Unto this Age Came Conan

Thanks very much to PR for the Xbox code for the game, and to Funcom for making it hellishly fun!

If you played this game back in the very early days of Early Access and Game Preview, you know how much of a mess it really was. Conan Exiles had very little to do, not much in the way of content and a lack-lustre combat system that really boiled down to press button to win. Now Conan Exiles is out of Early Access and Game Preview, a lot has changed and I've spent a long time with the game learning the various ins and outs of it on a private server with a few trusted friends whilst Daniel Cade has gone into the realms of the Public server to discover just how the game handles that side of things.

So for the first part of this review I'm going to be talking up Solo and Private Games, whilst for the final part I'll be handing over to DC for his view on Public servers.

Corpse Trees and Nudity

There is some DLC you can download for Conan Exiles, it activates the nudity in the game, you can choose from Full, Partial, or None. Full is the complete package (literally for men), with dongs and boobs hanging out all over the place. There's even an adjustment slider, ala: Saint's Row series that lets you change things up (or down). Partial is bare chests for both, and none, is well none - those of a more prudish nature can opt to ignore the dick and breast DLC and dive into the game without those features, or just turn them off server/client side.

With that out of the way let's get into the meat of the game.

Er...

Dick jokes aside; the character generation of Conan Exiles is pretty solid. You can choose from male or female and customise them via their race, be their Cimmerian (Conan's people), Hyborian, Kushite, Shemite, Dafari or many more. There are a nice slew of options in that regard and the game gives you control over the usual suspects when generating the physical features of the character. It is possible, with some practise to make your very own Jason Momoa, Arnold Schwarznegger, Brigitte Nielsen or comic-book variants of Conan and Red Sonja.

You can also pick your religion, and that determines the Avatar you can summon later on to lay waste to your enemies.

Server and Sever

The Solo and Private Server options in Conan Exiles are excellent. The game has 3 pre-set difficulty levels and it offers a swathe of sliders for you to poke and prod at. A quick google will tell you what most of those mean and provide clarity for when you create your own sessions for you and some friends. You can fine-tune a lot of the aspects so you can have an easier or harder time of it.

Whilst you only have 1 character for your own game, you create new characters when you join in other people's games.

The Path of the Exile

Note: You can play In first or third person...switching at any time via the d-pad.

You then begin your Conan adventure in earnest at the very edge of the Exiled Lands, a huge area of map packed with secrets, locations, hidden gems, and all sorts of encounters for you to explore and dive into. You'll start with nothing except the clothes (or not) on your back and must scavenge and survive to build a legacy of power and dominance in these hostile landscapes. You can progress down the road some and discover a few things as the game leads you a little in the very first few minutes.

You'll notice as you collect branches, pick fibre from plants, and gather small scraps of stone; you'll complete one or two steps of your personal character Journey. These are a story of sorts and as you make clothes, weapons, tools, and a dozen other things you'll gain attribute points that can be spent in the SAVAGE system. Strength, Agility, Vitality, Accuracy, Grit, and Endurance respectively; each point that you place into these attributes improves the character and as you gain more power in them their cost rises per pip. The benefits are clearly laid out and you'll reach perk milestones that give you a bigger bonus or trigger a special ability when they are bought.

You'll also gain Feat points and these are used to unlock the various recipes in the game, such as masonry, allowing you to build structures and advanced structures. There are a lot of these to unlock and rather like the attribute system; you can't unlock them all since the cap for characters (at the moment) is level 60.

Conan Exiles genre-wise is a survival sandbox fantasy game, which cleaves to the ideas and aesthetic of Conan quite nicely. I've read virtually every bit of Conan literature there is to read, and seen the movies, followed the comics. As a fan of Conan in that regard I'm really happy with Conan Exiles since it brings to life part of Conan's world extremely well. From harsh desert climes, to deep jungles and frosty northern wastes, there's a lot to see and do here and many hidden dark secret places that can corrupt the mind just as much as they destroy the body.

