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Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures

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It's always difficult given limited amounts of time to offer a definitive verdict on a new MMORPG. These are games designed to be played over hundreds of hours during a period of months or years, so anything we can say within a week of launch has to be surrounded by some pretty hefty caveats.

With Age of Conan, however, the task is practically impossible. Early on, the development team decided to kick the game off with a starter area that would introduce new players to the game through a solo quest. This doesn't quite make Age of Conan a single-player RPG for the first ten hours of play - you can actually switch in and out of your individual saga at various points and enjoy a more regular MMO experience - but it's as close as any MMO so far has come.

This is only one of the ways in which Age of Conan is not your ordinary fantasy MMO. Most efforts in the genre so far have taken the Tolkienesque ‘high fantasy' road, offering epic tales of dark powers, clashing forces, dwarves, elves, goblins and the rest. Age of Conan fits more the ‘heroic fantasy' mould.

Indeed, Robert E. Howard's original Conan tales played a fundamental part in creating the sub-genre back in the 1930s. Heroic fantasy is a bit like high fantasy's vulgar cousin. It's brash, fast-moving, more horrific and more violent. In heroic fantasy, you have to worry about men, beasts and supernatural forces rather than goblins and dragons. Sorcery is to be feared or circumvented, not wielded like a weapon, and where high fantasy often goes in for tales of right and wrong, heroic fantasy frequently deals with shades of gray, featuring heroes like Conan or Fritz Leiber's Fathyrd and Gray Mouser who are primarily motivated by self interest rather than any great desire to do good deeds.

And to an extent, Age of Conan reflects this. Your character starts off as an anonymous slave aboard a soon-to-be-wrecked slaving ship. You can choose from only three human races (the civilised Aquilonians, the barbarian Cimmerians and the shifty, pseudo-Egyptian Stygians) and from a range of classes divided into four archetypes (Soldier, Rogue, Priest and Mage).

Within those archetypes, the different classes are tuned towards particular races, and are differentiated both by combat skills and magical abilities, as well as in terms of what weapons and armour they may use. In effect, the lack of non-human races is made up for by the variety and thought that has gone into the class system.

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