|a game by||Cauldron Ltd.|
|Platforms:||XBox 360, XBox, PC, Playstation 3, Playstation 2|
|User Rating:||9.0/10 - 2 votes|
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|See also:||Conan, Hack and Slash Games|
Conan may not be the greatest comic-book hero around, with superpowers restricted to being a big dumb thug with an axe and a costume made out of matted bearskin, but you can't fault the guy for longevity.
Whether in short stories, books, comics, films or games. Conan the Barbarian has been around in some form ever since fantasy hack Robert E. Howard invented the character in the '30s. There's even a new Conan film scheduled for 2005, with John Milius, 'The Herman Goering of film directors' once again in the driving seat. It's sure to demand plenty of attention when the time comes, so it's quite a timely move by TDK to reprise Arnie's breakthrough role in this bloodthirsty swords 'n' sorcery romp.
Before you get your hopes up though, this game has nothing to do with The Austrian Oak, and its only real tie with the films is that it shares the rousing barbarian theme tune. Instead, it's licensed from the Conan fiction, which has the advantage of offering enormous depth of content, but the drawback that nobody really gives a shit. Nevertheless, the game comes with its own set of credentials, being the latest offering from Slovakia-based Cauldron, notably responsible for 2003's above-average Chaser.
We've been playing around with some 70 per cent-complete code, and while Conan isn't going to win awards for beauty, it's a satisfyingly brutal example of the third-person hack 'n' slash genre. The emphasis is on combat, but there are also some basic puzzles to solve, items to find and even a bit of NPC interaction in the towns and cities. You'll gather new bits of armour and up to 16 weapons along the way, including swords, axes, maces and other quaint killing devices.
The combat itself is all about combos. There are 50 of the buggers, progressively unlocked as you gain experience and varying from simple sword swipes to impressive spinning, kicking sequences. The PC interface is still in a state of flux, but the aim is to get most key combos mapped on to the mouse buttons and maybe one other key. It's the sort of system you'll have to work hard to appreciate, though panicked button-mashing still offers a certain primal gratification.
Too Young To Die
Death too is handled in an interesting fashion. Instead of the usual 'game over -return to checkpoint' solution, you're sucked into the Misty Realms Of Crom, where you're granted a second chance to defeat your conquerors in a gladiatorial ring. Succeed and you return to the exact point where you fell; fail and it's a doubly humiliating exit. Little touches like this threaten to lift Conan above the usual hack 'n' slash drudge, and the appeal of the character should also give the game a bit of charm.
Good old Arnie - not only was he perfectly suited to the role of the Terminator back in the '80s, he was also born to play the role of Conan; a large, monosyllabic meathead, whose idea of a conversation is twatting someone around the face with the business end of his sword.
Alas, there's no sign of Arnie here, as Slovakian developer Cauldron (of Chaser fame) has based the Conan game on the original pulp novels. Fortunately, this hasn't stopped it from snapping up the sizzlingly atmospheric movie soundtrack by Basil Poledouris. However, when a licensed soundtrack is a game's notable highlight, you know you're in trouble.
The rather protracted intro to Conan, which like all the cut-scenes is handled by the in-game engine, tells the story of Conan the Cimmerian hunting down the cult responsible for razing his village and murdering his uncle. What this amounts to is some third-person hack 'n' slash action, mixed in with puzzles of the 'find a switch and run back through the level' variety. So far, so mundane.
What's worse, any visceral enjoyment to be had by smacking your way through the missions is stamped on by the unfriendly interface and buggy dynamics. Conan frequently gets stuck on bits of ground, jumping is awkward and requires pixelperfect precision, and pushing the climb button more often results in him dancing around the bottom of a ladder instead of getting on the damn thing. The useless camera does you no favours when in combat or attempting to jump chasms either, and the clunky controls only add to the frustration.
But hang on, maybe this is all saved by some great Al? Er, no. With IQ about on a par with Conan himself, bad guys generally stand rooted to the spot until you're within range, at which point they'll run straight at you. The graphics are about three years out of date, and come complete with invisible barriers that are curiously very visible. Character animation is little better - the manner in which Conan runs strongly suggests the keeps the sheath for his sword somewhere very uncomfortable...
However, the salt in Conan's axe wound has to be the save system. Like the early Tomb Raider games, it requires you to find crystals for every quicksave you use, which in this day and age is simply unforgivable.
My God, It's Huge!
If, though, by some miracle you can get past all these errors, there as a pretty hefty game to be found in Conan, with countless levels and an almost stupidly large repertoire of combos to learn. Some dubious replay value is also offered by the mystical Atlantean sword, which can be unlocked for your second play-through by collecting a few ancient artefacts. However, it's all so repetitive and banal the first time that you'll probably rather drink the sweat strained from Conan's thong than subject yourself to it all over again.