Having selected your race and class and customised your character - cleverly the game gives you three tiers of options so you have as much or as little control over the fine detail as you feel comfortable with - you'll find yourself washed up on the island of Tortage in the Barachian isles. It's not long before the game sets out its stall. Your first quest is to kill a surviving slaver before he can dob you in to the unsympathetic local authorities, and much of what follows will be predicated on violence. This is something Age of Conan does with none of the namby-pamby restraint of a World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online. Skulls will be crushed. Bits may be lopped off. Blood will occasionally be splattered across the screen.
More importantly, this is a less detached approach to combat. Most MMORPGs still go for the standard approach of wandering in the general direction of an enemy, clicking to target them, then pressing the number keys to unleash particular attacks, protective abilities or spells. The only elements of timing are in using skills or spells as they recharge or - in a few, like Vanguard or Guild Wars - chaining together melee attacks into handy combos.
That still holds partly true of Age of Conan, but here timing and positioning are everything. For a start, you now have at least three basic attacks, corresponding to left, right and forward. Enemy characters have shield icons around them that indicate how vulnerable they are to attacks from different directions, and by hitting them on their weakest side you can maximise the damage you dish out.
On top of that, you can initiate melee combos by hitting the right number key or clicking the icon in the shortcut bar. These will light up a series of direction arrows, and by hitting left, right or forward in the correct order you can dish out brutal quantities of pain. Finally, certain attacks will knock an enemy down or backwards, giving you an opportunity to press home your advantage and bash them to a pulp.
Mastering these systems is vital. Age of Conan is a combat heavy game, and can turn into a struggle if you play it like you would World of Warcraft. The effect, however, is that it feels like a more visceral, action experience. In many MMOs, combat can all feel a little abstract. In Age of Conan, you're right there in the midst of battle. It really does work very well indeed.