It doesn't help that many of the foes early on seemed hell-bent on dropping weapons that my character couldn't use, leaving me an hour into the game still wielding the broken oar that I'd been washed up with on the beach. Then, however, I discovered that sticking doggedly to the adventure path was not the most effective way to play the game. It's faster and more enjoyable to go back to the daylight, take a few side quests, returning to the tough spot when you're more experienced. Is this grinding? A little, but when the combat's this good I can take a little grind.
The fact that I didn't realise you could do this brings me to one of my few real niggles with the game. While it includes online help and a text-based tutorial in the initial stages, it's just not as good at explaining its mechanics as, say, Guild Wars: Factions, LOTRO or World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade.
I'm guessing that Funcom believed that many players would be coming from existing MMOs, but I was left feeling from time to time that something could have been explained better (or just explained) or that it was annoying that I had to (shock) stop and (horror) look at the manual before I could work out what I had to do next.
The mini-map and quest-tracking facilities are good, but not as good as those in LOTRO, and the game doesn't bend over backwards to save you from effort or boredom in the way that Tabula Rasa or Pirates of the Burning Seas did. It's still a reasonable first step for MMO virgins, but other games have felt more accessible right from the start.
All the same, I'm enjoying Age of Conan so far. Its atmosphere, its more real-time combat and its refreshingly straightforward attitude to sex and violence (though I'm not sure all female players will appreciate the numbers of scantily clad babes in town) really do set it apart from other MMOs on the market.
The real questions lie over its long-term future. Is it so combat heavy that it risks turning into a grind? Are its crafting, economy and community features (so far practically unseen) good enough to hold players in for the long haul, or could it turn into the ultimate meathead MMO? Can it maintain its momentum once it leaves its early narrative behind for more open exploration? I'm planning to find out these things and report back.