Age of Conan - Hyborian Adventures
Reviewing an MMORPG is a notoriously difficult subject to broach. Despite the obvious fact that everyone views games differently, there's also the fact that within a week, for all you know, there may be so many game changing elements added in a mammoth patch, that the review instantly becomes irrelevant. Out of the (probably) far too many MMORPGs I've played, the rate at which they change, especially in the early stages, is phenomenal. Which tends to be good news in my experience, it's usually once the players have got used to a certain way that the big patches can be less like good news (as many Star Wars: Galaxies players will attest to). So I come with some trepidation to reviewing Age of Conan, released a mere week ago at time of writing, yet I've already downloaded two patches for it...wait make that three. I'm already expecting the entire balance of the game to have changed within a month thanks to the rapid evolution of MMORPGs.
After traversing the 25GB installation, which took over two hours, I'll admit to not having been in the good mood that I started in when I eagerly placed the DVD in the drive. However, overcoming my impatience didn't take long. There's something about Age of Conan that couldn't help but intrigue me to begin with. I loaded up the character creation screen expecting the usual somewhat stale and removed environment of the creation screen and instead was greeted by an actively moving slaveship with my future new character on-board. There are only three races to choose from and they look quite similar (even after using the customisation options), but there are 12 professions to choose from overall as well as some interesting twists. For once you can actually be a priest character that can hold their own in a fight, as well as tanks/soldiers that have magic powers or the ability to provide group buffs. It's a nice twist, and it'll be interesting to see how it affects the game in the higher levels. The actual arcetypes consist of Soldier, Mage, Priest and Rogue so don't be too worried about having to take forever to decide what to try. I'd suggest giving them all a whirl and see what matches your style.
Once your character is created the initial first scenes feel very much like a single-player RPG. You enter the game captive on a slaveship until you are shipwrecked on the island of Tortage, your home for the next 20 levels. A cutscene commences with a man approaching to check you are still alive and telling you that your slavemaster has run into the nearby jungle and to go kill him. Until I reached the outskirts of Tortage City, I didn't encounter one other player character, so it felt very much like a single-player game until that point. At least this solved the awkward problems of starting areas being packed full of players doing the exact same thing. It felt a little lonely but I'm sure being shipwrecked on a strange island would feel a bit lonely at first. Entering Tortage brings options. You can play in the 'daytime' alongside other real players much like a regular MMORPG, or you can go to the inn and enter the 'night time' where the game becomes a single-player instance again. This felt a little more like a third-person equivalent of Oblivion although with less depth, very handy for players with limited time however. Sometimes it's nice to be able to gain some experience in short bursts which this enables.
Overall, the first 20 levels were very enjoyable and a great introduction to the game. Primarily it gives you the chance to get used to the real-time battle system which is pretty different from other MMORPGs. There is no auto-attack, if you have a ranged weapon and a primary weapon you need to manually change weapons (albeit with a simple key combo) rather than auto switch a la Warcraft. You can dodge and sidestep attacks and in later levels form together combo attacks. Each mob has shield indicators on either side of it to show where it is defending, attack an unshielded area with a tap of a key and you cause more damage. It's a simple but effective system, that although obviously geared towards the forthcoming 360 version of the game, works well and is a breath of fresh air from the usual method of turning on auto attack and going through the motions of the same attacks over and over again. There are also fatality moves which cause blood spatters across the screen, an example of why it gained an 18 certificate in the UK. It is definitely a violent and grim looking game, gone are the Warcraft, near-cartoony style graphics. This world is brutal and cruel, but also visually stunning, if you have the PC specifications to back it up. It's no Crysis but it is a big advantage to have a fast PC, especially if you like to run at higher resolutions.
Age of Conan is still a hard one to gauge however, as it's still suffering from launch problems. There are a few minor collision detection issues which I would like to think would have been noticed in the game's many alpha and beta testing phases. There have also been reports of a severe lack of content past level 50 and players having no choice but to 'grind' experience through killing mobs rather than through questing. Hopefully this will be fixed in future patches but it's a pity for those who leveled fast, of which there do seem to be quite a vocal group who have already hit level 80; the level cap. Some players of the latest MMORPGs may also be less-than-keen on the return of separate zones. Rather than a seamless world, there are loading screens which to some would detract from the experience. However, I suspect most of these negatives will be changed once Funcom take notice of the more fundamental problems, and will do what they can to ensure that players keep playing.
I would still recommend buying Age of Conan if you're after a new MMO. It is great fun despite its quirks and flaws, just don't try rushing your way through the levels too quickly. Take your time, getting there is half the journey as they say, and don't expect a polished final product like World of Warcraft, it's still a work in progress but will hopefully develop into a great alternative to Blizzard's opus.