Age of Conan
17th Jun 2008 | 13:00
Making an online game these days is tough, as there are few interesting settings left to force into the bizarre mould that is the MMO.
Luckily for us, there's a chauvinistic lore-trove waiting in the wings: Robert E. Howard's Hyboria - the world of shirtless sword-swinger Conan the Cimmerian - which has now become the most brutal MMO in existence.
At the start of Age of Conan you can pick one of 12 classes, split into four different archetypes - Soldier, Priest, Rogue and Mage - of which most fall into the generic roles of tanking, melee and ranged damage, healing and spell-damage.
The few exceptions to the genre standards are classes like the Herald of Xotli (a mage that morphs into deadly melee characters), The Tempest of Set (an area-of-effect healer and damage-dealer) and the bizarre Demonologist (who must balance the damage his spells do to himself, against the awesome damage he does to opponents).
While these innovations don't break the MMO format, they certainly crack it.
The first 20 levels have you hidden in the fully voice-acted pirate haven of Tortage. Here, you learn the basics of your chosen class through a mixture of single-player questing - your Destiny Quest storyline, which happens only at night - and the more standard MMO quests, which are accessed by manually flipping the island into daytime mode.
The single-player fare is a series of missions that take you from being a newly arrived slave to the one responsible for the overthrowing of evildoer Strom and his Red Hand troops.
Throughout this you get introduced to the combat mechanics, the strange way in which AOC does conversations (see Dialogue with the barbarians box out), and some of the more engaging parts of AOC's overarching story.
The Destiny Quest is an interesting and innovative way to teach you about your class, and is a joy to play thanks to the reasonably involving storyline, decent voice-acting, and the fact that you're basically playing in a solo instance - something that MMOs have needed for a fair bit of time.
The single-player quests offer the potential to level your character as you would during the standard daytime quests too - meaning your midnight story adventures aren't at the expense of your character's development.
The Destiny Quest is certainly one of the most engaging parts of levelling to 20, but it doesn't completely satiate the levelling curve, which requires you to jump into daytime to reach milestones (10, 15 and 18) before going on with the next part of the nighttime yarn.
These day-based quests are standard MMO affairs, with dungeons to crawl through, massive plants to kill, and even the crypt of someone's dead wife to look into only to find out she's turned into a monster.
They dissonate alongside the story-heavy solo content, replacing calls to arms with monster bashing, but overall this is a well-executed ride through the first levels of the game.
Problems arise in that not only is Tortage the only starting city in the game, it can't be skipped.
Getting through this tutorial stage takes at least six hours, and on your first go you'll find you have to do most of the quests available to scratch your way up to the end of the nighttime saga.
The Destiny Quests change depending which class you're playing, but the different chains lead towards the same conclusion, and most of your time will be spent in the daytime picking up animal parts and killing tribesmen in the same few instances.
Even on the first play-through, this can get repetitive. While there's always the possibility that Funcom will allow us to skip Tortage altogether one day, perhaps introducing another city and storyline in a paid-for expansion, I'm not sure how likely that is.
And preventing players having even a modicum of choice is a mite silly - even the nine year-old EverQuest let players begin in more than one area.
The most talked about element of AOC is its approach to combat. Unlike most MMOs, there are no automatic attacks, with the basic blows dealt by hitting hotkeys for left, overhead and right-side attacks with either melee or ranged weapons.
You choose the most effective one by watching the enemy's shields (see Protect your neckbeard box out), and drawing their defences to one side, letting you cause more damage by attacking the unprotected flank.
But you need to take care you don't fall victim to similar tactics. Melee becomes complicated when you add combos (see below), which are special attack routines engaged by hitting a hotkey.
This brings up a prompt-box that tells you to press a series of left, overhead or right (and at later levels, lower-left and lower-right) strikes to unleash the combo.
These are mostly par-for-the-course MMO skills and in practice can be a mixture of hilarious, visceral fun and unbelievable frustration, depending on how the user interface feels at the time.
The combo system is imperfect in that it depends on the floaty lag of a keyboard. You'll find you often break some three-button combos because there's a latency between key presses and the game registering them.
In the heat of battle you have to tap in combos slowly enough for the game to take them in, which really gets in the way of what should be a fast-paced experience.
This awkwardness isn't entirely noticeable until you get to the later levels and you have multiple combos to put together in a sequence, requiring you to play a game of Dance Dance Revolution with your 1, 2 and 3 keys.
While this is doable - if your fingers are fast enough - it fast becomes annoying enough that you'll tend to use simpler combos.
This is a valiant attempt to reinvent the wheel - and it almost works - but the combo system needs smoothing out. And as it existed throughout most of beta, I can't be sure when that will be.
