everything I needed was so easily at my fingertips via the mouse that I had no issues with the discrepancy. The only keyboard shortcut I used frequently was tapping the space bar to pause
While adjusting the camera angle isn’t essential to play, it does add a great deal to the overall experience. If you so choose to feel more connected to what you’ve been building up, you can zoom in and maneuver your view in such a way that you actually feel as though you are part of your little town. I loved this feature in SpellForce: The Order of Dawn and I love it here too.
There are a fair amount of options available for graphics and sound, such as resolution, vertex lighting vs. shadow mapping, color depth, sound quality, and volume levels for music, voiceovers, and ambient audio. It’s nice to see these choices open, though, I found that even with all settings pushed to maximum everything ran as it should, and I didn’t need to fiddle around trying to coerce better performance out of the software.
Upon first glance, it can seem as though the screen layout of Medieval Conquest is a bit too busy. However, after about five minutes of getting familiar with the mechanics, I found that it’s actually one of the more elegant aspects of the overall design. Across the top of the screen lists your grouped units, your gold, and your valor rating. In columns on the left and right sides are the different building headings and esoteric features available (demon book listing the different mobs you encounter, chart-data for your adventurers and your finances, etc). In the bottom left corner of the screen is where your camera-control icons are, bottom right is where your mini-map is, and set in between these is your events window, where you will see messages popping up to inform you of different occurences, like treasure chests being discovered and so forth.
All the icons make sense and are easy to figure out. If there’s any one thing I would have to say doesn’t work here, it’s the column on the right hand side of the screen that lists the chart data and so on. The demon book is handy, and so are the options. Aside from those I didn’t use any of the icons at all; they seem almost vestigial, as though they were included not for how useful they were but to make sure the screen maintained a sense of symmetry and balance. If they had shrunk the icons a bit, and condensed the two columns into one by stripping away the superfluous, this would have been one of the best examples of design I’ve ever seen in any game. As it stands, it still showcases solid workmanship and is a big part of what keeps this title as playable as it is.
Gameplay: Picking up and running with Medieval Conquest is not quite a whimsical 30 second endeavor, however, its learning curve is still one that can be picked up without too much hassle. The 19 pages of CD-sleeve manual tell you everything you need to know about controls and the tiered building system. The tutorial on the other hand is significantly more lacking, being not much more than some pop-up hints. If you’re like me and love to just jump in head-first, this means you will most likely crash and burn at least once as you learn some of the finer points of how things work. Or alternately, you can just make sure you’re extra vigilant about saving. The save system is serviceable, and while it lacks a quick-save feature, at least you can back up your progress whenever you want via the options menu.
Your units are fairly autonomous, so long as you’ve made sure the stuff they need is there, they’ll go get it on their own. However, over-riding that is more or less impossible, as are specific commands. There is no way to make your units flee a fight you know they’ll lose, no way to make them attack a specific target, and no way to make them stand down and just sit still for a few moments. Their will is their own, and the best you can do is attempt to work with it. For the most part, this is a refreshing hands-off approach, but sometimes it’s a headache when your valor rating plummets due to unit ineptitude. What I wouldn’t give to be able to just make them stop for a few moments.
One of the biggest drawbacks to Medieval Conquest is part of this criterion: CatDaddy made a critical error in not leaving anything to look forward to. What I mean by this is that, as of the moment you first load in, everything is open to you. You can see everything in terms of buildings and unit types right off the bat, so that by the time you’ve placed your fifth or so building, you’ve seen just about everything the game has to offer. While the size of the building might change, Blackbeard’s Steak House is really no different than Haddock’s Fish Stand. True, the monsters change as you investigate and explore the world, but half the time you’re pulled so far from the action while managing your empire that you don’t get to see them as anything more than a snapshot in your demonbook anyways.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think the play itself is fun and enjoyable, especially for people who aren’t old-school hardcore RTS fans. However, from a design perspective, it would have been better to gradually ramp up what you gain access to, so that it doesn’t seem quite so much like more of the same as you battle your way through the four maps. My biggest fear is that the replayability of Medieval Conquest is going to suffer because of this. The lack of an editor or any sort of online community doesn’t help either.
Multiplayer: Medieval Conquest is single-player only; therefore there is no multiplayer rating.
Sound FX: In a word: excellent. Everything I look for in audio work is present and extremely well-implemented: The mixing is strong, everything sits clearly in its place (nothing too quiet or too glaringly loud), all the sounds are rich and realistic, there is aural variety in spades so redundancy is a non-issue, and the voice work is easily Blizzard-quality. As every building has its overseer, so too does each building have its own voice-actor to give it extra personality. Many of the laughs found are in the cute and amusing one-liners given when you click on a structure. Your troops have delightfully cheesy phrases they chant as they merrily wade into the thick of battle, delivered with all the absurd sincerity of the Tick. No matter how many times I hear it, I still smirk when I hear my little fighters smugly proclaim, “There’s killer instinct in my blood!” as they sally forth to slay the giant honey-bee.
