It's difficult to talk about Conan Exiles without mentioning ARK Survival Evolved. Both games share an engine, many gameplay mechanics, and the genre, popularized by games such as Minecraft and Day-Z.
As a multiplayer game revolving around survivalism, crafting, and open-world shenanigans, I found myself wondering what new gameplay aspects (if anything) Conan Exiles would bring to the table. Using preview PC codes provided by Funcom for its early-access alpha test, I thrust myself into the merciless world of Hyboria, ready to craft my way to success.
What exactly is Conan Exiles?
Conan Exiles is set in the fictional world of Conan the Barbarian, created by Robert E. Howard. Conan has been adapted into various forms, from comic books to movies, and of course, video games. And Conan Exiles isn't the first time Funcom adapted the mythos into a multiplayer game.
Age of Conan was launched in 2008, and there was a fair amount of buzz at the time within the MMO community. Sadly, the game struggled out of the gate, plagued by bugs and server issues. Eventually, it went free-to-play in 2011, and continued development saw it turn into quite a solid game that is still enjoying updates today, nearly 10 years after launch.
Conan Exiles treads familiar territory, as a multiplayer title set in the same universe, but it shares far more in common with the likes of Minecraft and ARK: Survival Evolved than World of Warcraft, for its emphasis on construction and crafting.
Conan Exiles is currently in Early Access on Steam, utterly shattering Funcom's yearly sales projections in a single month. The game is slated to come to Xbox One in the near future, too, adding another timed exclusive into the mix. Conan Exiles needs to answer two crucial questions, though: Exactly how is it different than existing survive-'em-ups on the market? And why should Xbox gamers care?
Bear in mind when reading this that the game is currently in an early access alpha. This is by no means a review of the game, because it's nowhere near finished. Take this more as some thoughts on its current state, with player feedback, and also to let you know what to expect if you decide to pick up the game on Steam.
Building a barbarian
For an early-access game, Conan Exiles seems to have the basics down fairly well. The character creator allows for a large amount of visual customization, including hair styles, body types, and quite famously, private endowment. Nudity is pervasive in Conan Exiles, and it's still unconfirmed whether or not that will make it into the Xbox One version in the future. The balls are in the Entertainment Software Rating Board's (ESRB) court on that one.
The character creator shrugs off early access conventions of being terrible by actually providing great-looking character options that fit suitably in the Conan universe. It immediately invites your immersion, which is a good thing in a game that broadly revolves around the fantasy of being an exile.
After you finish tailoring the visuals of your character, Conan himself frees you from crucifixion, and you're dumped into a vast desert with rapidly depleting survival meters.
I'm a (naked) survivor
Survival in Conan Exiles will be incredibly familiar if you have played ARK: Survival Evolved. You loot stones and branches from the floor to make a pickaxe, whack trees and rocks to get more materials, make camp fires, and cook meat.
Conan Exiles could have done something to change it up a little here because it all comes across like almost every other survival game out there. You can place your stat points to improve accuracy, survivability, strength, and so on, and EXP is generated by taking practically any action.
The sense of grind kicks in quite fast, as it does with ARK, because unlocking new crafting recipes works in exactly the same way. Level up, unlock recipes, level up some more, unlock recipes, and so on. Conan Exiles could use something more innovative in this area, considering the franchise's rich lore.
You will die if you don't tend to your thirst, hunger, and HP, but there's not a great deal to learn beyond that. The survival aspects feel a little less punishing than some of other games in this genre, making Exiles very accessible. The simplicity definitely needs to be dialed down in other areas, however.
A brutal world of carnage, death, and clicking
Probably the thing that hurts Conan Exiles the most in early access is its combat — or lack thereof. Combat in Conan Exiles consists of clicking, and more clicking, that's about it. As you click your foes to death, they explode into torrents of gore and huge pools of blood. Thankfully, the developer has plans to overhaul combat to make it a little less ... basic.
At least the monsters look awesome, plucked straight from the fantasy world Hyboria is set in. Eldritch beasts, giant spiders, and even recognizable creatures like gazelle and hyenas, are all present in Conan Exiles, giving its world a rich abundance of biodiversity. The environments are lovingly detailed too, rich with resources to plunder, ruins to explore, and camps to attack.
Conan Exiles wants to lean a bit further towards being an actual game rather than a soulless grindfest, providing dungeons, lore items to uncover, and NPCs to chat with.
