You’re hanging from a tree. Crucified and left to rot. Punishment for sins? Consequences for crossing powerful enemies? It doesn’t matter now. The hot desert sun burns relentlessly, scorching everything under its broad gaze. The wind slowly peels layers of skin from your body the molten sand biting at your flesh. Soon it will all be over.
In a strange twist, in an act of unexpected mercy, you’re cut down and set free by a hulking enigmatic stranger. The fearsome barbarian towers over you. He explains how you’re now an exile bound to these Exiled Lands through a magic bracelet barring your escape. Carve out your niche in this savage land. Crush your enemies, drive them as thralls before you and drink in their lamentations.
Fair Warning: Some spoilers ahead!
Surviving anyway you can is the core game. Much like its siblings ARK and DayZ, Conan Exiles has the standard genre trappings. Early on it’s a crude fight to find food, water, and shelter. From that point how you want to stake your claim in the world is entirely up to you.
The survival systems in Conan Exiles are simple and accessible. Keep your food and water meters topped off while maintaining a balanced temperature. Gather the wood, stone, plant fiber, animal skins, and other resources you need to construct the facilities and tools you need to accomplish your goals.
Characters have statistics that describe their personal attributes and feats that unlock crafting proficiency. Attributes help define the persona of your character. Are they strong and resilient or fast, nimble, and accurate? You can’t max all the attributes and they get more costly as they level up. Will you become a jack of all trade or a focused specialist? If you don’t like your choices you can reset the points and try a different build.
There is a loose narrative of sorts. You’ve been banished to the Exiled Lands along with other exiles. There is a magic bracelet on your wrist which binds you to the area. This means you can’t go outside the shimmering green dome surround thing the map or you’ll die. It’s a great premise to keep players corralled in one area and lends plausibility to the limited server population.
There are “story spots” where small pieces of backstory are sparsely sprinkled. I came across an old temple of Mitra in the north with a cryptic message from the goddess. At certain map points, faint spirits will appear reenacting historic scenes, rites, and events. What little I did observe was hard to piece together. Maybe at some point, when enough is discovered and conquered more becomes apparent and it will all tie together. There is so little of that and it’s so disconnected I’m unsure whether it’s a realistic expectation or not.
There is a detailed lush world here that is crying out for interesting story bits to fill it out and give it life. Howard’s Hyborian Age and Conan stories were about adventures and events. Conan had to survive in a brutal world, but that was just part of life. The point was the stories. Funcom knocked one out of the park with the Tortage experience in Age of Conan. I feel like they should have brought that experience to Conan Exiles giving it something no other major survival title offers.
Building, Crafting, and Thralls
The staples of every survival title are building and crafting. Conan Exiles offers a simplified version of the typical tiered fare in both building and crafting. There are base resources that can be refined, processed, and combined with other ingredients to create more powerful versions of the material.
For example, mine ironstone and refine it into an iron bar. Combine the iron bar with Steelfire (which is a compound you will need to craft separately) to create Steel which you can combine with brimstone to make hardened steel.
Some powerful gear and items are crafted from rarer resources which have their own refinement path. The legendary Star Metal is created by combing star metal ore, brimstone, and black ice (another rare crafted compound).
All crafted items, from swords to buildings to potions, are created using the same process of combining some ingredients and clicking the play button. There isn’t much, if any flexibility, in recipe creation and execution, but the depth and layers needed to create more advanced items
compensate somewhat for that. It’s impossible to master every craft on a single character so you will need to plan and choose where to focus your efforts and form a strategy around your skill choices. The single character limitations help clearly illustrate Funcom intends the game to be played cooperatively rather than single player.
Buildings provide shelter, protection, and a place to craft. Just like the other crafting feats, there are tiers of proficiency and specialties within building. Beginning structures use the same core resources, materials, and ingredients as weapons, armor, and crafting facilities.
Once crafted, the building components themselves (walls, foundations, stairs, roof pieces and such) stack in character inventory and are placed in the world Minecraft style by placing the building piece on your skill bar and selecting it. The middle mouse button rotates the piece with the left mouse button placing it.
