With dozens of open world survival/crafting games crowding the market, any new entry needs a strong hook and distinct identity. With its link to one of fantasy fiction's most iconic characters, you'd think that Conan Exiles would have it made. The title suggests a Frank Frazetta painting come to life in all its hyper-masculine, brutal glory.
Conan Exiles -- now in full release after eighteen months of early access -- certainly succeeds in placing the player in a harsh and unforgiving environment, naked and vulnerable to all manner of critters, creatures and health-reducing conditions. After being pulled from a cross by the titular Conan, the player is given little instruction and instead must discover not only the secrets of survival, but also the secrets of the game's interface and various systems. This can lead to some aimless wandering and wasted time.
Like literally every game in the genre, Conan Exiles cherry picks those elements of "reality" that the player must attend to, while ignoring others (like, where exactly is my naked character holding the metric ton of rocks, branches, and turtle eggs?). Finding food, water, and shelter, or crafting tools, weapons and clothes are the staple of the survival/building game and Conan Exiles does little to really innovate except by giving the player a crafting system that is never cogently explained and is tied to an interface that is not terribly elegant or user-friendly. The grind-tolerant player can spend countless hours crafting really impressive structures, tools and weapons from simple shacks to massive, defensive castles. There is a lot of content to explore in Conan Exiles, and a wide variety of biomes and stuff to hunt and kill.
Conan Exiles can be played purely as a single-player, PvE game, a co-op game, or as a PvP experience. Though there is plenty of death and danger in the solo game, it is a lonely and fairly mind-numbing grind, while the PvP game is, unsurprisingly, brutal and often frustrating, with the potential for sudden loss of gear and progress around every corner. Unlike some crafting games, there is a story of sorts, or at least a series of chapter goals that provide rewards of new recipes, upgrades, abilities and experience. One of Exiles bullet points is the ability to enslave NPC Thralls to help with various tasks and defense. The Age of Conan MMORPG did a much better job of suggesting the fantasy world of Conan the Barbarian than does Exiles.
One would expect a game set in the brutal and violent world of Conan to be heavily combat focused. While there is plenty of fighting and killing, the combat feels flaccid and floaty with little feeling of impact or precision. It's slow, too, and although there is an arsenal of weapons to craft, the variety of attacks is limited. Whether fighting NPCs, indigenous fauna or other human players, melee is disappointing.
When it was first released in early access, much was made of Conan Exiles' "mature" content, which consisted primarily of character nudity and the ability to create avatars with oversize male genitals or augmented female breasts. Sadly, this remains Exiles most notable graphical feature in a game where the visuals are still janky and technically inconsistent. Even after more than a year of patches and changes, framerate issues and scenery pop-in are common on the PC. Outstanding textures and visually arresting environments rest side-by-side with less accomplished visuals and fairly unconvincing character animations.
It's possible to enjoy Conan Exiles, primarily for its tie-in to the legendary character and his mythology, which is subtly reflected in the game world. At its core, Conan Exiles is another open world crafting and survival game: heavy on grinding, lonely for single players and frustrating for most in multiplayer. Overall, it feels like a product coming a little too late to an overcrowded table. As a genre, the "realistic" survival/building niche (Minecraft aside) is still opaque and in need of a streamlined, mass-appeal hit. Conan Exiles is not that game.