****Credits to Cody Bye****
When novelist Robert E. Howard first conceived of Conan the Barbarian in early 1932, he could not have imagined the impact the muscle-bound conqueror would have on the world. Novels, short stories, comic books, feature films, television shows, and video games have all been spawned out of the world that Howard first created, one that is eerily similar to our own and yet maintains an element of the fantastic that few authors have emulated. The world of Conan is a dark, gritty place, and fans of Howard’s works have been exploring that place for years.
The day that the developers at Funcom announced that they were creating an MMOG based on Howard’s creation was a day of rejoicing for many Conan aficionados. The fans were finally going to have an opportunity to explore the world that had been only seen in their imaginations, and it would occur in a game called Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. Yet years passed by and the developers at Funcom continued to promise those same fans that their world was coming. It simply was going to take more time than expected. The steadfast remained beside the Norwegian-based developers through thick and thin, until the eventual day came when Age of Conan was released upon gamers everywhere.
The developers behind Age of Conan wanted to make a testament to Robert E. Howard's original writings.
On May 20, 2008, the world of Hyboria emerged before the eyes of thousands of eager gamers who were ready to take the plunge into that bloody landscape. But as many MMOGs are prone to bugs and other issues, so was Age of Conan. Although a number of reviewers were quick to heap praise and accolades upon the game, many gamers were experiencing a variety of bugs and unexplained bans. While some players enjoyed smooth, glitchless gameplay; others were beat down by constant graphical issues.
At Ten Ton Hammer, we have a policy to give newly released MMORPGs several weeks to reach a comfortable place in their gameplay state. Although games should be fairly polished when they are initially released, most MMOGs still encounter some growing pains once they are able to nab game data from thousands of players. On top to of that, few MMORPGs can really be experienced within the first week of gameplay, and we wanted to insure that we had at least encountered up to 40 levels of experiences before weighing in on Funcom’s MMORPG.
While this review does not attempt to place any sort of scoring on the end-game raiding, sieging, or PvP elements in Age of Conan (Editor’s Note: That’s an article for another day), we do hope that we can offer gamers who were still sitting on the fence about this MMOG some answers regarding the current state of the game and whether or not they’ll have fun roaming around the world of Hyboria. Since we’ve published multiple looks at the initial experience in Age of Conan, this review will offer a more comprehensive look at Age of Conan and what gamers can expect in their travels through Hyboria.
Battling Your Worst Nightmares
Due to their very nature, most of the gameplay in MMOGs focuses around combat. The rise of massively multiplayer games has been centered on this idea, and millions of players have logged in to MMOGs simply to continue to explore the ever-growing intricacies of their favorite game’s combat system. Starting with the graphics-based MMOGs, combat has become the ever-present factor in our MMOG play sessions.
Unlike many MMORPGs, Age of Conan uses a combat system that is giant step away from the combat many players grew used too in EverQuest and World of Warcraft. Rather than simply have players hit their auto-attack buttons and shoot off spells and abilities as their cool down timers wear off, Age of Conan has players actively engage in combat using their “directional keys” which fall unto the “1-2-3” buttons on a keyboard. Along with the direction keys, the AoC developers also created multi-movement combos for players to use as part of their combat encounters. For example, my Conqueror can use the combo “Feint Attack” that calls for the player to make an upward attack and a right directional key attack. Once those two keys have been pressed, my Conqueror would break through the defenses of his combatant, leaving my enemy wide open for my slashing attacks.
Combat in Age of Conan is definitely one of the key elements of the game.
While combo systems aren’t entirely new, the idea of using the directional attacks in conjunction with shield indicators that appear on every enemy in the game is a novel concept. Though the shield indicators may appear clunky to some, they certainly force the player to be more involved with the combat process. Rather than simply sitting back and spamming one hot key over and over again, players are now forced to examine their enemies to see which combo would truly be the most efficient at dealing damage to the enemy.
For me, the combat system is probably the best part of Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. Although some players have argued that the melee combat in the game can become monotonous, I have yet to experience any sort of discomfort from swinging my sword in a variety of directions. The variety of player character combos does diminish quite dramatically after level 20, but even with that in mind the combat still retains a fascinating sort of interactivity that really isn’t a part of any other MMORPG. When you combine the hands-on nature of the combat with fatalities that are as gratuitously violent as anything from Mortal Kombat, you create a system that is absolutely action-packed and dramatic to boot.
