- Review Price: £24.99
If Age of Conan has proved anything, it’s that a new MMO launch doesn’t have to end in misery and disappointment. While other publishers are cancelling MMOs left, right and centre, usually citing the way World of Warcraft has killed off competition or saturated the market, Funcom and Eidos just got on with things and quietly produced the most successful PC title of the year so far. Having topped the charts in Germany in Sweden and signed up 400,000 players in the first week, Age of Conan is still a long way away from achieving WoW levels of success, but it’s certainly no Vanguard or Tabula Rasa. Technically, things have run relatively smoothly, and the product feels polished and exciting. The overall buzz is good.
Nearly all the stuff I said in my first impressions piece still stands several hours of play later. Leaning towards the pulp thrills of heroic fantasy rather than the epic sagas of Tolkienesque high fantasy, Age of Conan is a very different experience than Lord of the Rings Online or WoW. It’s fast paced, moody and brutally violent. It’s also characterised by a slightly adolescent approach to sexuality (it’s rare to find a woman who isn’t scantily clad, and there’s a lot more innuendo than in your average fantasy game), but then you might consider that a selling point. It has the finest graphics of any MMO of this generation, and the character modelling is some of the best I’ve seen in any RPG of any type. At times, as your hulking barbarian races through the jungle or weaves his way through crumbling ruins, Age of Conan comes close to matching any vision you have of what a Conan MMO might look like.
What’s more, Age of Conan’s combat system, which combines real-time responses and proper proximity detection with the traditional skills-based attacks of regular MMOs, is innovative, deep and highly engaging. Despite the handicap of having no non-human races to play with, the selection of characters offers some genuinely rich and interesting choices, and anyone who has ever wanted to play as an axe-wielding Barbarian or eldritch sorcerer will find something to scratch that itch. Best of all, the game feels imbued with the essense of the Conan stories. The action is fast and furious and the atmosphere frequently potent. From the attention that has gone into the exotic architecture and lush jungle vegetation to the sweeping music, with its subtle echoes of the legendary Basil Polisouris score for the first Conan film, Age of Conan hits all the right marks.
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.
It also has to be said that quest design is not a consistent strength. Even the Tortage story missions have their weak points, but switch out to the multiplayer quests and you’ll find an awful lot of uninspired ‘gather venom from twenty dead snakes and twenty dead scorpions’ stuff, not to mention quests that come down to nothing more than killing 30 picts or 50 Red Hand guards. Compare this to some of the excellent, multi-staged quests we saw in World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade or LOTRO – quests that were instantly engaging yet worked constantly to further the plot and deepen your interest in the world – and Conan suddenly feels formulaic. Is this the next-generation MMO we all expected? Are paths and chambers peppered with enemies who simply stand around until you enter their alert zone still all we can expect over three years after WoW?
And those ‘kill 20 picts’ quests are a sure sign of something else: as it goes on, Age of Conan turns into a bit of a grind. This was always going to be a risk in such a combat heavy game, but once I got my Cimmerian Bear Shaman past level 12 or so I regularly found myself entrenched in constant and repetitive combat against a series of slightly dull foes. I’d hit a brick wall in the single player story, switch to the multiplayer quests, then basically spend a few hours levelling just so I could push through to the next stage. Maybe I haven’t quite grasped the intricacies of the combat system, or maybe I’d have had better luck playing as a more aggressive fighter type, but getting swamped by numerous or excessively difficult enemies isn’t fun. At times you will face a difficult choice: do you try and grind away at the numbers by killing who you can then respawning, returning and killing more, or do you go away and do some different grind-heavy missions until you level up? The game helps here by colour coding quests in your quest journal according to your chances of managing them, but when even the green quests can end up with you wiped out because the designers insisted on putting two level 14 gits on every second bridge, then Age of Conan feels like hard work.
Maybe the designers could have found more creative choices than just fight, fight and fight. If you’ve read the stories or even seen the movies, you’ll know that Conan triumphs not just because he’s good in a scrap, but because he’s sneaky and inventive. In Age of Conan (so far) there’s very little opportunity to be either. You can develop hiding skills and use them to creep past guards on occasion, but most of the time the only way to get through is to wander towards your foes, engage their attention, beat the living tar out of them, then move on. As in any MMO, combat is more enjoyable with a group involved and team tactics come into play, but wouldn’t it be great if Age of Conan let you play solo like, well, a little more like the Cimmerian chap himself?
While I’m moaning, I ought to advise you not to make the same mistake I did and play on a PvP server unless you want the added complication of trying to quest while the usual maladjusted halfwits strike at you in every entrance, respawn point and quest area. Not every area is open to PvP, but those that are can be a nightmare as you desperately try to collect 20 gems while a group of Level 20 morons – who surely must have something better to do in Hyboria by now – make your task nigh-impossible. At least the game takes a forgiving approach to death and resurrection. Penalties are fairly minor when you fall, and respawn points aren’t too few and far between.
I should also note that, with loading screens every time you move between areas, Age of Conan doesn’t quite give you the feeling of a coherent world that LOTRO or WoW does. In fact, with its heavy use of instancing, Age of Conan is closer in feel to Guild Wars. For some, this won’t be an issue. For others, it could be a deal breaker.
None of the above has spoilt my general good vibes about Age of Conan, but it has made me a bit more careful about who I’d recommend it to. At the moment, it feels like a great MMO for hardcore, combat-loving veterans, and I can imagine action game fans liking the game’s more visceral approach to combat, not to mention the magnificent visuals and strong atmosphere. That said, Age of Conan does not feel like a game for newbies, WoW socialites or more casual players, and I’d happily direct them back to WoW, LOTRO or even Guild Wars if they wanted a good time. Bear in mind, too, that this is just a snapshot. I still haven’t experimented much with the different character classes, vast swathes of Hyboria remain unexplored, and I’ve still yet to see how social interactions or PvP will work out in the long term.
Plus, I’m seeing good things here: despite the thugs and griefers, the game is already beginning to develop the sort of friendly, helpful community that’s a sure sign of an MMO going in the right direction. The world, its stories and the character progression will keep me coming back for more, and my main hope is that Age of Conan will get better as Hyboria opens up. After all, there are many strange lands left to see and fell beasts left to slay, not to mention mounts, PvP sieges and much, much more to enjoy. At the moment, I’d say Age of Conan was a good MMO with the potential to turn into a great one. I just hope that the grind doesn’t get me down before it does.
A stunning and satisfyingly visceral fantasy MMO, though one that will suit the hardcore veteran or the action gamer better than the new or more casual players who embraced LOTRO or WoW. Quest design could be stronger, and grinding and griefing can make the experience frustrating.
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