And you can see how hard the developers have worked to make a massive multiplayer game function as a single player experience early on. After the initial introduction you can switch between a multiplayer world and an instanced, solo world at will, just by chatting to specific characters at the local pub. This opening section, based on and around the pirate island of Tortage, is practically an RPG in its own right. It helps you develop your character and builds up from its slightly clichéd beginning to turn into a proper tale of good vs evil (or at least selfish ambivalence vs evil) that connects to the wider Age of Conan story and sets you up for the game proper. In terms of the depth and freedom of the experience it’s no match for the likes of Neverwinter Nights or Oblivion. Nor is it always helped by an over-wordy script and conversations where your responses, whether vulgar or heroic, seem to make little real difference to your path. All the same, it’s a nice idea.
Yet, despite all this good stuff, I’ve found Age of Conan a rather frustrating experience at times. Some of this comes down to the way it’s structured. Remember how WoW and LOTRO both took you by the hand in the first dozen hours, with quests that subtly encouraged you to develop your skills and spread your wings? Your knowledge of the world expanded, and you felt encouraged to explore more and more. Before you knew it you were visiting mighty cities, delving into your first dungeons and beginning to grasp the sheer vast size of the game world. You felt you were at the start of something truly magnificent.
Age of Conan’s early focus on the smaller, more concentrated area around Tortage has a different effect. It makes its world feel smaller than it actually is. It’s not that the playable area is all that small – the city of Tortage acts as a hub, leading to various wilderness and dungeon zones – and you will soon find yourself exploring places like the creepy underhalls beneath the town, the ancient and evil ruins just outside or the spider-haunted coastal tunnels to the North. Meanwhile some areas turn out to be larger than you think, particularly once you really start exploring the White Sands Isles off the coast. Nonetheless, Age of Conan doesn’t start off feeling all that huge. If you’ve ever read the books and dreamt of visiting Zamora or battling Picts along the Black River, then you’ll just have to wait until you’ve explored every nook and cranny around Tortage before you get the chance. Some might find this stymieing.