Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
After a lengthy early access period, Funcom’s open-world survival game Conan Exiles (not to be confused with Funcom’s MMO Age of Conan) is now available as a full release for both PC and consoles. Unlike Age of Conan, which offers a more structured narrative-based online experience, Conan Exiles tosses players into the proverbial deep end of Robert E. Howard’s dark Conan the Barbarian universe and gives them one goal: survive.
On the surface, that sounds like just as bleak a prospect as what’s offered in similar online survival games, but what I discovered during my time with Conan Exiles is that, depending on your personal tastes, the game can be has tame or as hardcore as you want it to be.
An Unlikely Savior
Before you begin your Conan Exiles journey, you’re given several options as to how you want to begin. The “default” way to play is to join one of the game’s many online servers. There are a group of “official” servers with standard rules, but there are also player-created servers that come with their own custom rulesets for helping or hindering players, and of course you can create your own server as well. All online servers are categorized as either PvP (where players are free to attack and kill each other) or PvE (where players instead focus on cooperating against the game’s many hazards).
Interestingly enough, you can also choose to forgo the online elements entirely. Conan Exiles comes with a full single-player experience where you can either adventure offline by yourself or invite friends in for private co-op sessions. The single-player experience also includes a number of different difficulty levels, again allowing you to tailor just how brutal your solo excursions are.
The single-player experience is admittedly not as robust or dynamic as the online servers since it takes out all of the random chaos other players can cause, but if you want a more relaxed environment where you can learn the game’s ropes and just build and/or explore at your leisure, it’s nice that Funcom at least provided the option.
No matter how you choose to enter the world of Conan Exiles, your first task is to create your custom character. After deciding your character’s gender, starting race, and appearance (said appearance including more…risqué physical traits like the size your avatar’s breasts or “endowment”), you’re treated to a brief story cinematic in which your character is yanked from the clutches of death by none other than Conan the Barbarian himself. With a new lease on life, you set out to forge your own legend, and what form that legend takes is entirely up to you.
From Rags To Riches
Again, as with most other survival games, you start out in Conan Exiles with nothing other than the clothes on your back. Using the game’s foraging and crafting mechanics, you have to scrounge up supplies from the wild and use them to create the items you need to survive, and that includes everything from edible food, to clothing and armor, to the weapons you’ll soon need to defend yourself.
Defeating enemies and completing certain actions awards experience points, and as your character gains new experience levels you can allocate stat points and unlock new crafting recipes. Before long, you can also craft your own structures and workstations, giving you a tangible foothold in the game’s massive and dangerous world.
Speaking of which, the entire explorable landmass for Conan Exiles is, in a word, enormous. You can view the entire map right from the start, and doing so clues you in as to the nature of the different areas or “biomes” that make up certain parts of the region. For example, most of the southern and central portions of the map are made up of deserts and plains with winding rivers and small islands.
However, if you venture north you’ll eventually discover a fiery volcano biome, and to the east is a swamp biome teeming with vegetation. There are also premade structures and dungeons to explore, though doing so by yourself often isn’t a good idea given the extremely dangerous creatures that call such locations home.
Of course, you won’t want to rush straight into the more exotic biomes since they contain monsters and hazards that would make quick work of an unseasoned adventurer. Instead, your early hours will likely be spent crafting rudimentary tools and weapons as you get your bearings.
Even if you’re entirely new to the survival genre, Conan Exiles provides a “Journey” tab in the character menu that provides a series of tasks which are meant to help ease you into the game. Some of the early tasks are simple goals like crafting your first tool or finding water to drink, but over time those tasks become more and more complex, providing a sort of guiding hand that introduces new gameplay elements at a gradual pace.
Even though it’s now technically a finished game, Conan Exiles still looks pretty rough and unpolished in a few key areas. Combat is functionally sound (and actually quite engaging thanks to the various weapon types and combat maneuvers you can utilize), but the animations and hit detection markers can be janky and unreliable, which is especially troublesome when you find yourself facing more than one enemy.
In fact, character animations as a whole aren’t very polished, though that’s a pretty forgivable offense given the game’s survival/crafting-focused gameplay and the sheer scale of its open world.
Some of the ancillary mechanics aren’t wholly accessible either, though for more hardcore players that might actually be a good thing. Any health lost doesn’t regenerate automatically and must instead be regained by eating food. The exact process for completing more complex crafting tasks can also become incredibly convoluted, which is especially frustrating if you’re not already familiar with how survival games work.
For example, in order to craft medium armor, you have to first build no less than three separate crafting stations, then you have to gather the necessary resources, convert some of those resources into different resources (turning animal hides into leather for example), craft the “shells” for your armor pieces (chest padding, boot lining, etc.), then craft the armor itself. Again, this is the sort of complex crafting that players will likely either love or hate.
Playing Your Way
Even with its convoluted crafting and unpolished character animations, Conan Exiles is worth playing if only because it gives players a massive dark fantasy world to explore and make their own while also allowing them to control just how dangerous and unforgiving that world is.
Whether you want to relax and explore the world at your leisure in single-player, band together with fellow players on a PvE online server, or see how well you fare in a hardcore PvP environment, Conan Exiles can give you the exact sort of open-world survival experience you crave.