Many people will have been playing Conan Exiles for months while it was in early access on both Steam and Xbox. Now it is in full release so I decided to pick it up on PS4 after being a big fan of the third person Conan brawler from the PS3/Xbox360 era and the films. The results are both encouraging and frustrating.
The game is very much a survival game in the mould of Ark and Rust and if you haven’t played any of these games before the first few minutes may seriously put you off the game. There is little or no direction, few objectives and you tend to spend your time running away from wildlife or starving to death in the desert. However, change your mindset and things start to open up. The best tactic is to run or walk around spamming the ‘gather’ button and soon you will begin to acquire some raw materials. From that, the game begins to expand pretty quickly.
You are rescued by the titular Conan from being tied to a cross in the desert. This serves as the character creation point and includes the now infamous endowment slider which when coupled with the nudity slider can lead to some unintentionally hilarious but NSFW results. Needless to say, it adds nothing to the game other than an urgency to gather materials and make yourself a decent pair of pants.
Because one of your first basic needs is thirst, the sensible option is to head north from the starting area to the riverbank. Here you will find resources are plentiful. You create rudimentary tools and begin harvesting more and more materials. Here is where you come up against the main problem with Conan Exiles… the user interface and menu system. It seems to do its best to be unhelpful and unintuitive for even the most simple tasks.
The first time you will run into problems is when you are trying to cook a meal. Firstly you have to kill some wildlife. After spending what seemed like an eternity chasing a deer I finally hacked one down and then had no idea how to get the meat off the bones. Pressing interact or anything you find in other games doesn’t work so the only solution is to hit the corpse with one of your other tools. If you hit the corpse with the axe or the stone pick then you will start to get the meat off it. It isn’t very intuitive and perhaps if you had needed to craft a filleting knife it might have made more sense.
Then you get to the point of actually cooking the meat. You create and place the fire, then have to reassign the raw meat and wood to burn the fire from your inventory into the fire’s inventory. Despite this nothing happens. After a number of internet searches, I realised there is a small piece of text at the bottom saying to turn the fire on/off. After this, wait for the meat to cook then place it in your inventory or eat it. Raw meat can cause food poisoning and goes rotten quicker than cooked so it makes sense to cook everything. You will need both food and a waterskin before trying to explore further up the map.
Despite the user interface the basic gameplay loop of gathering materials, crafting and building shelters of varying degrees along the way as you explore the land is addictive and a real time sink, unfortunately, the guidance is very much up to you. If you aren’t the kind of person who likes making your own adventures then you aren’t going to like this or any other game in the genre. If you can then a whole host of options open up to you. You can venture into dungeons, create an army of slaves or ‘thralls’ as the game calls them and eventually have giant siege battles against warlords in the games. All this and we haven’t even got to the multiplayer.
The multiplayer on these games can be brutal and to mitigate this Funcom the developers have included the options of PVE and PVP servers if you want to team up and comp-stomp or wage war against other players. Be warned though as people are always going to be better than you and this genre is perfect for people griefing you. In a few efforts, I spawned and immediately saw a huge pile of player bodies lying in an area. It was either an attempt at humour or else someone was killing them and piling them up. In any case with nothing but a loincloth to my name, I headed in the other direction. Decisions like these can make or break your game as a wrong turn into a dangerous region can lead to you losing everything you have worked so hard to craft. After death, the only way to get this back is to find your corpse and get the materials back.
There is a lot of fun and a real sense of accomplishment to be gained from these games and in particular Conan Exiles but the need to dedicate your time to this aimless pursuit isn’t for everyone. For trophy hunters, everything looks easily achievable and there is the promise of player mounts and more to follow from the developer. In the meantime, those looking for the next big game after God Of War may be best looking through their back catalogue unless they want to live another life in Conan Exiles.