The survival genre may be in its twilight years but a light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. Conan Exiles definitely aims to illuminate, but Funcom have a very long road ahead of them. Might also just be a truck, you never know.
As you may have noticed from the title, my impression of Conan Exiles is that it's pretty much a mix of Dark Souls and TES V: Skyrim. So what happens exactly when daddy Souls loved mommy Skyrim very very much? Well, they did their magical bedroom dance and some time later they spawned a deranged child that allows players to fight to the death while being butt-naked or fully armour-clad provided they had time to build their bases before someone ruined their day. So let's start from the beginning, with butt-naked men and women.
Among Conan Exile's first displays we find the player character pulling a Jesus Christ pose as you will create your character while he or she is dangling from a cross. The character creation process is fairly extensive, while facial features can't be edited as much as in Fallout 4, there are definitely more options than in Skyrim and Dark Souls. Players can also choose between different races but this choice is mostly here for immersion as there seems to be no gameplay function to it at the moment.
You also get to choose your religion, which may put some people off but this is not the kind religion that makes you go to church on Sundays. The crucifixion is a red herring here. This is the fun kind of religion that lets you spawn Cthulhu so he can have a delicious cup of stomp tea with your enemies. They call him Yog in Conan's universe though.
A more important part of character creation are the bodily features, since Conan is adult-oriented fantasy. You can choose to make your female characters as flat as a surfing board, give them spinal nightmares with massive breast size or choose somewhere in between. Same goes for males, oddly enough, but on top of choosing moob size, you can also choose your dude to have a Zippo-sized package or a borderline scary monstrosity between his legs , or once again, somewhere in between.
Once you've created your character, not-Arnold himself comes to liberate you from the cross, and then you're left butt-naked in the desert. This is a standard start for survival games, and while you're starting in the desert with barely any resources, there are just enough to get you some basic tools and a weapon. Food and water meters are present, but they're not a massive headache like in Metal Gear Survive . Speaking of Konami's failed attempt at grabbing cash, Conan Exiles can be played off-line, unlike Metal Gear Survive. Big plus Funcom, even though it shouldn't be.
Once you move out of the desert, into a lush green oasis, you will do what any responsible citizen would - mass deforestation. While you're in the process of destroying the planet's lungs, you will notice you are gaining experience for just about everything you do.
This leveling system is highly reminiscent of the one mommy Skyrim employed, where players would level their One Handed ability by
attacking enemies with one handed weapons. Now, attacking and killing enemies in Conan Exiles will not award experience for just one weapon like with mommy.
In Conan Exiles, you get the global experience the moment you murder a creature, build something, mine a mineral or complete a journey step. This experience system means you don't have to grind One Handed experience in order to put a perk point into some other tree - you just play the game and get enough perks for anything you may like. Even if you spent all the perk points and now want a different perk, it is easy enough to craft a potion and re-spec.
The list of experience sources goes on, and it appears Funcom have made it to be highly immersive since you get the feeling of your character actually learning as you progress through the game. This is due to the fact that learning to craft new items and buildings is highly encouraged, just as map exploration is. Camping in one place, mining the same mineral over and over again and killing the same mobs will award you experience, but at a much slower rate than if you opt to be a curious little creature that is out to learn every secret of the Exiled Lands.
When it comes to crafting, it can be a mess at times since the UI isn't always handled in the best way. For example, splitting stacks of materials is a major pain, since the only way to do it is to split the stack in half. So if you want to distribute 90 coal into three different furnaces, you need to split it in two stacks of 45, then split those stacks into 23 and 22, then split them into stacks of 12 and 11 and then stacks of 6 and 5. Then you add those stacks on top of one another until you reach three stacks for 30.
It would be much better if we could be offered to type a number of units we want in the new stack. Oh wait, we can actually do that, but no one ever told us we have to do it by holding shift and dragging the stack, instead of clicking the "Split" button on the UI. The game also tends to put raw meat on your shortcut bar if you don't have anything previously equipped in a slot. This can lead to accidental food poisoning, which is a guaranteed death early on, unless you have a stack of cooked food, so you can start regenerating every time a poison ticks your health and cancels previous regeneration effects.
