Saturday, June 14, 2008

Loincloths for Everyone!

So the other day I picked up Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, an MMOG set in the universe of Conan the Barbarian, a fictional character originally created and written about in a series of adventure stories by Robert E. Howard in the 1930s. Now, coming into this, I knew very little about the Conan universe, so I can't speak for how faithful to the source material it is. All I can tell you is that after playing this game, I have taken an interest in reading the books as soon as possible.

Oh, and a note for the hardcore raiders out there: I have yet to reach level 80, and as such I cannot go into depth just yet about the games endgame content. Also, PvP, while present in the game, is sort of pointless at the moment as PvP experience and levels have not been switched on yet. At this point it is nothing more than players killing each other for fun without reason, so I didn't feel the need to really talk about that aspect yet. Think of this as an initial review based on my first few weeks with the game. You can expect a follow up review once the PvP stuff is fully enabled and I get a little further into the endgame content.

Conan's world is a fictional ancient version of our own, set somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 B.C. Looking at the maps of Hyboria, this is very apparent as many of the landmasses are nearly identical to maps of the real world. It is a world of poverty in which the strong prey on the weak. A world full of terrible secrets, lost riches, and bizarre demonic monsters that hunger for human flesh.

Character Creation

Character creation takes place on the slave ship moments before the ship wrecks for some unknown reason. From the very beginning the game sets itself apart from the Tolkien-inspired high fantasy we are used to in our role playing games. There are no elves, orcs or dwarves in Conan's world. There are only humans and the terrible abominations that menace them. You are given the choice of three different nationalities of human: Aquilonian(White dude), Cimmerian(Vaguely European barbarian dude), and Stygian(Black dude). The races all have the same stats. The only differences between them are there appearances and the classes available to them. For example, Cimmerians, Conan's race, favor the upfront damage dealing melee classes, while the Stygians primarily consist of magic users. Aqulionians are sort of in between, but lean more toward melee.

I was fairly pleased with the amount of options allowed in character creation. It wasn't anywhere near the number of options given in Oblivion, but that is probably for the best as some of the more deformed faces I managed to make in Oblivion still haunt my nightmares. If you have any kind of creativity it is easy to make an entirely unique and recognizable face. I sort of wish there were more voice and facial hair choices, but that is pretty much my only complaint with character creation.

Oh god... what have I done?

There are 12 different character classes to choose from, each with a significantly different play style. Unlike most MMOs, every class can solo competently. Any of the classes can be ass kickers and should have about as much challenge going from 1-80.

Lost... and also naked.

I went with a Conqueror, a heavy armor wearing damage dealer that can also tank in a pinch. After accepting my character, I was given a brief cinematic showing my character floating near death at the bottom of the ocean. The next thing I knew I washed up on the shore, where I was greeted immediately by a magic hobo dude who told me to seek out an old seer in the village of Tortage.

Taking heed of said hobo, I headed up the beach, where I was immediately greeted by a half naked woman chained to a big stone arch. I thought that her captors had chosen a rather inconvenient place to bind their prisoner as she was blocking the only way forward, but I decided to just go with it for now. Naked lady with a weird accent. Yay!

Deciding to listen to her plight, I clicked on her and was surprised to find that Age of Conan's NPC chat is inspired by the system present in Bioware titles such as Baldur's Gate or Knights of the Old Republic. By that I mean that they have completely stolen the system, but that was not really a bad thing for me as I thoroughly enjoyed both of those series. You are given multiple dialog choices when conversing with NPCs. Saying the right things to people may lead to a quest, while being an asshole generally... won't. The system doesn't really affect anything as you are welcome to initiate conversations all over again whenever you want until you get the quests, but it is a nice touch for roleplayers.

Naked lady sent me on a quest to kill her captor further down the beach and take his key, so I did just this, clad in only a loincloth and armed only with the Oar I had been clutching when I washed ashore. It didn't take me long to find the guy, and he immediately attacked me. I can't really blame him. What would you do if a muscular half naked man came out of nowhere and was approaching you menacingly with an Oar?

