Conan Exiles Preview: Beyond a Politically Incorrect Curtain, Great Gameplay Potential Shines
DualShockers tested Conan Exiles, and looking past nudity and headline-making shock material, a very solid survival RPG is rising.
Conan Exiles is currently available on Steam Early Access for PC, and that is exactly why this is a preview and not a scored review. While there is plenty to talk about, the game is not finished yet, and we’ll review it when it’ll be released for PC, PS4 and Xbox One in the first quarter of 2018.
Now that we got the caveats out of the way, it’s time to delve into the meat of Conan Exiles, Funcom’s second game belonging to the Conan IP after the MMORPG Age of Conan.
Conan literature is probably among the least politically correct you can find, and Conan Exiles perfectly fits that description.
The fact that the game includes full nudity, with freely displayed genitals (the option can be turned off server and client-side, or you can settle for partial nudity) is just the tip of the iceberg.
In Conan Exiles you play an exiled criminal crucified in the Exiled Lands, an imaginary desert littered with the remains of an ancient civilization. After Conan himself releases you from your cross, you are set relatively free, because a magical bracelet prevents you from crossing a barrier that delimits the borders of the region. You are trapped, naked, hungry and vulnerable, and you need to survive.
What do fantasy criminals do to survive? They murder, steal, pillage and enslave.
The Hyboria of Conan the Barbarian isn’t certainly a forgiving place, and the Exiled Lands probably represent its worst. The famous quote from the 1982 film with Arnold Schwarzenegger “Crush your enemies! See them driven before you! Hear the lamentations of the women!” perfectly applies here.
This is a game in which not only you kill NPCs and players for loot, but you steal their souls to make healing potions, and harvest their flesh to satisfy your hunger and the cannibalistic god Yog.
A major part of the game is based on hitting NPCs on the head with a truncheon, dragging them tied by their ankles with their face in the sand back to your base, strapping them to the iconic wheel of pain, feeding them disgusting gruel, and breaking their will until they become your loyal slaves.
It’s worth mentioning that this kind of potentially controversial material isn’t in the game for its own sake (not that I’d have any problem with that, regardless), but it perfectly fits the original Conan universe, and as such, it should be considered entirely appropriate.
That’s why, if you’re part of that easily-offended crowd, you should probably close this article, take a deep breath, and head right back to play World of Warcraft.
Now that we are past the shock warning, let’s move to another quick caveat: if you want to enjoy the game to its fullest, my advice is to steer clear from the “official” servers, at least for now. Their rulesets are pretty rigid, they’re overcrowded and overly-built, and they’re invaded by exploiters that will negatively impact your experience.
On the other hand, there is a veritable constellation of unofficial servers ran by players, coming with customized rulesets (one of the best things of the game is that it allows server admins to heavily tailor the experience to the taste of their community) and tightly-knit communities that definitely create a much better playing environment.
If you decide to heed this advice, a bit of research is necessary, but it pays off. The best way is to explore forums and social media channels dedicated to the game, for servers that have a rule set that matches your preferred experience. You might have a couple of misses at the beginning, but when you hit the right one, it’ll be worth the effort.
While the game certainly made headlines for its politically incorrect nature, there’s much more behind that, and Conan Exiles is certainly a game worth exploring if you enjoy the survival genre and the Conan lore.
You’ll start the game at the border of the Exiled Lands, naked (perhaps literally, depending on the nudity options), unarmed and completely vulnerable. The only starting item you’re given is a water skin.
The first thing you’ll probably impact with is the game’s deep crafting system, that will provide you with the possibility of fashioning yourself some rough clothes (unless you’re into the whole naturist thing, I suppose) and stone tools.
Your next priority is finding some shelter, which at the beginning will just be some relatively safe spot where to lay down a bedroll, that will serve as your spawn point, and a campfire to heat up some food. This is a survival game, so you’ll need to keep eating and drinking to survive.
Luckily, the game has a mechanic that keeps thirst and hunger from being a constant and annoying issue: If you fill your drink and food gauges, they will remain full for a while, instead of immediately starting to decay.
