Platforms: Xbox One, PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: PC
Review code supplied free of charge by the publisher.
Watching the survival genre explode in popularity has been weirdly fascinating, a bit like watching a building being demolished; exciting, cool, and then everything gets a bit hard to see before it’s left as a crumbling heap. Okay, maybe that’s a terrible analogy, but I can’t help feel that survival games are something of a trend that’s on the rise but due a collapse relatively soon. I think that’s mostly because as a whole survival games aren’t very good games. I mean, I’ve had a lot of fun in Rust, but as an actual videogame it’s a bit naff, doesn’t have much to do in it and largely relies on its player interactions.
Enter Conan Exiles which is trying to bring a little more polish to the genre, and a few extra elements to make the whole thing a more rounded package. The game has been in Early Access for a little while and didn’t have a stellar reputation for quite some time, and indeed a trip to the reviews section of Steam shows a lot of negative comments from players. Somehow, though, the developers have brought the game back from the brink and suddenly the reviews began to get much, much better. Now, out of Early Access this latest survival title seems to have gained a lot of fans.
Things kick off with your unfortunate avatar hanging from a cross in the middle of the desert due to a small assortment of randomly selected crimes. It’s here you’ll be given the chance to work through the limited customization suite which just so happens to include options for increasing or decreasing the size of your gentlemen’s tackle or your lady’s mounds. From there it’s just a case of being rescued by Conan himself who unceremoniously drags you off the cross and then leaves you in the middle of the scorching desert, butt-naked and with nothing to your name. What a dick.
You also get to choose the initial religion you want to follow, which in turns allows you to build an altar whenever you manage to get the resources together. Over time you can upgrade the altar, mostly by bloodshed, in order to please your chosen diety and earn new rewards in the form of unique items that can be crafted. Furthermore, it’s even possible to summon your diety and briefly take control over it, towering over the land and decimating buildings and enemies alike. Nothing quite makes you terrified for all of your hard work like a towering frost giant swinging an axe. It’s awesome.
The basic mechanics of the game are instantly familiar stuff, for better or for worse; you spend copious amounts of time whacking rocks and trees in order to build up the basic resources you’ll need to begin constructing a base as well as stone weapons and simple tools. From there you’ll gradually climb the tree of technology, eventually smelting iron to forge new weapons, skinning animals for hide and raising an impressive home or a towering fortress. Throughout it all you’ll need to keep an eye on your hunger and thirst, though both of these things are nicely balanced so that you don’t need to constantly be ramming meat down your gullet or gulping entire lakes.
A food source and water are things you can easily stop worrying about fairly early on, too, allowing you to focus on better things. The truth is surviving in Exiles isn’t actually very tricky, so let’s talk about building instead. The sheer scope of stuff to build is almost overwhelming, especially as like many survival games Exiles is light on the explanations, and that’s it’s charm. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be gleaned from figuring everything out and slowly working your way up the technology ladder. There’s always something to aim for, a new goal to chase that keeps you scouring the landscaping, grinding for resources and slaughtering the local wildlife. Sure, you’ve figured out how to make steel now, but what about black ice floors? Maybe some epic armor? As you level up you not only put points into increasing your base attributes but you also choose Feats, which are basically sets of things you can build. You’re still restricted by your characters level to a degree, but it’s nice to choose what you want to focus on next.
The act of construction is relatively easily as everything just snaps together, but it can become a tad fiddly with walls and other things not wanted to go together properly. I found, for example, that you can’t build stairs first and then place a wall next to them as the game doesn’t like it. Still once you get the hang of its little quirks you can build some impressive structures that weave around the landscape’s giant statues, lakes, rivers, cliffs and jungles.
Gradually a few new features that set Exiles apart from its peers start to creep in. Firstly, since this is the harsh world of Conan you can knock out random NPCs, drag their unconscious corpse home and then put them to work on your wheel of pain, a device that eventually breaks their spirit, turning them into Thralls who can then be placed around your base to act as defenders, crafters and more. It’s a cool idea, and becomes something akin to hunting Pokemon as rarer, more powerful NPCs can be difficult to find and challenging to take down. There are even special named characters. Having a base full of high-level Thralls is a prestigious thing indeed, and they can help fend off attacking players, though they aren’t as effective as they really should be. Apparently future updates will allow Thralls to gather resources, too, which could really help combat the dull grind of gathering the basic things like stone and wood. For now, non-fighting Thralls can be placed on crafting tables to improve performance and even unlock new recipes.
