Conan Exiles (PS4) – brutish but often entertainingMinecraft meets Conan the Barbarian in a punishing new online game to rival Ark: Survival Evolved and Rust.
Games Inbox: What did you think of the Rage 2 trailer?Thanks to the moral proclivities of middle America nudity is something you almost never see in a video game. Violence of almost any kind is allowed without question, but sexual content will see a game being plastered with an adult rating that means most US shops will refuse to sell it. And because America is still the biggest market for games it means everyone has to suffer the same level of self-censorship. We mention this fact because one of the first things you have to do in Conan Exiles is decide how big your character’s genitals are (or their breasts, if you’re playing as a woman). Which is a very apt metaphor for braving the difficulties of the game itself.
Since we hadn’t really paid attention to the game pre-release we had assumed that this was some kind of sequel or spin-off from MMO Age Of Conan. But while the two do seem to share some things in common this is primarily a survival game. And a really hardcore one too, in what may be one of the most non-user-friendly retail games we’ve seen all generation.
You start the game stark naked and nailed to a cross. After Conan himself arrives to cut you down you’re left with not even a shirt on your back, and no option but to try to eke a living in the wilderness. The game provides almost no instruction on how to do this and your first few hours will involve nothing but confusion and frustration. So will a lot of the subsequent ones, but there is an interesting game under the layers of obfuscation – although we’ve no idea why it has been brought out of early access now, because it’s clearly still not finished.
Although there are certainly no tutorials you are provided with a series of in-game achievements that point you in the right general direction. These start with simple things such as learning to climb and taking a drink of water, before encouraging you to make your first kill and use more advanced combat techniques. But it’s the crafting system that you need to get your head around first, not least so you can fashion some clothing and cover your shame.
This is where the game is going to lose a lot of people because not only does it not explain anything but the interface is horrendous. We imagine it’s a bit better on the PC, where you can use a mouse and keyboard, but it’s a nightmare to use with a joypad. The game obviously revels in its difficulty but wasting half an hour fiddling around with the crafting screen is neither fun nor the right kind of challenging.
It’s around this point that you learn that not only is there no pause (so you can get killed by enemies you had no idea were there because you’re busy looking at the inventory) but when you die you lose everything you’re carrying, including your clothes. You can get everything back, Dark Souls style, if you find your body – unless, that is, the game has decided to glitch out and you can’t.
Even by modern standards Conan Exiles is one of the must glitchy and bugged-filled games we’ve ever played. Enemies float through the air or get stuck in scenery; weapons and tools work seemingly at a whim; and the frame rate, even on a PS4 Pro, is constantly wheezing and struggling. The animation is also embarrassingly poor at times and the visuals flit between actually-quite-good and looking like a PlayStation 2 game with no rhyme or reason.
Conan Exiles (PS4) – there’s a lot more gardening in the game than these screenshots implyThese problems hurt the combat in particular, which would otherwise be a reasonably good pastiche of Dark Souls. But the unreliable lock-on system and skittish movement make it imprecise and frustrating. Although despite what you’d imagine of a Conan game, rather than fighting with giant monsters most of your time is actually spent cutting down trees and smashing rocks to collect resources. Which, as you can imagine, ends up becoming highly repetitive and dull.
But although there is a lot more wandering around the woods picking up flowers than you’d expect from a game based on Conan the Barbarian, once you start to learn the basics the game does start to get genuinely interesting. It almost feels like Minecraft when you’re setting up your own camp and working out the different crafting recipes, before installing a wheel of pain and getting your first slave, and then exploring the very different options granted by worshiping each of the game’s different gods.
Once you’ve got your own little house and garden going there’s an immense sense of satisfaction that would not have been as acute if not for the opening hours of pain and confusion. Matters are improved even further if you play online with some co-operative friends. Although this is just as risky as it sounds because other players will take great delight in ruining your day if you opt for the PvP server.
The question we’ve asked ourselves with this game is whether we would’ve played it as much as we have if we didn’t have to review it, and the answer is a definite no. The problem is more the bugs and resource grinding than the difficulty though, so there is a good chance Conan Exiles can fulfil its potential in time. But at the moment it feels just as barbaric and roughly hewn as the character it’s named after.
In Short: Half-broken and needlessly obscure, but if you have the patience this challenging survival game can be extremely satisfying – and it’ll be even better when it’s finished.
Pros: The brutal challenge and almost complete lack of guidance creates an unusually satisfying experience once you learn the basics. Highly involved crafting elements and fun online options.
Cons: The overemphasis on resource-gathering is repetitive and dull. Imprecise and messy combat. Mountains of bugs means you’ve no confidence in any part of the game working at any given time.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PCPrice: £44.99Publisher: FuncomDeveloper: FuncomRelease Date: 8th May 2018Age Rating: 18
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