First Impressions: Struggling to survive in Conan Exiles
I am no stranger to covering survival sandboxes for Massively OP. I wrestled with dinosaurs before ARK: Survival Evolved was a thing. I got kidnapped and tried to drown myself in a puddle, spent days building a glorified shack before hackers or server admins could destroy them, and got to better understanding of what it’s like to be an Asian gamer thanks to Valve’s social experiment. There have been some good memories for sure, but the cancelled games, broken promises, and fact that most of the genre is in an infinite non-launch state are just some of the reasons I’ve been losing faith in online, multiplayer survival games. I love the idea of PvP allowing for meaningful social gameplay, but in reality, I mostly experience only ganking. But without PvP, I generally get so bored of PvE that I run into the arms of a (J)RPG so I can get drama and permadeath in a finished product, often without kids screaming at me to stop moving and just die.
But here I am again: roped into another shot at the genre. I’m looking at pay-to-play Conan Exiles like a launch title, “early access” be damned!
Beautiful graphics, ugly world
To be honest, I never played Age of Conan and really don’t remember much about the original movie beyond James Earl Jones having glorious hair. And that it was violent. Really, really violent. Hyper-masculine stuff that, despite my gender, rarely appeals to me.
So when I was offered the chance to skip through the woods with Bree’s blessing and MJ as my guide for largely PvE action, I figured, “How bad can it be?” Then I logged in to make a character and it all came flooding back. The ladies look great, not just in terms of graphics but in being traditionally “pretty,” but the guys are mostly… well, what I sadly have to face in the mirror. With some work, I rolled a dude that might make some people swoon. It was interesting that men not only had a “package” slider but “breast” slider as well. I’m sure we all know what most guys will probably do with their sliders.
While the fantasy world may be brutal, some of Funcom’s tweaks to the normal formula were greatly appreciated. For example, there’s not only a map but a compass, which really speeds up the ability to join with friends. The lack of these features in other survival games makes meetings tough, and when everyone and his kid brother wants to kill you for a laugh, it can be frustrating. The ability to gather and interact with the world while wielding something in each hand is another small change that takes away some tedium I’ve experienced in past titles.
That being said, the crafting UI is awful. The search feature is nice, but skills are tied to each other in ways that are visually hard to organize. Maybe branching trees, or even something like Albion Online’s chart system would make it feel more organized and less haphazard.
Those who watched our first experience with the game know that MJ is a builder and I’m a gatherer, so PvE play made sense to me and boosted my impression. (I tend to try to make friends with the locals, and while this works in MMOs — including PvP-oriented MMOs — survival games tend to have incredibly hostile playerbases by default.) While we didn’t finish any major projects, the process helped me learn the game more naturally without cheesing with internet guides. While I usually have something read and ready for my survival game crafting, I didn’t do that when playing with MJ, and that was a nice change.
Crafting doesn’t feel much different from other survival games — it’s simple drag and drop with very little customization– but that’s not entirely a bad thing. Gathering, though, felt more intuitive, with rocks being picked up as pebbles and picks taking out large chunks of eatable meat. The first few items you make, like a stone pick and axe, are easy enough. However, tedium sets in more than anything else as you progress through the system. It has social functions, but game wise, it’s not fun, especially for someone who has experienced deeper crafting systems.
During our second adventure, MJ and I focused a bit more on killing mobs than crafting. Well, technically we were exploring, but mobs usually are around to limit that. While I felt the mob AI was a bit better than what I recall in other Early Access titles, mobs sometimes acted dumb, standing around doing nothing while I whacked them in the face.
This was a general theme throughout my experience with the game: It doesn’t all work, and most of it’s still under construction. The team noticed that accepting clan invites results in “punching” (or axing) whomever you’re near, which is pretty dangerous on a PvP server. Funcom’s also addressing how vulnerable buildings are, something often felt and dealt with for months in other survival games. And yes, server issues (like supply) are being addressed. The problem for me, though, is mostly in the gankbox nature the game still invokes when played alone or with randoms.
Immersion in peril
While I’ve admitted I’m picky about my immersion, I’m still human. I don’t mind being an exile with a map and list of crafting recipes magically unlocked as I simply refill thirst and hunger meters for a long enough time if the game’s fun enough. The basic idea behind property destruction (needing one tier higher to destroy a structure) wasn’t bad, though imperfect, and I applaud Funcom for its attempts. The game’s introduction, with its randomly generated reasons for your exile which may or may not be true, is hilarious. It’s yet to get old, and that’s important because I keep losing my server.
For whatever reason, maybe even user error, I’m having trouble finding servers I make characters on beyond private ones I’ve been invited to, despite favoriting them. MJ and I never found our first characters, and when I’ve been wise enough to write down the server name, it’s full. I know this isn’t an MMO, but when your game campaigns are supposed to be, at their shortest, 30 days, your game should really strive to ensure the little progression PvP players may eke out is kept.
Issues with rubber banding don’t help either, especially when combined with the sometimes-strange AI. While seeing mobs fight and kill each other is still cool, dying because an imp is warping around you isn’t. The feeling of danger gets lost when that rhino and pack of hyenas chasing you are so out of sync that you can quickly gather materials, build a bed, and set it down safely, “just in case.”
