Thanks to titles like Minecraft, Day Z, Rust, and Ark: SE, the survival genre draws in a massive following of players. In the wake of these genre titans is a trail of unrealized ideas and early access flops, so it is easy to understand why the thought of playing yet another survival game is less than enticing. Funcom’s Conan Exiles launched into Steam Early Access back in early 2017 to some fanfare, but saw its player count crater by July. The development team hunkered down and set out to re-work and polish up various parts of the experience until the game officially released in early May. The results of the development team’s labor are remarkable. Conan Exiles delivers on the promise of an engaging survival experience. It crushes its enemies, sees them driven before it, and hears the lamentations of their women.
Using Sticks And Stones To Build Your Kingdom
If you’ve played any other survival game, the setup of Conan Exiles will be pretty familiar. You are dropped into a harsh and unforgiving world and must make use of the available resources to ensure your survival and eventual ascension to King (or Queen). In the early parts of the game, you must gather sticks and stones in order to create the most basic of survival tools. These tools allow you to gather a higher tier of resources and craft better tools. This loop is the foundation on which Conan Exiles (and Minecraft, etc) is built and the need for better materials is the driving force behind your expansion into all corners of the game’s large map.
Unlike Minecraft or other survival games which use procedurally generated maps or terrain, Conan Exiles has a single, static map. While this sounds limiting at first, it allows the developers to build out a more intricate and interesting world than you’ll find from most procedural implementations. At the outset, players are dumped into a desert wasteland known as The Exiled Lands. The progression of the game will lead players into the other biomes like jungles, savannah, highlands, and snowy peaks.
Each of these areas have their owns sets of plant life and creatures. You’ll come across turtles, deer, gazelle, goats, and other passive animals that are excellent sources of food or materials, but you’ll also have to contend with a varied selection of aggressive animals and fantastical beasts of varying sizes. I spent a big chunk of my time in the early game contending with the crocodiles that inhabit the river that runs along the edge of the desert wasteland.
You will begin to accumulate loads of stone and wood which will be useful for crafting yourself a shelter. The framework of the construction system in Conan Exiles offers players the chance to build simple, 4-walled shacks or elaborate death forts. Player dwellings can be adorned or reinforced with upgrades from the various crafting tables and masteries available as you progress through the game’s leveling system.
Building Your Hyborian Avatar
At the outset of Conan Exiles, you will be required to make a character in the harsh desert. You have the option of a male or female build and choices of race, skin color, religious affiliation, and face morphing. The only one of these choices with gameplay ramifications is the religious affiliation. There are five religions to choose from, each granting their own advantages in the form of unlockables on the game’s skill tree (known as the Feats screen in-game). Those who choose to abstain from a religious choice can opt to align with Crom, the god “who requires no worship.”
As you have probably heard already, Conan Exiles starts players out in the desert without clothes. Because of this, players are given the option to toggle a slider during character creation that directly affects the size of your tender bits (the penis for male characters or the breasts for female characters). All players receive the same butthole (yay for equality). Because I’m still a ten year-old in mind and spirit, I chose to have a big floppy dong. Of all the games I’ve ever played that had dongs, this one has the most lively dongs. These things react to player movement and even the wind. For those that are concerned - yes, the dong and the pouch are modeled separately and have their own physics. Female characters have boob physics, though their undercarriage is static and remains unaffected by player-controlled or environmental forces. While it is trivially easy to acquire garments to cover yourself early in the game, seeing the dongs and boobs flop around during combat (or any game interaction) is still frighteningly hilarious to me, even after 80 hours. If you would rather not see any of this, the game provides an option to exclude the nudity.
Everything you do in the game gives your character experience points, from battling creatures, animals, or other players, to the simple acts of gathering or crafting. Each time you level (towards a cap of 60), you are granted ability points and points to spend in the previously mentioned Feats screen. Ability points can be spent across seven categories. Dumping points into the strength section will make you a better fighter by granting your attack more damage while dumping into encumbrance allows you to carry more weight. Each category has five checkpoints that unlock passive boosts once a certain point threshold has been reached.
The Feats menu works like a skill tree in a conventional RPG game. Every time you reach a new level, you are given points to spend towards unlocking new crafting abilities. There are six categories of crafting trees to build into, ranging from construction and decoration to weapons and armor or even alchemy. The UI will show what types of items and crafting recipes you will gain from each mastery prior to you spending the points, so you can see exactly what you’re getting. There are also other recipes in Conan Exiles that can only be obtained out in the world or via the thrall system. Some of the best recipes are locked behind quests or dungeons.
