Open world survival was once the hot ticket, occupying the space in which battle royale currently resides. Ironically, both genres are in their heyday as Early Access promises are turning into shipped products. Conan Exiles is another such title, and it manages to do quite a bit to distinguish itself from its peers.
Veteran developer Funcom has been making games since their inception way back in 1993, so they aren’t just a start up capitalizing on a trend. They have a huge range of games under their belts, from adventure classics like The Longest Journey to MMOs like The Secret World and even a few Conan MMOs from about a decade ago. From that pedigree you could assume some amount of expertise in delivering an open world Conan experience. The results are a little mixed.
First of all, the Conan setting does great justice to the open world survival genre. Now, this isn’t Conan: The Adventurer or Conan: The Barbarian/Conquerer homages, but is instead based off of the source material: the comic book series that spawned the titular barbarian. You don’t play as Conan, but you do run into him from time-to-time. Instead, you play as someone exiled into the desert on the outskirts of ancient ruins occupied by nothing but memories, forgotten treasures, and all manners of beasts and horrors awaiting hapless adventurers.
Conan Exiles feels like the skin of a survival game that was stretched over and fitted onto the bones of an MMO. This isn’t a bad thing, as the huge open world has a whole lot to explore. Sometimes it does feel like a theme park with the separate areas with their different biomes within short running distance to one another, but these areas are packed with interesting sites, lore bits, and lots of areas to build on and claim as your own. Exploring in Conan Exiles can be a treat with lots of neat structures to discover and explore. Walls are scalable in a fashion similar to Breath of the Wild with only stamina restrictions preventing you from scaling infinitely. This climb everything mechanic makes combat interesting as well, as you can just jump off of a cliff and grab the sheer rock face to slow your descent, making for some pretty cool action movie-like moves.
As I previously mentioned, you start as an exile, crucified in the desert and left for dead. Also, based on your nudity settings, naked as the day you were born. In common with other open world survival games ARK: Survival Evolved and RUST, Conan Exiles doesn’t shy away from nudity. Of course, if you’re not a fan of enemies or other players coming after you with flapping penises or bolt-on porn star breasts, you can always opt-out of full nudity. I only put such emphasis on this because Conan Exiles’ art style is so reminiscent of classic MMOs it’s as jarring as seeing, say, a fully nude Orc strutting around Azeroth. Also, the representation of nudity in these games, though not necessarily gratuitous, isn’t necessarily progressive either.
Nudity isn’t the only similarity between Conan Exiles and other survival games RUST and ARK: Survival Evolved. Funcom seems to have taken a bit from each of these games, to mixed results. There is an experience system that allows you to spent points on various attributes such as Strength, Vitality, etc. But there is also a system that allows you to spend experience to purchase crafting recipes in a system that is similar to ARK’s engrams. Character progression is pretty steady, though it does feel slower than other similar titles. Fortuitously, there is a system in place that guides players along and ensures they hit all the major beats while so doing laid out in your “journey.”
The Journey system works both a quest line and an achievement list. Broken down into chapters, you work through each of the tasks until you complete a chapter and move onto the next. These tasks don’t have to be completed in order. In fact, due to Conan Exiles’ inherently nonlinear nature it’s possible to complete tasks in a chapter far forward of the one you’re currently working on. These tasks range from the introductory “build a shelter” to some pretty advanced end game stuff. There is a story and an ending, so to speak, but the narrative isn’t really the driving force in this survival game.
Building and crafting are major components of Conan Exiles. It’s how you get everything from clothing to the all-important weapons. Crafting allows you to create some truly epic items, but even making starting armors as a solo player can be time intensive. Different recipes are locked behind the aforementioned tiered-system, but there is also a building requirement often attached. To smelt metals, for instance, you need a furnace. To do this, you have to have a secured base, hidden away from potential threats. Even if you’re offline, your character, buildings, etc. persist and can be tampered with and destroyed. Of course, with the proper skills and equipment, you can always enslave NPCs as thralls, and have them help craft and defend.
Most threats in Conan Exiles don’t come from the various creatures you can find throughout the land. Instead, as always, other players are the deadliest foe you will encounter. Either solitary or grouped together by the in-game clan system, players will often kill on-site, grief, or otherwise attempt to make your life miserable. And rightly so! The exile wastes are not for the weak. But then again, there are always the official PvE servers, and even an option to play in singleplayer or invite-only cooperative mode—a rare departure from the genre’s norm of always online.
Unfortunately, the combat isn’t always up to snuff. There are a ton of different weapons that you can potentially craft, each with their own move sets. Rolling dodges work similarly to Dark Souls and other similar games, with stamina an ongoing consideration. Unlike Dark Souls, however, the animations don’t translate well to this sort of combat. It’s hard to tell which moves enemies are meant to be telegraphing, sometimes on their feet and attacking instantly from a supine position. It’s not entirely skill-less, but feels too imprecise to be described as skill-based.
The beasts in Conan Exiles range from the mundane to the fantastical; from the small to the towering player-controlled god avatars, but when I said that the threats in Conan Exiles comes from the players, I don’t mean that in the usual way. The AI in Conan Exiles is awful. It’s just so incredibly dumb. Most enemies fruitlessly chase you once aggro’d, following you in a mostly straight line, and attacking so slowing you can easily run out of their path. Most enemies are fooled simply by going up onto an elevated surface they can’t climb onto.
Just like any other survival game, you must eat and drink to survive. Food is extremely plentiful, and it is even easier to obtain and eat food that won’t make you sick if you devote skill points to it. Temperature is a consideration, as well, as you venture out of the hotter areas and into the more inhospitable cold zones. Item weight is also a constant consideration.
The presentation of Conan Exiles is also a little lacking. The art style makes the game feel older than it is, like everything is laminated in plastic. And while it runs well enough, everything from the movement animations to the way your character latches onto walls feels ever-so-slight unpolished. This is okay, though, as all of the game’s systems seem to work the way they’re meant to. The voice acting can be distractingly terrible in places, but thankfully, not something you will spend little time being subjected to.
Conan Exiles works as a survival game, and it’s an interesting oddity being a survival game with a license attached to it. It uses its IP well, though, and manages to represent the world of Conan well. If you’re a fan of Conan, or a fan of survival games, you might like this. Otherwise, Conan Exiles might not do much to convince you to love either Conan franchise or the survival genre.
Conan Exiles is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
A copy of this game was provided to us for review purposes