Conan’s fast action and deep combat make for a bloody good time
While we’ve been patiently waiting for Funcom’s ambitious MMORPG Age of Conan to arrive, THQ and developer Nihilistic have snuck in like a Hyborian thief in the night with their own barbarian-boasting game, aptly and simply titled Conan. A licensed game arriving with little hype or fanfare is usually a sure sign of something you’ll want to avoid, but don’t let Conan’s under-the-radar release fool you; it’s a bloody, barbaric, bare-bosom-revealing release that deserves a space in your library alongside this year’s biggest blockbusters.
It offers visceral sword-wielding thrills and a brand of balls-out action you won’t find in this holiday season’s crowded line-up of first and third-person frag fests. Conan is far from perfect, lacking the polish and production values offered by many of its competitors, but with all the running and gunning we’ve been doing lately, hacking-‘n-slashing in Conan’s brutal world feels pretty damn good.
To be fair, Conan’s bloodletting gameplay delves quite a bit deeper than just button-mashing. On the contrary, you can mindlessly thrash on buttons till your thumbs blister, and Conan’s sandal-wearing, shield-waving adversaries will block and parry until you break that mashing mind-set. The combat is surprisingly deep and sophisticated, not in that it offers more combos than you can utilize in multiple play-throughs–many games have done that–, but that it provides players with an intuitive method of learning new moves and tracking their progress through Conan’s combo-heavy quest. Where other games unlock new difficult-to-master moves faster than you can learn them, Conan allows players to pace themselves, unlocking the moves when they want; by collecting red orbs, players earn points that can be used to purchase new combos as they become available.
Technically you could unlock every combo in the game, never purchase any of them, and attempt to hack your way through the game, repeatedly slamming a single button. Obviously this suicide strategy wouldn’t be the way to go, but the fact that Conan never force-feeds new combos, instead letting you pick and choose the ones you like, when you like, is refreshing and fun. In addition, you’re never left guessing as to whether or not you’re pulling off your purchased moves with barbarian-like ease; rather than repeatedly attempting a combo–that you just spent some blood-earned orbs on–and wondering if you’re actually doing it correctly, a percentage meter pops up on-screen every time you successfully unleash a combo, letting you know just how barbaric you are. This not only assures you’ve correctly pressed, for example “The Bloody Crown”–a gruesome maneuver that cleaves enemies in half–but also how close you are to mastering this move; chop enough foes in two and you’ll soon reach 100% for this particular combo, making it all the more devastating.
Conan’s fighting options open up even more when you consider the fact that players can master moves in four different disciplines–two-handed, one-handed, dual-wield, and general–utilizing a variety of bone-breaking, blood-spilling implements of death. Go the two-handed route, and you’ll be wielding enormous broad swords and staffs. Or use a variety of smaller blades and axes to get the job done single handedly. Additionally, dual-wielding smaller weapons yields some especially gory animations, such as bringing shiny scimitars down on either side of a foe’s head to free him of both his arms. Of course, not everyone’s into littering the landscape with loose limbs. More conservative barbarians may want to stick with some non-weapon “general” moves, including everything from wrestling-style grapples and punches to skull-crushing stomps and over-ledge throws. The options are endless and up to you. A cool way to conquer Conan is to change up your moves from level to level; try tackling one stage with dual-wield deaths and maybe the next with two-handed weapons. Regardless of how you satisfy the blood lust, Conan’s endless combo system will ensure the ground’s always covered with corpses.
This brings us to Conan’s next defining feature: its mature rating. This title wears that “M” like a badge of honor. From slow-motion decapitations to throat-crushing kicks, Conan’s animated violence never lets up. And every death is punctuated with a nice visual blood spray. This is, after all, the over-the-top world of Conan creator Robert E. Howard, so the blood and boobs–did we mention the topless maidens you’ll be rescuing–are a tribute, and actually seem right at home in this testosterone-fueled title. While the carnage and cleavage definitely fit the bill, there are some things in Conan’s world that do rob us of an entirely immersive experience.
The worst offender is the voice acting and dialogue; we can dismiss the fabric-challenged wenches grateful cries of “Crush me with your love!” as cheeky fun, but Conan’s dismal delivery is just plain bad. He utters every line in the exact same wooden tone. Whether it’s the oft repeated “My blade thirsts!” or the too-obvious hints he offers potentially lost players like “The only way is up,” he sounds exactly the same. It’s a shame they’ve made our favorite passionate barbarian sound like a sleepy bore. Fortunately, in the options menu, the VO can be turned down and the excellent effects can be turned up. The score is rousing and appropriate, but it’s the smaller sound effects that really pop; clashing steel, crackling fires, and roaring lions will all justify the purchase of your pricey surround sound system.
Another Hyborian highlight is Conan’s boss battles. Brave barbarian wannabes will have the opportunity to take on sand dragons, elephant demons, and a slithery Medusa-like monster, just to name a few. Each of these battles are long, and your relentless enemies will get their life gauges refilled many times before your blades steal their last breath. But the developers have struck a nice balance, allowing these several-tiered battles to be more fun than frustrating; thanks to forgiving mid-battle checkpoints, you’ll never be forced to restart these daunting end-boss fights from the very beginning. Like many games since God of War, Conan has also incorporated on-screen button-matching mini-games during its boss encounters. Like the exploding barrel before it, this gaming cliche is rapidly approaching its expiration date. That said, it gels really well with Conan’s gameplay and never feels forced or tacked-on, as it has in so many other post-GoW games.
Conan is definitely short and linear, and its sometimes restrictive camera emphasizes both these points. It also could have used an extra coat of polish on its ugly in-game engine cutscenes and sloppy collision detection. For every minor flaw though, Conan redeems itself with cool little touches; we love pulling health-draining arrows from our chests and torching village huts to reveal orb-filled treasure chests. Minor stuff, good and bad, aside, Conan really shines with its deep and intuitive combat, gritty and gory visuals, and barely-catch-your-breath boss battles, making it a must-play for fans of the genre or anyone looking for a pulse-pounding action experience. Like a refreshing flagan of mead, Conan really hits the spot.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
Good, except for those in-game engine cutscenes. 4.5 Control
Nicely implemented into deep combat system. 3.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Great sound effects, but Conan’s VO is best turned off. 4.0 Play Value
Short, but packs enough severed heads and limbs for five games. 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.