How do you correctly review a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG)? I've never tried before, so bear with me. Rather than pass a glancing judgment to rush something out quickly, we've decided to experience a substantial chunk of the game with the hope of providing a more complete overview and critique of the game. So over the past few weeks I've leveled a character to 60 (out of 80) and have seen much of the game world first hand with (hopefully) a pretty good idea on what's left to come.
Officially released in Australia on May 23, after a sketchy beta period (during the two weeks of beta I participated in, the game never ran more than an hour without a crash or sporadic bouts of unplayable framerate), Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures has had a surprisingly comfortable launch. By MMO standards at least.
Sure, there's a lot of flaws, some that I'll detail later, but as it goes with MMOs you can forgive a whole lot simply due to the sheer magnitude of the game's content and ambition. What you get here easily outweighs what you don't and Age of Conan is, without a doubt, a worthy entrant into the crowding MMO space.
So what's on offer? The retail package, currently the only method of purchasing the game, nets you the standard 30 day subscription to the service, after which you'll need USD$14.99 per month if you want to stick around. Reasonably standard. There's also a Collector's Edition that includes some nice artwork, a cloth map and some exclusive in-game goodies for your characters.
On to the content. The first thing of note about Age of Conan is the adult nature of the game. In contrast to the usual family friendly base that most games in this genre offer, AoC has blood and gore, alcohol, sexual references, and bare-chested members of both genders. A fitting environment given that this is a world crafted upon Robert E Howard's revered novels, perhaps most well known for the 1980's film adaptations starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is no frolic in The Shire with the Hobbits, this is Hyboria and under 18's need not apply.
You'll start the long adventure aboard a slaver ship, where class selection and character customisation is managed dynamically with a high degree of variation. Selecting a male avatar will direct your attention to one of the slaves powering the ships rowing oars while the female choice directs you to the ship's prostitute harem. From here you can adjust race, skin tone, body size and intricately manipulate facial structure with a series of sliders.
It's all executed quite well and helps immerse you in the world from word one. In fact, the early section of the game, the city of Tortage is very well geared for the new player and helps ease you into such an enormous game. Once in Tortage, you'll get your first taste of Conan's massively multiplayer community, with the bustle of other players pottering around performing their quests in parallel to your own. To help newcomers however, the games early quests are performed in singleplayer instances, allowing you to work through them at your own pace and get a hang of things without having to worry about being taken out by another player or ponder the respawn time of an item or boss.
While great for beginners, this feature might not be so fun for veterans, especially on the second or third time through. Each character class has slightly different selection of singleplayer quests which stops things from getting too
numbing but different starting areas entirely would have been preferable
The classes are pretty standard RPG affair. There's brute tanks, casters, ranged, healers and damage spec and some crossovers, all tailored to fit within the Conan Universe. Priests of Mitra, Tempests of Set and of course Barbarians. There's something to suit most RPG play styles and although they're far from balanced for player vs player combat at this stage, each can at least hold their own for solo questing.
Each character has a health and stamina bar to govern vitality and endurance respectively. While casting classes have an additional mana bar for their spell-based abilities. Character progression is managed in several ways as experience is gained by defeating enemies and completing quests. As you level, in addition to a base statistic boost, you'll receive skill points, feat points as well as slowly unlock your class' abilities, combos and spells at each notch on the way to level 80.
Skill points are abundant and go toward augmenting the base abilities common to all classes such as climbing, running and hiding. Feats on the other hand are the class-specific modifiers, these define the role your character will play within the chosen class; for example: a conquerer can choose to either specialise in two-handed weapons by investing in brute
feats or take the dual wielding path with carnage
feats. Finally, abilities, combos and spells. These are your direct attacks and world interactions, all directly bindable to keyboard shortcuts at your beck and call.
Combos are perhaps the most unique feature that helps distinguish Age of Conan from other MMOs - instead of just clicking a single button, they require you to perform a chain of different directional attacks before the final, more damaging move is executed. They start out as simple 2 button sequences and extend to 3 and more as the game progresses. Check out Funcom's combat tutorial video
if you want a good look at how combos function.
The result of this new combat mechanic is a little relief in the monotony of the simple click and mash present in most games in the genre – it also adds a touch more to combat strategy as you'll want to use your most efficient and devastating combos first and in PVP combat you'll be wanting to stun or otherwise disable your opponent before they can finish theirs. That said, it's still very basic and the game gives you plenty of time to get the sequence right. It's a far cry from pulling off a Dragon Punch in Street Fighter 2 though. Perhaps a necessary concession for a game of this nature, since high connection latency really is par for the MMO course.
The Australian retail release, like most MMOs, connects to United States-hosted servers so you're not going to see ideal connections to the game. While this is not much of an issue battling AI opponents (the game's client prediction is pretty generous) it does tip a lot of the balance from PVP confrontations away from the geographically challenged.
