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Conan Exiles: Hyborian Horror Story

Company: Funcom

By this time next year, Iíll have spent a decade reviewing games. This upcoming personal milestone has given me ample cause to reflect on the years leading up to this point. Iíve looked at how the industry has grown and shrunk; how itís succeeded and failed. Certain trends have made my job easier, while others have made it more complicated.

If thereís one industry trend that has caused me the most headache in my capacity as a writer for enthusiast media, itís the concept of early access. It makes sense as a cold, logical business practice, but it muddies the water in terms of quality and generally comes across as less of a gesture of good faith and more like a cynical grab for consumersí wallets. The idea of games being released to the public well before theyíre ready has potential as a possible revival of the traditional beta test, but thatís not what companies are doing in these cases. They are charging admission at the gate and setting no finish line for the actual end product. Whatís the rush to get the game done when the companyís already got your money? Content is often drip-fed into an experience that often lacks any semblance of structure or polish. And at the end, the whole affair resembles a skeleton: one that contains a handful of vital organs, but has to make a serious effort to keep them from spilling out.

Which brings me to Conan Exiles, a survival/crafting open world hybrid from the talented developers at Funcom. Itís a game thatís technically been out for a very long time, but "finished" is a word that shouldnít appear anywhere in its immediate vicinity. I go to these lengths to explain its current state because an expansion was just released for it. Excuse me, but what?

As a rule of thumb, I keep preview coverage optimistic and generally positive. But for this one, there's a notable caveat involved: preview materials I use are generally free and require no investment of the player, save some time. Here I am previewing an incomplete game that you have to buy to try. As a result, Iím going to sacrifice some leniency for the sake of an honest evaluation of a paid product. I canít give a score for it just yet. There are several reasons why I can't, but the above should do for now. If your question is "should I buy this game now?" my answer is no, but thatís on principle. If your question is "will I enjoy this game now?" my answer is a bit more complicated. Ultimately, it depends on what you want out of a game like this.

Funcom knows Conan. Itís developed more modern games based on the fantasy writings of Robert E. Howard than any other company to date, and if thereís one thing theyíve really gotten down pat, itís tone. The Conan stories have always revolved around specific themes. Namely, that fantastically primal distillation of life and death: sex and violence. Conan Exiles begins with a naked person dying on a cross. Itís a simple but powerful image that should set the tone for whatís to come: a harsh experience that only suffers the strongest to coexist with the many horrors that lurk in its world.

Character creation is impressive and gaudy all at once. Several of the races and religions featured in the original Howard stories (and, of course, from Funcomís MMORPG Age of Conan) are available for selection, and customization verges on strong. That being said, there are sliders for physical features thatÖ ahem Öspeak to the strength of your characterís virility/muliebrity. Whether or not you consider this kind of thing integral to the Conan universe is, as is the case with nearly everything about this game that Iíve played so far, a matter of preference.

Once youíre done creating your character, Conan of Cimmeria appears before you and unbinds you from your cross. You are not meant to die today, it seems. Of course, you still might. The moment you take control, youíre surrounded by death and desolation. What do you do? Where do you go? Well, the game doesnít really seem all that interested in telling you. This is your story, and you have to be the one to tell it. Right there, you should already be able to tell if this is the game for you. If you desire a specific structure to be imposed upon you as a player -- if you want there to be a "right" way to play the game, Conan Exiles will come across as aloof, and often painfully so.

My time with Conan Exiles has been fire and ice. There are things I like about the game, and there are things I do not like about it. Right now, the bad outweighs the good, and itís entirely possible that itís a matter of preference. You see, the latter part of the previous paragraph mainly applies to me. I like my games to have something resembling structure. That being said, I enjoy Minecraft; sure, itís an often formless, creative experience, but it also makes some pretty substantial concessions to my playstyle. Conan Exiles borrows a lot of the tropes that have become common for this kind of game and covers it in a mature, edgy aesthetic that evokes Howard's writing, but fails to carve out its own identity in the video game medium.

Conan Exiles is completely indifferent to your plight, thematically and mechanically -- so much to the point where it doesnít communicate any of its mechanics. Itís like learning FrenchÖ by moving to France. What do all these meters above me signify/do? How do I put on clothes? How do I pick things up? How do I find shelter or build it myself? How do I kill this abomination before it kills me? I canít tell for the life of me if the full game will so callously throw new players to the wolves or if it will indeed offer some kind of substantial tutorial system. But as it stands as of this writing, it is perhaps the most extreme case of baptism by fire Iíve ever seen in a game. And considering that Conan Exiles has some pretty complex systems working under the hood, thatís a serious mark against it in its current state.

Some of this slack might be picked up by the community, but I canít really tell; most of the time Iíve spent with Conan Exiles has been shadowed under the cloud of total, comprehensive server downtime. I havenít been able to get into a single well-populated server. Perhaps if you go in with a group of friends who are familiar with this hybrid style of gameplay, youíll have a better time than I did. For my part, I had to simply run solo, and in the Hyborian Age, that means certain death. Living off of the land is a dream shared by many, but when the land is as hostile as this one, your harvest is often equal parts frustration and exhilaration.

Long story short: your mileage will vary, and that variation is exclusively dependent on the kind of playstyle you choose. Do you wish to be a self-made man/woman, harvesting the Earth's bounty to build a residence for yourself? Or do you agree with your savior that what is best in life is to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women? Conan Exiles ostensibly supports both playstyles at once, though to what degree of success, I can't really peg down. Crafting is functional once you learn your way around the complicated interface, but I never found it particularly engaging. Combat, the means by which you attain some crucial materials and equipment, is currently just plain messy, to the point of being imprecise and generally unfun. But, of course, this game is unfinished and subject to change -- at any time.

Considering the size and scope of Conan Exiles, it goes without saying thereís a lot I havenít seen yet. And thatís not even taking into account the new content added by the expansion, The Frozen North. It's boasting a 70% increase in the size of the playspace, for starters, but it also expands the experience to allow for greater creativity in how players approach its myriad survival challenges. It features new materials, new recipes, and new options across the board, from equipment to cooking to building.

I'm not sure I'll get to that content any time soon, but from where Iím sitting, Iím not particularly eager to. Given the early access status of the game and no actual release date in sight, itís hard to imagine any investment of time and effort spent in the interim producing anything even remotely resembling a return.

I didnít think Iíd ever have to get critical with a preview, but considering thereís a tangible monetary cost to this preview build, I have no choice. As an advocate for consumers who desire to make informed decisions about the entertainment they purchase, I have to recommend that everyone hold off on this one until itís ready. Whenever that time may be.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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