Conan Exiles is an open-world survival game that expects of you to carve your own little piece of heaven in a land that would love nothing more than to devour you whole. As you might expect given its genre, Conan Exiles features plenty of rock and tree smashing, crafting, and trying to survive in a server full of extremely bloodthirsty madmen that will kill you on sight for a pair of flip-flops.
Much like the vast majority of its open-world survival brethren, Conan Exiles is currently in Early Access. What this means in gameplay terms is that it has plenty of bugs, server issues, and mechanics that are about as bare-bones as it gets. So if you're wondering whether its worth grabbing Conan Exiles in its earliest incarnation, allow me to give you my thoughts on all aspects of gameplay, and you can decide from there.
Video version of this review (12 minutes)
Since Conan Exiles beginnings with a character creator, it would probably be wise for us to start with it as well. I am personally not a fan of any character creation system that lets you birth an unholy abomination with disproportionate limbs and a giant head, so Conan Exiles instantly got on my good side by letting me only create actual human beings. There is still a fair bit of choice when it comes to creating your own characters, so don't worry about everyone looking the same, but there is not going to be a whole bunch of 'missing links' roaming the land.
Besides recreating your perfect image of a mighty barbarian, the character creation system has two other important options to mess around with. The first and obviously most impactful one relates solely to the size of your wang, which can range from "extremely cold day in the pool" to "I am never wearing pants again". Does this have any effect on gameplay? Absolutely not, but I would be lying if I didn't say its hilarious chasing someone down while their ding-dong flops around like its trying to make its own getaway.
Would you mess with a guy that looks like this? I highly doubt it!
The second, and actually important choice is religion given that gods in Conan Exiles can be powerful allies, should you manage to court their favor. For example, if you're diligent with your human sacrifices and make sure to eat a hearty helping of your fellow players for breakfast, you might just be able to summon an Avatar of Yog into the world. And it goes without saying that summoning a physical embodiment of the god of cannibals is quite a bad thing for your enemies who would most likely prefer their delicious faces to remain right where they are.
Naturally, creatures this powerful should be absurdly hard to summon, which is why I was quite surprised to realize that the opposite is true. Summoning a god itself onto the mortal realm takes only a moderate amount of effort from a couple of players, after which you basically get a free kill on whichever enemy base you find particularly ugly. While watching giant snakes devour buildings whole is an awe inspiring sight the first time around, by the time you've summoned your fifth demigod things start becoming a bit stale. Thankfully, Conan Exiles has extensive customization options, and even mod support, so this potentially massive problem ended up being nothing more than a fleeting annoyance.
Mod support only just launched so there is very little to choose from, but it is the amount of potential customization that is perhaps Conan Exiles' biggest asset. If you don't like a certain portion of gameplay you don't have to wait for the developers to eventually fix it, you can just join a community server that has either tweaked or disabled the problematic feature. On a similar note, if you're not happy with the amount of content in Conan Exiles, why not join a server filled with mods and basically start the whole experience anew? How powerful the mod support will really be, that is something only time will tell, but if it does end up being at least competent I could easily see modded servers becoming the main attraction in Conan Exiles - there is just so much potential in them to completely revolutionize the 'standard' gameplay!
I'm sure he's quite friendly once you get to know him
Once you finally step into a server I can almost guarantee you will know exactly what to do. But if you haven't played any of the thousands of survival games out there, the whole process goes something like this: find a couple of sticks and rocks -> create rudimentary tools with which you can gather more materials -> smack trees and boulders for 20 minutes until your inventory is full -> build everything you need to survive in the wilderness -> get murdered by a giggling twelve-year-old and have all of your stuff stolen. Its pretty much exactly the same gameplay loop as any other other survival game, and if you're like me you're probably long past the point where you might find any enjoyment in smacking trees around. Although, I must admit that Conan Exiles features the best rock-smashing I have ever seen! You don't just pound on the rock until it magically appears in your inventory, you slowly chip away at its outer layers until you eventually whittle it down into nothingness. Its a completely meaningless little detail in the grand scheme of things, but I found it to be quite relaxing after all of the random bloodshed.
