Some marketing brainiacs out there love a widely recognizable license to work games around more than anything, but as source material goes Conan is a little past its freshness date. The original books were written in the 1950’s and even the Conan movie staring The Governator is a quarter century old. So why are we getting a Conan game for the holidays this year? Who knows? Who cares? Break out your leather loincloth, polish up your favorite broadsword, and let the serious dismembering begin.
Just to clear things up before going any further, yes, this game is violent. Really violent. Violent enough that they took the time to model human intestines. Suffice to say, if people have one you can cut it off in this game. Conan can even pick up some weaker enemies and break them in half over his knee. So don’t buy this if the thought of such things horrifies you, or as a gift for your eight year old and be surprised when he turns out to be a sociopath. There is also a fair bit of nudity in the form of buxom bare-breasted maidens for Conan to rescue, so if that too sounds shocking or offensive this probably isn’t the game for you. Consider yourself duly warned.
If you’ve heard anything about Conan it’s probably that it’s similar to God of War, which is true. If you’ve heard that it’s a glorified God of War clone, that’s a little unfair. That would be like calling something a Halo clone just for being a shooter. Great games are always borrowed liberally from—God of War’s influence on the genre is seen clearly here for sure—but Conan is ultimately its own game and as beat ‘em ups go it’s a rather good one.
In Conan you control, duh, Conan. There’s a story about some evil spreading plague thing that turns men into savages, but it’s secondary to the fact that there are a lot of dudes with swords (and axes, and polearms, and…you get the idea) between you and the end of each level. If the game were about someone else, Henry Kissinger for example, you might try to reason with them and find a diplomatic solution, which probably wouldn’t go over very well. Fortunately for us, and incredibly unfortunately for the aforementioned dudes, Conan doesn’t roll that way. Talking is out, hacking is in.
And oh boy is there hacking. There are oodles of incredibly brutal combos to unlock using experience earned in the course of the game, and there are three different fighting styles to master—sword and board, swords akimbo, and goddamn that’s a really big sword. Each style has its strengths and weaknesses, and each feels sufficiently different to make experimenting with all three worthwhile. Likewise the opponents you face, while mostly just different looking guys with different style weapons, fight with enough variety to their attacks to keep things from getting stale. Combat itself is crisp with solidly responsive controls, and hacking through the dozen or so levels is a bloody good time, a handful of good old fashioned tough boss fights sprinkled throughout.
For a next-gen game, Conan’s graphics are just okay. When you’re fighting it’s not too bad, but up close, like in the cut scenes, the textures look pretty chunky. Better a little chunk in the graphics than in the frame rate though, and thankfully there are no problems there. What does come through from the presentation is a total vibe of Conan that’s woven into every aspect of the game—the lush and primal environments; the powerful musical score; and the way Conan just plain brute strengths his way through every obstacle. The use of voice acting on the other hand misses the mark. Ron Perlman has taken some shots elsewhere for not sounding right for the part of Conan, which is a little silly, but the real problem is with the frequently repeated one-liners during battles that are more bothersome than additive.
Another annoyance is the platforming elements that creep into some of the levels. The jumping controls and the fixed camera (the right stick being used for evasion rather than camera control) aren’t well suited for it, and it’s about as wanted here as a visit from the wacky neighbor on an unfunny sitcom. Some dubious checkpoints that force you to redo difficult encounters if you fall victim to a pitfall only serve to exacerbate the problem. There’s also the matter that Conan only offers a very linear single player story mode that is done in safely under ten hours (half that if you’re good). The Hard and King difficulty settings add a little in the way of replay value, but with no multiplayer, skirmish battles, or any other toys of any kind it seems a little light on content in comparison to what we’ve become accustom to.
All said, Conan the game, like the titular barbarian himself, is very one dimensional. It’s great for getting in a little much needed smashing time, and maybe for checking out some computer generated boobage, but after a run through or three of the story mode it’s pretty much spent. Despite that and the few gameplay nuisances Conan is a mostly enjoyable skull-cleaving romp. Combat is visceral and satisfying, and the baddies are numerous and variable enough to keep things interesting. The lack of any extra stuff beyond the relatively short campaign probably relegates Conan to the land of the rentals unless you’re really into Conan, really into this kind of hack and slash fare, or both, but for anyone who likes gory action it’s certainly worth checking out.