Funcom's Conan Exiles, now in Early Access, is a survival/building game set in the sometimes harsh Hyborian landscape, filled with hostile creatures and bloodthirsty fellow humans. By and large, it sticks to the survival game formula familiar from such games as A.R.K, Rust, and DayZ, where players gather materials to craft clothing, tools, weapons and eventually, settlements. Of course, on PvP servers they can attack, raid, steal and destroy and generally be the kind of annoying players one expects in these kinds of games. Less bellicose players can opt to work cooperatively to found sprawling settlements and tame the environment.
Having developed the MMORPG Age of Conan Unchained, Funcom is steeped in the lore of Robert Howard's Barbarian hero. Conan Exiles borrows heavily from the MMO's art style, music and settings, but of course with the exception of some NPCs and collectible documents, the player creates his or her "story" by interacting with the environment and other players.One of the more interesting aspects of Exiles is the player character's religious alignment and the eventual ability to summon mammoth, city-destroying avatars for a brief amount of time.
Conan Exiles's fundamental game play loops of gathering, crafting, unlocking more advanced recipes and character progression stats are pretty standard stuff. Once one becomes familiar with the systems and some shortcuts, it doesn't take too long to craft a bedroll (i.e. spawn point), campfire, and small stone dwelling. It takes significantly longer to develop the skills to make more useful weapons, better armor and storage chests. Immense fortresses and sprawling collections of housing are of course possible, given a lot of time and the willing cooperation of other humans. There are plenty of nooks and crannies in the environment to explore, including caverns filled with toxic gasses.
To make resource collection a little less painless, it is possible to enslave NPCs and have them do some of the mindless grunt work. Of course, one might take exception to a game that includes the ability to own and command human slaves, and they might also be taken aback by the game's explicit (optional) nudity and ability to design a player character with outsized, physics-based genitals. They also might take exception to paying $30 for an Early Access game that clearly has some technical work to be done and many features not yet implemented. Having said all that, the more explicit or culturally insensitive aspects of Exiles are not unexpected in the savage Conan universe.
Although still beset by numerous bugs, graphical glitches, rubber-banding controls on PvP servers, and all sorts of other Early Access-expected issues, Conan Exiles looks pretty nice, clearly going for a more realistic graphical style with a day/night cycle and changing weather and a desert island topography. Although I wasn't able to experience some of the game's higher level content and enemies, the lower level creatures are a fanciful and deadly mix of familiar animals and supernatural fantasy creations.
Many of those same creatures also have an immense aggro range and will come from long distances to attack. Unfortunately, combat is one of the less enjoyable or convincing aspects of the game. Hitboxes seems imprecise, move sets are pretty rudimentary and weapon strikes have little visceral impact. It is very easy to die -- and lose all collected and crafted items in the process -- either from monsters, humans, hunger and thirst, or sandstorms. It's a shame that combat is so flaccid, given that the world of Conan is heavily focused on weaponry and conflict. Conan Exiles also includes offensive magic.
Conan Exiles is fundamentally very much aligned with other survival games. It sets itself apart by its connection to the lore and brutal world of the Conan IP and does a good job of immersing the player in the Hyborian landscape. Like many survival games, Conan Exiles gives the player a choice of whether to play solo -- which is both lonely and a little dull -- cooperatively, or on a PvP server and risk near-constant harassment and death. Funcom has much content to add to the game and many technical issues to address, but there is clearly the opportunity for Conan Exiles to carve a unique niche in a crowded genre.