Conan Exiles does also spice things up by having you eat and drink every once in a while, but throughout all of my playthroughs I've never once been in actual danger due to hunger or dehydration, which is a damn shame since that was one of the features I was looking forward to the most. Two thirds of the map are criss-crossed with rivers, so water is never an issue, and when you're a patron of the cannibal god let's just that food is in plentiful supply... and often more than willing to make a home delivery! What also doesn't help the general survival gameplay is the presence of serious framerate drops for seemingly no apparent reason. You can go from silky smooth 60 FPS all the way down to slow-motion in the blink of an eye, and when you're trying to fight other players this is a great way to have all of your hard-earned crafting materials confiscated.
It sounds silly, but smashing rocks is so damn satisfying!
While the whole survival aspect of Conan Exiles is more or less an exact copy of what you've seen elsewhere, there is one area Conan Exiles truly excels in - base-building. It functions similarly to Fallout 4's settlement builder, but with far more control over your item placement. What this means is that its surprisingly easy to create something that looks straight up awesome, even if you're like me and you have absolutely no artistic talent. Another thing I greatly appreciate in Conan Exiles is the simple fact that you can build on pretty much every hill and mountain. Since these types of bases are going to have to withstand coordinated assaults from other players you need to have them as fortified as possible, and what better way to ward off invaders than to build your doom fortress on the tallest mountain around. Getting up there yourself is a bit of a chore sometimes, but if nothing else the view is to die for... literally!
Living alone on the top of a mountain does gets boring after a while, and since all of the players are murderous bastards I set out to populate my fortress with friendly NPCs. In standard Conan the Barbarian fashion you acquire new followers by doing a series of story-focused quests where you get to know each one of them personally, by which I mean you smack them over the head with a giant stick until they pass out. Once they're nice and compliant you have to drag their unconscious body all the way up a mountain because you were dumb enough to build a base there, after which you need to break their will on the wheel of pain - and yes, its about as pleasant as it sounds. Its also a lot of work, but once you get it done you'll have a brand new 'friend' to help you out!
Unlike most NPC followers in pretty much every game in existence, the ones in Conan Exiles are actually useful. The high priests help you summon Avatars, crafters actively make the creation process easier, dancers tie up the room better than any carpet ever could, and naturally, warriors kick copious amounts of ass. None of this sounds impressive, but when you climb all the way to the top of a mountain only to find an entire regimen of spearmen and archers waiting for you, the usefulness of followers quickly becomes apparent. I'm not sure how they stack up against massive player-controlled invasions, but for me personally they have been an amazing boon as they have managed to save my life on more than one occasion.
Its not much, but its home... just ignore the giant skull
The reason why they are so important is because almost every single creature and player in Conan Exiles is a bloodthirsty madman, so you're going to have to frequently engage in close quarters combat if you intend to survive past minute one. While I would love to say this is where Conan Exiles showcases its very best attributes, I'm afraid the reality is quite the opposite. First of all, enemy animations are so ridiculously buggy right now that most of them don't actually run towards you - they move by violently vibrating! And if that wasn't bad enough, the attack animations for both you and your enemies are equally as meek, so the supposedly desperate struggle for life and death looks like a slap-fight between the two wimpiest men alive.
As for the combat mechanics themselves, they are basically irrelevant. You can try to dodge and block enemy attacks but you're probably going to get hit anyway due to the laggy servers, so you might as well act like an NPC and just mash that attack key like its going out of fashion. There is some underlying depth and complexity to the combat system, I will admit that much, but right now all of that potential is laying comatose on the ground. I really do hope this is the first system the developers improve because when I think "Conan" I think about big sweaty men hitting each other over the head with ridiculously large weapons, and not two guys flailing their arms at each other. Until this day comes, however, the combat in Conan Exiles is forgettable at best, and utterly boring at worst.
On the positive side, the weapons and armor look great
Much like every other survival game in Early Access, Conan Exiles is genuinely full of potential. The world is beautiful to explore, the thrall system adds an interesting dynamic to the standard base-building formula, and even the buggy combat has the inkling of greatness within it. The only problem is that none of it is currently fleshed out enough for me to warrant spending any more hours roaming the wilderness.
As such, unless you're a die-hard fan of survival games I would not recommend buying Conan Exiles right now. A couple of months down the line I could easily see it turn into something magnificent, and I fully intent to return once that happens, but right now it offers the exact same gameplay as most other survival games, but with all of the bugs that come with an Early Access launch. There really is plenty of potential here, but for now we're going to have to wait and see if the developers manage to do something with it.
This isn't even the weirdest thing I've seen on day one