The strengths of this survival game do not lie where you’d expect.
Author Robert E. Howard’s Conan Universe is an unforgiving place filled with dangers around every corner. Conan Exiles lives up to that reputation – almost too well. It’s not just other players and NPCs in the world that make this survival game rough; it’s the wolves and giants and other terrors stalking the world around you. And even if you manage to survive all that, a sandstorm or the brutal northern cold might lay you low. However, the most brutal part of this harsh land can be its grind, which means Conan Exiles can sometimes feel more like a chore than a game.
Conan Exiles captures the tone of Howard’s hard world right away by casting you as a criminal who’s crucified and left to die alongside a broken highway that saw its best days centuries ago. Conan himself makes only a brief cameo to cut you away from the corpse tree and set you loose in the Exiled Lands before you to carve your own tales of high adventure.
As with many survival games, there is a wealth of different ways to experience the adventure. You can play solo – though it’s rather dull this way – or you and a friend can take on the hardships of the Hyborian Age together either in a tethered co-op mode or playing online in one of Conan Exiles’ various servers. Some of these servers are officially run worlds offering a balanced experience – though the 40-player-per-server limit has resulted in all of these basically sitting at max capacity since launch, prompting Funcom to promise more servers in the days and weeks to come. Player-run servers are an alternative that offer varied experiences, as some of them have crazily increased leveling, abundant resources, or both, but that’s naturally inconsistent so you need to be careful which one you join.
From the moment Conan cuts you from your cross, Conan Exiles leaves you to your own devices. In place of a standard tutorial there is a journal system which prompts you to take on various tasks to get started, such as drinking water, crafting basic tools and weapons, as well as finding signs of civilization. These journals aren’t really quests in the traditional sense, but they do help give a sense of direction early, as well as goals to reach on the journey to survive the Exiled Lands.
Crafting a set of armor requires three separate crafting stations to complete.
Crafting is essential to surviving in Conan Exiles, and it’s something that will eat up the vast majority of your time early on. Basic tools and weapons are easy enough to assemble thanks to plentiful deposits of stone, wood, and plant fiber, but as you level up and unlock more crafting tiers it becomes more and more complex – well beyond what similar games do, to a point that feels unnecessary. Complexity is fine as it gives crafting a sense of progression, but there are moments in Conan Exiles where it crosses the line from fine to annoyingly tedious. Crafting a set of armor, for instance, requires three separate crafting stations to complete: a tannery, furnace, and armorer’s bench. You’re required to turn hide into leather, refine ironstone into iron bars, and then bring them all together on the armorer’s bench. Then, in order to craft the armor, you first have to craft the shell – such as the padding for the chest piece or the lining for your gauntlets. Only then can you create the piece of armor you’re after. It feels incredibly convoluted and oftentimes ends up making crafting feel more like a chore than fun. Additionally, the cost of ingredients isn’t cheap, meaning you’ll be spending more time harvesting resources rather than exploring the landscape, especially on servers with the default harvest settings.
And in the end that’s a shame, as the world of Conan Exiles is the star of the show thanks to its rich and varied environments that encapsulate the look and feel set in Howard’s stories. Many locations make me want to return time and time again, such as the magnificent looking Frost Giant’s cave in the north or the complex ruins that make up the Unnamed City in the central-west part of the map. I’m specifically keen to explore the volcano again, as it feels like the most interesting area in the Exiled Lands thanks largely to the religious temples and dungeons inside.
The world is full of small touches, like a petrified pirate ship in the northeast.
In fact, the best times I’ve had in Conan Exiles were when I’ve simply been exploring the landscape, diving into the various ruins, caves, and encampments which dot the world. The world is full of small touches, like a petrified pirate ship in the northeast that has a tribe of pirates encamped in its hull, or the broken ruins in the swampland reminding me of Angkor Wat, rooting me more fully in this world. And while the survival aspects, such as keeping yourself fed and staving off thirst, can feel like an annoying grind unto itself, having to prepare for the different climates by factoring in temperature, armor types, and how many waterskins to bring into the desert really adds to that sense of adventure.
