As I played Age of Conan in a darkened room somewhere in Eidos' HQ, lead designer Jason Allen Stone suggested that the magnificently ugly face of my barbarian might be corrected by limiting the range of his facial customisation. I do hope not: my frog-faced, beady-eyed, pseudo-Egyptian machete-wielding murderer was a glorious sight to behold.
Few games allow you so much character in a single human face. You might only be able to play humans in Age of Conan's online fantasy world, but they are humans with genuine, monstrous charisma. They are, after all, escaped slaves turned adventurers - why should they be pretty?
In any case there's much more to Conan's Hyborian world than an ugly face - such as the fact that you'll be able to ride camels and mammoths into battle. You can expect to fight from the backs of these mounts in epic, sweeping conflicts that take you into the realms of bat demons and player-owned fortresses.
This is an MMORPG that is aiming high and low at the same time. It wants to be as approachable as a singleplayer adventure, such as Oblivion, while having all the developed features of the more sophisticated MMORPGs - features such as territorial conflict, instanced dungeons, trade classes, guild warfare, and multifarious Player vs Player options. Fancy a drunken brawl? Then go for it. Want to engage in endless hours of mass running battles? That's available too.
The Age of Conan team also want to create a system for genuine melee combat, not just point-and-click as in World of Warcraft. Instead of simply selecting a target and hitting 'attack', you're going to have to select the direction and combination of your blows. Using the keys surrounding WASD, you crack skulls, make sweeping blows, and conjure up combinations that are vaguely reminiscent of traditional side-scrolling fighting games.
For now it's a strangely clumsy system that might just work. For one-on‑one combat it definitely delivers something interesting and new, but for the melee-mobs we were plunging into it all seemed a little chaotic. If Stone and his chums can get this bit of Conan right then they'll have created something genuinely new in the MMORPG world. It's an exciting possibility.
Age of Conan is probably the darkest fantasy MMO we've seen so far, and that blood and grit could go a long way to making it a mature and interesting instance of the genre.
I fear that Funcom have a lot to do if they're going to make this game approachable enough to challenge the big boys of the MMO world, but that might not matter. If Age of Conan can capture the imaginations (and wallets) of just a few thousand, then it might just be enough.