I’ve seen some things. I’ve witnessed—and partaken in—more than one horrifying scenario in Conan Exiles. I’d rather not talk about them. But I’m going to mention a couple.
There was that time I was attacked by a couple barbarians staring into a campfire. One swung a stone axe, the other swung a stone pick. Though I was crouching in the underbrush, they came after me. I was hacked to pieces. One of my arms ended up over here, one of my legs over there. So, naturally, I died, then respawned back at my fiber bedroll, my spawn point, back at home base. I retraced my steps, running back to where those barbarians had jumped me. I found my corpse, looted my dead body, chopped up the rest of old dead me, collected my decaying flesh, ate my own cold dead remains—and got food poisoning from consuming uncooked me.
There was another time that played out in a similar fashion. This time, however, I’d learned my lesson. I’m smarter now. No self-cannibalism. So, with that in mind, I ran out past my comfort zone and found a 15-foot crocodile. Or alligator. I can never tell the difference. They snarl so loud! And so, naturally, I died, then respawned back at my fiber roll, back at good ol’ home base. I’d grown home base nicely. I’d added a sundeck here, a Sepulchre of Set there. I ran back to where that crocodile/alligator had jumped me. I found my corpse. I looted my body. And then I carved my former heart out of my former chest with a ceremonial knife. I ran back to home base and placed my heart on the altar to Set, a snake god in Conan’s world. On that altar, with my previous corpse’s heart, I crafted a poison antidote.
See? At least something good came out of it that time. A poison antidote. Sadly, it's not a poison antidote to the food poisoning I got from consuming human flesh. Don’t ask me how I know. Either way, I’m harvesting my own dead body for uncooked food and crafting materials. Soylent Green is me. This is Conan’s world, however. Who am I to judge?
Conan Exiles is an open-world survival game. Think Minecraft, but with the aforementioned cannibalism and literal self-sacrifice. It’s DayZ with barbarians, ARK minus the Dino Riders shtick, or Rust without the penises.
Well, about the penises: Conan Exiles has penises. They’re out there, they’re uncircumcised, and there’s a slider on the character creation screen that makes them longer or shorter. Because of course there is.
There. Glad that’s out of the way. Though in all actuality, I’ll probably have to come back to it.
Conan Exiles’ premise is simple: collect, craft, kill. One, you’re cutting down trees, chopping rocks, and picking plants. Two, you’re forging weapons, crafting armor, and building shelter. And three, you’re hunting food, fighting savages, and, on many occasions, running for dear life. Conan Exiles isn’t here to make friends. It’s here to put you in an unforgiving landscape, amidst unrelenting beasts, contending with man’s inhumanity to man. The only thing that will save you here is what got mankind to the top of the food chain in the first place: tools. Tools to gather, tools to build, tools to fight.
The game is primitive in scope and aesthetic. I mean that in a good way. It’s pretty, too. From the Gold’s Gym character physiques to the palm trees swaying in the wind, Conan Exiles adheres to novelist Robert E. Howard’s original, hyper-masculine, alpha-male, testosterone-driven world. But times have evolved since Howard's original novels, and, for equality’s sake (at least according to developer Funcom), every female character can be a Red Sonja. Women aren’t here to simply swoon over men brandishing battle axes on fantasy art book covers. Women aren’t here to be rescued; no princesses to be found. The women of Conan Exiles are in peak physical shape and are ready to do some damage. They have breast physics to match the bounce and sway of the men’s "endowment" slider. They’ve got beautiful faces and even more beautiful backsides. They can rock a sword and shield with the same bold tenacity displayed by the men. For both males and females, there have never been a more fit group of characters since the movie 300. Whoever Funcom modeled the in-game characters after, they are, bodily, an immaculate collection.
Same goes for the men. You can adjust height to a degree, but they’re no more than seven percent body fat any way you slice them. Their chests are broad and their backs are built. Their gluteus is unimpeachably maximus. They’re a marvel of men’s fitness and can put to shame anybody on the cover of a Muscle & Fitness magazine. It’s enough to make me stress eat just looking at them. And when you die, over and over, you’ll get to ogle that perfection endlessly, because you respawn naked like some kind of Adam or Eve going for an evening stroll in the Garden of Eden.
