There are three stages of Conflicks: Revolutionary Space Battles. The first is before you’ve even played, when you see the game’s intro, which you can watch here. The wacky combination of European history, but in space; the Industrial Revolution, but with chickens; and that awesome artwork means I want to play whatever this game is. The second stage is finding out what this game is. A real-time strategy game with…an Angry Birds interface? If there’s one thing crazier than that intro, it’s space combat based on flicking your ships around the screen without even the benefit of an iPad.
After the jump, you’re on your way to the third stage of Conflicks.
While in the second stage of Conflicks, you can’t be sure whether the idea is insane, ingenious, or some combination of the two. It’s niche even for niche. The basics are straightforward. You use your limited supply of space energy to move ships around the map and fire off their special abilities. The ships are the same for everyone, the special abilities vary by faction. If Conflicks had stopped there, it could be one of those indie gems with distinctive artwork, a crazy setting, imaginative ship design, and interesting gameplay balance. From these basic elements, you can tell that developers Artifice Studios knows what they’re doing. That much was clear with Sang-froid, their last game, which was similarly nuts and niche. How many RTS meets third-person action meets RPG meets tower defense games based on French-Canadian werewolf tales can you name? Artifice Studios seems to know how to turn crazy ideas into solid gameplay.
But the third stage of Conflicks comes only after you’ve struggled with it long enough to realize the crazy ideas have gone one step too far; they have stumbled straight into the abyss of frustration. Because instead of moving your ships around like you would in a normal RTS, you use your mouse to pull a virtual rubber band backwards, aim, and release. Did they name the game Conflicks because of this, or did they do this because the game was called Conflicks? It’s a bad enough idea that either scenario is possible.
The interface is as good as it can be for this sort of thing, with a convenient auto-zoom and a shaded area showing the distance your ship will travel when you flick it. But why layer on top of an already attention-intensive game the equivalent of billiards? The ships scud across space, sometimes bumping into each other like pool balls clacking around a felt table. Don’t take too long to aim, because ships are firing at each other constantly and their hit points burn away quickly. No time to aim your torpedo, or toggle the invulnerability on that disposable little corvette, or wait around for powers to refresh, or set up defenses for your terraforming ships. I can be relatively forgiving when it comes to micromanagement in a real-time strategy game. But if there’s one thing that makes micromanagement worse, it’s micromanagement under duress. If I wanted to play Angry Birds while I was playing Command & Conquer, I would play Angry Birds while I played Command & Conquer.
Because the gameplay is largely positional, a lot of the powers are related to moving ships around. Blow them backwards, suck them in a black hole, link them together, teleport them across the map. Be careful of the rubber moonbumpers! Wormholes open and close. Supply stations let you flick and then flick again without waiting for the cooldown timer. Cooldown timers are a constant. Managing your space energy is also a constant. Conflicks requires both precision and estimation, care and speed, hurrying up and waiting. It’s all in the flicking. How often can you do it and how well can you do it?
I might have been more willing to give this questionable concept a chance if there was more of a game around it. Instead, the concept has to do too much of the heavy lifting. There’s not enough single-player campaign, skirmishing, or multiplayer support as a context to make the flicking meaningful. The single-player campaign is just a series of canned missions with no gameplay connective tissue (the artwork, setting, storyline, writing, and even voice acting are great, but an RTS is exactly the wrong genre to showcase these things). The skirmish mode has very few set-up options, with the game always being about earning a certain amount of resources before the other three players. Don’t expect you’ll be taking much of a break, since you can’t save the game during a match. The multiplayer support will sink any hope Conflick has of earning an online following. It’s split into friendly and ranked matches, which are furthermore split into team matches and free-for-all matches, which require no fewer than four players, all without the convenience of a lobby system. You just host a game and wait. Hours later, no one will have joined. But a game this small can’t bear up under this many splits. It’s nearly impossible to get a multiplayer community going for a niche game; Conflicks makes it several varieties of impossible. It’s all the more mystifying that the developers thought it would be a good idea for players to grind away at multiplayer-only achievements to unlock gameplay advantages.
You’ll eventually get better at the ship-flicking and the aiming, and therefore the positioning. But mistakes will be a constant. Oops, you just knocked your ship into the way of another ship you were going to move. Oops, that enemy ship is just a smidge farther away so now you have to wait for its movement power to refresh so you can scoot a little closer. Oops, you were busy aiming your torpedo and now your other ships are dead. Oops, you miscalculated a gravity well and now your battleship got sucked into the side of a planet and blew up. Oops and RTSs are never a good mix. A good RTS will minimize the opportunity for oops. But Conflicks is based on oops.
(UPDATE: Speaking of oops, it turns out Conflicks is currently in Early Access. The developers say it’s feature complete, but they intend to spend up to two months on balancing and bugs. I’ll update this review when the full version is released.)
Conflicks: Revolutionary Space Battles
A creative new take on space-themed videogames that merges the deep, thoughtful gameplay of real-time strategies with the intuitive accessibility of physics-based games.