Thursday, 18 August 2011

Conan (2007): A retrospective . . .

Conan (2007: PS3, XBOX 360)

Whilst brainstorming a list of games to dissect for the sake of 'the fading genres', I stumbled upon a few titles that were seemingly worthy of making the list but ultimately fell short. My mind was set on digging out those forgotten & underrated titles that inevitably ended up being engulfed in the ever changing world of video games. Now don't get me wrong, I will eventually investigate titles that had the potential to be great/good, but ended up being consumed by various mitigating circumstances. But I will also give credit where it is due (regardless of what the critics have to say). So I sat and pondered at my top 20 action adventure games of all time (these include hack and slash games), and my eyes met with a particular name . . . .  that name was none other than  'Conan' . . .Now for those of you who never granted this game the time of day (or night), please be patient and hear me out (I'm not crazy yet). What I will do is give reasons why Conan was a very good action adventure game (and why it is on my personal top 20 action adventure games list), why it was underrated and sold poorly, and where exactly Conan went wrong. For the record, I am deeply rooted in my action adventure titles (Ninja Gaiden review will be coming sooner or later), so I know a good one when I play one. And as you have already gathered, I love a good engaging story. It doesn't necessarily have to be a Metal Gear Solid-Esque plot. Something comprehensive that gives the player sense of purpose will usually suffice. Without further ado, let us now dive into the world of Conan (2007: PS3, XBOX 360).

Conan is a single player third person action adventure game developed by Nihilistic Studios and was published by THQ for the PS3 and XBOX 360 in 2007. Conan in the video game was obviously based on the popular 'Conan the Barbarian' character created by Robert E. Howard. According to Vgchartz sales data, Conan sold a total of 303,070 worldwide for both the PS3 and XBOX 360. That figure is disappointing to say the least when put up against other action adventure games that have sold more, but which I feel were not even up to Conan's standards (that argument is for another post). The Vgchartz figure is by no means concrete or an accurate depiction of the real game sales data. It is however valid for estimation. Nihilistic studios evidently set out to create a daring and gory action adventure game (based on a known character) with nudity and a cohesive story to wrap up the package. And I can confidently say they achieved their goal to a certain degree. 

The story of Conan tells the tale of a brute and fearless barbarian on a quest to defeat an evil wizard and recover his lost Armour while at it. While embarking on his quest around locations set in mythical world of Hyboria, Conan will encounter a variety of enemies from colossal beasts to annoying human bosses that are very good at blocking your attacks. The final boss fight might give you a cardiac arrest . . . Imagine a spinning tree with branches all the way down the stem . . . Get the picture ? There are other plot elements interwoven within Conan's main reason for going berserk, but as usual, I choose not to reveal them for the sake of those yet to play the game (because I'm so thoughtful). The story in summary is decent and avoids being convoluted. I still vividly remember dropping my control pad, smiling and applauding the game as I watched it end. The obvious comparisons to God of War were inevitable. And quite frankly Conan is a game that evidently drew some sort of inspiration from the God of War series. But I think thats where the problem lay. It seemed people were too quick to Judge the game and call it a " God of War Rip-off " without giving it a chance what so ever. And it is a big shame, because Conan was a truly satisfying action adventure game in its own right. And if you have judged it too quickly, you should reconsider your judgement for you have overlooked one of the best action adventure games this generation. Conan certainly didn't set out to beat God of War, neither did it intend to be the turning point of action adventure games. It simply set out to do what it said on the tin, and more . . . 

Now let us discuss the combat and gameplay mechanics. Those of you familiar with action adventure games know that an engaging story isn't always good enough to cover up a poor combat  system. Luckily Conan is able to deliver enjoyable, satisfying and rewarding combat. Included in the gameplay are the familiar context sensitive button sequences, interactive button sequences, QTE's, platforming, puzzles, counter attacks, decapitations, disembowelment e.t.c. I particularly liked the " Song of Death " which is earned after successively racking up combos  against your enemies which resulted in higher damage attacks for a short duration of time. Conan can evade and block enemy attacks, and if an enemy's attack is blocked just before it hits, you can execute a brutal counter attack or an instant kill (please note that these instant kills are ineffective against bosses). Another aspect of the gameplay I truly liked is the fact that Conan can pick up enemy weapons, shields, and can even dual wield basic lighter weapons. Stronger and much heavier weapons cannot be dual wielded seeing as they deal far more damage per hit (and are slower). Conan can ofcourse summon fire, raven, and Medusa-Esque magic, which are gained by collecting magic points. Experience points can also be collected to upgrade your weapons and gain new skills for each weapon. You can also restore Conan's health by collecting green runes. Nihilistic studios did a notable job of actually properly implementing all the aforementioned gameplay elements without the feeling of things being shoved in. This is the respect I will always have for this game. The combat and gameplay excel on many levels.  
A note of warning: please do not expect to button bash your way through this game. You definitely will not progress past first two stages. The game rewards you for using your weapons wisely and constructing your combos with some intelligence. Your defense is vital and can be as rewarding and gratifying as knowing your offensive attacks.  

So where exactly did Conan go wrong ? For starters, the visuals are unpleasant to the eye, and do the overall game no justice. Presentation is a very huge part of selling a game. Bad presentation could really hamper the sales potential and acceptance of any title. The textures for the most part are plain, the blood effects are exaggerated to a nauseating degree, the environments also needed some attention, seeing as they were as plain as the character textures themselves. In Conan's defense, I do realize the project was pushed forward a year (THQ's decision) for financial reasons, and this could explain why the graphics were seemingly ' half baked '. It is sad to think such a good game was let down by average - below average  visuals. The screen shots below provide examples:

Conan 2007 (PS3, XBOX 360) Screen 1

Conan 2007 (PS3, XBOX 360) Screen 2

Conan 2007 (PS3, XBOX 360) Screen 3

Do you get the picture ? More time could have been allocated to the overall graphical presentation of Conan. It seems Nihilistic studios needed the extra time, and it is a shame the project was brought forward for financial reasons (ironically the game suffered sales wise). I remember telling a friend of mine (who also owns a PS3) just how much I enjoyed playing Conan, and even before I finished speaking, he swiftly cut in and said " There is no way I would put that game in my PS3, the graphics almost made me cry ". First impressions count, and no matter how much  "hardcore gamers" scream and shout " its all about the gameplay !!!! ", I have to say the visuals add significantly to the overall immersion. The visuals are the first thing your eyes absorb and judge instantaneously. Even if you train your mind not to judge a game merely by it's visuals, the subconscious certainly does pick up on it. But as I have said before, Conan is an exception. Please do not let the such deter you away from such a rewarding experience. Many judged it by that, hence the poor sales. 

As mentioned before, Conan is a game I feel shouldn't be judged by God of War standards. God of War had the time and resources to truly reach its full potential. A direct comparison would be unfair. You need to play it to see why.

With all the downsides that have been mentioned so far, I look back at Conan and see a game that was let down by the poor decision to release a half baked product a year early. I see a game that was judged by it's visuals. I see a game that was not given a fighting chance at all. I see a game that was branded a God of War copycat. And it is a huge shame because Conan easily made my top 20 favourite action adventure games list. With lazy graphics, a good story, a rewarding deep (ish) combat system and other well implemented game elements, I think Conan does deserve a second chance. As a matter of fact, I think I'll be playing it again this weekend, I'm feeling quite Barbaric :) . . . . (Sorry I couldn't help myself).  

Here is the official trailer:

Your Thoughts ? 

Shadow Master

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