Them's Fightin' Werds!

Expecting your typical minute-long auto attack slog present in all of the other MMO's I had played, I was pleasantly surprised to find that combat in Conan is drastically different. Icons appear over the enemy you are targetting, depicting where the enemy is guarding and how strong their defenses are in that area. The 1, 2, and 3 keys are mapped to the upper left, middle, and upper right directions respectively(additional directions become available to certain classes later on in the game). To do the most damage, you must strike where the enemy is least guarded, and the enemy will be shifting their guard around very intelligently based on where you are hitting them all the white. You too have the option to shift your guard around, but in my experience, unless you are tanking this isn't necessary, and honestly the process of doing so is kind of clunky so I didn't bother to do it and just put 1 shield on every position, hoping for the best.

Another area that was very different from other MMOs is that every melee attack is considered an area of affect attack. What this means is that if you position yourself so that your weapon reaches other enemies, you will damage all of them. I thought that this was pretty cool, and placing yourself strategically to hit multiple enemies is often a must, as you will often find yourself hopelessly outnumbered by foes.

The ability system isn't too different from other MMOs, with the possible exception that you never have to pay to learn any of them. They just pop into your skill book as you level up. The ability names are not very creative(Care to tell me the difference between Enraging Strike and Brutal Enraging Strike? Because they have significantly different effects), and the fact that older ranks of skills are not replaced by the newer ones can sometimes make it hard to keep track of which one you are supposed to be using.

Each skill comes with a specific combination of attack directions you are supposed to hit to trigger the skill itself. They start off very simple, usually with only a single direction, but as you get higher ranks of the skill, the combinations get a little more complex. The skills, despite having bland and similar names, each have unique effects and animations, and it is pretty fun experimenting with them and trying to figure out which combinations will kill a certain enemy type the quickest.

Honestly, I'd have to say combat is one of the best things this game has going for it. It's drastically different than anything I've seen before in an MMO and it requires you to actually pay attention and watch your enemy's actions. Fights last a realistic amount of time for once! Unlike in games like WoW, where you are likely to spend upwards of a minute hacking away at your enemy, fights in Conan will end in a few swings, and if someone gets a critical hit, things are pretty much over.

I almost forgot to mention one of the more amusing features of the fights. Did I mention that Age of Conan is a Mature rated game? Well, Age of Conan is a Mature rated game. If you manage to use an ability as the final blow in a fight, you might be treated to one of the game's many Fatalities. These can be anything from beheadings, rib crushings, Gears of War style head stompings, impalements, dismemberments, disembowelings, etc. What kind of fatality you get depends on how high level you are and what kind of weapon you are using. There are enough different animations that you will not get bored with them easily. While performing a Fatality, your character is immune to any kind of damage. For a brief moment the game stops and allows you to admire your awesomeness before throwing you back into the fray with a ten second buff that will cause your stamina to regenerate like crazy.

The World

From the moment I washed up on the beaches of Tortage, I was taken aback by the environments. Even at the lowest settings, the game rivals Oblivion in terms of detail, and set at the highest settings blows away anything we've seen lately with the possible exception of Crysis. The world of Age of Conan is a beautiful one. The zones are instanced as opposed to the constant, loadless world of WoW, but loading between zones is fairly quick and the zones themselves are quite massive. The zone designers did a very good job of making you feel like you are not being boxed in. You can travel to the edges of the zone and find reasonable excuses for not being able to just travel through into the next one, such as towering steep mountain ranges or vast, deep bodies of water.

One thing I noticed and rather disliked was that once you leave settlements, you will not find many NPCs out in the wild. Sure, there are plenty of quest NPCs hidden around, but I would have liked a merchant every now and then to unload my stuff without having to make the hike back to town or waste my Hearthstone (it's a skill called "Path of Asura" in this game, but it functions basically the same except that you can use it a bit more often). I guess it makes since realistically as the moment you set foot out of the settlements you are surrounded by all manner of bloodthirsty beasties, and that merchants would prefer the safety of a town to operate out of, but it makes it sort of inconvenient for me to have to run back across the entire zone to sell my crap every twenty minutes.

