Well, this is great. I'm standing nervously before another player in a deadlock situation. It's a PvP server and I'm on his turf, his looming fortress behind him underlining the issue. I really don't want to die; it took me ages getting here, inching my way across a dangerous baked canyon. If I die I'll go all the way back to the beginning, to my camp miles away.
Judging by appearances he could kill me easily. He's in heavier, more metal armour than me, but we're getting on OK - that is until the doors to his fortress fly open and someone else comes steaming out, weapons drawn. From proximity voice chat there's a sound of growling, then something else, something...
Hang on a second. He's sniffing me!
I try the old 'nothing strange going on here' routine and walk away, getting a few steps before I hear a bowstring twang. I'm off, like a startled gazelle, galloping up the dusty hill.
Up until this point I'd been playing Conan Exiles alone, on my own server, eking out a simple life by the waterside, learning the ropes. And I was bored. But now I see a bigger picture, what a kind of Stage Two in Conan Exiles looks like. The existence and threat of other players whose imposing fortresses jutt from cliff edges; a wider world of ancient ruins and deadly mysteries. I see a purpose beyond basic survival; clans working together, warring, conquering. And I sorely needed to see it, because for a while there, Conan Exiles wasn't just average, it was agony.
You begin in a sparse desert, surrounded by nothing, pulled from a crucifixion cross. It's all trial and error; through experimentation you realise you can scavenge rocks, plants and branches (make sure you pick up that water skin) and use them to craft basic clothes and stone tools, and unlock more recipes as you level up. Then you die of thirst.
The next time you spawn you know you need to find water. You waste no time heading towards the rocky area on the horizon, the only thing on the horizon. There's greenery there and therefore water, but also enemies. This time they will kill you. The next time you spawn you will be more careful. You may even find your way to water and drink. You overcome the game's first challenge - staying alive. Then you begin carving out an existence by the water's edge, with a campfire and bedroll, gradually equipping yourself and staying reliably fed and watered, and resurrecting at your bed when you die.
It's slow going, frustrating, and clunky. The things you build have high resource costs so there's a lot of tree cutting, stone mining, and plant picking. It's wearying work and dull, and as if to compound this, XP progress slows and you begin waiting on levels to unlock new things to do. For your first real set of armour, for instance, you need to unlock an Armourer's Table then each piece of armour - five levels' worth of unlocks. It stagnates the whole experience.
Combat exacerbates the tedium. It's the biggest letdown for me. Characters are like wooden manikins, only rudimentarily animated, and fighting is a dreary exchange of blows, no nuance, no tactics, no apparent skill. There are shields and bows and power attacks but they have such a negligible effect they are soon dismissed in favour of hack, hack, hacking. It means that a whole handful of hours in I am only a little less susceptible to being dogpiled and killed by surrounding enemies. I suppose it reinforces the fiction of the world as a dangerous place, but feels nasty to play.
The building system is better. The components - walls, ceiling, door - are like chunky, barbaric pieces of Lego you plonk down and slot together easily, and they mesh with each other and the environment naturally and pleasingly. They make for attractive creations, places to be proud of, and there's function to them, providing shelter and a safe place to store goods. They can only be destroyed by tools of an appropriate tier, so beginners can't ruin your afternoon's work, although raids while owners are offline are a problem.
Homes and settlements are a place to put your thralls, your slaves. These are AI enemies you have clubbed unconscious and dragged home with a rope, then broken their will on your rack. That's the unique flavour of Conan Exiles, the savage nature of the world. Then thralls can be deployed around your site as an aid to crafting, or as a guard, or even a dancer.
All of this, the slaves, the great fortresses, the metal work, are areas of Conan Exiles I am only now uncovering, nearly 20 hours in. Understandably these are goals more achievable with other players, such are their resource requirement costs and many hands make light work. In that way Conan Exiles funnels you towards playing in multiplayer, as perhaps it should, as clearly there are more thrills to be had there: clans and wars, a mysterious world to collectively explore. Conan Exiles clicks when other people are around, as I'm discovering.
That's not to say you cannot play by yourself, or with one or two friends on your own server (even the biggest servers only number up to 70 players so it's hardly massively multiplayer). Conan Exiles is like Minecraft in this regard, and it allows you to tweak world settings to your liking, which is a mercy. So do yourself a favour when you begin and crank up the multipliers for XP gained and resource harvested - you'll have a much more enjoyable experience as a result.
Conan Exiles makes a bad first impression, and as an Early Access game clearly there's work to do. But stick around and there's a beauty and charm and even endgame worth seeing. Funcom is onto something. It's whether it can harness the potential before people get bored and move on we will have to wait to see.