Conquest Modes, I truly believe, are the best thing to almost happen to video games. There was a weird, brief time when it looked like they might happen around 2005, seemingly off the back of a wave of appreciation for Total War, when they started popping up in everything from other RTS games to the original Star Wars Battlefront 2. But then – poof! – gone.
I would very much like them to come back. It’s taken me a while to realise but conquest modes are often the secret ingredient to some of my most beloved games, home to my most beloved pre-adolescent memories. Not to be confused with the tickets-and-control-points Conquest mode in Battlefield, which is fun but not what I’m on about, the conquest mode I’m talking about is where you get a big, often slightly silly layer over the top of the “actual” game itself, in the form of a map with regions or planets or whatever that you strategize over capturing, and fight over down on the real-time ground itself. A metagame, if we must use that word: a driving, continuous reason to keep playing the game, but essentially one that is also a game itself, as opposed to just a path of XP unlocks or a paid-for pass.
A favourite of mine – if we’re excluding Total War, which is sort what you get if you make an entire series of conquest modes, where the mode itself is fleshed-out and maximised to its logical conclusion – is the one that came in the Dawn of War: Dark Crusade expansion, which frankly had no right to be so good. The story here, if you chose the Space Marines, is that you’ve landed on some xeno planet and just about every other intergalactic race (there are seven of them) just happens to show up as well. If you play as the Necrons, it’s a bunch of rowdy neighbours moving in and waking you up. If you’re the Tau then apparently you think this planet’s yours. Everyone’s here, basically. Orks! Imperial Guard! Chaos! More! For some time since, quoting the hyper-committed narrator’s “…and then the Eldar came!” has been a running joke with friends.
This is the joy of this stupid, brilliant mode. It does not need much thought or care, nor any great dedication to lore. It’s an abstracted, non-place all stars battle royale of whatever you feel like throwing in the mix, a playground game where Aragorn’s fighting Gandalf and nobody can butt in to tell you, actually, that Aragorn can’t beat Gandalf because Gandalf’s a Maiar and therefore can’t really die, never mind the fact they’d never be fighting anyway. In this mode, in this game I have just made up, Gandalf dies because I captured his base and beat him in a battle down on the ground, and you just have to get over it. Load up a new game and play it differently if you don’t like it. That’s the point.
It’s apt, also, that it’s another Star Wars game that has me pining for conquest mode’s shlocky return. Squadrons, the new dogfighter from EA Motive, which looks ace – properly colourful and dramatic and, obviously, carrying on EA’s penchant for making their games look unnervingly close to the films – has just been shown off in a bit more detail. We’ve learned it has a single-player story on top of what I’m sure is the actual, long-term focus of the studio in its multiplayer, which we know lots of people will be very happy about. (And full VR! The six of you who keep talking about that in the comments must be delighted.) But! No conquest mode.
This is good news, in the sort of palatably grey and textureless way that Disney era Star Wars delivers good news. Star Wars: Squadrons sounds immaculately inoffensive. It’s focus testable and on-brand, it won’t contradict page 43 of the Big Book of Star Wars Lore someone has locked in a vault at the head office. It fits the apparent rule that Star Wars-ness is measurable by looking at buttons and trees and holding up a kind of authenticity ruler, and that as such all new Star Wars properties must begin with a period of concentrated existential crisis. What is Star Wars? Who is Star Wars? Is this Star Wars? Am I?
There’s another, much more boring and miserable argument here, that in consigning this wonderfully endless mode to history studios are missing a trick. That today’s world is one of engagement: continuing attachment to and interaction with a given platform, be that Netflix, or Fortnite, or Facebook – or your playtime in Game Pass freebies on the Xbox One. The word goes that a lot of people seem to have looked at the multiplayer giants of the past decade, that have so easily and indefinitely gobbled up the hours, and decided that pitting people against each other is the golden ticket to the infinite click – and that we must disagree. I do, in fairness. And Football Manager disagrees, sports and racing game career modes disagree, and above all strategy games disagree.
A strategy layer – which is all conquest modes are: strategy lite – is a cheap and cheerful way to get people coming back forever. They’re an infinitely more relaxing way to play these kinds of games. It’s a shameless, “back in my day it was just sticks and mud we had to play with” point, all this, but I do think it’s also quite valid. The crux of multiplayer engagement remains frustration for me, rather than fun. The “one more game” mindset is famous across the competitive scene – I’ve certainly lived it out over a few thousand games of FIFA and LoL, and I am far from saying it’s all bad, too – but still, that fame should probably be infamy. The compulsion is driven by the desire for a rematch, to set the record straight, to end on a high. To live out the Monte-carlo fallacy that a losing streak will eventually lead back to a win. There’s a sour difference between one more game and one more turn.
But, like I said, that argument is miserable. Conquest modes are a guiltless pleasure, and that is what we should focus on. You turn them on, you squash some AI, min-max a few resources, squash some more AI and continue, painting the galactic map, colouring in the little corners, tidying up the frayed ends and scattered edges and getting everything in line. Innocent compulsion, proving the existence of satisfaction without tension. It’s a driving force to keep playing, and a means of injecting spirit and fantasy to fantasy worlds that are growing stale, without fear of consequence. With the conquest mode of old Battlefront 2, Star Wars could learn a thing or two from its own game – but so could lots of others. The point remains: Gandalf dies and you can just get over it.