Beyond The Island
Once you make it to 20 though, you're bundled onto a ship and out of the
loving embrace of noob-dom.
Gone are the voice-acted quest givers, replaced with distressing mutes with unmoving mouths, gesticulating in place of speaking.
This worrying shift to lifelessness sadly epitomises what the rest of AOC turns into - a drab disappointment.
While Tortage has had much love poured into it, the subsequent hub zones feel barren, the map barely helps you find your way around and quest-givers, and vendors and traders (AOC's guild banks and auction houses) are placed awkwardly and sporadically.
Once you're through the first non-Tortage quests and receive the one pointing you towards the nearest grind zone, you talk to an NPC and get magically teleported to a hub full of yet more quest givers and, inevitably, peril.
This is where AOC finishes transforming from story-based action MMO to an utterly monotonous experience. While it's not an entirely unenjoyable slog, cracks in Funcom's work begin to show.
Quests predominantly involve either collecting objects, killing 20 or so of a particular animal or bandit, or taking down a particularly nasty individual creature to receive some kind of remuneration at the end.
Sure, this is much the same as WOW - but there's far less impetus here than in its rival grind-'em-up.
Occasionally - and we're talking in the space of every five or so levels - a number of quests will point you obviously in the direction of one of AOC's dungeons.
These are of much the same variety as the outdoor quests, but the change of scene and slight increase in danger make for some enjoyment, until (as the retail game stands at the time of review) something immersion-breaking decides to creep in.
For example, on two separate occasions I found myself having to smash down an object - in one case a gigantic wall - only to have the thing disappear instead of shattering dramatically.
There are going to be patches that will fix some of these problems, but from what I've seen there's going to have to be a lot of work to cover the sinkholes that litter Hyboria.
While a lot of people have said that this has been a very stable launch of an MMO, which is certainly true, there's a big difference between stable and polished, and I'm afraid to say that several cans of Mr Sheen are evidently missing here.
Overall, Age of Conan is a complete MMORPG. The lore itself, while hardly outstanding, is functional enough to fit the requirements of things to kill, places to go, dungeons to chop your way through, and big, bad enemies to eviscerate.
There are 80 levels with a curve that seems a bit tougher than World of Warcraft's, rewarding both solo and group play fairly equally, even at the higher levels.
There's also a fair amount of support for guilds, with the ability to build cities and eventually have supposedly gigantic siege battles - though I have to question how an engine that has frame rate drops when a few enemies get on screen can handle potential tens or even hundreds of players at once.
The player-versus-player side is also available, but this too still has great big holes in it, with no death penalties (you are resurrected in pretty much the same spot as they're killed), heavy balancing issues, and high levels of griefing make playing on one of the PvP servers an inadvisable experience - at least until Funcom delivers some much-needed method to the madness.
When you're in a balanced fight PvP combat is fun, but (much like any game in which arseholes are given free reign) higher level players love to wade into areas not built for them and stomp on newer players for giggles.
Finally, we have to touch upon how much AOC demands of the average PC. While (the admittedly far older) WOW will run on most PCs, to play AOC on any graphical setting above "A bit rubbish-looking" requires a dual core processor, at least 2GB of memory and a decent video card (with at least 512MB of RAM).
AOC's minimum specs resemble EQII and Vanguard's preposterous system requirements, striving to become "future-proof," but the game lacks payoff.
At the higher-end, AOC looks reasonably good but it still manages to judder on anything less powerful than Deep Blue.
When you're desperately trying to pull together that last combo, you'll find yourself switching to lower settings in case your 3D card can't take it. The much-touted DirectX 10 support won't be available for a while either.
Overall, AOC isn't a bad game, but it has been over-hyped. Once you pass by the initially impressive first 20 levels, you find yourself stuck in the same monotony that plagues lesser titles working with less-promising lore and it only gets more repetitive and generic as you level up.
Even the class feats and progression feel dull, with classes gaining too few abilities to ensure that making that extra push through the last of an area's unappetising content feels worthwhile.
The Hyboria lore itself doesn't have the lustre to make a convincing world, or (more likely) hasn't been exploited well enough; no matter how many hours I ploughed into AOC post-Tortage, it was always hard to give a shit.
This is a genuine shame, because somewhere near the beginning AOC gives the feeling that it's revolutionary.
However, once you pass the infant stages of the game, play becomes all too familiar, all too repetitive and all too unpolished. I'm not saying avoid Age of Conan - feel free to give it a go and enjoy the early stages with your free 30 days of play.
But when Funcom starts to demand £8.99 a month, AOC becomes harder to recommend.