The thralls are an interesting concept but seem a bit tone-deaf in our modern real-world climate. Worse, if you’re the exploring type as I am, they’re virtually required. During exploration, you may be exposed to “Corruption,” a permanent debuff that can be cured only with the help of an entertainer thrall. That means constructing the right tools and buildings, kidnapping a random NPC, and breaking its will so it’ll obey you. They also function in optimizing crafting and keeping your property safe while you’re offline. Admittedly, I spent a lot of time on my private server essentially playing a dark kind of Pokemon. It’s a guilty pleasure I didn’t expect, and honestly, in some ways, I’d like to see more. But it’s still mildly disturbing. Maybe the world of Conan treats it more like the late Roman ideal of slavery, but it’s off-putting and probably why the game uses the term “thrall,” another word for slave. It’s hard to divorce the source material and still include a really fun mechanic, though admittedly on PvP servers, this is very, very hard to do without even considering morals or ethics.
And this is where my key issue with Conan Exiles and the survival genre at large lies: PvP. Keep in mind that my MMO PvP experience originates in Asheron’s Call, where the allegiance system gave you a reason to not jut KOS everyone. Someone would essentially bind his character to yours, giving you additional experience that he generated while you strived to make sure he’s happy enough not to ditch you and pass that sweet XP on to someone else. It gave other players measurable value.
This is, perhaps, why survival games feel to tedious to me. On a PvP survival sandbox server, players are mostly loot sacks or laughs, not someone people invest in unless you were friends before joining the game. While PvE servers make it easier to build, I always get bored since it feels pointless. The genre is mostly built for strife.
Exiles may have great source material, but there are no emotes or other tools available for roleplayers, even though roleplay is one of the server types. Watching an entertainer without being able to
sit [Correction: You can sit] or even cheer feels super creepy, but functionally, “surrender” or “open hands” emotes would help with non-verbal communication [Correction: There is a surrender emote]. The game has built in voice chat, but that’s for function, not RP, and I rarely have stumbled upon kind strangers using it. Maybe this genre is aimed more at Killers than Socializers, but it doesn’t have to be.
A death worth dying for
Like the rest of the genre, Exiles focuses so much on combat that life mostly feels meaningless. We get cool dragons, but there seems to be little to no strategy to killing them beyond getting numbers and not dying. I’d heard that red dragons don’t naturally occur on the map, but before I noticed how to spawn mobs, I had one attacking a factory town I’d set up for testing purposes. The idea of mobs coming to player towns based on progress is cool, but getting there on a live PvP server is tough, and the grind is dull enough that I ended up spending a chunk of time playing a new mobile game rather than jumping back onto disappearing PvP servers filled with KOS zealots.
Tedious, mundane gameplay generates boredom, and that can be a good thing. On the one hand, it may give players a reason to seek social bonds/systems and build a community. However, especially with all the online gaming options these days and multiple servers filled with potential victims, it seems to give players an excuse to just murder anyone they can. My few PvP run-ins with a single gear tier difference made me a bit more comfortable with Exile’s loot progression system, but the result was largely the same: People just kill others because they can.
Maybe for core Conan fans, the lore is enough to keep them there, but I want more. Bigger, official servers, especially for RP PvP with strict “no voice chat” options would be appealing. Shorter, tighter scenarios would be much more appealing, and it seems it’s being left to player server hosts to make that happen. Fortunately, the admin tools are rather robust. I can see why servers for the game are sold out: They’re much more fun than official and random servers as they stand right now. You can potentially start your own campaigns, give people time to build up their sections of the world, and then begin playing, or then open your world to others. I’d like to experience more of that and have my mind changed about the game. I mean, there’s a reason we don’t score reviews of games, but judging happens, hard and fast.
Conan Exiles would best be enjoyed by fans of the Conan IP and survival genre enthusiasts. The UI feels more friendly for non-veteran survivors than some of the other ones I’ve played, but constant loss of progression from disappearing servers and gank-happy server mates is demotivating. When things work, PvE is boring, though there are some mysteries that may be discovered later that could make dragon battles more interesting.
The thrall system, somewhat like ARK’s dinosaur taming, is fun, but a bit problematic, especially as a core system. As someone who has been virtually kidnapped via mechanics, I actually want some kind of non-kinky bondage system developed if it can be made fun, perhaps like Asheron’s Call’s allegiance system, but forced and meant to be broken. Exiles keeps things a bit safer by restricting the system to NPCs, and it is a fun kind of dark Pokemon collector, but morals and ethics aside, it feels far too dangerous to seriously attempt on PvP servers.
PvE servers might be fun, but only if you’re into Conan lore and grinding (or admin cheating). However, if a game is asking me to live, with hunger and thirst and item degradation, let me live. Give me a reason to play. Give me systems that encourage it. How do we explore when maps are so small and static? Why risk my life and buildings to other players when I can just build faster and better alone? And where’s a hug emote to provide shelter to some other lost soul struggling to survive the dark and lonely nights?
Big and/or random maps with long travel time, developer events/story progression tools, unique trade items, ways to start with friends, and some kind of fast travel that needs to be built and maintained by groups, are just a few of the features that could help not only the game, but the genre, unless you want to go with a smaller scope, which seems to help H1Z1’s King of the Kill beat Just Survive.
The game seems like it can thrive with small scale (RP) scenarios designed by players for groups of survival enthusiasts and/or brand IP fans. However, Conan Exiles feels like the kind of survival gankbox you’ve come to expect, and as someone who enjoys PvP and meaningful player interaction, I still don’t feel like this genre, let alone this game, is there yet.