There's something else to keep you glued to the screen, too: the visuals. Age of Conan might not be approaching Crysis in terms of graphics quality - maybe the delayed DirectX 10 version will deliver that - but it's certainly the most visually advanced MMORPG to date. The mountainous jungle scenery and sinister ruins around Tortage are beautifully rendered, with luxuriant vegetation, masses of textural detail and some lovely hazy light.
The characters, meanwhile, show a level of detail that goes beyond even Lord of the Rings Online. And like Turbine's Tolkien MMO, this has clearly been a labour of love for the art team, pulling in elements from Howard's stories, the Schwarzenegger movies, the Marvel comics and the classic Frank Frazetta book covers to create a world that will ring true to anyone who's come into contact with Conan before. This isn't one of the standard issue fantasy worlds we're used to. It's a place of brooding menace where you're positively encouraged to trust no-one and treat every conversational gambit with a certain degree of contempt.
Well, up to a point. The early parts of Age of Conan go quite big on conversation, but you rather get the feeling that, even if you play a hulking barbarian brute with scant regard for the niceties of good or evil, you're still getting pushed down the same adventure path. You're not restricted to following the storyline - you can wander around, make friends with other players and take on a range of traditional fetch-six-of-this, batter-nine-of-that side quests - but you will have to come back to it eventually.
The game actually has an ingenious system for switching you in and out. Go to the tavern and ask to wait until nightfall and you go into an individual single-player ‘instance' of the game where you go through the story quests one by one. Return to the tavern and snooze until daylight, and you'll find yourself back with your fellow Hyborian adventurers, and everything is back to normal.
It's worth keeping this in mind, because playing through the story quests I've hit several brick walls where my character simply wasn't beefy enough to take on the enemies in the next section. In some areas you can fight a war of attrition, taking your foes down one by one, resurrecting every time you are killed, but this isn't always possible. At times I was worried that I'd made the wrong choice when I picked a Bear Shaman is my character, and that I should really have played as a Barbarian or Conquerer if I'd wanted to get anywhere in the game.