Survive

All the staples of the genre are here, you need to keep hydrated, fed and temperature balanced as you explore the Exiled Lands looking for a way to remove your bracelet that kills you if you try and cross the so-called Ghost Wall. It's a great storytelling device that actually grounds you to the area you're in, and gives you a reason to keep on playing to see what happens when you finally get the damn thing off.

To help you survive you'll need to create shelter, putting together a simple dwelling of local stone, wood, and so on with your meagre knowledge of building. Shelter is paramount, especially in the desert, not only does it project you from the predators of Conan Exiles but also the elements - especially the vicious sandstorms that ravage the starting area from time to time. These storms are so powerful they'll kill you in a matter of seconds at lower levels.

You can learn to make tools to make your life easier as you gather resources and that little house will eventually expand into a fort.

Build

Building in Conan Exiles is simple, effective, full of options and really fun to play around with. You can build to your heart's content as long as you have the resources and the more you play with it, the more outlandish your ideas become. Want a tree house fort, you can, want a fort on the side of a mountain?

You can, just climb up there and start building; since Conan allows you to virtually scale any surface in the game as long as you've got enough stamina.

Slay

One of the biggest changes from the previous build of the game is the combat system; it's been totally re-worked and overhauled. Now you have a system of light and heavy attacks, akin to other action RPGs and third person fighting games. These can be strung together as combos and each set of weapons has their own animations and style. There's a whole range of weapons to play with too, from single handed swords, double handed swords, axes, polearms, spears, javelins, daggers and so on. There's something for everyone in terms of melee options.

You can lock-on, you can dodge and avoid attacks (again this costs stamina) and rather like Nioh, if you run out of stamina you're going to be vulnerable until you recover. It's a much better system than it was before, and one that's a lot of fun compared to previously.

Conan Exiles also supports explosives through alchemy, highly destructible structures, and giant Avatars/Siege Engines for PvP based shenanigans. Honestly, that should make most PvP players salivate at the idea of being able to siege their enemies' fortresses. I didn't get to see any of this myself since I'm playing Solo/Co-op and it would have taken months to get into something like that via another clan through Public Servers.

Not an MMO

Conan Exiles isn't an MMO, but it does borrow some MMO conventions in terms of the game's design. Monsters roam in small mobs and packs, there are human camps you can kill for loot, or raid for Thralls using the game's Wheel of Pain to turn them into members of your little kingdom. These groups respawn after a while, and provide a fresh influx of members or targets. Sometimes the wandering monsters will start to fight the Exiles and this creates a feeling of life that some of these types of games miss out on.

Tethered Together

At the time of this writing there isn't an option to increase the tether on Conan Exiles for the console, but it is possible on their TestLive PC servers. So hopefully the tether option will hit the Xbox One (X) and PS4 at some point. However, that said, so far the tether has not been too restrictive for us - we can't go miles and miles from each other, but we've been able to play quite comfortably with several people doing their own thing as we build up our meagre little HQ to allow us to explore further and further into the game's huge game-space.

For comparison it's MUCH better than Ark's tether in co-op.

Exploration and Adventure

There's a real sense of adventure to Conan Exiles, from the harsh desert, to the jungles, there are secrets galore. I found one recently that took me on a delve into the depths of the world, where I faced puzzles and enemies that tested the mettle of both the character and the weapons I'd built, since as per all survival games, things break in Conan Exiles - a lot.

I triumphed eventually and was rewarded with new gear and a new insight into some of the terrors that lurk outside reality.

Console Barbarian

I'm really quite impressed with Conan Exiles on the Xbox One X, it runs smoothly enough, with only a few frame-rate hitches now and then and the draw-distance is none too shabby - there is some pop-in now and then, but it doesn't detract from the whole experience for me. The console UI is pretty good, and after you get to grips with it, it becomes second nature as you move things from inventory to boxes and so on.

