With its rugged environments, epic adventures, voluptuous women, and larger-than-life heroes, Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age is the archetypal predecessor of many video games, from Golden Axe to God of War. However, the mythic, pseudo-historical world and its prevailing protagonist, Conan the Cimmerian, have been underserved by the interactive realm. The legendary barbarian has starred in a handful of middling titles across the years, but the latest custodian of the property, Funcom, has taken a different approach. Beginning with 2008’s Age of Conan, the developer has endeavoured to let players populate the world of Hyboria, and its latest project, Conan Exiles, continues that trend. As such, deviations from the expectations of the IP are understandable, but the weaknesses of exploration and combat in this survival adventure, nonetheless, feel incongruous.
Players enter the world of Hyboria as naked, unarmed revenants saved from crucifixion by Conan. This serendipitous beginning offers scope for a vast tale of revenge or homecoming, but the premise is squandered as the story is anaemic to the point of non-existence. Barred from their homelands by a cursed bracelet, the character is cast into the wilds of Hyboria with minimal guidance or explanation of their quest. In the co-op and multiplayer settings that the title is so clearly designed for, this structure is sensible, but the drip-feed of narrative means that solo players must be pulled forward by the drive to explore, build, and survive.
To that end, Conan Exiles is made up of phases with each gameplay epoch characterised, to a greater or lesser degree, by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Freshly freed from the corpse tree, the player’s immediate concerns are those of the body: food, water, and clothing. The opening hour is therefore a mad scramble against both the elements and the low-level enemies that populate the desert and oases surrounding the beginning locale. Once these fundamental needs are sated, the game shifts, demanding players build shelter, seek purpose through religion, and find companionship (in the form of thralls), each of which requires resources harvested from the environment. This slow build and the unfolding of new goals and mechanics are well-balanced, and the processes involved therein are among the most engaging gameplay structures that Conan Exiles contains. However, amassing the sometimes eye-watering amounts of wood and stone required for buildings and other key items can send players far from their home base, putting the disappointments of exploration and battle on clear display.
Howard’s original stories are characterised by a propensity to send their eponymous barbarian to majestic, far-flung locales where he engages in brutal combat against all sorts of men and beasts, but Conan Exiles fails to capture the same spirit. To be sure, the biomes of desert, swamp, tundra, and volcano can be breathtaking under the right circumstances. However, Funcom’s Hyboria is a chore to wander. The issues lie not in the visual make-up of the land, but in its fundamental design. A core problem is that, once the player has travelled for a handful of hours, any sense of surprise dwindles as the world proves to be almost universally populated with animals and barbarian encampments that attack on sight. Rather than taking cues from the likes of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and making the world an attraction through environmental storytelling or diversified structures, Conan Exiles offers only a vast, deadly sandbox. By allowing players to work together or against each other, multiplayer enlivens the experience, though solo users are offered no reprieve from or reward for the seemingly endless march of death. With no one to talk to or trade with and nothing else to break up the cycles of slaughter and rebirth, the game struggles to maintain the player’s attention.
This feeling of drudgery is enhanced by the uninspiring combat systems. Taking cues from Dark Souls’s ilk, each weapon archetype has a distinct weight and heft, demanding that players experiment to find an arsenal that suits them. Power is typically balanced well against speed and accessibility, while the controls are usually responsive enough to ensure that deaths result from a lack of skill rather than luck. While the core components of battle are thus finely tuned, a sense of ennui emerges from the absence of progression. Sharper and hardier weapons can make the player more dangerous as time wears on, but new abilities and attacks are not forthcoming, meaning the first hour of combat fundamentally mirrors the fortieth. The lack of care in this area feels like a glaring oversight, particularly given Conan’s reputation as a fearsome warrior before all else and the attention paid to new skills in the crafting and RPG mechanics built into the game.
As with most open-world projects, Conan Exiles includes a leveling system, which is one of the areas lending a sense of longevity to the title. Almost every action taken contributes experience points to the tally, ensuring constant improvement, and each new level gives players access to new skills. Called Feats, most of these unlockables grant the ability to create an ever-expanding selection of weapons, structures, armour, and other miscellaneous goods. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of these options, and the way that many open up no more than a handful of new items, leaves the process with a sense tantamount to busywork. Reams of skills are gated by the leveling system, creating a vast amount of content that would take a solo players dozens—if not hundreds—of hours to gain access to.
This trait makes Conan Exiles the kind of release that the biggest publishers dream of, providing a platform that, in theory, can last the solo player years. The title is plump with content, combining a sprawling continent with enough progression mechanics to provide endless engagement. However, the game does not feel deserving of its namesake. Between bland combat and an uninspired world, Funcom’s Hyboria bears little resemblance to Robert E. Howard’s glorious battles and fantastic locales, even failing to live up to its digital forebears. That crafting and community building saves the title from the bin of also-rans similarly seems like a betrayal of the tenets of those time-worn tales. Pedantic literary enthusiasts aside, players will find much to keep them engaged in Conan Exiles, particularly as the developers continue to work on the title in the coming months, ironing out the shortcomings evident in this initial release.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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