Let me just say one thing: the survival genre is my niche. I’m a veteran whose delved into unknown depths in the world of Subnautica to going toe-to-toe with bloodthirsty dodos in Ark: Survival Evolved, with nothing more than a slingshot to defend myself. There’s nothing I can’t bring down, explode, build, or conquer…at least the genre has always made me feel this way. In real life, however, I’d probably be trying to boot my computer up during a zombie apocalypse.
Set in the high fantasy world created by Robert E. Howard (the books – sadly, Arnold Schwarzenegger is nowhere to be found here) Funcom’s Conan Exiles offers newcomers and veterans to the genre alike an interesting experience with easily recognizable concepts, but adds a few new mechanics to keep it engaging.
Still in the Early Access stages, there’s certainly many bug fixes and updates needed to polish to make Conan Exiles acceptable to Crom, and I’ll be poking at the major issues and various bugs encountered thus far, do take them with a grain of salt.
Survival games, in my experience, either have a storyline that unfolds over time – or none whatsoever. Conan Exiles conquers its premise with a large sandstorm bearing down and savage dragon dog beasts attacking right from the start. Overall, this makes for a pretty strong introduction to the harsh, brutal world we’re about to enter and spend some time with.
Waking up on a cross in the middle of a desert is hardly ideal, but at least being alive is something, right? The ‘crimes’ a person can be charged with in this world is completely randomized, ranging from piracy to incorrect use of grammar (I take great offense here, it was one semi-colon off!) before being tossed into the world to fend for themselves. Followed up with some well-done narrative from a god and past survivors who perished in the desert, the world of Conan and all its dark magic is opened up to be explored and conquered.
Conan Exiles brings a few elements to the table I’ve come to recognize in this genre, yet still retains its own flavor. Survivors are dropped off in a starter area rich in resources like food, water, and other basic supplies. There’s the usual spending an hour picking up every twig, rock, and bush in sight. Attempting to craft basic weaponry and clothes is a real challenge at first; it won’t be long before you’re running in a mad panic from monsters like a pack of hyenas to mutated men with bulbous protrusions growing from their back. One misstep means losing all items and progress made. The only caveat is you’re able to keep levels and any recipes learned. Recipes!
Those who are able to get past the gauntlet can find a quiet, safe area to focus on building. Conan Exiles seems to take a page out of Rust’s book for its building mechanics by using a blueprint system to outline an object. When constructing walls there’s helpful text guiding your progress, and anything from walls to foundations can be rotated in this mode, leaving the potential for customized buildings and large bases.
I found the best experience and performance came from playing on a server and this is where I spent most of my adventure. My single-player campaign suffered from constant performance drops at random times, which made it difficult to navigate this fantasy world and to survive for more than ten minutes. The server I played on was relatively stable, but there was significant lag at odd times.
I also had the misfortune Conan Exiles crashing on me at random times, possibly due to my PC throwing a fit or a server hiccup. On the other hand, I enjoyed the idea of ‘safety in numbers’, as having other players around did help me focus on building my base and general peace-of-mind.
Personally speaking, as someone who always starts off in a box, I encountered a few creative builds during my explorations. Dwellings can also be built into the environment itself, like on the side of a cliff, around or inside a permanent fixture in the environment, and just about any place a few foundations can fit.
Another small touch I loved is the ability to pick up items even when weapons or tools are equipped. Ark: Survival Evolved is a fine example of not allowing players to pick up a simple rock on the ground if they have any tool other than a torch attached. Conan Exiles allows players to pick up rocks, harvest shrubs, and do all those small tasks that would normally leave a survivor vulnerable to attack. Considering how everything was trying to kill me during the first five hours, it was a nice touch to be able to harvest with my weapon in hand.
There’s the usual cascade of different weaponry and armor available at the survivor’s disposal from the usual hatchet and pick to dual wielding daggers and two-handed swords. Personally, I always go with the good ol’ bow and arrow combination with a sword and a shield as backup for close encounters. The types of materials used for crafting each set of weapons affects their durability and damage, so there’s plenty of reason to upgrade to bigger and better weaponry.
Perhaps the biggest change Conan Exiles brings to the survival genre is the ability to summon gods and enslave NPCS. Appropriate, given this is the world of Conan the Barbarian, after all. Players can summon a particular god by building a shrine and having a high-level priest of that religious sect pray or go through the ritual. Once the god is summoned they’re basically invincible and are an excellent asset in raiding situations.
Choosing the desert as a backdrop for survival can be tricky to pull off; I’ve encountered the idea once and it didn’t leave me with a good experience. Still, developer Funcom handles it well here, excellently balancing resources available while still immersing me in this dry and deadly world. Trees are rich and green with foliage, growing just a little higher than the average person. Shrubs look like tumbleweeds that have stopped in place and even the rocks have a dusty, sandstone appearance to them.
From massive broken bridges to the crumbling ruins of a vast civilization, it’s truly an impressive sight. This adds a real weight to the world I don’t see all that often. This world is dry and resources are hard to come by, and it’s easy to imagine why almost every creature (or character) you’ll encounter is hostile towards survivors the moment they poke their head out the door. This encourages exploration and there were more than a few times I came across a new area or building I hadn’t expected to see.
Environments aside, it’s the technical side of things I had the hardest time dealing with trying to survive. There were constant frame rate drops, enemies chasing me well after I’ve left their line of sight and fled a long distance, and the movement of the sparse creatures inhabiting the world. Granted, I expect creatures will start to feel more ‘alive’ as Conan Exiles is updated so the desert feels more like a functioning ecosystem in the future.
Even with these caveats, I will say there’s never a dull moment. The first few hours can be frustrating, especially when trying to build up a decent amount of supplies or just throwing down a starter base. Other elements like the sandstorm that sweeps through once in a while left me awestruck. While the AI and interaction of the creatures and NPCS leaves much to be desired, the upside is their pathfinding is damn impressive.
Even in its Early Access state, Conan Exiles has a long way to go before it’s a fully finished product, but the potential is there for a truly amazing experience. The environments, building mechanics, and even the leveling system feel mostly finished and well-polished. How the AI reacts and reacts felt more like being trolled by a mean-spirited player rather than a real survival situation, but I’m hoping this improves over time with patches and feedback. As of now, it’s still a good experience with a few friends and a good server.