On the other hand, crafting gets increasingly satisfying as you build your first hut and populate it with mighty crafting stations, beautiful plants, skulls of your fallen enemies and slaves. Wait, what? Yes, you can decorate your place with skulls and enslave people, Cro-magnon style - build a baton, craft a leash, beat a person unconscious, tie them up and force them to work on your Wheel of Pain until they break. I did say this is a deranged spawn of Dark Souls and Skyrim's unholy love, didn't I?
Once they break, you can use them as crafters, soldiers, loot mules or cooks. They are called thralls instead of slaves though, probably to be politically correct. Having high level thralls at your crafting stations can unlock crafting recipes you didn't have before.
Before you force these NPCs to work for you, you will have to fight them, and likely their buddies. Combat in Conan Exiles has been vastly improved over time, and this is why I compared it to daddy Dark Souls. The combat system is similar, with health and stamina meters, dodge and various weapons with different moves and various combos with said weapons.
Other than combos, these weapons have different attack frames, hitboxes and bonuses. For example maces are slow to attack but they can knock people down and sunder their armour, while daggers are swift and bleed enemies. Meanwhile, spears have both quick and slow attacks and long or wide reach, depending on how you weave your combo between light and heavy attacks.
Each weapon also has a special move that is bound to Ctrl button - it will perform a low-cost but fancy dodge when you're wielding daggers, block when you're wielding a shield or a guard-breaking kick when wielding other weapons. All in all, the system is fairly deep, especially when you add crafted components to it such as bombs, mines and poison. Lingering damage effects such as bleeding and poison can prove invaluable in PvP since they will cancel any healing attempts by your enemies.
The combat is not without its own troubles however, as there are bugs and glitches Conan Exiles no doubt inherited from mommy Skyrim. When an NPC is below any kind of tent, it is literally impossible to hit them, while they can hit you. Short enemies such as spiders, crocodiles and snakes can be hard to hit as your attacks will often fly over their heads, due to animations sometimes locking in front of your character, instead of where you're aiming.
These issues have their workarounds, such as pulling NPCs out of their formidable tent forts or baiting short animals to high ground so you can get at their hitbox. The lock-on mechanic also has its issues, as your camera will often derp-out and focus on an empty field while your character and your opponent are in the corner of your screen.
Honestly, this issues sound worse on paper than they actually are in practice, but it's a stain on the game regardless. It's to be expected they will be patched at some point in the future, as Funcom have steadily improved Conan Exiles with regular patches in the past.
When it comes to PvP, do not expect mercy, honour or any other virtue on the battlefield. Depending on the rules of the servers you're playing on, your enemy can kill you, loot your body, destroy parts of your base and then loot it. Therefore, people are keeping the "better safe than sorry" mentality and will use any means necessary to prevail.
This includes hiding in poisonous clouds with the mask they crafted, hitting you with poison and running around, having stacks of healing items and running away when battle is going south for them. There is a distinct lack of friendly or enemy indicators above people's heads so it can lead to unexpected and random scenarios . This anonymity can also be used to run away and hide from a pursuing player. The only way an enemy can see you, is if they see a part of your character. They do see your health bar while you're in melee range or when you're recently hit by an arrow though.
There is also the question of the game's monetization, as Conan Exiles doesn't have any microtransactions but there may be paid expansions in the future. This is another big plus for Funcom, one that I hope they will be able to keep in a time where the gaming industry is plagued with microtransactions and loot boxes.
When compared to some of its inspirations, like ARK, Conan Exiles seems to be fairly well optimised, as opposed to an era in Early Access days where people were complaining about FPS drops, disconnects and whatnot . The machine I played it on has an i7 3770 processor which is a six year old CPU, a GTX 1050 Ti GPU and 16 GB RAM. My adventures in Exiled Lands were running at a smooth rate of 60 frames per second for the most part, with just a few areas that dropped it down to 50ish.
Conan Exiles is a game that will lead to plenty of fun hours and several miserable weeping gasps when a clan raids your hut, or even worse - base, over and over again. The game has a bunch of glaring issues but nothing game-breaking so far. The survival genre may be dying but thanks to Conan Exiles, it will likely go out with a bang.