The counter-point to this argument is the fact that most spellcasters still retain many of the trappings that are part and parcel to the old style of MMOG combat. Many of the “pure” spellcasters, like the Priest of Mitra, Demonologist, and Tempest of Set, still wage war using the standard hot key method. Though the developers at Funcom have stated that this occurred on purpose, I was still slightly disappointed that the pure casters didn’t have the amazing assortment of fascinating combos that were available to the horde of melee classes in the game. That said, I’m sure that plenty of gamers appreciated the fact that some of the old MMORPG flavor still existed – at least in some part – in Age of Conan.
Frankly, most of the character classes in the game have quite a bit of flavor and flair; their own uniqueness that brings a sense of individuality to each player. Although some players argued that this wasn’t the case at the time of release, as the weeks progress more patches continue to bring more unique options to the character classes. As an example of this, one of the classes that players were most concerned with – the Necromancer – has received a large dose of love from the Funcom developers, giving them more pet options to choose from and making them a true pet-based AoC class.
Along with the patches, the feat trees that are available to AoC players bring a certain sense of individualism to each class as well. Each feat tree is filled with a variety of different options to choose from when you spec a character, and I’d imagine that Funcom will continue to hone the classes until each brings with it a particular feel to the AoC gaming experience. My Brute-based Conqueror certainly plays differently from his Carnage counterpart, and even more distinctly from the 2H or 1H based Barbarians in the game.
At the time that this review was written, a large number of the classes were still undergoing their own “revamps” from the AoC developers, and I’m sure the character class patches will continue on into the future. In a few more months the drastic changes should be leveled off and players should hopefully have a “stable” class by that time.
Delving into Dungeons
Another one of the more solid features in Age of Conan has been the dungeon experience. Despite the unfortunate lack of group-based dungeons throughout the earlier levels in the game, the group and instanced dungeons that do exist are quite entertaining to play through.
The beginning of the game, during your time spent in Tortage, you’ll encounter some of the most entertaining solo-based dungeons in your first 40 levels of AoC. With its story-based interactive play and key objectives to go find, the Tortage dungeons are fantastic and truly an enjoyable experience to play through. Unfortunately, the quality does slip a bit as a player ventures out of the island city, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the instanced dungeons are sub-par.
Dungeons in Age of Conan feature a variety of gruesome monsters.
Quite the contrary, anytime I could venture into an instanced dungeon space on my own, I took the leap and really found some entertaining adventures to enjoy. The team at Funcom is working hard to integrate more content into the game, especially story-driven quests like what was experienced on Tortage, but at this point the land outside of Tortage simply feels less interactive than what was going on with the bustling new player city. If Funcom can continue to build on their solid dungeon foundation, they’ll continue to attract players, but at this point there simply isn’t all that many to enjoy.
However, once a player reaches level 37, all of those problems come to a quick and epic end. Upon hitting that magical number, players will be tossed into the Sanctum of the Burning Souls, a group-based combat dungeon filled with tough monsters and epic bosses. As Ten Ton Hammer’s editor-in-chief John Hoskin voiced, this group-based dungeon is really an exciting and refreshing experience after having a number of levels where quest-grinding was the only way to advance. Exploring through the Sanctum also gives players the opportunity to finally find interesting loot, and I’ll explain the lack of loot progression in the outside realm in my next section.
In essence, the Sanctum of the Burning Souls is an encounter that should be seen through every level section within Age of Conan. Low level dungeons are a great way for players to really get a feel for the group-based encounter, and if there aren’t enough of these areas within a game new players simply won’t know how to jump into these situations once they reach the harder encounters.
Being Social in a Social World
Speaking of group content, it’s important to mention a few things about Age of Conan’s grouping mechanics. With combat being one of the more important aspects of Age of Conan, it makes sense that group-based combat would also make up an important section of the developers mind set, and players will find a number of features that make AoC stand out from their competition.
One of the more interesting features you’ll find in AoC’s group encounters is the “passive” group buffs that occur only when a player is grouped in a combat situation. For many of the character classes in AoC, certain group situations will proc certain group-based abilities to activate. For example, the Conqueror has a fantastic group ability called “Furious Inspiration.” If this ability procs when the Conqueror is in combat, the Conqueror may automatically resurrect one of his fallen allies and allow them to rejoin the battle. The Barbarian – on the other hand – gets a bonus whenever he groups up with other Barbarians, utilizing the ability “Rampaging Horde” (which is documented in our class interview). Each class has one of these buffs along with his or her standard buff abilities.
Grouping in Age of Conan is terrific once you find your group.
However, my experience in finding a group proved to be one of the most difficult aspects of my experience in Age of Conan. Like most MMOGs, finding a group can often be a difficult proposition, but the tools in Age of Conan really don’t make it any easier. Funcom has stated that they are working on many of the functionalities of grouping and guilding, but overall the toolset is rather lackluster. Along with the fact that finding a group isn’t the easiest proposition, the game is also based on an instancing sort of system, so even if you find a group you often have to switch instances in order to actually be in the same area as your teammates. Couple that with the mini-map often not working to display all of the groupmates, and you have yourself a sticky situation.
