For most of us Arnold Schwarzenegger is Conan. I, like many, spent a significant chunk of my youth watching Conan the Barbarian (one of the best fantasy movies ever), Conan the Destroyer (one of the worst), and Red Sonja (set in the same world and he’s not Conan… but might as well be). The De Laurentiis produced movie portrayed a hostile and unforgiving land where only the strongest survive, where heroes aren’t necessarily all heroic, and where horrible things happen to good people. Its tale of a brutal existence made a big impression, and it’s one I never get bored with. It had another trick up its sleeve as well that we talk about at length with games now, but not some much with movies back in the early 80’s – environmental story telling. The lands travelled were vast and rich in detail that hinted at past glories and tremendous effort, yet it never stopped to explain the why’s and wherefore’s, it just left it up to your imagination. By today’s standards that setting is ripe for gaming, and Funcom knew it. Here in Conan Exiles we have a love letter to the movie that even though we know it’s based on a series of comics can’t hide its aesthetic influence.
Those expecting a hack and slash action game where the bulk of the time is slicing up oversized foes, turn around now. Conan Exiles is a survival game, one that has more in common with Minecraft than most others, and doesn’t let you play as Conan himself. No, in an opening scene the big man appears and cuts the player loose from a certain death in the middle of the desert, lets them know that there’s no following him, and leaves with barely another word. What happens from this point on is gleaned pretty much solely from the interface and experimentation with everything in the world, most of which are deadly. Selecting a male or female avatar, the fate is the same – explore in the nuddy (for the uncensored European version at least) until there are enough resources gathered to craft some clothes; figure out how to craft a weapon; build a shelter; then decide what to do from there. There’s no real story progress or milestone marker to follow, the game provides hints and info but stops short of saying “go here, do that”. It leaves everything open and nothing blocked off. Sure, it’s not worth tackling a spider the size of a bus in the first 30 minutes, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there to have a go at.
As this is a survival game the key mechanics are resource gathering, management and crafting, as well as maintaining the right levels of water, food and heat. Sleep isn’t a factor in Conan Exiles, though beds and ground mats are used as impromptu save points, and wherever the latest one is placed becomes a spawn point. The basic elements for drinking and eating are readily available, so on the easier difficulties it’s hard to go thirsty and hungry. More exotic materials for building and crafting though are harder to come by and require quite a lot of searching out. Take iron for example – a fairly key ingredient for decent weapons and armour. It’s found mainly in rocks in a specific region and easy enough to spot and mine, but won’t be abundant enough to be able to build what you want in a single supply run. Everything respawns after a period of time, and usually that’s lengthy enough to run back to camp, dump everything already collected, then head back out for more. Most costly is usually the facility used to create whatever you’re after, like a forge, and then the items themselves need a lot of resources, so be prepared for collecting and harvesting like you’ve never done before. At least it’ll build up XP and you’ll find yourself levelling fairly quickly in the early game.
Experience comes from most actions, though is boosted by key parts of the Journey – the closest Conan Exiles gets to a guide on how to play. It’s a series of activities to do that nets you XP and points to spend on Feats and Attributes. The latter is the usual levelling up/character progression seen in RPG’s, the former is effectively the crafting skill and whether you know enough to build new goodies. Attributes are there to be increased in whatever way you want, but Feats require certain skill levels and knowledge to open up, like you can’t build an ensconced torch without knowing how to build a basic torch first. It’s logical to follow, though not immediately obvious from the first visit to the menus. That’s a fair comment across the whole game, it expects that you know how to play. Loading screen tips are useful, but some of the basics aren’t covered like working out how to equip items, and even though the details are on screen the info is quite small and easy to overlook. Likewise, there are no prompts for what’s interactive in the environment (with the exception of corpses), so there’s a lot of trial and error, and if it doesn’t respond the first time then you might think it’s just scenery.
Clearly not background vegetation are the enemies that come at you. They are viscous and single minded – kill the interloper. Everything is hostile. No, really. Learning to dodge and block are crucial, as are timing strikes to build combos and powerful finishing blows. It’s light touch and fairly basic, and sometimes a bit clunky, yet satisfying at the same time. Human fights aren’t anything to write home about, but switch to larger animals and there’s a rewarding feeling of timing each action correctly. If you mess it up and get smeared across the sand then you’ll respawn at your last bed (or choose to start from the original beginning point), and depending on what you’ve selected in the options, have to trek back to the scene of your death to grab your gear. Nicely for those that like a bit of forgiving game play, you can switch on the option to spawn with the full inventory. There are other tweaks you can make to your server to make it harder or easier, and this customisation is what makes Conan Exiles a more palatable survival game than say 7 Days to Die. You can be a masochist and make it the most brutal experience going, or you can dial it back and enjoy the crafting and exploration. I set a balance in the middle and found that because a large portion of frustration was removed it was easy to lose hours of time just planning, collecting and building.
Speaking of building, the mechanisms in place are pretty impressive assuming there’s enough resources on hand. Near enough anywhere can be used to create a structure, and because construction is based on walls, floors and roofs instead of pre-fab units, you can make a large variety of shapes and sizes, so get building those cities. Decorating is varied and plentiful too for those that like to spend time making a house a home. It’s important you do build shelter because the occasional sandstorms will flay your skin from your bones in seconds, and the local cannibals aren’t keen on sharing their tents with dinner. You’re not just building for yourself either, you can create a community by enthralling NPCs and using them to manufacture goods. It’s a shame you can’t send them out gathering rocks, plants and food, but hopefully that may come as an update later. Be aware though that not looking after your little (or large) settlement and performing certain actions can trigger a Purge where an AI army will attack and attempt to destroy everything you’ve created.
There’s scale and scope in Conan Exiles that I genuinely wasn’t expecting. The map is a decent size that takes time to traverse, it feels like a proper adventure fighting your way through to forgotten ruins and surviving in the wild. With three distinctly different biomes there’s enough variation in the environments to make it feel like a full world, and each has its own enemy types to contend with. Dungeons exist and beg to be explored by those with good armour and strong weapons, wide open spaces are there to be crossed, and mysterious monuments that hold stories of the past are dotted around to be discovered. It’s not the most sophisticated game engine ever, but considering the amount of interaction there is with the landscape and objects I wouldn’t expect it to be. It’s robust and has been tested to death during the early access, so at least you know it works. There are bugs and glitches, mainly with the sounds not syncing up around half the time, but nothing that actually spoils the game.
Having started this review with how much I enjoyed the cinematic source material, it’s fair to say I was pretty much bought into the game when the menu screen appeared and started playing the movie theme tune. I had an inkling I’d get on with it, but didn’t realise just how much until I noticed time was disappearing. It’s one of those titles where you think you’ve played 15 minutes but 2 hours have gone by and all you’ve done is chop wood and skin a couple of hyenas… and you don’t mind at all. I’ve not even touched the online elements because I’ve been so engrossed in carving out my own slice of life in the Hyborian Age (and in fairness most streamers are making dong and boob jokes in the multiplayer if you want to see what that is like). There’s a solid single player game that would be easy to overlook, and even though Conan as a character is a bit shallow, don’t confuse him with this game: it’s like an iceberg in that the deeper you go in Conan Exiles, the more you find.
A PS4 review copy of Conan Exiles was provided by the Deep Silver PR team and the game is available now on PC, Xbox One and PS4.