I’ve spent way too much time and money on Early Access survival games, and most of them have been amazingly disappointing. However, none of those have come from a developer and publisher quite as reputable as Funcom. Conan Exiles released for Early Access on January 30th, 2017, and, in less than a day, the server count, which could be individual games, dedicated servers, or official servers, is well over four thousand. The Active Players count ranks in the top ten most-played games on Steam, so it’s clear that it’s an immensely popular and active title.
Funcom is an experienced publisher with several titles under its belt, such as Secret World, Anarchy Online, the critically acclaimed adventure game Dreamfall, and an MMO, Age of Conan, from the same franchise as Conan Exiles. With a developer so steeped in a tradition of solid games, from MMO’s to action, and already deep into Conan lore, Conan Exiles seems like it could well be a slam dunk for the publisher. It’s unusual that Funcom would take the possible risks associated with an Early Access release but, from day one, it’s also clear that they understood that everything was riding on this decision, and they appear to have taken their launch very seriously.
The intro cutscene draws you in with a hair-raising encounter of Conan himself cutting an exile free from her bonds and then fighting alongside her as terrifying beasts attack from all sides in a sandstorm. Then, Conan leaves her to fend for herself while he will apparently wander the wastelands to cut free the other 40,000 players strewn across thousands of servers.
He’s obviously a very busy man.
As you enter the desert, the sun is beating down on your potentially (depending on server configuration, of course) naked skin. You are left to your own devices, with nothing but a waterskin and the story of a weaker exile who couldn’t take it anymore. Your only instructions come from a glowing stone with an unsettling voice bearing an ominous message: “Follow the road.” There’s vast desert on one side and the promise of food and water on the other. The choice is fairly simple: follow the road.
From the outset of the game, you are immersed in beautiful scenery. Although the graphics are obviously not as sharp in gameplay as they are in the rendered cutscenes, I was not disappointed. It's hard to remember sometimes that Conan Exiles is in Early Access. There is some screen tearing, and some texture pop-in; however, I've been incredibly pleased because I've rarely experienced a game with such visual polish at this point in an Early Access launch. There are subtle details that I found particularly enjoyable, such as when you tear into a large rock with a stone pick: the stone doesn’t simply crack and then disappear, rather the rocks break away and crumble where you’re hitting them.
It’s a simple yet satisfying animation.
After cutting you free, Conan remarks, “Perhaps it would have been more merciful to leave you.” He might have been right. There are many dangers as you wander about naked, trying to find plant fibers with which to craft clothes. You will pull aggro from creatures such as imps, Shalebacks (which are basically gorilla-turtles), and massive crocodiles, and you’ll do so from a significant distance, so be prepared! As you equip and armor yourself, this becomes less of a problem, but cloth armor isn’t terribly effective when you get ganged up on by giant spiders, and punching crocodiles in the face works about as well as it sounds. However, you will quickly gather enough equipment and resources to build a small structure to protect yourself, and when you’re in these shelters your status keeps NPC's from attacking. Fun fact: being in deep water also elicits the 'shelter' status for most NPC's so, if you’re close to death, sprint and dive your naked self down into deep water. Of course, there may be other baddies lurking in the water, but that’s a risk you’re just going to have to take.
The combat still needs some work, but given how frequently updates are coming at this stage, skirmishes are already relatively smooth and improving every day. The human AI isn’t great, though. They’ll stand still, throw their arms up in the air, and scream at you while you’re actively bashing them in the face with a stone pick. Also, since server performance is still somewhat laggy, rubber-banding makes PvP, and some PvE, cumbersome. However, Funcom is actively working to rectify both of these situations. Other than some bugs and performance issues, the combat is riveting.