What impresses me most of all about the vocal implementation is how CatDaddy has chosen to not bombard you with it. Every strategy title I have ever played bludgeons you with the same lines over and over, ad-nauseum. While Medieval Conquest does indeed have the same lines over and over, you aren’t punished with hearing them continuously. You see, you only actually hear the sounds of battle when you zoom into the scene. So instead of a non-stop loop of the same lines, you are given time away from the actors’ voices. Absence makes the ears grow fonder, as they say.
Musical Score: While not as immediately fantastic as the sound effects, the score is no slouch for quality either. Like the above criterion, the mixing is perfect. The default levels sit just below the ambient volume so that you don’t get assaulted by blaring music as soon as you load into the game. The soundtrack is one of horns, wind-instruments of the flute-like variety, lightly-plucked lutes (not to be confused with thieved loots), and orchestral arrangements. The composer has followed the clichés we’re all used to from films that have been set in the middle-ages, so the music is new but sounds familiar at the same time. There is certainly a sense of melodrama to the 22 tracks written, with the occasional trace of urgency to underline the more tense moments. Whoever it was that wrote the score certainly knew their musical theory, and how to put together just the right kind of mood required for this less-than-serious foray into “what if” land.
The only real drawback to this melodious montage is that it tends to fade into the background, so that you don’t even notice there are harmonies hanging in the air. The fact that you don’t hear any music at all outside of a town, unless you’re zoomed in close and in the midst of combat, doesn’t help this either. This is a double-edged effect though. On the one hand it seems like the implementation of the score is inconsistent, and on the other it just looks like the music knows better than to overstay its welcome. As a drawback, this is really a matter of perspective.
Intelligence & Difficulty: At least so far as creature AI is concerned, there really isn’t any. If creatures are directly beside a unit or building, then they’ll leap into attack mode. Beyond that, they do nothing but wander around in random patterns, waiting for something to come close enough to it that it clicks into fight mode. Even the higher intelligence monsters don’t organize into assault parties; they display no tactics or thought. They exist as grist for your war-mill and that’s all.
The AI of your own units is 50-50. As mentioned before, they take care of themselves and that’s all well and good. However, they tend to get confused often, and you’ll find them wandering off in random areas doing more or less nothing, then blaming you when they fall behind on whatever it is that pops up first, like no monsters to fight or the need for some food. Their sense of self-preservation can seem fairly iffy too. Often they can be well down into the red for health and still not clue in that they might need a quick trip to the nearest sanctuary. Why tend to a partially-severed leg when there’s a perfectly good opportunity to limp off and attack a vine monster?
There are only two difficulty settings, easy and normal. The easy setting is quite challenging indeed, up to a point. Initially it can be quite a trick getting yourself up to a reliably strong level and still maintain enough money to pay for everything your troops need. Once you’ve gotten to a certain point though, your troops become powerful enough that you can more or less leave them in one area to continue generating more and more cash, the rest is pretty much just a matter of patience. You might as well stick with the easy setting, as it is essentially identical to the normal one. The monsters have twice as much health and give half as much gold, however, if you follow the exact same path of patience when it comes to building up, the end result is the same. The AI doesn’t improve, so it’s really just a matter of staying the course and taking your time building up slowly.
If I suspected for a moment that Medieval Conquest was designed as a thinking-man’s game, I would consider it a failure. However, I have felt from the beginning that this was meant to be an amusing distraction, not a brain-straining crucible. Thus, it didn’t really bother me that I spent more time overseeing the idle strategies of my towns than I did plotting out a grand blueprint for besieging a well-defended enemy kingdom. I suspect the same will be true for almost anyone who sits down and plays.
Overall: To truly appreciate how much I’ve enjoyed Medieval Conquest, one must take into account how bad I am at the multi-tasking required by real-time strategy. I generally avoid this genre like the plague, simply because I’m almost universally horrible at keeping on top of things. However, the pacing set for this release is one that I can maintain, and with the focus set more on laughs and fun instead of tactical brilliance, I can play this and not feel like I should be wearing a pointy, conical dunce-cap. It’s a very attractive offering that sports superb audio work and loads of clever witticisms. I don’t think that it will win over too many fans of advanced RTS, nor do I think WarCraft 3 or Starcraft will be usurped by CatDaddy’s baby. However, for newcomers and casual snail-gamers, this is an ideal package.
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