Conan Exiles Preview – Despite Flaws, The Future Looks Bright in the Exiled Lands
In 2008, Funcom sought to jump-start the legendary Conan franchise with MMORPG Age of Conan. Despite a positive reception, it failed to catch fire. Now, they look to take another hatchet-swing with brutal open world survival entry Conan Exiles. I’ve had a chance to check out the game in Early Access, and I was left pretty impressed – sure, it’s got some expected issues in this Alpha stage, but there is lot to like as well.
Anyone who has played Ark: Survival Evolved or Rust will be right at home in Conan Exiles from the start. After choosing your player’s gender (including the much-discussed – ahem – “genital customization” for both sexes) as well as religion and race, you find yourself plopped in the middle of a desert, naked and afraid, without a clue as to what to do first. Funcom offers no tutorial other than the vague instruction to “follow the roads,” so it’s up to you to get moving before you get beaten to death by whatever awaits you out there in the Exiled Lands’ harsh environs. Sure, you might want to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women – but in Conan Exiles, your first priority is just to not die.
“Anyone who has played Ark: Survival Evolved or Rust will be right at home in Conan Exiles from the start.”
In typical Minecraft fashion, you learn to gather resources such as plants and rocks to craft necessary items – like a pair of pants to put on before your girlfriend walks in the room. Conan Exiles adds some RPG elements too though, as you earn EXP and level up for pretty much everything you do (“I gained a level for picking weeds? Sweet!”). New levels give you access to better recipes, such as armor and weapons. I like the way you need to spend points to unlock recipes – it makes for some interesting choices as to what to focus on. Will you work towards more advanced building recipes, or better armor and weapons?
After the disorienting start, you learn fast and the levels seem to climb quickly at first. However, I found that there is a pretty severe plateau that sets in after level 10 or so, and you find yourself grinding, gathering and inventory-managing like a slave in the Wheel of Pain. Funcom might want to work at smoothing-out the progression a little bit, to make it a bit more gradual and balanced. And the lack of a tutorial, while nice in that the game lets you have the satisfaction of learning for yourself, can be a problem at times. For example, I was completely unaware of the fact that I needed a certain weapon to harvest hides from animals (yes, I am slow). A little mouse-over hint message attached to tools would be nice. And a huge tip for you: build a new bed each time you respawn, as they disappear after one use – trust me, that little tidbit cost me a lot of progress to learn the hard way.
As mentioned earlier, Conan Exiles is not all gathering and building – the Exiled Lands are a dangerous place with lots of NPCs and monsters that want to chase you down and stomp you into mush on sight. These mobs range from the disgusting but relatively-innocuous imps (which can be felled by a few punches) to more dangerous barbarians and predatory animals that will be out of your league much of the time. And I’ll be damned if they don’t all seem to love hanging out around the sources of water and food that you desperately need. Go figure, right?
I would say that combat in general is probably the weakest part of the game right now. NPC enemies have a large aggro distance, so you can expect to be attacked as soon as you are spotted. They also seem to prioritize killing you over each other, so if you are going at it with a human NPC, any animals in the area will gang up on you and ignore your opponent in a most unfair way. When in combat, movement is clunky for both parties; you can’t dodge attacks, and enemies stand in front of you just swinging stupidly. Each encounter becomes basically a hack and slash battle of attrition, and the math usually doesn’t work in your favor. To make matters worse, I found that attackers could hit me from a longer distance than I could hit them, resulting in lots of cheap hits and even deaths.
“I would say that combat in general is probably the weakest part of the game right now.”
As for gameplay, Conan Exiles clearly shares a lot of similarities with Ark and other survival games. But a few innovations aim to set Funcom’s entry apart. For one thing, instead of taming animals, in Conan Exiles you can capture and enslave NPCs using what’s called the Thrall system. By knocking out and dragging someone back to your hut, you can make them work for you, or help defend you. It’s a unique – and barbaric – twist that certainly adds some spice to the experience. Religion can also be a deep layer if you get into it, with the ability to summon avatars to help you in battle.
Much has been said early on about Conan Exiles’ issues with lag and rubber banding. In my play-time, I can say I did not experience either problem very often. There were a few moments of lag and frame-rate drop when a few humans were within sight, but it was not game-breaking. My technical quibbles with the game so far are in the physics and animations, which still need some work. Human NPCs, for example, stand like statues around campfires, showing no movement until triggered by your presence. In addition, they sometimes float over the ground rather than fully walking. They can also apparently see through walls, as I had a few of them swinging madly at me through the wall of my hut whenever I got close.
Animals show some weird aspects as well; alligators will chase you and kill you on land, but oddly, can’t follow you into the water (thank Crom). On the other hand, while Shalebacks aren’t supposed to be able to go in water, I once had one trail me right into the river, walking along the bottom without drowning. There are lots of such little graphic bugs in Conan Exiles in its current state – none of them ruin the experience though, thankfully. Graphically, Conan Exiles is not the prettiest game around, but it already matches the polish of its longer-established rivals, and that’s saying something.
Despite its little rough edges, the world of Conan Exiles, even in its Alpha state, is already an interesting, fun place to explore. A huge map (of which I only saw the South) offers different animals and biomes (with more on the way, apparently) that invite you to move around and not stick to one base. What this game also offers is the promise of the rich Conan lore, that other games like Ark and Rust can’t match. Funcom doesn’t pack the game with story yet – there are subtle references to it in roadside inscriptions and massive, distant statues – but as the game grows, there is the truly exciting possibility of seeing this world grow and deepen with a narrative adventure to go alongside the survival grind. I am excited to see how that unfolds going forward.
Conan Exiles has just hit Early Access, and I am pleased to say that it is already a pretty solid, enjoyable experience. Funcom has also been amazing so far in constantly updating and patching the game, so the lagginess and other technical flaws are being smoothed out quickly. They have also said that they have big plans for huge cities bustling with activity, and other content additions. So, while some might dismiss it as an Ark or Rust knock-off, there is the possibility of Conan Exiles becoming much more over time. By Crom, the future of the Exiled Lands looks bright, and with regular fixes and improvements, this open-world survival game will hopefully get even better.