No “Flagshipping” Here
When the idea to create an MMO based on Robert E. Howard’s Conan was first announced, there were probably plenty of naysayers. However, after years of development and delays, Funcom, the creator of Anarchy Online, has finally released Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures.
The game is set in Howard’s world of Hyboria, a savage and barbaric land of war. The three playable races, or nationalities, since they are all human, include the Aquilonians, a Roman-like people; the Cimmerians, a Germanic-like people; and the Stygians, an Egyptian-like people. There is no faction vs. faction war factored into the story as far as PvP is concerned. Instead, Funcom decided on a free for all system, meaning that you can attack anyone at any time if logged into a PvP server. There are PvE servers that restrict PvP to specific areas for player who prefer that.
There are a total of 12 available classes divided into four class archetypes: the Soldier, Mage, Priest, and Rogue. Each class’ skills are broken into three different categories called feat trees; one that each class of the same archetype shares and two different ones that are class-specific. In many cases, feat points, which are basically skill points, are awarded at each level and can be placed into all three feat trees and still provide bonuses that benefit the player overall. This allows players to create unique combinations among the three feat trees or focus on just one or two.
However, the feat trees aren’t without their bugs and confusing descriptions. Many of the feats’ descriptions are vague and confusing, saying things like, “Increases chance to inflict burning wounds,” rather than giving the player the percent chance or how much damage is dealt. Moreover, these discrepancies have resulted in player’s questioning whether specific feats even work as intended. Unfortunately, most questions have gone unanswered, forcing players to perform in-game tests to determine how certain things work.
Age of Conan’s character creation system is one of the best seen in an MMO to date. Not only are the standard options available, such as gender, race, and class, the player can also customize just about every shape and size of his or her character using sliders similar to games like Oblivion. This ability to customize the character so intricately helps ensure that no two characters are exactly the same, a goal that is a difficult one for developers to achieve.
The first thing the player will notice while playing Age of Conan is its ESRB rating of Mature. The game is brutal by MMO standards. Sure, there are plenty of games out there like Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto IV that take full advantage of the bold letter on their boxes, but Age of Conan isn’t without its share of decapitations, blood sprays, and, last but certainly not least, bare-chested females. While these elements are mostly visual additions with only slight impacts upon the gameplay, they do establish Age of Conan in its own category of MMOs. At the very least, an attempt to cater an MMO to an older audience is certainly a breath of fresh air for the genre.
Funcom went to great lengths to ensure that Robert E. Howard’s universe had been respected in its fullest. The lore, while generally taking a backseat in MMOs because of the “everyone is the hero” paradox, certainly stands out from the start. Loading screens play host to a variety of quotes taken from the many novels that make up the Conan universe. Moreover, the first 20 levels of gameplay focus on a single-player quest line that furthers the narrative and attempts to leave an impression on the player. Unfortunately, as is with most MMOs, the narrative is difficult to get into at times, despite dialogue tree options and miniature cutscenes that unfold.
These cutscenes don’t increase immersion very well because of the occasional glitches. For example, there is a cutscene where three guards confront a man and arrest him, but when they do, the two flanking guards appear to be slow-motion running. Then, there are cutscenes that appear to lack special animations altogether, like one where a blacksmith asks you to place your shackles on an anvil, move your face aside, and then proceeds to break them with a hammer. Oddly, not only does your character not place the shackles on the anvil or turn his or her head aside, but when the blacksmith swings his hammer, you don’t hear the noise of the shackles breaking. While the cutscenes aren’t nearly as good as the ones in games like Mass Effect, which place much more emphasis on story telling, they are definitely better than standard quest boxes full of text.
The visuals in Age of Conan are impressive, even when stacked up against games like Crysis and Grand Theft Auto IV. When compared to other MMOs currently on the market, Age of Conan is unrivaled in its level of graphic detail. Granted, the level of detail and beauty achieved is very much dependent upon the computer hardware used to run the game, but even on the lowest settings, the game is still pleasing to the eyes. Nothing quite comes close to the first time you arrive in Old Tarantia, the Aquilonian city, and look across the harbor into the neighboring districts.
The layout and design of the cities and towns is another visual element worth noting. Unlike many other MMOs, where towns and cities have a lot of unused space and gaps between buildings that makes players scratch their heads and wonder whether the city planner had been fired, Funcom seems to have noticed and taken action. Town and cities feel much more compact, giving them a “lived-in” quality. And, while such improvements are little more than visual, the impact on the gameplay experience is undeniable.
One negative part about Age of Conan is the amount of instancing. While each zone can be very large in its own right, it simply isn’t enough to make the player forget about all the instant teleporting that is done between areas. According to Funcom, the amount of instancing was an acceptable compromise to making the game as detailed and beautiful as possible. And, for the most part, only players with an unusual amount of angst toward instancing will notice.