Once you've got yourself set up and equipped, it’s time to explore ancient ruins, grow your base, enslave and break the will of thralls, and maybe even find another player to befriend... or eat. Currently, there are four religions to choose from, and each of those will give you special abilities and items to craft, and eventually you can call on the religion’s Avatar to ‘crush your enemies and see them driven before you.’ As you gain thralls, Set will be pleased if you sacrifice them. Yog prefers that you strip off human flesh with a ceremonial ax and ritually cleanse and eat said flesh. Or, you can purify the bodies of slain enemies, which seems all well and good, until you bring their very souls to the altar of Mitra! Each of these brings blessings according to the deity, such as statues, clothing, weapons, or protection from poison. Alternatively, you can choose to follow Crom, who “watches the world from his mountaintop, but does not answer prayers and will receive no worship.”
As mentioned earlier, there is a plethora of servers and games to choose from, and finding the right one can be awfully tricky. Each of the servers can be set to a play style, such as casual, roleplay, purist, or hardcore. Similar to survival games like Ark: Survival Evolved, your structures and character are tied to the server that you’re on. So, make sure you’re ready to commit to that server as you build your life, and make sure to favorite that server, because there are so many servers to choose from that you might have a hard time remembering and finding that server again.
Setting up a dedicated server is relatively easy; detailed instructions are available, and there are many different hosts that will bring up your dedicated server almost immediately. There’s little trouble in getting in the game – a big win for me – and I had a server up and running and playing in a session in less than twenty minutes. Connectivity is a crucial aspect of survival games. It’s essential that games and servers can be set up quickly, and that other players can easily join and find games; Funcom has nailed this aspect with Conan Exiles.
Once you’re in the game, you’ll quickly start crafting items, and you will attain more recipes based on your level and experience. Experience is gained from many activities, for example, killing creatures (of course), crafting, and just spending time in the game – the longer you stay alive, the more experience you obtain. The settings on how quickly you gain experience are in the server and game configurations, so you can tailor it to your group or play style. The crafting is similar to that of Ark: Survival Evolved or the recent Early Access title Judgement: Apocalypse Survival Simulator, where you merely need to possess the required items in your inventory, and not put them into specific shapes, such as the during the early days of 7 Days to Die, or the king of survival games, Minecraft. Certainly, appreciation for this style of crafting varies dependent on the individual player, and while it makes the crafting experience quick-and-easy, some players may find this convenience makes it too easy, with the hand-holding detracting from player immersion.
The building aspect of the game is very smooth and intelligent, especially for day-one Early Access.
When placing foundations, or even things like a blacksmith forge, you can use the ‘Shift+Scroll Wheel’ command to raise and lower pieces to set them exactly to your liking. Once the initial height is fixed on a foundation, any other foundations will also snap to that height. The building of structures is a fundamental component of the game, and this snapping feature makes construction clean and makes for easy, especially compared to other games, like Fallout 4, for example. As your crafting progresses, you’ll unlock new shapes so that you’re not confined to downright blocky, utilitarian structures and instead can get more creative and intricate with your designs. The wall decorations and altars also help to liven up your structures. Before you know it, your abode will be a far cry from a sandstone box with a couple of leaves lashed together as a bed; soon, you’ll be standing behind towering walls, with vassals all around you ready to defend your stronghold from invading players. It’s going to take some work, but when you’re sitting on your stone throne beset on all sides with dancing entertainers, you’ll know you’ve arrived as Lord of the Exiled Lands.
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I am absolutely in love with this game. I’m looking over at the clock, watching hours roll by, and I can’t stop. Given the sheer number of players to hit the game, the Early Access launch was very smooth. I’ve known AAA, full-releases that haven’t gone as smoothly. Furthermore, Funcom is actively working on cleaning up any initial bugs and issues. Conan Exiles is a game to keep your eye on – if you haven’t jumped on already! The big question with games in this genre is, ‘What is there to do after you’ve gotten past the initial survival stage?’ Well, with all the lore that the Conan world has to offer, and with Funcom's experience, I feel we won’t be disappointed. Conan Exiles is already capable of standing up against any other open-world survival game currently released, and I'm excited to see what's in store.