These NPCs can also be commanded to follow you, so a clan of player can essentially take an army with them. Indeed, on the big servers it’s fascinating to watch two clans collide, especially as there is even craftable seige weapons. If that wasn’t enough it’s possible to climb walls, opening up some interesting tactics.
Building a base is great and all but one of the primary ways of levelling up is exploring the world which is littered with points of interested that grant experience points when discovered. There a lot of cool places to find like Buccanear’s Bay, abandoned temples, the burial mounds of the dead, a volcano and much more. Furthermore, there are a bunch of bosses to be battled like a giant snake and a Witch Queen, and taking these down can be immensely satisfying, even if fighting them is a bit like attacking a sponge that just absorbs everything. Your rewards come in the form of new crafting recipes, though its worth remember that if you team up with other people you’ll need to argue over the loot/
Enjoying all of this scenery and killing bosses can be difficult to do, however, when you’re constantly getting attacked by passing players who really want your gear. Survival games often rely on their player interactions, and thus they need a nice variety of people, from the aggressive to the weary to the friendly to the inevitable traitors. Without that it runs the risk of becoming another Rust where basically every player tries to kill you, and hunting new players is commonplace. It’s for that very reason my favorite mode in Exiles ended up being PvE, where player structures can’t be destroyed and there is no player versus player combat, instead everyone is free to explore the world, build their base and tackle the bosses as they see fit, the only threat being the Purge. It’s the constant fear of being assaulted or having their hard work decimated by a passing player that stops many people from enjoying the multiplayer survival genre, so to include a mode for those folk is a smart decision
Being a game set in the harsh world of Conan it’s hardly surprising that you’ll do a fair amount of fighting, either battling the other players roaming the landscape or tackling the various creatures and NPCs running around. The act of combat is something of a mixed bag; on the one hand the dodge and block feel nice and responsive, and it’s fun to circle an enemy while you wait for the moment to strike. Stamina controls everything, so you can’t just go nuts with dodging and attacking, thus the focus on getting in, delivering a few good strikes and then backing away again unless you’re rocking a shield.
Where the problems lie are in how there’s little to no sense of impact when weapons strike, and incredibly stupid A.I. who flounder around the screen. You can get rid of that second problem by facing off against other people, but then you come the realisation that combat is…messy. It always feels a little scruffy, a little inaccurate.
The final issue is some decidedly dodgy hitboxes on both you and everything else that can lead to attacks landing despite them seeming to be way off the mark. Of course, this can also be attributed to ping problems or lag, or that can mix with the hitboxes to create the perfect recipe to annoy you.
While I would certainly call Exiles considerably more polished than many of the other survival style games there are still a lot of bugs and glitches to contend with, including stuff like Wheel of Pains going missing, enemies getting stuck on scenery and a bunch of other stuff. On a more serious note I had a few crashes, and at one point got stuck inside a boss’ lair because the boss wouldn’t activate and had to commit suicide. Once I respawned and came back my corpse was no longer there and thus all my gear was gone and I had to commit suicide yet again to get out. The whole escapade wasted me about 90-minutes.
There’s also the issue of the Purge which I’ve mentioned a few times throughout this review. Essentially the Purge is an event that summons an NPC warband to lay siege to your base, but in its current form it rarely works correctly, often activating before declaring all enemies dead mere seconds later. Once it gets fixed the Purge will be an intriguing way of keeping even big clans on their toes.
However, for all of its technical faults the graphics and audio tend to be fairly strong across the board with some wonderful vistas and locations to admire. Th only place it tends to falter are in the clumsy animations, but otherwise it’s a fairly pretty game. The music gets repetitive quite quickly, but the effects do their job well enough. Although there’s still a lot of room for improvement in terms of the overall presentation Funcom have done a good job.
Conan Exiles is far from perfect, yet in the world of survival games where almost every entry feels like a cobbled together mess this is one of the more polished examples of the genre. The somewhat short development time compared to its peers has led to a potential lack of content, but there’s a really solid foundation here that Funcom can build on. There is a lot of balancing that needs to be done and the survival elements perhaps need to be tougher, but right now I’m sinking a horrifying amount of time into exploring the world, building my base, killing things, breaking slaves and generally just pretending to be Conan. With that said, despite now being out of Early Access it could still be prudent to wait a month or two in order to see how good the developers will be at patching the game and to get a better idea of how the game will be grown moving forward.