Conan Exiles is a survival game with everything that implies. That means you’ll be spending large amounts of time gathering staggering amounts of materials, whether for building or for sustenance, and it means being given little direction and being dropped into a very large map. I state all of this up front, as this particular type of gameplay is not for everyone and all of Conan’s strongest aspects are found at the end of long periods of resource gathering and travelling.
The game starts with you creating a character, picking a race and a religion, choosing how nude you want to be, and choosing the size of either your penis or boobs – you know, the usual character creation stuff. After this, Conan the Barbarian approaches from the desert whilst monologuing as he cuts you down from the crucifix to which you were nailed and left to die. He’s there for moments before sending you on your way to wandering through the starting desert area and scavenge for plant fibres so you can craft some leggings. I recommend doing this, because if you’re a naked man your penis won’t stop flopping around when you run and it’s very distracting.
You may have picked up on one of Conan’s strengths here, and no, it’s not the genitalia. The world of Conan the Barbarian is a well realised and brutally dark setting, and that allows Exiles to do things that most other games won’t allow you to. You can, for example, kill some animals, hit them with a pick axe to harvest their delicious bits of meat, cook them, then eat them. Relatively normal, right? You can also do this to human NPCs found in camps dotted around the map and it turns out that cannibalism is actually a good way to survive. Not weird enough for you? If you die and respawn, you can return to your corpse, harvest your own delicious bits, cook them and eat them. You can also use your own disembodied leg to beat people to death.
It’s a little bit quirky. The parts of the game that really separate Conan:Exiles from other survival games are very much a part of the setting. One of the game’s most intriguing aspects is, in addition to building houses and castles from the endless trees and rocks you will be harvesting, being able to staff your buildings and various crafting benches with NPCs. These NPCs are found relaxing in their own camps, where you can approach with a big truncheon, knock them unconscious, bind them with a rope and drag them back to your base. Just stick them in a Wheel of Pain and brainwash them until their your thrall and they’ll happily man a crafting table, or defend an area.
It’s a slightly strange thing to carry out, but what it gives you is the means to create an army of thralls to defend your base, or access to crafting recipes that only particular artisans found around the world can provide. Unfortunately, whilst the idea has a lot of promise, its execution is lacking. Archers and warriors that you abduct are unreliable, at best. The former requires enemies to come within an almost comically small range of about four metres before they start shooting with their supposedly ranged weapons, even from a higher vantage point, whereas the latter have been known to wander off whilst chasing an enemy and never return. That is assuming they haven’t died because the player is unable to heal them at the moment.
The game’s progression requires the building of a base, but the materials for the upper tiers of equipment and construction materials are found only in particular parts of the map. Your options are to build a base and use it to upgrade your gear, then either go on lengthy excursions to distant lands and return with materials, or simply build a whole other base there, effectively abandoning your original home and all the materials and time you have invested into it. Maintaining multiple bases would add even more busy work and travelling in a game that falls on the larger end of the survival genre scale. Not to mention that your constructions decay when you’re away for a long time, allowing other players to destroy it if you are playing on a server.
In a procedurally generated survival game like Minecraft, you can choose to settle wherever you like safe in the assumption that you will be able to find most materials nearby, as that is how the game is designed. Conan uses one map with materials in specific places – iron, for example, is found around mountains, so if you want to settle in the desert despite sand being coarse, irritating, and getting everywhere, then you will have to go on long commutes to the mountain whenever you need iron. Minecraft also benefits from being able to actually mine and plant trees, rather than combing the surface for rocks and trees to hit with a pickaxe and venturing further and further until they respawn.
There is a single player mode and the ability to play co-op, but the game clearly leans toward a multiplayer experience with PxP and PxE modes available. Lag seems to be an issue for me, even on servers with low pings and considering my 100Mb connection, which is an issue not only with combat but also just getting around. In particular when navigating stairways and slightly finicky areas of buildings that you’ve built, a small amount of ever-present rubber-banding often results in you walking up and down stairs repeatedly instead of exiting at the top or bottom like you should have, or you simply walk off a cliff and fall to your death because you didn’t stop moving when you let go of the analog stick.
Despite this, there is a particular joy in seeing vast player made castles littering servers. Huge walls blocking valleys where iron is abundant are common and they quickly become a curious challenge as you try to climb your way past them. There are a wealth of options for building that allows for some pretty impressive structures if you invest the time, including some interior design with a surprising number of tables, rugs, and other decorative options, should that be your thing. I’ve seen huge castles connected together by horizontal elevators and buildings that hang over the side of mountains with only a vertical lift for access, though they are outnumbered by small shacks that often litter the landscape.
All of this is presented through a passable looking game. Player models and constructed items are usually reasonably sharp and nicely textured, but the environment itself is not, with blurry textures on everything that isn’t an animal. This includes the trees and rocks you will be spending so much time staring at as you chip away at them.
Then there are bugs. Enemies occasionally fall through the floor when you knock them out, you clip through mountains whilst climbing them, and gathering stone can be finicky due to what appears to be hitbox issues on the rocks themselves. Some enemies also suffer from hitbox issues, particularly the crocodile-like Komodo, a lizard that your character attacks only the dead center of, usually clipping through its head or tail in the process. Then there are sound desynchronisation issues, where actions you are taking are dead silent whilst you are taking them, but then all the sounds play at once a few seconds later. Combat is functional, but relies on one combo attack per weapon type, and the certain parts of these combos can consistently miss the enemy you are locked on to due to the way it falls.
There are more bugs than these, but these ones stand out. Perhaps in an early access game these bugs can get a pass, but Conan Exiles is supposed to be a full release at this point. It’s supposed to be a £45 game.
As you play more of Conan Exiles and access higher tier items, it becomes more and more clear that there was serious potential here. The survival aspects of the game are fun, provided survival is your thing, and it brings some new ideas and features to the table. The thrall system in particular is interesting, but ultimately fails in its execution. Considering its price, I can’t help but feel the package and its quality is a little lacking.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 – Also available on Xbox One & PC