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?