Conan Exiles isn't exactly a new game, but recently we paid a visit to developer Funcom's offices to see what they've been doing while Conan Exiles has been in Early Access. The answer? A whole fricking lot.
The game that launches in full on May 8 is quite different from the one players have been messing around in for the past year or so, but that has been Funcom's plan from the get-go, explains Joel Bylos, Creative Director at Funcom. The goal was always to be in Early Access for a short period of time, and then launch a game that was noticeably different from the Early Access version, instead of dragging the test period out indefinitely and then releasing a game that's just an extension of the test version.
Bylos started off with showing us a mechanic they're implementing in the final version of the game - which is clearly a result of the developers having played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - and this is free climbing. Like in BoTW most things can be climbed, and how far you can climb is determined by your stamina. Just like in BoTW too, it's a brilliant mechanic. Later, when we get to get toe-to-toe with Conan Exiles, our entire survival strategy is based on climbing. Run into a hostile tribe? Climb a sheer rock wall up and away to safety! Antagonised some hippo-like creatures by stealing their eggs? Climb a palm tree and stay there until they calm down and forget about the eggs. Maybe eat some eggs while we're up there to regain health too. We survive for quite some time like this until we, emboldened by our survival skills, challenge a giant croc to a duel.
We do this, naturally, to test the new combat system (we swear), which has received a massive overhaul during its time in Early Access, and is one of the things Bylos is most proud of in the game. The combat system has gone from a simple, Skyrim-esque hack and slash to a much more advanced combo-based system featuring light and heavy attacks, blocking, and dodging. It's about 80% as good as the combat in the God of War or Dark Souls games, Bylos says, without the developers having spent nearly as much time developing it. He's very impressed with what they've managed to achieve in such a short amount of time, and we feel inclined to agree.
It works well, and we slay one beast after another, and even a human at some point, but that might have been a friendly NPC who just wanted to talk. Even though the new combat system is responsive and makes things both fun and challenging to fight enemies, getting into a tussle with a giant croc, only armed with a home-made stone hatchet (us, not the croc) is still a pretty terrible idea...
After traipsing around for a while and being told we can actually harvest resources from the animals we kill, instead of just leaving them where they fall (we're obviously not survival experts, alright?), we manage to craft odds and ends. Every time we do something that increases the chances of our survival we get a little notification, a 'mission accomplished', and some tips on other stuff we can do to further our chance of survival even more. This is part of the Exiles Journey - a tutorial of sorts for those of us who aren't Bear Grylls - aiming to help us get started when the game launches. We manage to set up a cooking fire and cook some meat (eating it raw is bad for us. Who knew?), and feel pretty good about ourselves. That is until we sneak a peek at the screen beside us and see that they have already begun building a fortress. We suddenly die from dehydration and Funcom decides we are now ready for war.
In our session all the journalists were divided into two teams, and then it was time for some good ol' chaotic PvP fun in a staged and simulated raid scenario. We're on the attacking team and our job is to overtake and destroy the defenders' fortress. We're doing a poor job of it until someone manages to summon a God Avatar, and what ensues is complete annihilation. It's glitchy, a little buggy, and the frame-rate drops like it's the stock market in 1929, but it's fun as hell.
The impressive and terrifying God Avatars can also be summoned in battles and in The Purge, which is Conan Exiles' new PvE mode. In this Tower Defense-inspired mode you have to defend your base against waves of enemies who are hellbent on breaking down your barricades and robbing you. They'll never destroy your base completely, Bylos explains, only mess it up a little, and as you can get your hands on special treasures and unique thralls during a Purge, getting a little messed up may very well be worth it. The number and type of enemies that attack you are determined by where you build your base. Build a base in the swamp and you'll get attacked by... swamp things, for instance. A Purge meter tells you when a Purge is due, and then you'll have a certain period of time to prepare. This meter is filled whenever you're out in the world doing stuff, and is communal between members of a clan.
In addition to these rather substantial changes, the developers have also added new regions, among them a Swamp region, where you'll find new NPCs, monsters, dungeons, and bosses (three large dungeons, and three to four smaller ones). Bylos also had some good news for those lone wolves out there: all dungeons and bosses can be tackled solo. Beating a dungeon provides more benefits than just extra XP too, as you can craft special weapons in them. Obsidian weapons, for instance, can only be crafted in The Great Forge, which is inside a volcano.
Several "smaller" changes have also been implemented during the Early Access period as well, like adding hundreds of new items (they've gone from roughly 200 items to somewhere around 800), increasing the map size by 100%, and just working on making the world seem as lived-in as possible.
With such a strict time frame the ambitions have definitely exceeded what's possible to achieve, and when asked what they have had to cut in the process, there seems to be five things that have been particularly hard to cut, because Bylos instantly replies: magic, pets, mounts, advanced thrall AI, and settlements. He hopes that these things will be implemented at a later date, if time and budget allows, but as he points out, there's a big difference between what creatives want, and what can actually be achieved. The most important thing is to be honest about what can be done, and not stay in Early Access indefinitely to try to get everything done.
Funcom, of course, has a post-launch roadmap, and Bylos says that there probably will be some microtransactions involved, but only cosmetic ones, like buying new cultures, buildings, and outfits. In addition to possibly adding the things that have been cut (the big five listed above), he also hopes that they'll be able to add eight new maps too. New maps would require an entirely new character and a completely new story. We know what you're thinking, but yes, there is a story in Conan Exiles. It's just very obtuse, and told indirectly through things that happen in the game, and through theories that NPCs have about why you've been exiled. Like Bylos said to us, this is not a Bioware game, but the story is very much there if you look for it, and the story has a conclusion. A very permanent one, if you choose it...
Yes, there are quite a lot of big and exciting changes coming to Conan Exiles, and it's going to be interesting to see what another month of polishing and bug fixing can do for the finished product, but to those of you who are worried that they've changed too much and lost what gives Conan Exiles its soul, we are here to assuage your fears, as they haven't changed the most important thing about the game - the ability to adjust the size of your junk.