The systems that govern these features are a little on the thin side right now, but when the game launches properly in early 2018, they should make Conan Exiles a rewarding title even if you don't plan to engage in the all-out PvP carnage.
Craft 'em up, smash 'em down
Conan Exiles makes heavy use of that EXP-for-crafting-recipes mechanic, which is derivative. But I'm not in a position to suggest alternatives. Eventually, you will hit a wall where you run out of things to build, and you have to head out into the world and smash creatures (or players) to level up. Going on an exploration expedition will help pass the time, particularly if you dive into one of the game's dungeons or enemy outposts.
Once you escape the newb desert, you'll find crafting resources practically everywhere. You can use trees and stone to build structures, and the animations for breaking rocks and chopping down trees are surprisingly dynamic. It can take a long time to get the materials needed to build anything meaningful, but Conan Exiles' construction engine is so awesome, that it might just be the most rewarding out there.
You can build practically anywhere in Conan Exiles, providing you're not building on anyone else's existing structure. You can build up on the sides of mountains or on top of rocky pillars, crafting huge settlements complete with city walls and other defenses. But of course, nothing is safe from the threat of war.
The game has a rudimentary religion system that allows in-game clans to worship various deities and gods. If you provide enough offerings, you can summon the gods themselves, and use them to sack enemy settlements. The system is in its infancy, but it's incredibly promising.
A recent patch also brought siege weapons to the game, allowing you to destroy enemy settlements in a more conventional way. You can fire exploding projectiles at buildings, but if you want to get a bit dastardly, you can also fire rotting corpses over the walls, to sew disease and pestilence.
The foundations are in place for Conan Exiles to be a stunning game that evolves that multiplayer-survival promise, but only if it can build on its weakest aspects in early access. Thankfully, Funcom has a pretty extensive roadmap planned.
Conan Exiles has nailed the fundamentals. The engine is well optimized on PC, running at 1080p on Ultra settings on my Razer Blade (2017) with ease. At present, the game supports servers that feature up to 40 players, and the official realms provided by Funcom are speedy and lag-free. To really prepare the game for the prime time, Funcom outlined various areas of improvement for the game.
They are as follows:
- Avatar defense: Future updates will allow you to set up countermeasures for specific gods, forming a rock-paper-scissors PvP system.
- Sorcery system: All Exiles start off as the game "class," which can be customized through stats. A future update will allow players to corrupt themselves, becoming sorcerers in the process. Sorcerers will have access to necromantic skills, demonic powers, and various other magical abilities to help out their clan.
- Farming systems: Conan Exiles has a thrall system, which allows you to stun, torture, and force NPCs to do your bidding. In the future, they'll be able to do much more, including farming and harvesting.
- "The Purge" NPC raids: In the future, NPC armies will gather at the borders and assault player's bases, forming Conan Exiles' "end game" content. Players will be able to build up defenses and enslave powerful characters from the world of Conan for their own clans.
- New biomes: The game will also include new biomes in the future, starting with a new highland mountainous area. This will also introduce temperature management into the survival systems you need to manage.
- More: Like other, similar games, Conan Exiles will enjoy continuous updates to keep players hooked, including new items, monsters, dungeons, and features.
Conan Exiles is shaping up to be an excellent addition to the Xbox One, but Funcom definitely needs to nail its development targets and build on the wonderful base it has put together already. Despite being in an alpha state, Exiles' engine already feels polished, while its building systems feel as though they could be the best in the business.
While sorcery sounds encouraging, I'd like to see Conan Exiles expand its character progression systems further, allowing players to specialize into specific playstyle roles. I think the game's combat also needs a complete and total overhaul. As of right now, it feels somewhere between basic and unimplemented. It has the core mechanics down, but the combat needs to feel as brutal and heavy-hitting as the franchise legacy suggests.
I think Conan Exiles could do a little more to avoid being called an ARK: Survival Evolved clone, too. The way crafting recipes are unlocked could be tied to a storyline instead, or even a specialization system or something beyond simply leveling up. This would help it to avoid the ARK: Survival Evolved label, while reducing the sense of grind and artificial longevity this type of gameplay instills. That said, plenty of people seem to enjoy it in ARK, so perhaps I'm simply becoming picky.
Either way, I know I'll be following Conan Exiles during the coming months. The potential is utterly immense — and it has naked people literally everywhere!
Conan Exiles is available on Early Access with Steam ($29.99) and is coming to Xbox One in the third quarter of 2017.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!