Gradually, you’ll become more familiar with the closest areas of the first biome of the Exiled Lands, an inhospitable desert with few a few oases and rivers, rocky canyons, a savannah, plenty of ruins from an ancient and mysterious civilization, and a whole lot of hostile wildlife.
A second biome will come in a few months, featuring highlands and snowy mountains, but the land we already have is already quite big, and despite its arid nature, it includes a lot of variety.
As you dare to expand your exploration, and learn to fend off hordes of hungry hyenas and giant spiders, it’ll be finally time to find a place to settle in a slightly more stable manner, which is when you’ll experience one of the best features of Conan Exiles, the building system.
As you level up, you’ll be able to spend points into learning blueprints for various building blocks in three increasingly robust tiers, and you can build pretty much everywhere on the map (there are a couple of protected areas, and you can’t build too close to other players, unless you are in the same clan).
As long as you’re able to find a perch to place your foundations, you can build whatever you want. You can create small huts to give yourself basic protection, or enormous castles, you can build horizontally, or craft tall spires that reach for the sky. The only limits are the materials that you’re able to collect,the recipes you unlocked, and your imagination.
A very clever caveat is that your foundations don’t really need a flat area of land. They can stick pretty much to any kind of terrain, including cliffs. This means that you can easily build your base climbing the side of a cliff, helping you find locations that would otherwise unreachable, and providing positions that are easier to defend as they dominate the surrounding area from above.
It’s almost funny that under the surface of a game based on murdering anything that looks at you the wrong way, there is one of the best creative features you can find in the industry; and the game is just in early access, so Funcom really has the chance to create something that will satisfy even the most demanding Minecraft fanatic.
Of course, the crafting system is much deeper than a set of LEGO blocks that you can use to build your dream castle. There are plenty of weapons, armor, furniture, and crafting stations that will in turn unlock more advanced recipes.
That said, you don’t need to craft everything on your own. Conan Exiles fully empowers skilled crafters with the choice of arming others, even if this is balanced by the fact that you’ll need to be able at least to create some of the materials in order to repair damaged equipment comfortably. Making friends in the world of Conan is as important as being able to slaughter your enemies.
Unfortunately the clan system is still a bit bare bones in Conan Exiles, which is par for the course in an early access game, but it already allows players to collaboratively craft and build massive structures together. There is certainly plenty of room for improvement, but there is a good foundation in place.
I mentioned defensible bases, and whether you’ll have to defend against other players or not, depends on the settings of the server you’ll choose. There are both PvE and PvP servers, and in-between options with various degrees of protection.
Of course, you can also play in single player, which is basically done by hosting your own local server with whatever ruleset you decide. Personally, though, I wouldn’t advise it, because interaction with other players is half the fun. It’s much more enjoyable to find a server that matches your personal inclinations, and open yourself to a more populated world.
Of course, this couldn’t be a true Conan game without plenty of combat, and whether you are on a PvP or a PvE server, prepare to fight a lot. While other players might be friendly, basically every AI-driven living creature (excluding hares and gazelles) wants to kill you.
I actually found this to be a bit excessive: while I can relate with the “survival” aspect of the game, wildlife AI appears to be pretty basic. They simply home on you from a sizable distance like heat-seeking Sidewinders, and keep attacking until you’re dead, they’re dead, you manage to run very far (they’re extremely persistent, much more than in most similar games), or you glitch them by jumping down a cliff, because at the moment they can’t follow you.
Even supposedly peaceful animals like elephants will see you as the most succulent treat and hunt you down relentlessly, which can be extremely annoying if you live close to the savannah.
Don’t get me wrong: if you actually want to fight, there is plenty to enjoy, but if you’re trying to go about your business and gather some resources without having to constantly put the pick back into your pocket and pull out the sword, you’re out of luck.
Combat itself is fun and feels very “tactile” thanks in no small measure to some really well designed impact sounds that vary largely depending on what you’re hitting. For instance, when you attack a rocknose (which is indeed made of rock), you can almost “feel” your sword damaging itself against its rough hide.