The sound effects and music are as high-quality as the visuals, using talents such as Helene Bøksle, a popular and talented Norwegian singer. Each nation (Aquilonia, Stygia, and Cimmeria) has its own unique style of background music, which does a great job of setting the atmosphere. In fact, Age of Conan’s music is so well done that players will be hard pressed to find an excuse to stream their MP3s instead. Unfortunately, the addition of voice acting is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one edge, just having NPCs talk is a nice element not found in most MMOs. On the other edge, however, the player will soon realize that just because an NPC can talk doesn’t mean he or she has something interesting to say. Moreover, many of the NPCs have faces and bodies that don’t match their voices, while almost all are plagued by less than inspiring voice acting. And, even though the majority of NPCs stop talking once the player is past the starter city, the initial disappointment is replaced by relief after playing several different characters through the starter area.
The controls for Age of Conan are rather standard for an MMO. Nearly everything can be customized to suit the player’s preferences and style. Customizable user interfaces are also widely available for those who prefer a different look and feel. However, one strange omission is the inability to reconfigure the mouse buttons-an element in sore need of correcting. Default character movements are controlled by the WASD keys, and while these can be changed, players will notice that there is no mouse-click movement supported.
Age of Conan’s combat system has been the subject of controversial debate over the course of its development, often resulting in individuals attempting to define words such as “innovative” and “revolutionary.” To quickly summarize the basics, the player is given 1-3 initial attacks: a left swing, an overhead swing, and a right swing. Attacking involves the simple pressing of the corresponding key, causing the player’s character to swing their weapon, shoot an arrow, or cast magic. This removes the necessity of clicking a target prior to fighting for melee combat. Unfortunately, for ranged combat, targets must still be selected beforehand.
A large part of the combat system involves performing combos to use special attacks. There is a rather standard hot bar where the special attacks and abilities are available to the player. When a special attack is selected, the system initiates a combo, which shows which keys must be pressed to complete it. The keys that need to be pressed for the combo are displayed on the screen, so memorizing them isn’t a necessity, but it does have its advantages when dealing with the shielding aspect of combat. Once all the keys in the combo have been pressed, the player performs the special attack or ability. While the basic directional attacks work, victory in combat relies upon the efficient use of special attack and ability combos.
Players are also given the ability to shield themselves from specific directional attacks. There is a left, right, and overhead shield, all of which have one bar of defense by default. Players are able to allocate the bars any way they see fit. Now, when a combo is executed, the last directional attack pressed to complete it is the side the damage is dealt. Therefore, skilled players can adjust their shields based on their opponent’s attacks. While these elements of combat seem like a lot to manage, there are a lot more elements to strategy and skill present for those willing to learn.
Age of Conan’s combat system even involves players mounted on horses, mammoths, and rhinos. One drawback to the mounted combat is that players are limited to basic attacks and mount-specific attacks. The basic attacks are just the directional attacks, which don’t pack as much of a punch on their own. The mount-specific attacks can be difficult to land on opponents, but they do provide some more depth. For example, a horse has the ability to kick with its hind legs, which can knock down an opponent standing behind it. While the horse’s main function is faster transportation, the mammoth and rhino are designed for siege combat, an element of Age of Conan that pits opposing guilds against each other.
The crafting in Age of Conan involves two steps: the gathering from resource nodes, which can be found spread throughout the zones, and the actual crafting, which is a skill that can be done anywhere. Both crafting and gathering requires the player to complete quests, which simply require the player to gather so many units of a resource or to craft so many units of a certain item. Each time a crafting quest is completed, the player unlocks the next tier of gathering or crafting, which gives them the ability to gather more valuable resources and craft better items.
Players are allowed to gather every resource in the game regardless of race or class. However, a player may only take a maximum of two crafting professions. Unfortunately, as of right now, once a crafting profession is picked, it is permanent, so players should think carefully before picking. The professions include Weaponsmith, which is for crafting weapons; Armorsmith, which is for crafting armors; Gemcutter, which is for upgrading weapons and armors; Alchemist, which is for creating potions; and Architect, which is for creating, upgrading, and repairing guild cities.
While most of the professions have uses outside of a guild environment, the architect is really only useful for players who are part of a guild, making it utterly useless for non-guilded players. Therefore, until Funcom provides Architects with more options as a crafting profession, players not wanting to join a guild are realistically limited to the other professions.
Age of Conan is, without a doubt, a very large game. With features like guild vs. guild siege combat that have yet to be experienced by the players, there is a lot left to review. And, as with all MMOs, every patch and update means the game will constantly be improved, tweaked, and refined. It is reasonable to believe that many of the glitches and bugs present in the most recent version will be weeded out with time. While Age of Conan isn’t without its flaws, there is a lot of great content worth experiencing for both the casual and hardcore. Its low-fantasy setting, tweaked combat system, attention to visual detail, excellent soundtrack, mature content, and promises of large-scale PvP are what set it apart from what is becoming a largely overcrowded genre.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
A beautiful game with lots of detail that is only hindered by its system requirements. 4.0 Control
Flexible and customizable controls stand out, while the inability to map extra mouse buttons makes it less than perfect. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Epic and original music coupled with immersive ambient and regular sound effects easily overshadow the below average voice acting. 3.5 Play Value
With its attention to detail, narrative, and gameplay mechanics, Age of Conan delivers a great MMO experience. 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.