While the basic recipe execution in Conan Exiles is simple, the strategy behind crafting is not. Nothing illustrates this better than the Thrall system. Thralls are non-player humans you encounter in the world. You can subdue and capture these people, dragging them back to your camp, and use them as slaves. Thralls provide advantages in crafting, access to unique recipes, and can help provide defense or subjugate other thralls. Some of the rarest and most powerful items and actions in the game need thralls to accomplish.
In order to gain a thrall you must first subdue an enemy and then break their will on a wheel of pain. Getting a wheel of pain and the gruel used to sustain your slave is an entire project and undertaking in itself. Once you get your thrall system set up you can start populating your crafting stations with workers and your compound grounds with defenders.
There are one problem and no nice way to say it. The crafting interface is a hot mess. It escapes me how an experienced studio could present such an utter organizational disaster that is the crafting menu. Creating advanced items is hard and complex enough without having to scroll through an entire list of recipes. There is a search option, which only shows how bad it is, so you can find what you want if you know the name. The crafting menu needs a complete rework.
Fighting is action-oriented with active dodge and block. Available weapons can be quickly accessed by placing them on your 10-slot hot bar and selecting the appropriate number. Left mouse button executes a light attack, the right a heavy.
The combat engine feels smooth and responsive. Hitboxes are small and it’s easy to miss with smaller weapons. I chose a pike and a two-handed sword. The massive damage, wide arc, and crippling cleaves delivered by the two-handed sword more than made up for its slow swing and recovery time. The pike is straight up overpowered as I could keep some of the toughest enemies’ stun-locked and safely out of direct melee range. The rarest legendary items are quite powerful but not so much so that I could trivialize bosses even with a pike and two-handed sword. Success with bosses will require patience or better yet, cooperation with a group of people whittling him down before it does the same to you.
One thing Funcom needs to keep working on is hitbox size and making accurate hits more reliable. Often it looked like I was in the hitbox zone, but I missed completely. There needs to be better visual feedback when your attack is accurately positioned.
Bugs are also too prevalent. Sometimes monsters would be unresponsive for a bit or glitch out. Right before I killed the huge boss crocodile I knocked it back into a lake where it partially fell through the world. It couldn’t get out and I could only attack it with my bow. After nearly a hundred star-metal arrows I decided to give up. Bosses have so many hitpoints and even with legendary weapons, it took around 20 minutes to get him nearly down. I didn’t have it in me to go for another round of battle, kite, heal, battle, kite, heal.
One of the most powerful aspects and unique features of Conan Exiles is the depth of flexibility to the server system. There are enough flexibility and power in the server system to create the kind of world environment you want. Nearly every aspect of the game can be adjusted to do more or less of its task not only affecting difficulty but how the world feels.
Do you want to create a Contested PvE server like Funcom and host it yourself? You can do that. Set PvP to only be effective during certain hours, do the same with PvP building damage, night cycle length, spoil rates, spawn rates, harvest multipliers, and the Purge.
The Purge itself is an interesting mechanic to keep players on their toes. The idea is for players to build a base camp that can withstand an NPC attack even when they’re offline. Your base defenses and thralls fend off the onslaught if you’re not there, or you can assist if you’re online.
One thing that is difficult to communicate is the vast size of the game. The map is big and it’s made even bigger by the survival elements, limited carrying capacity, and travel through dangerous hostile territories.
If the game systems themselves are simple, they are as big as they are accessible. Crafting one rare piece of gear may take you all over the map over days or weeks to assemble the necessary sub-components, learn the required feats and recipes, or acquire the necessary thralls.
It can take a lot of focus and time to accomplish tasks in the game and explore the map, let alone craft a powerful item. You and your group may need to establish more than one base around the world or move your location as you progress. What you do and how you do it is entirely up to you. The skill and feat choices you make along the way will guide and determine the tools you have available to accomplish those goals.
In this case, the sum of the parts is greater than each system on its own. The game is robust with a powerful combat engine, server configuration, and modding capabilities. It does have some rough spots and holes Funcom needs to work on: combat and AI bugs, the horribly disorganized crafting menu, some performance issues and a desperate need for a great story experience like Tortuga or Secret World Legends. The places where the game stumbles really bring it down, but it is a solid survival title and, with some polish and a story, could be an epic adventure game like Skyrim.
Note: Our copy was reviewed on Steam with a code provided by PR.