Wrapping Up

Wow, this review has gotten pretty lengthy... But we are almost at an end. If you've actually read everything I've had to say so far, thanks for being a trooper. This is the first in depth review of something I've done in awhile, and while I tried to keep it brief, there is a lot of stuff to mention about this game both positive and negative, and I don't want to give the impression that I skimmed over any details.

Questing is an essential part of the solo experience of any MMO, and Conan has not disappointed so far. There are quests aplenty in each hub, and you are likely to get high enough level to move onto the next hub before completing anywhere close to all of them.

I think it is important to mention at this point that I have not seen much of the level 50-80 content, and have heard from many of the higher level players on my server that after level 50, quest content slows down and you are left to grind more. This seems like quite a gap to spend primarily grinding, and seems like a big oversight on Funcom's part. Fortunately, they have listened to player feedback, and stated last week in their summer mission plan that they intend to focus on improving the level 50-80 content as quickly as possible. Let's hope they act on that before I get into that range, eh?

Here is an aspect of the questing in Conan that some gamers, myself included, will like, and others might hate. Upon receiving a quest, the objective for that quest is highlighted on your map with an arrow pointing you in the right direction. While some may not like this linear style of questing, I appreciate not having to consult the Allakhazam or the Age of Conan wiki every 5 minutes to find each and every elusive NPC and quest drop. It keeps you in the experience, and getting to each objective is often an adventure in itself presenting its share of challenges.

Quests are organized in a journal with two tabs, one containing all of your current quests and the other a history of all the quests you have ever completed, useful if your ever questing with a friend and need to make sure you are both caught up on the prerequisites. By simply clicking on one of your quests, a tracker will appear on screen listing all of the objectives and turning the arrow for that quest golden on your map(inactive quest arrows are marked white). Unfortunately, you can only track one quest at a time, which got a little annoying when I was doing multiple quests in the same area. Often times I found myself forgetting to do things I could have done in a single trip, and ended up returning multiple times to finish quests off.

One last thing. The first twenty levels of Age of Conan are spent on the island of Tortage, a tutorial zone that exemplifies the concept of Darwinism. Those who are serious about progressing into the real game will do so in about a day's playing time, while the asshats who generally just cause problems for the more mature players will be trapped there for quite awhile. The island is a very polished experience, with plenty of backstory, a fairly memorable cast of characters, and full voice acting for every NPC. However, once you reach level 20, finish up the story and take a ship to the mainland, that same level of polish just isn't quite there. Voice acting is only present for NPCs important to the main story. And glitches, while few, pop up every now and then, although none of them are particularly troublesome and the bigger ones were patched within a week of launch.

Is Age of Conan a WoW killer? No, it isn't. There isn't going to be a WoW killer for some years to come, and even then it will probably be WoW2 that does it. Funcom was not trying to kill WoW when they set out on Age of Conan's lengthy development process. What Age of Conan brings to the table is a more mature role playing experience. While it lacks the depth and polish present in WoW, the sheer fun level of the combat, the size of the zones, and the dark mood of the game are enough to earn it a place in my heart. If Funcom makes good on their promise to throw constant new content at us and addresses the existing issues with the user interface, I suspect the game will carve out a nice niche for itself right behind WoW. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for something a little more grown up than WoW.

Also, there are boobies.

  • First twenty levels are very well done
  • Character creation allows for a very unique avatar
  • Innovative, addictive combat
  • Plenty of content for the first 50 levels
  • Very visually attractive world
  • Dark themes not typically seen in MMOs
  • Level 50-80 relies primarily on grinding
  • Interface is frustrating at times
  • Very hardware intensive
Score: 8/10

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