Not that that's a huge deal at present as PVP combat in Age of Conan is still in a very infantile state. Foundations have been laid for some very cool PVP features, mounted combat and epic guild vs guild city sieges. For the time being however, this is all just conceptual and Age of Conan PVP in it's current basic form consists of free-for-all fighting as you make your way through the regular game – which I must admit, is actually still quite enjoyable but may not yet satisfy those setting their sights immediately on the level 80 endgame.
Player and community communication and interaction outside of combat is adequate with standard chat windows for group/guild/world. In fact the entire user interface is well designed off the bat, allowing you to dynamically re-arrange the location of every box to you liking. You can even toggle to hide your player's head-wear if you'd rather show off your lovely locks. The UI also includes a handy friends list and a functional search for those looking for a pickup group to quest with.
Guild support is also fundamentally complete. All the basics you need to assist and cooperate with your team are there. There's a guild bank to store your collective spoils and resources, guild chat, a notification area that lets you know when your pals level up and a compressive interface to manage the various user levels and permissions of your members.
Intertwined with player trading and the guild features is Age of Conan's crafting system. On top of battling the evils of Hyboria, you're also encouraged to learn a trade, currently two of either Weaponsmith, Armorsmith, Gemcutter, Alchemist and Architect. These are earned through appropriate quests in the guild-centric areas of the game and require players to work together in order to create worthwhile items. Presently, gems can only be used in player crafted weapons or crafted armor which nicely encourages player trade and cooperation.
Additionally, you'll need to progress through gathering quests to be able to harvest the various raw materials required for crafting, particularly for your guilds Architects, who'll be needing a whole lot of wood, stone and gold to build your guild city. That's right, once you have enough members, you can begin construction your own guild town, which will eventually populate with NPCs and offer benefits to your crafters. Again, some of this functionality is in an obviously less-than final state but with the great cost of things, chances are that most won't have the kind of currency required until it's more feature complete anyway.
Graphically, Age of Conan is stellar. Without a question, the best looking game in it's genre - and that's before the promised Direct-X 10 features have even been enabled. Player characters are exquisitely detailed and many of the environments are just sublime. Do yourself a favour and crank up the view distance for a moment in the metropolitan Old Tarantia, even if your PC isn't the best. The designers have taken advantage of Hyboria's many distinct regions and climates; searing deserts and tropical beaches; snow-capped mountains and mossy valleys.
The game world is somewhat dissected, using NPC wagoneers and boatmen as your link between the various zones. This works against the game a little, in that loading screens and the lack of seamless outdoor areas make Hyboria seem a bit less grand. On the plus side, getting from one end to the other is a lot less tedious than many other MMOs.
While most of the game's outdoor zones are public a few buildings and dungeons are exclusive instances that your group won't be able to follow you in to. This wouldn't be a big issue, only that presently they aren't really labeled as such. There are also several group orientated dungeons that aren't instanced which generally degenerate into chaos when they become too populous. These are pretty simple gripes however and admittedly, it's likely that solutions are already in the works.
Performance wise, things aren't so crash hot either. While a top of the line PC will keep you above 30FPS for the most part, there will still be the odd hiccup and there are plenty of memory leaks and other bugs that are no doubt still being furiously plugged by the Funcom maintenance team. Older machines will have a much tougher time. The minimum spec is listed as a 3GHz Pentium IV, 1GB RAM and a GeForce 5800 or ATI 9800 but honestly, you're going to need a bit more grunt, particularly in the GPU and RAM department for the experience to be worthwhile.
The audio, I'm not going to fault. The music is a delight, providing appropriate ambiance, the world over. The orchestral offerings by Norwegian composer Knut Avenstroup Haugen with the assistance of prominent local singers and the Norwegian State Opera Choir are one aspect of the game that is unquestionably flawless. The actual sound effects are equally impressive, with hundreds of different slices, slashes and screams all adding to the authenticity. This game may also be the first to really get the walking-on-snow sound right.
NPC quest dialogue is all voiced for the first 20 levels helping to kick off the main storyline and get you immerse in the game. After that you'll be mostly reading subtitles, with the exception of the main storyline quests and other scattered ones that pertain to lore from the Conan novels. It's a bit jarring going from full speech back to grunts and body gestures but difficult to criticise given they already offer more than most competitors in this regard. The story itself, the lore and the hundreds of quests are well written and for their purpose, interesting enough.
Overall Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures gets the thumbs up. It's different enough from other popular MMOs to stake its own claim in the genre and already has a substantial player-base populating its vast expanses. If you consider that there are two parts to an MMORPG, the initial purchase and the ongoing subscription – For an RPG fan, Age of Conan is well worthy of step one. Step two? Well that's up to you and the 30 days you get with the game should be plenty of time to figure that out.