The whole battle experience is crowned by some of the most over-the-top and gruesome gore I’ve seen in a recent game. More often than not, when killing an enemy, you’ll actually cut him or her in pieces of various sizes, with severed heads and limbs flying all over the place. Ragdoll physics are (intentionally, I suppose) fairly exaggerated, which augments the effect.
While this might feel a bit silly at first, I actually found it rather endearing after I got used to it. There is something strangely satisfying in cleaving an enemy straight in half, seeing the upper part of the body fly off while the legs slowly fall to the ground, all framed by gallons of tomato sauce.
If you don’t want to go toe-to-toe directly with your enemies, you can work towards summoning an avatar of one of three different Gods, Mitra, Set and Yog. Crom doesn’t have an avatar or even an altar, because everyone knows that he doesn’t listen to prayers or care.
Summoning an avatar is an extremely time consuming task, requiring tons of resources, but it’s basically a tactical nuke that you can send to wreak havoc on enemy bases. Some have a lot of fun with them, while others consider them overpowered, but luckily you have the option to select a server that has them disabled.
Of course, you don’t need to kill all of your opponents. Almost all human NPCs can be bonked over the head with a truncheon and enslaved, prompting them to become your thralls.
At the moment the game has fighters, archers, dancers, blacksmiths, armorers, carpenters, cooks, tanners, taskmasters, priests and smelters. Each NPC will randomly spawn with a rank from I to IV, with the latter being rare named thralls.
Once broken on the iconic wheel of pain, fighters and archers can defend your base from attacks, dancers will entertain you, give you a buff and cleanse you of the “corruption” that you will accumulate visiting the world’s most evil places. Taskmasters will support you in breaking other thralls quicker, priests will man your altars, and crafters will help you create items faster, using less materials. The high tier ones will also come with special recipes for weapons and armor that you can’t otherwise obtain.
Collecting thralls and populating your base with them is one of the most fun parts of the game, in what could easily be compared to a much more savage version of Pokémon. I spent inane amounts of time exploring every nook and cranny of the NPC settlements to find the rarest Pok… Ahem… thralls, and I’m not even close to done.
While the feature is extremely fun, at the moment thralls are still a bit rough around the edges. For instance, you can’t order your archers not to try to turn into a pincushion every player not in your clan that happens to pass in front of your base, but this is early access, and the system has massive potential for improvement and expansion with new thralls, thrall professions, and a deeper degree of control.
If I’m having this much fun with the early feature, I can’t honestly imagine how great it will be when the already-announced settlement system will be implemented, allowing players to give their thralls a daily schedule and precise tasks to perform. I can see many playing this game only to go out and capture every NPC they can put their truncheon and rope on, in order to populate their own player-built cities with guards, exotic dancers and skilled crafters.
Speaking of the visuals, Conan Exiles is a very pretty game overall. Characters and animations can use a bit of work (especially in the character creation menu, which at the moment makes it extremely hard to create a satisfying male who doesn’t seem to have gone through a very difficult childhood and to have been punched on the face for two weeks in a row), but environments are beautiful to look at, bathed in a lovely day and night cycle that paints exotic ruins and rocky formations in ever-changing light.
Speaking of light, or lack of thereof, nights in Conan Exiles are terrifyingly dark. If you venture out without a light source, be prepared to blindly bump into a lot of threats, and quite possibly meet your demise. Even with a torch (which will prevent you from using anything else with your left hand, making you very vulnerable to archers and venom-spitting spiders), your vision range will be limited, and traveling is much riskier than during the day.
While Conan Exiles is still in Early Access, it’s already a (perhaps surprisingly, looking at the state of many games benefiting from the same program a month from launch) competent and feature-rich survival and online RPG package. While not all Funcom games have been successful, they certainly have a massive amount of experience in running MMORPGs, and that definitely shows despite the slight shift in genre.
It’s hands-down the most fun I personally had with a game of this kind, and if you don’t mind some features that are rough around the edges, it’s definitely worth looking into, especially if you love the charming Conan lore and atmosphere.
Now, if you don’t mind, I have another sexy dancer to hit on the head. You can never have enough sexy dancers.