At a glance, it is incredible that the stories of Robert E. Howard’s barbarian have so much staying power in today’s pop culture. While I might not completely agree with Stephen King’s dismissal of them, it’s true that the stories about Conan are mostly mediocre and full of unsavoury things like social Darwinism, subtle and not so subtle racism and other questionable tropes from the early 20th century. Narrative crutches like damsels in distress and dialogue that serves no other purpose than to be exposition are also things that plague the Cimmerian’s adventures.
Yet, the popularity of the character endures and there have been some excellent adaptations of the stories over the years, like the original movie directed by John Milius and the Dark Horse comics. There has also been some pretty atrocious stuff like the cartoon, the sequel to Milius’ film and a TV series.
Game wise, the adaptations have been scarce and far between, which is baffling since the world that Conan inhabits is made for a video game setting.
For me, the appeal of Conan has never been the barbarian, king, pirate (or whatever Howard wanted him to be that week) himself but rather the world which he inhabits. The Hyborian Age, set thousands of years in the past, before our own recorded history, is filled with proto versions of the cultures we know today. You have mysterious Stygians(Egyptians), stalwart Aquilonians (Greeks/Romans), brooding Cimmerians(Celts) and restless Aesir (Nordics) to name a few. It is a world in constant decay and ruin. Wherever Conan wanders, there are ancient structures poking out of the sand and cyclopean temples to explore.
Today, we often think of time as development and progress, a steady climb upwards. Yet for most of our history this has not been the case. Only a few hundred years ago, there were ruins and structures being discovered that puzzled historians and well as engineers (some would argue this is still the case). The books use this feeling of wonderment for what came before to great effect and, in this sense, Exiles is an excellent adaptation. The land is completely littered with ancient ziggurats, broken aqueducts and mysterious cave ruins that remind you that ancient people ,as well as other things, once ruled these lands.
Conan Exiles has come a long way since its Early Access days but there’s still plenty of jank and things that do not work properly. Like many other games in the genre such as ARK: Survival Evolved you will spend a great portion of your time gathering resources and building structures and workbenches.
You start out collecting simple logs and stones but are soon forced to start refining hides to leather, stone to bricks and, iron to steel and so on. The system is well thought out and there are plenty of resources that are used for further refinement and it constantly gives you something to strive for. Building structures and houses is fun and intuitive, but it is not without its problems, such as it not being completely clear why you can or can’t build in certain instances. There are also still plenty of bugs to pull your hair out over, most irritating is the durability of buildings. One time my friend and I came back to our base only to find most of it gone: all houses, benches and chests with material, hours of work undone. Apparently, it is some bug that makes all durability of structures disappear suddenly, and this means anything connected to that structure goes down with it.
Frustrating, but not as irritating as having durability not be graphically represented in the first place. There is nothing to warn you that the walls of your house are about to fall apart, so in order to check this, you need to equip a repair hammer and manually go over everything you have built. Once you have built a sizable base, this can be tedious. After the bug incident my buddy and I decided to turn the mechanic off completely, which you can do through a server admin page.
The core gameplay loop of gathering resources, running back to your base to either build with them or process them is strangely satisfying. In a similar fashion I sensed an irrational sense of pride after building a bridge or an elevator to speed up these scavenger hunts. Conan exiles also does a great job in making you explore to get rare resources and materials for high level crafting. I soon found myself desperately scouring ancient ruins and deep caverns, contesting with all manner of beasts and monsters for brimstone or other valuables.
A feature that is fun and interesting in Conan Exiles is the use of thralls. Instead of killing enemies, you knock them out with a club, drag them back to your base, break them on the wheel of Pain and you have yourself a thrall. Once the thrall is done, you can place them in your base for defense or at a workstation to speed things up while also gaining access to culture specific crafting. Though, as fun as it is to capture people, the system is plagued with bugs and glitches.
Most irritating is the rope not working if you must climb or swim, so if you accidentally drop your knocked-out guy in water he is destined to drown. Another bothersome thing is that thralls are basically statues, not moving a muscle until a threat comes within their activation range. It obviously feels very stiff, I would have loved to see them being able to collect basic resources, patrol an area or you know, move, just a little bit. They also have a knack for falling through structures or just vanishing without a trace. Again, this is better than it used to be, but the game still has a long way to go.
Conan Exiles touts itself as being fully playable as a single-player experience and while it is light years ahead of its competition in that department, it will require some assembly before working. The game is simply balanced towards a multiplayer setting. The time it takes to gather resources and refining them is way too long if you are playing alone. This, and other flaws can be mitigated if you dig through the admin options mentioned above. It works somewhat well after some tweaks, but it is hard to get the balance just right without making it too easy or hard.
There is also no story to speak of: you are an exile who was saved by the titular hero and apart from that there isn’t much more. That said, as you travel through the world you meet NPCs and locations that hint at having something of substance to tell, so there might be kind of a story here eventually.
Having at least one friend with you will make a world of difference and coop is really fun in that low key ‘let’s go out and get ourselves some thralls’ kind of way. Though, playing with a friend can be perilous. I don’t know how many times I have managed to cleave my companions in twain or bashed their brains out with a club, by mistake, of course. It doesn’t help that the lock-on targeting favors players instead of monsters either. While it can be frustrating, it also leads to some hilarious moments.
Conan Exiles’ biggest strength is in the way it has used its source material. The world feels like the one envisioned by Howard and it is full of ancient monsters, cannibals and powerful gods. Now they have also added a purge system that is basically a way to slap you down if you start getting too powerful. Once you reach a certain level of advancement, the game will spawn mobs to attack your settlement, which is a nice way to make sure that you also need to think about defenses when building outposts in both single and multiplayer. This is flawed too though, you meet NPCs that give you tasks and hint at having stories to tell but they don’t seem to have been fully implemented yet. Likewise, a lot of dungeons end at a big stone door that won’t open making it ripe for future expansions.
Graphically, the game looks great and fights can be visceral and bloody with body parts flying everywhere. The added ability to climb almost any surface also make you able to take in the gorgeous draw distance and expansive vistas as you stand on top of a mountain or cliff. The different areas all feel distinct and the transition between them is handled well and never feel jarring. I played Conan Exiles on PC and it runs fine on a 1070 or equivalent, but I have talked with a lot of people who have had trouble keeping a steady framerate. This seems to be more of an optimisation issue that might get fixed in the future since the console versions seems to be running fine.
Conan Exiles is a surprisingly fun game that still has some issues that needs to be fixed. Looking at how the Early Access build panned out though, it seems like Funcom is on the right track and maybe a year from now the game will feel more complete. What is there now is still fun and with friends it can be a blast, but people should know that it simply isn’t finished yet. I see great potential in this world from an age undreamed of, and perhaps one day it can truly be a place of high adventure as well.
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Conan Exiles is a pretty good game with some excellent visuals, but while the Early Access was perhaps 50% there, the full release only reaches about 75%. Perhaps one day it will reach 100.
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