I haven’t encountered everything, but there’s the start to a decent monstrous compendium. I’ve seen antelopes and/or gazelles (another set of creatures I cannot tell apart). I’ve seen hyenas and crocodiles (argh, crocodiles). I’ve fought imps and humans, both utterly unwilling to speak civilly beforehand. I’ve swam with oscarfish and pikefish, walked with ostriches, chopped and roasted rabbit, and stolen eggs from the nests of turtle-like shalebacks. I’ve even sprinted past rocknoses, some kind of misshapen hellspawn of triceratops and junkyard dogs. The creature list doesn’t run too much longer after that point. But hey, some survival games have just zombies and that’s it, so I’ll spare Conan Exiles the criticism.
The first week of Early Access was terrible, performance-wise. It takes a lot, honestly, to make a gamer like me notice technical hiccups and whatnot. I’m forgiving of frame rate issues, I don’t tear my hair out at texture pop-in, and if the game freezes a time or two, I’m probably not writing my congressman. Conan Exiles, though, wow. The server lag, screen freezes, system crashes, and all-out poor online performance was enough to make Funcom sever ties with gameserver host PingPerfect. Funcom and PingPerfect parted ways on friendly terms, however. It seems that both teams underestimated the initial popularity of Conan Exiles and overestimated PingPerfect’s capabilities. As of now, the in-game ability to start and maintain your own server (if that's something you want to do) links you directly to PingPerfect’s website. Otherwise, if you’re cheap like me, you’ll simply start a single-player/co-op game, as opposed maintaining a personal server that holds up to 40 players.
As fresh-faced as I am with survival games, there are a few things that still don’t make sense to me. I mean, I could make a bullet point list of this stuff, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or unintentional on the developers' part. It’s simply things I’d like to see tweaked, as a beta tester during this early access phase.
Like, why do I have to craft a brand new bedroll every time I die? Unless I create a stockpile of them, it’s a tedious way to restart. And if you don’t create a bedroll, you respawn in the immense, off-the-map southern desert where you started on day one. Needless to say, it’s a bit of a hike getting back to where you died, I’m sure.
Speaking of dying, why isn’t my corpse pinned on the map? You’re already making me do a nude corpse run, the least you could do is make it so I don’t have to navigate by the stars to relocate my dead body. You know, so I can cut its heart out and sacrifice it on a Sepulchre of Set. Or something like that.
And what’s up with the enemy’s aggro range? Imps can smell me from a mile away. I’ll hear the battle music playing for a good 20 or 30 seconds before an imp has finally sprinted all the way up to me for a fight. Oh, they saw me through the lush shrubbery I was standing behind. Imps have small penises, by the way.
So, I want to reiterate that, yes, this is what early access looks like. The lag, glitches, crashes, and the head-scratching design choices are part and parcel of paying to get into a beta nowadays. Arguing the value of paying money to take part in this quality-assurance process is beyond the scope of this article. The people that have been playing survival games like Rust or 7 Days to Die have the benefit of seeing what four years of polish and patch notes can do for a game like this. It can be easy to forget that games like Rust had likewise roughshod starts to their now-successful, still-in-early-access (after four years!) existence. With that in mind, I have some more benefit of the doubt for Conan Exiles. I’m okay with the basics of gameplay found here, at least when it comes to gathering and crafting. I’m less okay with the basics of combat, however, with slippery aiming and questionable hitboxes, coupled with just downright mean, aggressive creatures wandering the wastes and oasis out there. My survival rate in combat—even sporting the best weapons and armor that rocks can buy—is probably below 50 percent. If two barbarians jump me, and a crocodile aggros in, along with a patrolling shaleback, well, you can guess how that fight ends. Random enemy mobs are very good at focusing fire on me, then waiting until I'm dead before finally fighting each other. The amount of co-op between NPCs is stunning.
But we’ll always have the penis and breast sliders, and we can always contemplate their meaningless contribution to gameplay, and we can always scrape the barrel for excuses as to why full nudity is the default setting in Conan Exiles. P.S.: It's because 1) Funcom says castrations are coming, and 2) nudity fits the "theme" of Conan. It's fine. I'm fine with it. Conan Exiles is 100 percent convinced of its own world building. I like it for that. It’s just harder to justify how much development probably went into my character's “endowment” when the core mechanics are what needed so much more tender loving care.
The primitive fantasy world is good, The bodily perfection is good, and I like scraping for sticks and stones to build shelter and armor. With a few more pages of patch notes, I might even like fighting my way through that world.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, or open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile