As some of you may remember, I wasn’t terribly impressed with Conan Exiles when it first went into Early Access last year. It wasn’t exactly that the game was rough, but just more of the same: free-for-all PvP with people constantly zerg killing each other, now with slavery and some dragons!
But Funcom has done a lot to flesh out the game since then. My GDC look at the game gave me hope, and although the PvE conflict switcharoo is really upsetting, I actually have to say that, mechanically, Funcom has won me over. While I normally track my playtime, I have to admit that I spent far too much time playing Exiles. Sadly, I didn’t get to experience clans, god summoning, purges, teleportation, massive battles, or slavery, but it wasn’t from a lack of trying. In fact, Conan Exiles should give all of us, PvE players included, a reason to pay more attention to the survival genre.
Restarting in Conan’s world
Logging back into CE so long after my previous review felt quite familiar. I still knew the map and locations of certain things, but everything felt a more accessible. I was worried the lack of auto-healing would make the game as painful as, say, Wizardry Online had been, but finding food to heal with is easy enough. Very basic resources are plentiful and building is simple, but crafting can still be a bit obtuse, requiring you to tab out and search the internet for advice.
Climbing changes the whole game. The whole game. I barely played any The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but the climbing system, survival aspects, and new combat enhancement gave me the vaguest sense of similarity between the two games. As I sadly didn’t feel I’d have time to cover MMOs and play Breath of the Wild, I feel I missed out, but CE allows me to experience some of the mechanics that got me to notice the latest Zelda game.
CE‘s new combat overhaul is just interesting enough to keep a jaded MMO fighter like me interested. Action combat is pretty standard now, but the dodge button along with combo-weaving of heavy and light attacks is deep enough without requiring hotbars full of combat skills. New zones are cool, but even cooler is the new wildlife in those zones that interact with each other, bringing gameplay immersion up several levels.
The new attributes and feat enhancements give you more of an RPG feeling for your character. You’re not just hitting harder or carrying more stuff; you’re getting unique passives that make your character more than the usual 3-D stat sheet I feel I’m playing in other survival games.
While farming plants is an option now, it’s certainly not for lowbies. You’ll still be eating bugs and grilling low-quality meat. Making a life in Conan’s world is still front and center, but now there’s more to do. The “Exiles Journey” panel (think achievements) helps give themepark players specific goals to meet, points of interest to unlock on the map (as well as obelisks that unlock Map Room teleportation) give something for explorers to focus on, achievers get bosses to fight and gods to summon, and PvPers can still dry-loot newbies.
But what of socializers? Well, despite the fact that I didn’t get to participate in much group-oriented play, I do see potential. Beyond roleplaying in Conan’s world, there are decorations for customizable housing/towns, which are needed for creating and recovering from high-end content, which wouldn’t have been possible without some significant PvP changes.
The PvPvE experience
For those who don’t know, the idea of PvPvE is that you have PvE goals, but PvP is somehow connected to it. For some, this might be political intrigue a la A Tale in the Desert, or it might be fighting over world bosses, or it might be a battleground with PvE goals like in Guild Wars 2‘s World vs. World maps where there are forts to capture, trade routes to attack, and NPC allies to recruit.
Frankly, for me, most PvPvE means boring PvE mechanics that get complicated by other people. Think of the Prisoner’s Dilemma as gameplay: You get in trouble for something and either stay silent or try to shift the blame. In a singleplayer game, ratting someone else out is easy. However, if your mate can also rat you out, the game gets harder. As more and more people participate, the game gets more complex. Maybe everyone else knows Player C will be the first to betray them, so rather than stay silent, everyone blames player C, making it more likely they get off easy. But player D is good friends with C and reveals this might likely be everyone else’s plan. It’s a game that requires social and psychological skills, which I’ve always felt is supposed to be the strength of our genre.
Now, let’s apply that to CE. Solo, you can play on your own server, spawn everything you want and god-mode down the bosses, basically playing a very adult version of Minecraft, albeit with simpler building rules and rounder butts. With other people on a PvE server, you now have to fight for prime land, but still can work on racing others to see who can build the biggest, strongest PvE team.
Already that’s most MMOs, but on a smaller scale with hunger/thirst meters. Now throw in direct PvP. You’re not just fighting for real estate, but you need to protect what you build and gather. Do you allow high-end crafting machines to stay out in the open where anyone can use them, or put them in a fort? Do you destroy your rival’s town and risk retaliation, or do you initial rare item trading so they avoid conflict?
PvP isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but Funcom has actually made some key changes. To be clear, I mostly played on official servers, as they give us a point of reference we can all share, without a server being suddenly shut down (and hopefully never again converted to a different ruleset). All the official PvP servers at launch limited when players could attack other people’s strongholds to about 6pm-11pm. Not only that, but you need to go up essentially two crafting tiers to damage an enemy’s buildings.
That doesn’t sound like much, but to someone who exclusively plays survival games on PvP mode (outside of reviews), this has had a major impact on the PvP scenes I witnessed, on both official and unofficial servers.
A world to live in
As I mentioned before, my issue with most survival games isn’t that PvP is “hard” or “scary” but that I have little to no reason to stick around. I have plenty to die for, but why am I living? Much of what I previously described are things I can do solo or in a proper MMO, and often do those games do them better. Doing them in a survival game should be fun if social skills are meaningful, but if everyone is zerging, can solo the game, or needs only a few friends, that eliminates the need for others. Luckily, Funcom’s countered all of these problems.
First, because it takes so much longer to unlock property destruction, and because you need to build property to get to that point, players are more invested in their land. Losing your territory symbolizes a large loss of time, and rebuilding can take quite a while, especially if you lose your spawn points. The game world isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to make unnecessary travel something to avoid. While I’ve lost property before, it often happens so fast that I’m used to not getting very far progression wise, especially as a solo player. Naturally, it’s why I don’t tend to play these games for long.
However, as you can see in the above clip, I was able to build out this time. The inner sanctum was what I built when I first arrived. As I got more supplies and found my house not burned to the ground the next day, I was able to expand and move up to the next crafting tier, without needing a huge group or private server. I even got to the point that I could build a second home/base.
This brings me to point number two: people. In most survival games, you either go into the game with friends or go solo. I have never, ever, not even once, been offered to join a clan/guild in any survival game. And if it’s not obvious yet, I seek to socialize in my online games.
It hasn’t happened yet in Conan Exiles, but something else did: My neighbors weren’t immediately hostile. On full-loot, capped out PvP servers, more often than not, my neighbors would either give me space or flee from me. I was ganked only a few times across the two servers I played on, and they were all at the newbie area. Within minutes, you can craft some light gear, weapons, and a bedroll for spawning, and find a new place to set up camp away from there. Maybe space won’t be as plentiful as the servers age, but I assume that, once people have built up and notice their neighbors stop logging in or fortifying their buildings, people may destroy abandoned settlements to help keep space open.
This is where I want to return to the idea of socializing. At some point, the amount of work that goes into building can be kind of frustrating. You need tons of supplies. You need to travel. You need to kill. Your character initially can do a bit of everything, but you’ll soon start to feel the pinch of spreading out your character stats.
There is a very real need to find other people and team up. Not just for basic building, but for God summoning, which doesn’t sound like it’d be very useful outside of PvP. I’ve yet to win anyone over, but I have “neighbors” who left open an advanced forge so I don’t have to build one yet. I’ve never seen them logged in, but (along with neighbors), I’ve tried leaving offerings in hopes that, if I see them, I can admit to being the anonymous gift giver in hopes that we can team up.
That may not sound like much, but this is actually exactly how I always imagined the survival genre to play out. Maybe not in the world of Conan which I’m not that invested in, but it’s interesting gameplay that pushes socialization, even in a world where you can kill your enemy and eat their flesh.
There’s a lot to love about Conan Exiles. PvP servers I experienced weren’t even a fraction of the gankboxes I’d previously experienced, in any survival game. The building is simple but fun. The PvE may not be hugely engaging, but it’s interesting enough that it motivated me to want to explore it, even while I knew someone could shank me at any moment. I’m sure PvE fans could enjoy it for a bit if they play with friends, but the PvP experience feels wholly accessible at this point.
There are a few critical issues, however. For good or ill, the size of the world and the player cap of about 40 people makes it so you can go whole play sessions without bumping into anyone, even during primetime. That does help keep you safe, but it doesn’t help socializing. Maybe this will change as more clans form, but I’m not sure.
However, when servers are at capacity, you can’t even log into your character. No more building your base let alone defending it. No making sure meat doesn’t go bad, no building your stats, no corpse run if you get disconnected. It’s a glaring flaw, and it only reinforces my belief that we need survival MMOs.
All that being said, Funcom’s new mechanics have won me over. If you’ve ever wanted to play a survival game, if you’re a Conan fan, if you want a free-form builder, heck, if you want to set up pitched RP PvP battles, buy Conan Exiles. Compared to other games I’ve recently done impressions on for MOP, CE is the most accessible for mainstream players for the most reasonable price. I don’t often get early access games that release and make me change my mind, but Conan Exiles was able to pull it off.