Do battle-scarred barbarians feel jealousy at their neighbors interior decorating?
If not, I obviously wasn’t role-playing well enough during my first steps in Conan Exiles. Here I was, in this harsh and magical land, recently rescued from crucifixion under a skin-charing sun by Conan himself, and all I could think about was keeping up with the Joneses. As I staggered past impressive cliff-side manses and tastefully thatched huts, dressed in filthy garb I’d recently cobbled together from plant fibre, I suddenly felt quite embarrassed. Then a crocodile bit my dick off as I flailed my fists uselessly in its general direction. Clearly, the home improvement would have to wait until I found a weapon.
You begin with nothing in Conan Exiles, and you’re going to need a lot more than that to stand any chance of surviving. Even at the starting area – a clear, rushing river surrounded by palm trees – there are trolls, wild folk, and the aforementioned crocodiles to worry about. So you’ll need shelter, preferably by some water, and a campfire to cook food. Exiles does a pretty good job of easing players into its mechanics, and you’ll advance from naked crowfeed to semi-naked crowfeed with a shit sword in no time. It’s only upwards from here though, as you proceed to take part in exciting barbarian activities such as getting worn out taking a short swim, or hitting the same pile of rocks for five minutes with a pick. It’s satisfying to watch your settlement steadily grow from a leafy bedroll towards an end game grand palace, and the options for creativity are many and varied. You just better really, really like gathering rocks.
To call Conan Exiles vacant would be inaccurate, but it does feel barren. Uncanny, almost. Not that it isn’t packed with stuff, or that the environments aren’t interesting. It’s just more of a playground than a living, breathing space. It’s the crafting and building system conundrum at play here. If you allow players to modify almost any aspect of your world, then no individual part of it can ever be too crucial to begin with. There are smatterings of lore dotted around, but no real overarching story. The scale of the thing can be impressive though, and the sense that you’re setting off on a grand adventure in a world that doesn’t care too much whether you exist or not is extremely powerful, at least in the opening hours.
One of Conan Exiles’ stated goals is to have the best melee combat in the survival genre. I can’t speak for an entire genre, because that would take the sort of ill informed, arrogance only professional games critics are capable of. But, speaking as an ill informed, arrogant professional games critic, the combat in Conan Exiles is the funnest, jankiest mess of a combat system I’ve played in ages. It’s floaty, unresponsive, and yet oddly satisfying. Whether it’s the triumph of slow mastery, or just relief at managing to take down a giant scorpion with a wooden club, combat in Conan Exiles is more fun than it has any right to be. There’s nothing elegant about it, nothing particularly refined or inspired, but it just feels good to hit things with other things, and your barbarian can be pretty agile once you get the dodge roll down. I don’t want to oversell it here, because by almost any traditional standard, it’s a bad system. But there’s just enough feedback and charming jank to make you want to get powerful.
And that’s where the crux of Conan Exiles lies. Do you want to get extremely powerful by doing stuff that, to be honest, is mostly quite boring? Do you want to be endlessly creative about ten percent of the time, and collect the things that allow you to be creative for the other ninety? I think, in the end, it’s going to come down to the people you play with. The servers are currently super active. It’s fun to get jealous of other people’s buildings. Also, as a great man once said, good company makes getting your dick bit off by crocodile’s bearable . So they can potentially murder the crocodile and retrieve your dick from its jaws. Love that saying. One of my favorites.