Release Date: October 23, 2007
Within the first 15 minutes of playing Conan, you'll have already hacked off a wagonful of limbs, splattered gallons of blood and freed your first busty, topless maiden — who then unleashes this gem of a line: "Take me and crush me with your love!"
Thanks, but no thanks. The rest of the game sort of ruins the mood.
Such is the plight of this Nihilistic/Paradox creation for the X360, a mildly entertaining but ultimately plagued gore-fest that tries to appeal to the chest-beating ape in all of us. It echoes the spirits of past action slashers, most notably the God of War series or Heavenly Sword. However, this game has neither the charm nor the craftsmanship of those titles, despite having one of the all-time badasses at its disposal.
Let's get this out of the way first: If you're looking for the movie, you're not going to get it. There's no Arnold, no Valeria and certainly no Subotai. This incarnation of Conan is based on the original works of author Robert E. Howard, who introduced the Cimmerian in 1932. A narrator even quotes an excerpt from Howard's "The Phoenix on the Sword" book when you start the game.
You begin inside a temple in Balmoria, taking control of a fully armored Conan while being immediately introduced to the battle system, using a small horde of ghosts as practice dummies. It's a pretty simple system: The X and Y buttons handle light and heavy attacks, respectively, the A button jumps and with the B button, Conan lets loose with a punch. You'll have no problems hacking the spirits into pieces — they really are no match for you.
A CG cinema features a female narrator giving you the play-by-play of Conan's thirst for power, with the barbarian slashing away at enemies and eventually standing face-to-face with a stone statue. He bashes the statue to pieces, only to see something start to emerge from a pool of dark liquid (the black blood of the Earth? Who knows?). Then, as the game says, everything goes black.
We eventually catch up with Conan, armorless and washed up on the beach of an island overrun with pirates. We're told he has no memory of what just happened, but he sees a sword nearby and picks it up. He hooks up with the warrior woman A'Kanna, and together they venture to find and destroy the cause of the Black Death, a disease that causes rage and insanity. During the journey, Conan finds pieces of his armor, which holds magical powers as well as the key to his memories.
The heart of the gameplay is the battle system, making Conan potentially a more sophisticated fighter than either Kratos (God of War) or Nariko (Heavenly Sword). You've got the usual fare of being able to string button combos together to change up your attacks, but you also have the ability to "buy" moves via experience points. Those points (along with health and magic) come in the form of colored, floating runes, with green representing health, red representing experience and blue for magic. You can also pump up Conan by gaining mastery of certain attack combos. Mastery is calculated by percentage, so the more you do a move, the more you master it. As you progress, you'll gain magical abilities, such as conjuring up a black hole or being able to turn enemies into stone.
Another asset to the battle system is counterattacking. The left trigger handles blocking, and pulling it immediately before an attack hits you opens up an enemy to a variety of flashy, instant-kill moves. You also have the ability to pick up any weapons and shields you find. Conan is capable of dual-wielding weapons (two swords, or an axe-sword combo), carrying a sword and shield or taking control of one massive, two-handed weapon for extra power. All three methods have a host of buyable techniques, as well as various strengths and weaknesses. It's up to the player to figure out what works best.
Since this is a game about Conan, the brutality is off the charts. Conan is literally loaded with ways to destroy the human body. For instance, when you dual-wield weapons, you can cut off both of an enemy's arms at the same time, causing him to teeter backward, wiggling and bleeding. You can also lop off someone's head, Maximus-style. One move has you launch an enemy into the air and cutting him in half on the way down. There's also a counterattack called Crom's Curse that had me reach into a guy and pull out his guts, and something that looked like his small intestine streamed out like a loose roll of toilet paper. By the way, this game is rated M for Mature.
While all of these elements sound great, the execution wasn't what I was looking for. Despite the bevy of moves and combos, the combat experience feels extremely mechanical and clunky. I also didn't enjoy the wildly inconsistent skill level (or cheapness) of the enemies. I'd be able to annihilate five soldiers at once, but all of a sudden I'd run into a captain — or even a guy with a spear — who becomes practically impossible to attack. When every swing of mine wasn't getting blocked, someone else would easily break my defenses or get in three cheap hits before I could do anything. The blocking episodes were the worst; there was a one- to two-minute period when I couldn't hit or throw anyone, no matter what I did, but they certainly had no problem hitting me. Blah.
This leads me to another issue. I'm Conan the Cimmerian. I'm supposed to be better with a weapon and more powerful than just about 98 percent of anyone in Hyboria. I can lift huge boulders and hurl them with the velocity of a Josh Beckett fastball — and some pirate can block my full-power sword strike? With one hand? Really? The game never consistently made me feel like Conan, mythic ass-kicker of legend. I felt more like Conan, big muscled guy with a sword, just trying to survive. There are some prize moments, especially with how you finish off some of the bosses or counterattack enemies, but they aren't nearly enough.
There are also the eerie similarities to the God of War series. Aside from the hack-and-slash action, there are also the timed-button sequences, like pressing X or B at the right moment during a boss fight. You'll also be asked to open doors or pull levers by mashing on the B button or wiggling one of the analog sticks. In a multi-tiered boss fight, the battle against a sand dragon reminded me of the Colossus of Rhodes confrontation in God of War, right down to it punching through the walls to get me.
And like Kratos, Conan is asked to do more than just kill people. Sometimes, he'll have to solve puzzles, though I use the term lightly — they're more like sequential tasks (i.e., pull some levers, step on some colored plates in the ground). There's also some wall scaling and some jumping work, which can be a pain. There were a few moments when Conan decided that he didn't want to grab the ledge onto which he was jumping. I guess real men don't reach for edges.
The visuals aren't too appealing, especially considering what has been possible on the next-gen systems thus far. Conan is one of those games that looks fantastic as long as you don't move around too much. Otherwise, there's an overall flatness and lack of polish to both the backgrounds and the character models. In the cut scenes, the characters look like plastic action figures, which is a sharp contrast from the cool artistic stills you see on the loading screens. The movements, especially in combat, felt choppy. I didn't know I was actually pulling a guy's guts out until I looked at the text describing the move and leaned in closer to the TV. Some of the enemies died strangely and looked like they were hanging in mid-air after I killed them. The scenery was decent. You travel to an island, a jungle, a wasteland and a war-ravaged city, and while they weren't ugly places to look at, I still got the feeling that they weren't quite finished in terms of detail. It all lacked a sense of scale and wonder because Hyboria didn't seem to look or feel any different from any other land where I've had to pick up a sword and lay the steel smackdown.
In terms of sound and music, it's hit or miss. The soundtrack is outstanding, right on par with the Basil Poledouris stuff you may have heard in the '80s movies. The voice acting is decent, but Ron Perlman as Conan felt like a strange fit, one of those choices that probably looked good on paper.
Overall, Conan is an average action game that seemed content to borrow from other titles without really taking full advantage of its source material. If it's a thirst for blood you have, though, this title will definitely quench it.
More articles about Conan