Oh, Early Access!
Sorry, just stubbed my toe. Yes, it's certainly worked in places, but goodness me if it isn't sometimes the most infuriating way of releasing barely functioning games for a fee. Time was it cost a developer lots of money to have their game concepts tested and QAd - now they charge £27 for the privilege. That's how much it'll cost you to get into Funcom's Conan Exiles [official site] right now. The store page describes a game where you discover ancient secrets, enslave your own army, ride around on rhinos, build entire cities - it sounds stunning. Right now it's a game where you're more likely to die because a menu won't load. [Nudey Warning: There are some pictures of naked characters below]
It's a risk, Early Access. A game's reputation can be hard to shake at the best of times - ask Arkham Knight. Deliberately launching your game long before its finished, and purposefully inviting people in while all the edges are jaggedly rough, is courting such a reputation to become attached, no matter how many caveats you plaster over it. And when you're a well-known name, a company that's been around for years with multiple MMOs to your name, it's hard not to consider it a little... dare I say unprofessional? Funcom, they behind Anarchy Online, Age Of Conan, The Secret World and others, have put Conan Exiles out there before they've got the server code close to ready, and the result is a laggy, broken time. And when you're charging serious prices for access, you can put your "Yes, but"s back in their box.
It seems that the term "rubberbanding" changed its gaming definition when I wasn't looking. Once it defaulted to meaning where racing games deliberately let you catch up with leading cars. Today it's more immediately understood to refer to Conan Exiles' largest problem - when latency sends your character kwa-pinging backward as they try to move forward. I've spent an afternoon watching myself teleport all over beaches, unable to do so much as pick up a stick, let alone begin my foray into surviving the barbaric wastelands. That or get killed by the seemingly invincible enemies that stalk the opening areas. It's not made a good first impression for me.
Appearing to be a very deliberate mix of ARK and Rust, Exiles starts you off as a nudey man or lady (here you get to choose, along with a character creator that lets you decide the length of your willy, or the size of your boobs) of one of a number of Hyborian races. You run around a sandy land of falling ruins and other naked players jiggedy-jaggeding their skitterish trajectories around you, breasts and balls frenetically spasming in the assumed wind. No players I've encountered have chosen to have anything less than the maximum length of penis, the great big thing lolloping around uncomfortably between their legs. (I opted for the smallest winky available, because it's important to roleplay characters very dissimilar to yourself.)
You pick up sticks and rocks, sort of waft your hand near vegetation, and quickly level up a few times to unlock crafting recipes. Then you'll have an axe, a pick, a torch, some bedding to create a one-time spawn point, maybe some rudimentary clothes if you're feeling modest, and then campfires, equipment to fix your tools, and of course the ability to build walls, floors, ceilings and doors. It is, to put it more briefly, every other crafting game.
History has proven that being every other crafting game can be no inhibition to ludicrous popularity and success on Steam. For reasons known only to the gaming angels, the community will latch onto one game in particular, irrespective of its quality, and it'll sell 800 billion copies a week. One assumes it's this that Funcom is after here, since Exiles feels deeply derivative within its genre, feeling more like a result of, "How can we try to make something else from this Conan license we're paying so much for?" than of an auteur's genius inspiration. The descriptions of features like, "Enslave the criminals of the exiled lands and force them to join your cause and defend your territory" and "use explosives and see their fortifications crumble to dust, then unleash your savage fury with brutal attacks that will see heads rolling and limbs flying" sound fantastic, and perhaps the most very dedicated have managed to find such things already. I've found the starting area, the first pool of water, and lag.
For large periods of my time with the game I wasn't even able to move off the spot, capable of jumping up and down and nothing else. Then it'll let me walk forward at last, only to keep teleporting backward to the same spot. Sometimes it eases up and lets you do a sort of 'three steps forward, two steps back' affair. At other points I've been able to move freely, although I don't think there's been a time when the monsters have maintained a steady gait.
Monsters are very aggressive, with enormous aggro areas, and your life at the start is very fragile. Which is to say, I've died an awful lot. There's one enemy type I hit with my axe maybe twelve, fifteen times and it didn't display any signs of damage, and it can kill me in three or four swipes. There are NPC humanoid characters too, and if they catch your eye you're absolutely done for. And these all exist near water, and you have to go to the water, so you're propelled directly into a lot of difficulty. That may be exactly your sort of thing - it's clearly desired in lots of these survival games from which I bounce. I would prefer to be getting on with setting up my own private little hovel of safety, at least getting a chance to settle in.
But right now, it's the tech that's more likely to finish you. I finally managed to live long enough to have built all the tools I needed, then collect the absolutely idiotic number of sticks needed to build a campfire. It's 50. FIFTY sticks. And guess what - you then have to add fuel to that campfire before it will build anything. It's tiny! Anyway, I did that, I popped on a couple of steaks I'd cut from killing a boar-like thing (who had apparently teleported to my location while we were both stuck in the lagswamp) and then couldn't get anything to happen. It seems it was trying to load a guide screen for me, but that wasn't happening, and I was rapidly starving. I tried to take the food out of the fire and just eat it raw, but then it changed the menus all back to the fire ones again so I couldn't, and then somewhere behind all this ludicrous screen clutter I'd died.
I wouldn't mind if this were, as MMOs once did, a free beta! If they said, "Guys, the game's a mess, we need to stress test it, get your feedback on it, so we're having an open beta that will stop working after three weeks." That's what used to happen in this industry! But instead they're charging the full price of the game (let's hope - making it cost more would be a rather daft move when Ark is £23 (£7.60 this week, by the way) and Rust is £15), and it's clearly not ready for the public.
We'll obviously come back to it later, once they've got their server issues ironed out, but gosh, first impressions and all.
Conan Exiles is out on Early Access for Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam, for £27/$30/€30.