When you mention the character Conan, Arnold Schwarzenegger's bronze biceps and trademark accent come immediately to most people's minds. But decades before Arnie lit up the silver screen as the eponymous barbarian antihero, Conan existed as a series of '30s-era stories from creator and fantasy author Robert E. Howard. The ever-popular Conan has popped up in a variety of media in the years since, but it's Howard's original fiction that the designers at Nihilistic Software have used as a basis for their upcoming ultraviolent action game starring the world's most famous Cimmerian. We went hands-on with a nearly final build of Conan to see how it's shaped up toward the end of development.
Conan the game isn't directly based on any particular Conan story, but fans of the original works will recognize returning locations from the original stories, such as the lands of Kush and Stygia. Of course, there will also be a number of original, fantastic environments in which to slaughter, such as a set of ocean ruins we got to see that are full of gigantic living statues and semicorporeal, ghost-like enemies that your weapons can't always hit. At the outset, Conan has lost four of his enchanted pieces of armor that he intends to recover, and each one will grant him a new magical attack when he retrieves it. As a barbarian, Conan doesn't especially relish the thought of using magic, but he also recognizes its utility when there are all these enemies just asking to be driven before him. Along the way, Conan will encounter A'kanna, a lithe and sensual archer who seems as if she'll act as a wily feminine foil for all of Conan's trademark bluster and bravado.
Veterans of Ninja Gaiden, God of War, and similarly technical combat-action games ought to feel right at home with the mechanics in Conan. The burly barbarian's move and combo sets are categorized by weapon type; you've got one set of attacks for a single-handed sword, one for dual weapons, and another for two-handed weapons. Regardless of what weapons you're using, you'll have a basic set of attacks to form combos with, including light and heavy slashes, a punch move (affectionately dubbed the "camel punch" in a nod to the Schwarzenegger film), and a grab. You can also hurl your extra weapons at enemies, not to mention larger environmental effects such as barrels and boulders. You've got a Kratos-like roll attack on the right analog stick, and your combos can chain from one enemy to the next even between rolls, so it's quite possible to believably hack up a whole group of lesser enemies surrounding you at one time.
Conan is about as violent a mass-market property as we can think of, and indeed the real viscera of the game's combat doesn't become apparent till you start using the more complex combos and exploring some of the more advanced mechanics. There's a parry system that lets you block an attack at the right moment, giving you a button prompt that will result in an absurdly over-the-top one-hit kill. We saw a couple of great counter-kills. In one, Conan dodges around behind the enemy and literally twists his head from his shoulders, and in another, he flips the enemy up into the air and then slices him clean in half at the waist. Even regular combos routinely send random legs, arms, and heads flying in the air.
In practice, all these mechanics amount to a whole lot of blood and gore everywhere. Bodies never disappear, so you'll finish a group encounter with literally piles of corpses--or pieces thereof--at your feet, not to mention blood splattering every available surface. Lots of areas have environmental dangers as well, so it's also common to see enemies knocked backward and impaled on a bunch of spikes (where they'll remain hanging indefinitely). Heck, the designers even went as far as modeling actual entrails in 3D that can be ripped from opponents or which will simply burst forth after some deep slashes. We're not sadistic at heart or anything; this is just the kind of thing you want out of a Conan experience.
There's also a lot of variety to be had in the ability to pick up nearly any weapon you see. Some levels will offer you a two-handed broadsword, while in others your primary two-handed option will be a longer, slower halberd or polearm. When you're going for two smaller weapons, you might end up with a second sword, or perhaps a one-handed axe. You can even pick up shields from time to time for extra blocking protection. You'll build up your combat repertoire by collecting experience from downed enemies and some treasure chests, as well as the occasional bare-chested maiden in distress. (The game is as unapologetic about Conan's carnal nature as it is his blood thirst.) Those armor powers will also come into play as you retrieve the pieces. The first power lets you turn enemies to stone for a time, after which you can bash them into fragments if you're quick enough. Another power will rain a shower of fire and meteors down on the area around you to demolish your foes.
In a perfect world, it wouldn't bear mentioning which platform we played Conan on (the game is coming to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 simultaneously). But we were duly impressed that Nihilistic chose to demo the game to us on the PS3, given an overwhelming tendency among the development community to stick to the Xbox 360 during the prerelease previews process and conveniently sweep the PS3 equivalent under the rug. Nihilistic says it had no problem getting its engine up and running on the PS3 with identical graphical niceties and performance. While this success is surely just a natural consequence of the developers becoming more familiar with the PS3's hardware and dev tools, it's still nice to see the two consoles on equal footing more frequently these days. Speaking of which, the PS3 version will also incorporate the same achievements as the Xbox 360 game. These won't be reflected anywhere outside the game, but they'll still pop up onscreen in the same style and with the same names as on the Xbox, which made us wish once again that Sony had devised such an integrated system on its own before now.
Visually, Nihilistic went directly to the source in crafting the look of Conan. That source is seminal fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, who not only provided most of the cover artwork for the original Conan books, but largely defined the state of modern fantasy artwork as well. The game uses a stylized lighting model and a unique, light-colored character outline to attempt to emulate Frazetta's work. Up close, you'll even notice some textures have a brushstroke-like effect in them to further the "painterly" effect the artists are going for here.
The team at Nihilistic is near to wrapping up development on Conan now, and it's looking like a jolly, bloody romp that takes itself just seriously enough. That attitude is enhanced by actor Ron Perlman's slightly tongue-in-cheek voice work in the title role, from what we've heard so far. Check back here in October for a full review of Conan on the Xbox 360 and PS3.