Your Kingdom Will Be Built On The Backs Of Slaves
Fans of the Conan universe know that slavery plays a huge part in the Hyborian world. In Conan Exiles, the use of slaves (referred to as thralls in-game) is required to gain access to higher tiers of weapon and armor crafting. There are countless camps of human NPCs scattered throughout the game’s map. Most of them will attack on sight to protect their camps, requiring you to fight them to the death or flee. If you get close enough to these enemies, you will notice that they have designations like blacksmith or entertainer (and a corresponding level). If you use a special type of club to knock these enemies unconscious, you will be able to attach bindings to them and drag them back to your base. Once you have them at your base, they can be placed on the Wheel of Pain, a device designed to break their will. The 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian opens with a young Conan being captured and forced to spend his youth on the Wheel of Pain, shaping him into a chiseled specimen.
Once this is complete, the thralls can be assigned to tasks, working for your gain. Broken thralls can be attached to jobs or specific crafting tables depending on their specialty. Blacksmith thralls will unlock higher tiers of weapon recipes, while armorers will do the same for your armorer’s table. This system adds a layer of depth to recipe acquisition that is both rewarding and a perfect fit for the world of Conan.
The Days Of High Adventure
All of the crafting and resource gathering is done in service of building up your character for the next round of battles and expansion into tougher parts of the map. There are loads of caves, dungeons, and one-off areas loaded with enemies and treasure for the taking. Some of the more rare or valuable resources may only be accessible in dangerous areas. For example, brimstone, a key ingredient in the crafting of steel, in only available in small quantities and it scattered sparsely around the map. I found a cave that had a large vein of brimstone I could mine, though it was littered with crocodiles (and at the end of the cave lived a giant monster croc).
Conan offers up its experience in two distinct flavors: PvE and PvP. While everything seems the same on the surface, the dynamics or how you approach the game change considerably. On PvE servers, you and your base are mostly safe from other players. You can safely build wherever you'd like with no real consequences (unless you happen to build your house on top of a place where pissed off elephants spawn). In PvP, all your decisions must be made carefully. Construction choices should defer to the option that makes the most sense from a security perspective. Keeping enemy players from sneaking into your place or knocking down your walls is important. You’ll find that opposing players will guard not only their bases, but also areas where the most important resources are found. A well-coordinated clan can effectively restrict the supply of certain resources. While I have much less time in PvP than I put into PvE, I am fascinated with how the meta works at the higher levels of PvP play.
All of the PvP and PvE business could grow stale if the combat in the game was not up to snuff. Thankfully, Conan Exiles has chosen to model its combat off of action RPGs like Dark Souls. Combat is influenced by a variety of factors, including the weapons you use, the armor you wear, and you distribution of ability points. If your character is relatively unencumbered, you can combat roll out of bad situations. Wearing heavier armor or holding loads of items can limit your movement to a simple backwards hop, though. All attacks, evades, and running use up stamina. Just like Dark Souls, a depleted stamina bar can leave you unable to move, block, or attack. While the combat is a lot like Dark Souls, it lacks the weight and much of the subtle nuance found in From Software’s games. That being said, it is miles beyond what you will find in other open-world survival games. Much like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, climbing uses stamina. If you reach the end of your bar, you lose your spiderman grip on cliffs, trees, or housing.
Wrapping It Up
I played the PC version of Conan Exiles for the purposes of this review. From the perspective of a fairly demanding PC nerd, I found the game to be more than adequate. While it has lots of the classic rough edges common to survival games, it can be outright beautiful at times. I encountered no performance issues on my machine during play and the game has all the graphical options and settings you’d expect from a competent PC release. The game works well with high resolutions, ultrawide configurations, and high refresh rates. I found it to be very playable with the Xbox One S controller, though I used a mouse and keyboard for the majority of my time. The game runs on Unreal Engine 4, so users can expect the usual strong point or quirks common to games that license this popular engine.
The game uses dedicated servers to host the persistent worlds. On both the PvE and PvP side, Funcom provides a huge number of official servers. Conan Exiles also allows custom servers and provides dedicated server files so that users or clans can host their own worlds. Player counts per server will vary and official servers will always be using BattleEye anti-cheat. Unofficial servers can make use of mods (including those from the game’s Steam Workshop) or adjusted rulesets. The game has a functional server browser built-in and I had no issues finding servers and marking favorites.
When I was assigned Conan Exiles for review, I was hesitant to jump in because I though the game was a MMO (I had confused it with Funcom’s Age of Conan) and I had heard some complaints from friends about the game’s early access struggles. It took less than an hour of playing before I had bought in to the world of Conan Exiles. It’s not perfect (and carries many of the warts that are now tropes of the survival genre), but I’ve yet to find myself bored or disillusioned with any part of the experience. Like any game, Conan Exiles is best played with friends (and this game is AMAZING with a group of idiot friends). A battle to the death with 6 naked cannibals and a giant tiger is hands down the best gaming experience I’ve had in 2018. This game is the current high water mark in open-world survival and the biggest surprise of 2018 for me so far. 9/10 dongs in the desert wind.
This review is based on the PC Steam release. The game key was provided by the publsiher. Conan Exiles was made available for Steam, Xbox One, and PS4 on May 8, for $49.99. The game is rated Mature.