"Is that the new God of War game?" asks a visitor to the office last week. "No," I reply. "It's the Conan game. It does look a lot like God of War though." For anyone who knows their video game characters, the differences between Kratos and Conan are huge, but throw the game in front of a part-time gamer and the reaction is to be expected. And it's probably not something THQ has tried to avoid either, given God of War's popularity and the lack of a next-gen follow-up on the horizon.
Thankfully for fans of the adventure beat-em-up, Conan is an admirable attempt at giving gamers what they want while Sony is hard at work on the inevitable PS3 God of War. Conan, a muscular man that you're best not messing with, has a plethora of moves available to him (with more being awarded as you grab the red runes that fall from defeated enemies), allowing you to perform some impressive combos.
Players familiar with the likes of God of War will feel right at home. Other than a single jump button, the rest on the controller are reserved for attacking, blocking and performing various magic attacks (selected by the d-pad). The right analogue stick is for rolls, giving you a way to quickly evade attacks and to get into a better position to attack enemies. A counter system is also a key part of the combat, with successfully timed blocks bringing about a finishing move activated by pressing the button flashed on screen.
It's worth pointing out here that Conan isn't a game for kids. On top of the brutal violence (beheadings, dismemberment and scything) Conan frequently encounters women lacking in the clothing department. While the game doesn't go for straight-up full frontal nudity, virtual breasts are most definitely on show, as are numerous evocative moves when the ladies are saved from enemy goons - some certainly seem to have been schooled in the art of lap dancing.
The story, which is pieced together through numerous cutscenes, isn't the most challenging you'll encounter in video games, and certainly isn't near the quality seen in Sony's epic God of War series. It's passable, linking together each section of combat, but it's unlikely you'll be talking about it with friends.
More memorable are the large enemies you face. One you'll encounter early on is the giant sand serpent, which towers high above the city you're battling in. This encounter is not only visually impressive, but also demonstrates the game's focus on straight to the point action. While God of War featured numerous puzzles, the most you'll see in Conan is a switch or lever, which is likely to come as a disappointment to players hoping to tax their brain cells as well as their virtual muscles.
If you put the most popular games of this type in order of technical proficiency in terms of combat, it would look something like this: Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, God of War and Conan. In truth, Conan and God of War aren't leagues apart, both occupying the space reserved for gamers disinterested in mastering every nuance of a control scheme in order to beat the first boss. There's just something about Conan that seems a little rough around the edges though, despite its incredibly fun gameplay. At times you'll become annoyed at the awkward Quick Time Events during boss battles and the occasional tricky platforming section.
The use of magic in God of War was largely excellent and allowed gamers to manage which skills they upgraded. In Conan the collection of Blue runes replenishes your magic meter and new abilities are given as you progress through the game. The rage attack in God of War has also been mimicked, with a period of impressive fighting resulting in your blades catching alight, enabling them to deal out significantly more damage. The green orbs for health are also seen here (although they are called runes), spilled out of the guts of enemies and inside various ornaments throughout the game.
Released on PS3 and Xbox 360 it's fair enough to expect some truly great next-gen visuals and presentation, but Conan falls a little way short. Conan himself is nicely modelled, as are most of the enemies, but some clunky animations, odd texturing and an occasionally sluggish frame rate show a real lack of polish. Whereas God of War and its sequel did wonders with the PS2, Conan merely touches the surface of what next-gen systems are capable of.
Audio work is also rather mixed. The musical score is perfectly suited to the on-screen carnage but Conan's voice doesn't fit with his brutish appearance. Likewise, NPC characters don't quite sound right, giving the game a slightly rushed, cheaper feel than it really deserves. Dull menus and lengthy load times don't help either and will be slightly jarring to players expecting high production values.
Conan is an extremely tricky game to judge. On the one hand it's highly entertaining and almost obscenely violent and crude, but for a next-gen title with a next-gen price tag it doesn't quite deliver. By no means is this the perfect answer to the current lack of a next-gen God of War, but as something to tide you over, it serves its purpose better than anyone probably predicted.