Conan! What is best in life? … Conan? Conan? Stop picking up rocks and sticks for a minute and answer me, Conan!
The latest in a long line of “Open-World Survival (Early Access)” titles and the first, probably, with a recognised licence behind it, Conan Exiles takes many of the core survival systems of the genre and slaps some Hyborean magic on top. And, optionally, takes off everyone’s clothes. The nudity is important for authenticity, apparently.
Beginning with nothing, players must pick up scattered sticks, stones and grasses to combine into basic tools. Those basic tools enable harvesting of additional resources, which can be turned into more advanced tools and, later, buildings and workshops. It’s a good idea to get some kind of bed built early, as this will serve as your respawn point when death inevitably comes knocking.
While out scavenging for supplies to lug back to your camp you run into creatures both recognisable and fantastic in nature. Deers and bunnies mixed in with horrible mutant turtle things, giant scorpions, ghouls and even some wingless dragons. Most of the harmless wildlife will simply run away from you, while many of the freaky creatures will try and bite your face off.
Both creatures and other humanoids (NPCs or other players) present a strong challenge, as they are all quite sturdy, particularly at first when you’re stuck with simple rock clubs. You can craft a shield to help protect you from blows, but then you can’t attack with your club or strike with your shield. And even when you do attack, most of the melee weapons the player has access to are very short range, while enemies all seem to have Go-Go-Gadget arms.
You could try and avoid fights, but you’ll need the meat from animals to cook into tasty, tasty steaks. Trying to live off random foraged insects and water is not recommended as a long term survival strategy.
Once you get over the initial bumps, gain a few levels to improve your statistics and unlock some recipes, you’ll want to build some kind of shelter. Even a small hut is useful as a place to organise storage for non-perishable goods, as well as for protection during the sandstorms that scour the desert. Hang some torches on the wall to hold back the darkness at night, but beware – just as you can spot your hut more easily from a distance, so can other players on the server with you. Player versus Player rules are as optional as the clothing, but if PvP is on then people can absolutely steal your stuff. Or just wreck it, because they’re jerks.
Constructing your outpost is quite easy, with foundations being placed first, walls and doorways attached second and a roof snapping in last. Multi-storey dwellings can be snapped together if desired, but higher floors may require reinforcement from below. If you get to the top of a set of stairs and the next flight won’t appear, you probably need to stick some pillars underneath, or attach some walls. Be aware that if these supports are destroyed it is possible the parts it supports might also crumble. Mysteriously floating staircases are, occasionally, a thing. Early Access!
Up to this point Conan Exiles is essentially indistinguishable from any other open-world survival game. But now you can start delving into two of the unique aspects, deity worship and human slavery!
First, the worship system. At character creation you can choose to pledge yourself to one god, which grants a special recipe for crafting an altar. From that altar other recipes are learned, in particular a unique item that allows harvesting the bodies of humanoids to collect relics to please your god. As you gain more favour with them, they will open further recipes for your use, like better food and weapons. Eventually, after earning enough favour, erecting a shrine worthy of your god and capturing a high priest of the right religion, an avatar can be summoned.
No, not the blue aliens. Nor the Airbenders. No, an avatar of your god, an earthly manifestation of otherworldly power. Just don’t summon it next to your own base, as it WILL get wrecked. Unless you’re really careful upon taking control of a giant bronze statue, snake or Cthulhuian tentacle monster.
Capturing a high priest is part of the human slavery system mentioned earlier. The NPCs you capture, by bonking them on the head and dragging them back to your home, can be lashed to a Wheel of Pain, as Conan himself was from a young age. Pushing the wheel around all day, in the blistering sun, eventually hardens the body and breaks the mind, letting you treat humans as just another resource in your inventory.
Seriously, you can carry them around in your pockets. It’s a bit weird.
Some of these Thralls, as they are called, will have special talents allowing them to be assigned to an Armour Workbench, Blacksmithing station or even supervising the breaking of other prisoners on a Wheel. As it is Early Access they don’t have any animations for any of these activities, and it’s unclear what purpose assigning them serves, but if you want a bunch of slaves slaving away on… things? You can!
Later plans for the game include dancers, which will increase health recovery and remove the corruption gained from visiting places rife with dark magic. Using the admin panel you can spawn some of the right kind of NPCs and turn them into Dancing Thralls, and the animations are there, so you can expect those “soon.” Probably.
The handcrafted map is dotted with numerous runed and ruined buildings of a bygone age, with clues to a deeper story behind your exile to this harsh land. Thus far it’s mostly just snippets of journal entries and a mysterious entity talking about the gods, but they’re fully voiced in a professional manner.
As an Early Access title Conan Exiles is certainly better polished than some, but far from a finished product. Multiplayer servers are plagued by lag-related issues and even in singleplayer the framerate can plummet dramatically. With a large, professional studio like Funcom backing the project these issues will doubtless be ironed out over time, with feedback from early adopters.
And there’s character creation sliders for the size of your rubberised boobs and floppity junk. Which is nice, I suppose?