Set in the universe of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian, Conan Exiles is an often relentless survival RPG that has this month made its way out of Early Access and out into the wild. Developed by Norwegian indie studio Funcom, Exiles is the developer's most recent take on the source material following after the releases of Age of Conan: Unchained and Age of Conan: Rise of the Godslayer which launched in 2008 and 2010 respectively.
Playing as a captured criminal, you awaken nailed to a cross, left to spill your blood under the beating sun as punishment for your misdeeds. Things aren't looking great until Conan himself swoops in to save you, leaving you with the promise that the two of you will once more cross paths. With regards to story, this is all you are given before you're left to wander across the desert naked and confused, picking up every rock, branch, and plant along your way to aid you on your survival. The world from this point is your own and you're given the freedom to set up shop wherever you wish and explore the crippling and brutal world of the Exiled Lands to your heart's content.
Survival is, of course, the focus here and you'll want to keep close watch over your hunger and hydration levels, as well as seeking shelter from sandstorms and other harsh conditions. You'll also want to craft tools that increase your chances of survival, including weapons, tools for chopping trees and breaking stones, and a campfire to cook yourself more fulfilling meals. The journey of becoming a more resourceful and skilled survivor is what kept us coming back to Conan Exiles. Moving from starting clothless and searching for a feast of insects through to owning our own stone palace and slave army felt satisfying across every step of the way.
Your first few hours will likely be filled with confusion as little is offered in the way of a tutorial. How do I turn the fire on? How can I harvest meat? These will likely be two of the first questions that you ask yourself. We kept finding ourselves referring to YouTube videos and online wikis to find the questions to many of the basic questions, which pulled us right out of the experience. We get that this was perhaps intentional as it pushes the player to use their wits to survive their surroundings but we imagine this initial bout of confusion will deter some. Perhaps an optional tutorial for newcomers to the survival genre that can be toggled on and off would have helped ease this learning curve.
Progression in Exiles is managed through a checklist of small objectives within the menu's journey tab, which is split into 10 chapters. It starts off simple with tasks like finding shelter and crafting a weapon, and moves onto more specific tasks like visiting the region of the Unnamed City for the first time. Completing these tasks offers generous XP boosts allowing you to unlock new craftable resources and improve your character's attributes in categories such as aim, survival, and strength. While Conan does offer players freedom, these journey objectives offer direction for those who seek a touch more focus, and the ones included ensure that it always feels like you have something to work towards.
Combat in Conan Exiles isn't exactly the smoothest. The framerate feels like the one taking a beating when there are multiple enemies onscreen and dodging feels much more limited when you are actively locked onto a target. Sluggish animations from enemies at times make it hard to tell when they're about to attack and, due to this, it can be difficult to get a real feel for things. Aiming with a crossbow always felt terribly imprecise without investing ridiculous points into improving your aim and it felt tedious to have to equip the arrows we crafted after pulling out our bow. That being said, there is a decent arsenal on offer here with spears, twin blades, crossbows, clubs and shields, and all of these weapons can be crafted with different resources with varying levels of durability and effectiveness.
Playing on the Xbox One we couldn't help but envy PC players and how much easier it seemed to be able to navigate through Conan's spider web of menus and systems. Being able to use numerical keys to toggle through items seems like a much swifter option than having to open the quick select menu and scroll to the correct item, for example. Crafting on a bench or a fire on a console can seem much more tedious too without having the option to click and drag the correct items in. Things do function relatively well playing with a controller but just like the recent Sims 4 port that launched a few months ago, it does come off feeling like a PC game that isn't optimised as well for those looking to play in their living rooms.
As well as offline solo play, players have the option to join together with up to 39 others in PvE and PvP online modes. Those who don't have a network connection or a subscription to PS Plus or Xbox Live can take comfort in the fact that single player is still a thoroughly enjoyable affair and doesn't feel too lacking when compared to the online counterpart. Playing PvP is similar to Rust and ARK: Survival Evolved and can feel relentless, as you'll have to fend off the newfound threat of other players who will try and slay you for your resources. The PvE portion reminded us of the Elder Scrolls Online and we loved exploring settlements other players had created and working together with others to fend off the many terrors of Exiles' world.
We were taken back by some of the great lighting and water effects seen across the varied landscapes; everything from tropical beaches to dreary spider-filled caves appeared detailed and alive, and the character animations weren't looking too shabby either. Sadly, while Exiles looks pretty on the outside, it was poorly optimised in our experience what with its many bugs (ranging from the laughable to the downright frustrating). When climbing up rocks our character often entered a swimming animation and we found that prey that we had slaughtered would often disappear. This, coupled with the janky framerate we touched upon earlier, resulted in an experience that felt a little rushed despite its slow push through the early access process.
Sadly, whilst Conan Exiles has all the makings of a solid survival title at heart, its execution often feels sloppy and we're confident that it would have left a much stronger impression if it had enjoyed a longer stay in Early Access. However, the gameplay loop of constantly improving your character and scavenging for resources is addictive and it's an undeniably pretty game. Let's hope that in the coming months Funcom can address some of the flaws still present because we feel that there's the foundation of an unmissable title here.