The radial quick-wheel is brilliant to access items and weapons quickly, as well as use for building since you can build a new component directly from that wheel if you have the resources to hand.

The Crafting Menu is excellent, allowing for quick access to single item builds, groups of 10 or maximum stacks based again on what resources you have.

I wouldn't mind a single item transfer, since at the moment I don't think you can pull just one out of the stack.

Graphically on the Xbox One X it's a nice looking game with a good level of detail and a nice layer of atmospheric design. The lighting and special effects are excellent, especially the sandstorm, which appears to be somewhat supernatural in design and is in a word: breath-taking.

The Sound of Exiles

I love the music to the original Conan films, and the soundtrack to Exiles manages to evoke some of that original magic for me. I love the actual bombastic main theme and ebbs and swells like the original movies, kicking in when there's a combat in-game and offering a different soundscape no matter where you are on the map.

The sound design is pretty solid as well, swords clash against shields, sharp axes thunk and slice against flesh and there's a decent slop when you lop off a limb or two.

The voice work is sparse but decent barring some of the friendly NPCs and the game's Conan-focused intro.

Public Servers

As promised, I'm going to cut and paste what Daniel Cade (my fellow contributor and reviewer) has to say about his time in that aspect of the game right here.

Whilst Wolf has spent his time playing in solo or using his Xbox One to host for the rest of the group, I've spent some of my time on fully hosted servers. Before I sum up those experiences I'll give a bit of explanation and detail of, in my opinion, the biggest failing by the developers.

Servers, whether official or run by players, are hosted by one company G-Portal. This commercial agreement between the two companies keeps everything consistent and I'm sure is financially advantageous to those involved. The difficulty has been that the provider wasn't able to deliver servers quick enough at launch. This wasn't limited to players buying servers as official servers were slow to be launched due to capacity issues. This caused issues in areas like South America where only 6 servers were launched. As there are only 40 slots per server that gave a total of 240 slots for the entirety of South America. Players couldn't buy hosted servers as they were forced to buy from G-Portal who had sold out. Teething issues and server capacity are often an issue for new releases but I feel that had a larger host been used then the problems wouldn't have been as bad. In addition to this the pricing seems on the high side. I understand that prices for hosted Xbox servers will be more expensive than PC servers as Microsoft will take a cut of the price paid but this does seem to be a monopoly exploiting the situation. My only point of reference that can be used as a comparison is the equally popular (and quite similar) ARK: Survival Evolved. A 10 slot server for Conan costs £13.74 whereas ARK comes in a little cheaper at £11.74. A PC server from an unofficial host is around £7. For larger groups who play together this isn't a huge amount when divided amongst the group but smaller gaming groups may struggle to justify the cost.

The official servers themselves seem to function well. I've found a nice spot of land on a PvE server and I'm slowly building up my capabilities. I opted for PvE as I can't commit the time to a PvP server. I've read complaints of people not being able to get onto their first choice of server due to the low cap of 40 players per server. Whilst this does seem very low if it ensures consistent performance then I back the decision. Again my point of reference for comparison is ARK. I found a lot of spawn blocking with ARK that I'm yet to see with Conan but that may be down to ARK being more mature and griefers have had time to make an impact. Overall official servers perform well and offer a balance and interesting experience.

A Recovery of Legend

Conan Exiles had an active player base of about 50,000 people at one time, and then it dropped to barely a handful after a while. It's now managed to climb back up to just over 49,000 or so. Funcom have pulled a legendary recovery and managed to turn a boring, lack-lustre survival sandbox that came out in Early Access/Game Preview into something that I would say is one of the best examples of the sandbox survival genre out there.

Conan Exiles should be the template and benchmark for other survival game developers to aim for. Like Conan on the Wheel of Pain, the game has gone through a massive change, developed an understanding of what it is and what it wants to be. It's gained some serious muscle and knows how to fight whilst standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of ARK and 7 Days to Die.

That's no mean feat right there.