Conan Exiles The Frozen North Preview

Online multiplayer survival games are ten a penny at the moment, and more and more seem to be finding their home on Microsoft’s Xbox One console. ARK: Survival Evolved is perhaps the poster child for the genre, and due to its continued tenure in the Game Preview program, it has gone from strength to strength. The latest entry in the genre to make it to the Xbox is Conan Exiles, complete with the Frozen Wastes expansion which has just launched on PC. It’s very early days for the Xbox One version however, and I encountered a multitude of problems throughout my time preparing to write this Preview.

Considering the early stage of development that Conan is in, however, that’s not much of a surprise, and anyone buying in to supporting a Game Preview title should know that their live testing is a key part of bringing a game up to retail standard. Current issues include frequent crashing to the dashboard for no apparent reason and at unrelated points, the most frustrating of which is when first loading a session. At this point the game often loads the first few frames of the map and then drops straight out. This is annoying for obvious reasons, but also because another issue is that loading times are incredibly long at present as well.

Another issue once you do get into the game is that of the frame rate. It is presently choppy at best, but occasionally it slows down to an absolute crawl. This makes the combat (which already lacks feeling) quite painful to endure, and I found that at its worst it’s bloody hard to time your swings or aim a ranged weapon. Once any frame rate issues are resolved, I suspect Conan will become quite combat focussed, and there are features such as dodge rolls and multiple kinds of swing that are not commonly included in similar games.

What is common between Conan and similar games (especially Ark, I felt) is the crafting and experience system, which is virtually identical to what has gone before. As players increase in level, they unlock new recipe packs which might reflect basic survival or weaponry, and each pack contains a handful (or sometimes more) recipes for crafting. Notably, I found that creating the most basic items like a stone pick was unusually challenging, requiring more stone and sticks than usual, relative to other games I’ve seen. Crafting a basic stone sword verges on being impossible without having created the pick first, and requires a lot of stone.

Items like grass clothes are easy to make, but wear out incredibly quickly, and weirdly, required a repair hammer (which comes much later) to fix, rather than just a few more tufts of grass. To that extent, it’s almost not worth even bothering with some of those early items, and instead it’s more sensible to crack on with some of the more advanced items as quickly as possible. I suspect some of these kinds of issues will simply be ironed out with time and a bit of user feedback, but for now they are nonetheless features of the game.

The user interface is also bloody awful. Equipping clothing is a bit confusing (but actually overly simple) whilst use of items like weapons, waterskins etc is very hit and miss and really lacks feedback to tell the user what is happening. When using a waterskin, for example, you select it inside your inventory and then press X to drink. To refill it, you do exactly the same whilst standing in water. There’s no animation for it, there’s no indication what is happening and it’s dealt with inside a menu – which is just clunky.

Despite some user interface and inventory management issues, building in Conan is actually quite powerful, and as you level up and increase access to different recipes, more and more powerful building components and shapes can be used. People in the game are already creating relatively complex, large structures which are as impressive as any I’ve seen in a similar game, and each of them does a decent job of looking the part against the landscape of Conan’s world.

On that note, I should talk about what Conan Exiles does well, and why I think it has a fighting chance. The world of Conan Exiles (which I’ve only explored a small proportion of) is large, oppressive, and extremely thematic. Conan IP exists in stories, comics, board games and of course, movies, and the rich lore that surrounds his story is ripe for plundering by a game of this sort, and that is exactly what the developers have done. From the Exiled Lands to the Frozen Wastes of the North, there is much to see, and it feels like a Conan game, even at this early stage.

I’m thankful that this isn’t a review, because if it was, I couldn’t recommend Conan Exiles in its current state, but because it has the framework of an excellent world backed by a character that has such potential, I am quietly confident that it will turn out OK. There are lots of people out there willing to invest their time and effort in making games like this work, and the fruits of their labour – literally and figuratively – are already beginning to bear fruit. Give it time, and Conan Exiles may mature into a great game, but for now, it is still a little bit unripe for my taste.

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