Thankfully, while crafting itself can feel like a tedious grind, building structures in Conan Exiles is a joy because the level of creative freedom available gives you the chance to build the fortress – or home – of your dreams. Starting from a basic shack and building your encampment into a fortress really gave me a sense of accomplishment, and they make incredibly convenient places to store your crafted items and stations – especially when you log off, since on most servers your body does not leave the world when you do. Keeping your items safe helps lighten the grind a bit, because there is nothing more frustrating than going on an brimstone harvest across the Exiled Lands only to come back and find your camp ransacked because you hadn’t completed construction on your building yet. Depending on the server settings, these structures can be made indestructible or inaccessible (which on our server, they are fully accessible) to other players as well, which is probably a good call if you’re not ultra-hardcore about it. Structures also keep you safe from the various potentially lethal weather storms, such as the vicious sandstorm that rolls through the lands south of the Frozen North.
When playing on player-versus-environment servers, these encampments serve mainly as places to hoard your gathered gold, though the periodic Purges by monsters and NPCs dispatched to reclaim the land you occupy are still something to defend against. While I’ve not been online when a Purge has happened, I’ve been keenly aware of its power because I’ve needed to fully rebuild a base after logging back in the next morning.
PvP servers have the added threat of other clans wiping out hours of your work.
Player-versus-player servers have the added threat of other clans wiping out hours of your work. Some servers have PvP times set to certain windows in the day, so the chances of logging in and seeing your base destroyed are reduced – but even then, the need to defend your base is paramount, especially if another player summons one of the giant religious Avatars to decimate your hard work. Siege engines and cauldrons of boiling oil can be used to ward off players if your crafting skill is high enough, but it doesn’t take much for the dominant clan on a server to overwhelm the little guys if they put their minds to it.
To this end, capturing thralls from the various human camps and breaking them on a Wheel of Pain can help defend your settlement while you’re away. Knocking out a thrall and bringing them back successfully though was a mostly buggy experience, though, as more often than not the thrall would fall through the world or fully disappear if I had to change the binding out, resulting in time wasted. This actually happened twice with the same thrall, as I was bringing a Priest of Mitra back from one of the altars in the desert. But when you get them there, each thrall does something different, which makes seeking out and capturing them worth it in the end. Some specialize as archers and fighters, while others, such as a blacksmith, decrease the cost of materials needed to craft items at a blacksmith bench. There are also higher-level and unique thralls who you can capture that offer crafting options such as volatile orbs that can be used as explosives via an alchemist or access to unique armor in an armorer’s bench from the various tribal armorers. Once broken, these thralls can be used to defend your encampment or follow you into battle, though the interactions you can have with your thrall are limited to simply follow and unfollow commands or changing their equipment.
While exploring the world, you’re bound to run into various creatures and humans who are as hostile to you as the oppressive weather itself. The Exiled Lands never have a dull moment as something is always trying to kill you. Surprisingly, though, combat is perhaps Conan’s weakest point -– and it’s one you’ll be forced to experience time and time again. While the player animations for each weapon type are distinct and pleasingly smooth to watch, combat on the whole boils down to stringing together four-hit combos with light and heavy attacks. Different weapons give a distinct playstyle, such as the range of a spear or the fast flurry of ancient daggers.
In the end, though, combat just feels unrefined. There isn’t much in terms of feedback that your weapons are doing anything, making even sundering strikes with the greatsword feel as though it’s connecting with nothing but air. Oftentimes I simply could not tell if my attacks were hitting my enemy, and bringing a companion along only complicates the situation. You can target lock onto enemies, but since Conan Exiles doesn’t include a grouping mechanic, other players – even clan members – are labeled as enemies and targeted by default, even when fighting a boss. As a result, my group spent more of our time trying to avoid devastating friendly fire than fighting the actual monster in many encounters.
Additionally, a cumbersome camera and unresponsive dodge system add to the frustration. When fighting larger creatures, the camera would also get stuck inside the enemies body, leaving me no way of seeing what was going on while I was taking damage.
Powering through the combat has its benefits, though, as exploring the many dungeons in Conan Exiles can offer some enticing rewards. Recipes for some end-game armor, weapons, and tools can only be unlocked by completing these dungeons, which makes putting up with some lackluster puzzles worth it in the end. The dungeons themselves aren’t overly complex either, with some simply being a linear corridor to a boss chamber, but there are a few that offer a pretty good challenge.
There is also an excellent “hidden” storyline woven throughout the world of Conan Exiles, and many of these dungeons are key to finding out more about the Exiled Lands and why you’re bound to them. Lore obelisks, journals, and ghost reenactments dot the world for you to find, and the few non-hostile NPCs you stumble across can give you clues as to where to go next. There is no quest for this, in the traditional sense – I found myself taking notes on a notepad while playing as though it was a real-life quest journal – and I honestly enjoyed the experience. It made me more engrossed in what has unfolding in front of me, spurring me on to learn more.