If you’ve heard of Conan Exiles, then there’s a pretty high likelihood you know it as that game where you get to pick the size of your willy. Everyone with a YouTube channel seemed to hop into the character creation menu and giggle at the floppy genitalia as it wibbled in the wind. Thankfully there was a lot more to the game than that, especially as Funcom have evolved it over the course of Early Access and Xbox Game Preview. Now they’re working on a much larger step forward than usual as they head toward the game’s full launch in May across both PC and console.
“Yeah, it’s the dick game now!” Joel Bylos, Creative Director laughed. “It’s fine, I don’t mind it, and it is funny. I thought it was really interesting at [our Early Access] launch, because my biggest worry was that some people were going to be offended by this, but the thing I thought was really cool was all the girls who were like, ‘Oh, finally! The boys have a slider too!'”
Conan Exiles leaps feet first into the survival genre, as your customised character starts the game nailed to a cross in the middle of the desert. Tweaking your physique, religion, looks and more, you can choose to have some scraps of clothing, but let’s be honest, nudity is much more amusing – don’t expect bare penises and breasts on console, there aren’t any. It’s Conan himself that comes and rescues you, though really all that this entails is pulling you down from the cross and telling you to venture forth and survive.
The opening of the game is really nicely laid out and paced, as a decaying stone path naturally draws the eye and leads you toward an oasis under a ruined bridge, where you can learn the ropes of the game. Of course, this being a survival game, you’re told fairly little about what you actually have to do. Building, fighting, managing your health, hunger and thirst are all things that you have to learn through trial and error. There is still the hard edge that survival fans love, but Funcom have worked to ease some of the inaccessibility that can all too easily hamper the genre for newcomers.
Joel explained, “I think there’s several thing that we can do, and we’re still working on it. You’ll notice that we have the tips on screen in the bottom right to tell you which buttons to press – that’s new and not there in the live game – and we have the Journey steps on screen, which if you open them in the menu, they tell you pretty clearly what to do. In general, we’ve tried to make it a lot more accessible.”
He continued, “Some survival games it’ll start and it’ll be pitch black and you’re getting killed by a monster seconds after you start. Several of us had that experience and we talked about it and said, ‘OK, let’s make it so that players never spawn in the dark.’ So you always spawn in the desert and it’s always daytime, even if you’re on a server where it’s currently night time. We try to give you hints on where to go as well, so hopefully the road makes it clear…
“The thing is survival genre people like that, where you’re dropped into nowhere, so we want to do that without being heavy handed about it. If you look at our SteamSpy circle of overlap, on about 50% of people who own Conan Exiles have actually played a survival game, and 50% have bought it because it’s a Conan game, it’s a Funcom game. So we need to be slightly more accessible than the other games, but it’s half of our audience where you don’t want them to start the game and go ‘Oh, this is handholding bullshit.'”
Even with all of that, there’s still a mild sense of aimlessness the first time you play, and I initially struggled a bit with the rough edges of the survival genre. Having killed a creature for the first time, I had no idea that I needed to hit it one more time with a machete in order to “Harvest” from it, but once I had figured this out, a running battle with one of the big turtle-like gorilla creatures ended with me guzzling all of my food to heal up and then dying from blood poisoning. Similarly, the need to put building materials into my quick menu before being able to place them had me stumped for longer than I like to admit.
However, it doesn’t take long to get to grips with what you need to do. Your character levels up rapidly and you can drop those points into different attributes such as Grit, Strength or Vitality, getting buffs to your character from this, such as increased accuracy or lowered encumbrance. Similarly, you quickly earn points to spend on Knowledge that unlocks new tools like a more durable iron pickaxe, a better fire to cook on, farming, and how to construct some of the baffling number of different roof tiles for your house and respawn point. Honestly, the number of roof pieces you can build is impressive, but it’s one of the areas that just adds clutter to the crafting system.
Another key area that Funcom have overhauled since the game’s early days is the combat. Instead of basic, straightforward attacks, you now have much more of an action RPG feeling as you can lock on and your character strings together a chain of more interesting looking hits with their weapon through standard attacks and special attacks, blocks with a shield, and dodge rolling.
“People were expecting better things [from the combat],” Joel admitted. “I wouldn’t say I was blindsided by it, but when I played it I’d say ‘This is OK.’ and I should have been saying, ‘This needs to be really good.’ I think our thought was that it’s good enough. It was better than what most of the survival genre has in melee, because most of them have just one action, and now we have a couple of swings, to give it a different feel, and then we have shields and things. The feedback was that no, it’s Conan game more than a survival game, so it needs to have good combat and people were really adamant about that.”
As I compared it to an action RPG in this version of the game, he replied, “Yeah, and it wasn’t, it was Skyrim-esque. It was first person swing, swing, swing, and it wasn’t particularly deep or tactical. Now you have a full combo system with full movement, target lock on systems, and while I wouldn’t say it’s a Dark Souls type of thing because that would be crazy, but it’s certainly drawn inspiration from some of the more popular action games of the last few years. We’ve looked at them all and talked about how ”
With this being an online game, you’re potentially predator or prey to other players if you head onto one of the PvP servers. I remember being chased for a long time by another player after I’d wandered just a little bit too close to their house, but later in the game, you’ll likely have banded together with others in clans, carved out territory to call your own and built imposing fortresses to defend it with.
That can lead to some huge battles between rival groups, with Funcom creating a bespoke scenario for us to dive into and explore the extremes. Trebuchets were flinging stones back and forth almost immediately, with the defending team heading out from the fortress to destroy it as soon as possible. It was here that we got to play with late game armour and weapons, exploring more of the combat’a variety.
Then the summoning of the gods of this fantasy world – Crom, Mitra and Set to name just a few – turned this to chaos, as titanic bronze forms appeared out of thin air and crushed the walls they towered over. They’re balanced by being on a timer and you being able to see the summoning tokens on the world map, so that defenders can counter incoming enemies You’re also able to see the rise of other groups on a server as well.
Joel said, “It depends on the server. We [at Funcom] all play the live game, and one of the guys who’s in an alpha clan, which is a clan that rules a server essentially, they crush anybody who shows up on their server with a tier 3 altar. We show the altars on the map that can create gods, so the minute they see that, they go after them and it turns into these huge wars of attrition where, yeah, they’ll get that person’s god, but then that person builds another base over here, put a fake god thing there, to draw them over… ”
One thing’s clear, and that’s that Funcom want the full release on Conan Exiles on 8th May to be a really meaningful one, bringing in more accessible systems, a new swamp to explore and plenty more. As Joel stated, “You see it with Early Access a lot where games sort of trickle into release […] but the difference between the live game that’s on Steam now and the launch game that you’ve been playing today, there’s a big wide gap in the play experience. I’m really excited to see what players make of it when we actually launch it.”