Developer: Revolution Strategy
Release Date: March 27, 2006
"The Bugle sounds and the charge begins
But on this battlefield no one wins
The smell of acrid smoke and horses breath
As I plunge on into certain death."
- Iron Maiden, "The Trooper"
1861 to 1865 was a bloody and painful time to live in continental North America. For reasons entirely too complicated to go into here, the land mass that would one day become the United States of America split into many factions, most notably the Union and the Confederacy. North and South, Grey and Blue, brother against brother – when the smoke cleared, there were 970,000 casualties scarring the landscape, and the collective psyche would never be the same again. Using this history as a backdrop, a development team known as Revolution Strategy has crafted a game called American Conquest: Divided Nation. Through their efforts, you may now revisit this crucible of patriotism. The South shall rise again, virtually.
As is my personal custom, it is time to break from the poetic in order to deliver the clinical breakdown of what this game is. In a nutshell, Divided Nation is a two-dimensional, top-down isometric point of view real-time strategy game set in the turbulent Civil War era of the United States. It provides five playable factions over a lengthy campaign that illustrates all of the major conflicts and commanders of that time, from Ulysses S. Grant to Robert E. Lee. Along the way, you'll command forces from the Union, the Confederacy, the armies of Texas and Mexico, and finally, the American Militia at New Orleans. This is all contained within a package that includes three different single-player modes, robust multiplayer functionality over LAN or online, and a level editor for custom scenarios.
Divided Nation is massively complex, and there is simply no way I can cover every aspect of its mechanics in less than 1,500 words, but I will try to touch on the basics. Like any true RTS, this game involves gathering resources, building up a base of operations, researching better abilities for your units, and producing an ever-expanding army of soldiers. Once all of these elements have been cleared away, it's time for epic battle. Lather, rinse, repeat. This game is so much more than just amassing the biggest possible force and plowing like a juggernaught through all enemies. Various officer class units have different special effects that greatly alter the outcome of skirmishes. For example, officers can influence the morale of your units as well as that of the enemy's, and trust me when I say that plays a huge role in the end result of a battle. In my first time through the Battle of New Orleans, I was positive I would come out victorious simply due to overwhelming numbers. The redcoats had a better officer class though, and it didn't take long before all of my formations were broken up and scattered like sticks in the wind. I lost. Effective placement of heavy weapons is important as well, in that it takes very little effort for infantry to destroy cannons or Gatling guns. Without that support, expect your morale to wither even more quickly, and take your victory with it.
Initially, it took me awhile to "get it," to understand where the fun factor was in Divided Nation. After a few unstable forays into the thick of things, something clicked: The strategic deployment of troop formations before the fight is really where the challenge and fun is, not in the battle itself. That's not to say there isn't a smug satisfaction that occurs while you watch your riflemen get up close and begin to bayonet the hapless enemies, but the precise assignment of units is incredibly absorbing. Similar to Dawn of War (admittedly my favorite RTS and the gauge to which I hold all other titles within this genre), Divided Nation treats full squads as a single unit and lets you assign different formations with a single mouse click. This is not only a tactically sound feature; it also starts becoming aesthetically pleasing, too. I wonder how many commanders throughout history have been crushed on the field of combat simply because they too fell into the trap of, "They look good that way." I would be a terrible general.
This title has a few interesting quirks that I've personally never encountered before. Not many RTS releases include the need to keep food supplies in plentiful amounts, but Divided Nation does. If you run out of food, your minions start dying off from famine, which was a shock to discover. Also, very few of the campaign levels involve resource gathering or base-building. (That is more in the realm of the "random map" play mode) Because the focus of these missions is to replay historically accurate scenarios, these elements aren't as important as tactical maneuvers. Both of these things I had to discover by accident, because Divided Nation has an incredibly steep learning curve with no tutorial at all. It does include a 60-page manual, but it details what everything does, not how it does it. Expect quite a lengthy period of time before you have a solid grasp of how things work in this game.
Divided Nation is fairly "old school" in that its graphics are entirely 2D. All objects in the game are sprites, giving this game a dated-yet-polished look. Perhaps "polished" isn't the best word to use; sprites have a grainy appearance that is far from glossy. At the same time, "rough" is also incorrect, no matter how pixelated the graphics may be. Each object is highly detailed and convincingly animated. For a non-3D title, Divided Nation looks fantastic. The praise stops here, though. From a technological standpoint, there is little justification for the lack of camera controls or for the extreme framerate lag that is a constant. To address the latter, let me say this – Dawn of War deals with easily as many objects on-screen as this game does, and it does it with little to no lag at all. That's entirely in high-polygon 3D with a deluge of particle effects. Divided Nation has no such advanced GPU claims to make, yet the action grinds to a stuttering crawl as soon as a large battle is engaged. I would have hoped that by now, we had conquered such archaic issues, but here we are.
Now to look at the former issue: We haven't been chained to a fixed point of view since 1998, yet here we are, suffering under the yoke of its oppression once again. You can't rotate your camera, and you can't zoom in. You can zoom out, making your armies appear as tiny musket-wielding gnats, but you're not allowed to see the action close up, nor can you see it from any other angle than the top-down isometric default. Purists may claim that this is a superfluous oversight that has nothing to do with the essence of strategy, and they're 100% correct. That doesn't change the fact that this all feels restricted and primitive, though.
To be perfectly honest, I didn't enjoy myself all that much playing American Conquest: Divided Nation. It's not that I had a miserable time, but there was not much in the way of gleeful triumph, mainly due to my relative inability to conquer the RTS genre. The fact of the matter is this: There is a niche market of enthusiastic players who absolutely adore this brand of highly detailed digital wargaming. These are the people that Revolution Strategy is seeking to entertain, and these are the people who will buy this and love it because they did a great job. It's tactically advanced and historically accurate; to the right kind of fan, this mixture is all that matters. When I look at this game, I see some technical drawbacks in the way of graphics and learning curve, and a whole lot of potential for fun that I will never fully understand. My brain just isn't wired that way. My recommendation? Get this if you're one of the elite who already love the franchise. New to RTS? Start with Starcraft or Dawn of War, then move on to this.
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