Stranger in an Exiled Land
Mention “Conan the Barbarian” to me and I’m more likely to think of a certain redheaded late-night comedian in cosplay than I am to think of Robert E. Howard’s iconic savage. Similarly, talk to me about “survival games” and my only real point of reference would be quite a bit of time spent with DayZ back when it was a janky ArmA II mod.
While this means I might not exactly be the most qualified person to tackle Funcom’s new open-world survival game based on Conan’s Hyborian-age adventures, I can tell when I’m having a good time, and that’s definitely been the case with Conan Exiles so far.
Conan Exiles (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)
Released: May 8, 2018 (Early Access release Feb. 2017)
MSRP: $39.99 (Steam), $49.99 (PS4/Xbox One)
After a year or so in early access, Conan Exiles is now officially “live” and, to my surprise, actually feels like a somewhat “complete” game. The cynical view of the modern early access pipeline is that any game reaching launch – especially one billed as a hybrid of survival game and massively multiplayer open-world title – is akin to a more stable beta build than finalized product, with developers often still scrambling to finish content that’s often thought of as critical while players hammer on the servers and uncover new bugs.
I can’t say the same for few days I’ve spent so far with Conan Exiles, in which I’ve experienced nary a crash, or seen a bug more serious than the occasional lag spike or janky animation. Of course, it’s not as if the game faces the exact same challenges associated with, say, the launch of a full-fledged MMO. Each server can only handle up to 40 players active at a time. Those lucky (or unlucky) forty will inhabit their own instance of Hyboria’s Exiled Lands; a section of varied terrain cut off from the rest of the canonical (Conan-ical?) continent that makes up Conan‘s main setting. The Exiled Lands are a place criminals are sent to die, fenced in by magical energy walls and kept from leaving by a cursed bracelet. The player character is a criminal themselves (with randomized, sometimes hilarious “charges” helpfully detailed at the character creation screen), and begins the game crucified at the edge of the Exiled Lands, only to be saved by Conan himself and set loose to make their own way in the world and, perhaps, find a way to escape their imprisonment.
That’s about as much story as I’ve gotten so far, bar interacting with the occasional magical monolith, journal entry, or brief conversation with one of the game’s few non-hostile NPCs. Conan Exiles is more about setting a mood than telling a story. It doesn’t contain any traditional quests or missions, either, besides a tutorial-like “Exile’s Journey”, challenge list. Those challenges are a good source of early experience points, and help prompt players to learn how to perform basic actions (like eating, drinking, and building shelter), but someone looking for a more directed narrative or a lot of lore to chew on would be better served with a different game (perhaps even Age of Conan, Funcom’s other Hyborian-age fantasy multiplayer title). To take a somewhat reductive tack, Conan Exiles feels like the kind of game one would get if one made Skyrim, but replaced quests and characters with built-in support for a bunch of “hardcore survival” mods.
That might actually be a good thing, considering that major narrative has always been a weaker point of many open-world RPGs (Skyrim included). Viewed in that light, and based on my own experience, Conan Exiles feels less like an exercise in putting out something “bare-bones”, and more like a game that’s interested in skipping the fluff and allowing players to explore, settle down, and find their own fun. For a solo player like me, that fun is in exploration. The Exiled Lands are huge and quite pretty, with terrain types ranging from hot deserts and tropical river valleys to temperate forests, ashen volcanoes, humid swamps, and frozen tundras. Even in the absence of a main campaign or traditional quests, there’s a lot to see, and plenty to do in order to get to the seeing.
Initially, that isn’t a very daunting prospect, thanks to a few “quality of life” concessions the game makes. Like most survival games, Conan Exiles makes players craft the tools and gather the resources they need to make life livable. Thankfully, though, basic crafting can be accomplished from the get-go, and within minutes of creating my completely naked criminal of a character, I was dressed in some comfy rags and wielding crude stone weapons, with more recipes and items unlockable as I leveled up and spent my accumulated “knowledge points”. While it looked like advanced items and structures would ramp up quite a bit in resource costs, it’s at least easy to keep the essentials in good repair. Maintaining the ever-draining food and water meters manages to toe the line between pressuring players prepare and leaving them hassled and frustrated. It felt logical and fun to think about the equipment I’d need in order to visit the game’s hotter and colder climates. Setting out from home base really did feel like a significant undertaking.
So far, so survival game. The aspects that most distinguish Conan Exiles from the competition are, I’m embarrassed to admit, the bits I haven’t been able to tackle in much depth as yet. My inexperience with the genre and fear of risk (I’ve been having more fun building an idyllic little hut than striking out in search of adventure) have kept me close to home and away from the game’s “Thrall” system – a set of mechanics allowing players to essentially enslave other NPCs to perform basic tasks. Furthermore, the competitive aspects of player-led clans, base-building, and raids against player – and AI – controlled fortresses are all tied up in the multiplayer-centric endgame. Even the games’ dungeons – distinct areas with bespoke challenges and rewards – are generally designed for group play, with a pretty high level of gear and experience needed to reliably “solo” even the lowest grade of dungeon.
I’ll be trying my luck on the game’s PvP and multiplayer servers moving forward. Word in the community seems to be positive, but complaints seem centered around actually maintaining access to a favorite server, as the low population limits and a high amount of idling players are keeping groups and clans from being able to play together whenever they want to. Funcom has also promised to spin up new “PvE-Conflict” servers, which are PvE servers which also schedule windows throughout during the day for PvP play, a concept that could cut down on the “offline raiding” that has frustrated some.
With support from Funcom, and perhaps a friendly presence to play with, Conan Exiles‘ Exiled Lands may prove a fun and fulfilling place to live.
[This Review in Progress is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher]