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Conan: The Dark Axe

Platform(s): Arcade, Game Boy Advance, GameCube, Nintendo DS, PC, PSOne, PSP, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox, Xbox 360
Genre: Action

About Tony "OUberLord" Mitera

I've been entrenched in the world of game reviews for almost a decade, and I've been playing them for even longer. I'm primarily a PC gamer, though I own and play pretty much all modern platforms. When I'm not shooting up the place in the online arena, I can be found working in the IT field, which has just as many computers but far less shooting. Usually.

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Xbox/PC Preview - 'Conan: The Dark Axe'

by Tony "OUberLord" Mitera on March 27, 2004 @ 3:38 a.m. PST

Genre: Action / Adventure
Publisher: TDK Mediactive
Developer: Caldron Ltd.
Release Date: April 8, 2004

You really gotta give it to Conan, the ‘ole guy has really been around. From comic books to animated features, movies to video games, the amount of forms of media that Conan hasn’t yet dabbled in is almost negligible. There haven’t been too many Conan games, which is a crying shame as one would think that a Conan license would be a perfect excuse to cast a hulk of a man who slays various foes using monstrous swords and axes. It seems the people over at Cauldron have picked up on that train of thought, and while Conan does indeed deliver the goods in terms of brutal melee combat it has a few potential pitfalls that could be very harmful to the game’s playability if not corrected between now and the game’s release.

Conan the Barbarian doesn’t really look or act like what the term “barbarian” would suggest. Though he does wield large weapons that pack a huge punch and wears “clothing” made from the skins of animals, he also has a strong sense of loyalty, justice, and is well-spoken in contrast to his primal look. After an unspoken voyage Conan returns to his village to find his friends slain and their houses burnt to the ground. After searching the village Conan finds one of the villagers still alive, who tells him of a pilgrim that arrived at the village only days before, pursued by a band of horsemen vying to obtain a strange artifact that was in the pilgrims possession. It was these horsemen that wiped out Conan’s village and killed off its citizens who have now fled into a mountain range called the Black Mountains. After quickly burying the dead Conan sets off to follow the horsemen to avenge his village and learn more about the mysterious artifact.

Conan is a mix of exploration and action, though admittedly you are far more likely to be swinging your battleaxe at a group of foes rather than aimlessly wandering or searching for a key or switch. Combat in Conan is based on button combinations using four buttons, A, B, and the left and right triggers. Combos are performed using these buttons and are fairly simple to execute, putting the emphasis on using the right combo for the situation rather than concentrating all of your efforts on hitting the buttons in perfect timing. For instance, a foe low to ground such as a wolf cant he hit by attacks that are meant to hit the head of a humanoid opponent, or an opponent adept at blocking high attacks, and vice-versa. Combos can even hit different enemies for each hit, if you perform a combo and the first hit kills your target Conan will turn and the subsequent hit(s) will automatically be continued on any new opponent in the immediate vicinity. To block enemy attacks you simply press and hold the X button, though not all attacks can be blocked. In addition to Conan’s trusty broadsword the player can choose to wield other weapons such as maces and battle axes, which are there for far more than just looks. Different weapons use different moves, i.e. many of the sword combos simply don’t work with an axe in your hand, and in addition certain foes are more susceptible to certain weapons. That guy keeps parrying your sword attacks? Whip out your great axe and cleave the poor fellow.

On a related note, while there are a good degree of blood effects in Conan the gore is limited to just that. There is never a loss of limb or head, regardless of the fact that a roughly 60 lb sword swinging through the air and hitting a human would likely cause one to become two in a matter of speaking. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing but it just feels like a little less detail that could have been added. Conan himself can become covered in blood when wounded, which is a decent indication of your health in addition to the health bar at the top of the screen.

One aspect of the game that could really use some fleshing out before the game is released is the plot, specifically the inclusion and cohesion of one. The opening cinema sets the game up nicely, gives the main character a reason to start on this epic voyage through harsh lands, but hours later after you’ve trekked through mountain ranges, snowy mountain tops, fought a tribe of people who for some reason are hostile, and then for some reason entered a land inhabited by spirits where “no man dares to trek”, you can’t help but wonder as to why Conan is taking all these detours. If no man dares to trek there, surely the horsemen wouldn’t either, right? To be fair it is a preview build, the game obviously is not complete yet by any measure, and it could have tie-ins to Conan canon that your average gamer wouldn’t know about, but a small cutscene every now and then accompanied by a little narration would be nice.

Finally, one aspect of the game that needs to be eliminated in its entirety is the fact that you need to have special save tokens called “Sacred Stones” to save the game. Yes, save tokens and yes, I thought they died at the turn of the century too. You would think that having to use save tokens on a system that has a hard drive designed for a ludicrous amount of game saves would be bad enough, but to make it worse you can only carry 4 of these rather rare tokens at any given time. To rub salt into the wound you don’t even get the option to save at the end or beginning of a level, so to save you must use one of your precious tokens. If you die you have to go back to your last save, which could be three levels and a boss fight back if you hadn’t saved recently. I am all for difficulty or making the player have to actually think a bit while playing rather than mindlessly fighting, but artificially putting it in via restricted save functions instead of intelligent adversaries or some other gameplay mechanic is asinine.

Conan doesn’t have the best graphics seen on an Xbox to date but it does have significantly better graphics than one would think in a game based on a license that isn’t really in the mainstream. Conan himself looks exactly like the mighty, primal hero that he should look like, complete with a squared-off jaw, unkempt black hair, and piercing eyes. It doesn’t hurt his image whatsoever when you notice the huge battleaxe on his back and the broadsword in his hands or vice-versa if you were to switch weapons. Most of the animations are very fluid, not just Conan’s but also of the enemies, which are often overlooked when it comes to animation quality. Texturing in Conan looks good throughout, regardless of if it’s on a character, an object, or the level itself. Ice crystals look very much like an ice crystal should, as does a lit torch mounted on a cave wall. Every character gives off a realistic shadow which only adds to the ensemble, as does the fact that after combat you will find patches of ground splattered by the unmistakable look of blood.

Sound is an area that Conan is relatively weak in with its current state. The music in game is actually rather good throughout the game, though it also never really jumps out and grabs you to give you that “epic” feel in the midst of a pitched battle. Voiceovers for not only Conan but other characters are done very well, and not only sound like the character they are assigned to but sound unique and genuine. The flaw in the sound palette comes with the sound effects though, which tend to be largely overused. With as much attacking and blocking as you perform during the course of the game one would like to hear a larger amount of sound effects assigned to them rather than the same handful heard over and over.

Conan has the possibility to be a very entertaining action / adventure game, a definite rental for fans of the genre at the very least, but there are a few flaws that really need to be addressed to give the game that much more playability and fun factor. Controlling Conan is easy enough most of the time, though occasionally he will move in a direction that differs from that which you perform using the left stick on the controller. The sound effects can wear on you after a period of time, but Conan’s biggest flaw is its archaic means of restricting game saves. Only being able to save a certain amount of times in a level is one thing. Only being able to save a certain amount of times due to a limited supply of rare items which you can only carry four of at a time is a completely different and nearly unforgivable matter. Still, Conan is a fun game in face of its current flaws with a combat system that is more than a simple button masher but also not overly complex, with a sprinkling of strategy in the weapons usage mixed in. Even if the problems mentioned are still there come the games release Conan would still be worthy of at least a rental, especially for fans of the genre, but exactly how much fun you will have would undoubtedly be lessened.


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