Creating a solid grouping toolset needs to be one of the top priorities at Funcom, and essentially all of the social function within Age of Conan need a major overhaul. Each patch may bring in some more useful features for socializing within Age of Conan, but things need to continue to improve if there’s ever going to be a cohesive hierarchy of well-communicating guilds within the top echelons of the game.
From the moment I stepped into Age of Conan, I knew that the chat functionality was going to be lackluster. At the beginning of release, the social mechanics within the game were the number one issue for many of the players. The chat going on within your UI was often hard to read, and you’d often need to reset your channel settings every time you entered a new zone. A number of these problems have been fixed, but the general social UI needs continued work. Social players are often the foundation of any MMOG, and Funcom needs to insure that those players are around to tell the world what they think of AoC.
Crafting Your Keep
Crafting is something that needs a bit of improvement in AoC.
When any major MMOG is released in the modern era, guilds are often concerned about two things: leveling up their members and creating any piece of equipment that’s going to assist them in the long run. Thus crafting plays a fairly important role in an MMOGs early development. While the crafting system in AoC was in place when the game first started – mostly designed around the building and creation of guild cities – the players aren’t actually allowed to begin crafting until level 40. Once players hit 40, they can begin developing their crafting skills, going through the various crafting “quests” and eventually being able to help craft whatever their guild needs.
In the estimation of this reviewer, introducing crafting at level 40 is a bit high for most players. With the second destiny quest and a number of other special options being unlockable at level 30, it seems like 30 might be a more appropriate number for crafters to begin their work without forcing them to level up for two weeks (or more) to get to their crafting encounters.
Loot and Quests
One of the other major issues within Age of Conan – at least when this review was written – was the lackluster itemization of the standard areas within AoC and at the item vendors. As I journeyed throughout the world with my Cimmerian Conqueror, I was often stunned to find that I had very little to spend my money on when I would cash in my loot. Essentially I purchased a new set of armor and equipment at level 20 and a new set at level 30, but the levels in between were full of rather unoriginal loot that either looked exactly like the piece I was wearing/wielding before, or with just a slight alteration.
Although the weapons are often much more varied in their style and structure, the selection of items in the game needs to expand. Thankfully, a recent patch seems to have introduce better itemization within the game, but MMOG players are often never happy unless they have a whole treasure chest full of hats, boots, swords and staves to choose from. Monsters also need to have their loot tables increased to give players a chance to pick up some terrific armor or weapons off of their corpses. Luckily, the quests within Age of Conan do provide quite an assortment of armor and weapons for players to earn, if they’re willing to undertake the quest. Who wants to play an MMOG without the phat loot?
Most gamers love getting new equipment for their characters.
Even if the loot for a particular quest doesn’t necessarily match up with an item that your character might need, I would personally recommend pursuing almost all of the quests with Age of Conan. In all honesty, the writers and storytellers at Funcom have done a fantastic job creating a backstory for each of the quests that a player encounters within the game. From interacting with Kern in Connall’s Valley (who also happens to be the protagonist in the first few Age of Conan novels) to the sinister snake priests that slither around Stygia.
Despite the quests being beautifully written, I was a bit taken aback when I first journeyed from Tortage to the areas beyond the island stronghold. Unlike the NPCs within Tortage, a scant few of the non-player characters outside of Tortage will actually have professional a professional voice over. Funcom is hard at work incorporating voices into the most played through quests within the various provinces, but it remains doubtful whether the entire game will ever reach the fully voiced threshold.
Sound, Graphics and the Miscellaneous
It truly is a disappointment that Age of Conan probably won’t become fully voiced, because the sound quality of this particular title is astounding. While the voice acting may not always make total sense, the quality of their tone rings as true and lifelike as if they were standing beside you. Along with the voices in the game, the music and general sound quality within the areas of AoC is astounding.
Utilizing my THX-certified Logitech Z-5500 speakers combined with a Creative Audigy sound card, the 5.1 and music that emerged from the game was awe-inspiring. Using their Dolby Digital Pro Logic II technology, the Logitech speakers picked up every nuance within the sound environment, from the rushing rivers to creeping lava to ululating Pictish warriors. The sound effects from my own warrior thundered in a crescendo that often ended with the splatter of a foe’s brain matter across the ground.
The music and ambient sounds in Age of Conan immerse you in the game world.
Rarely have I experienced music that I truly enjoyed with an MMOG (even the EverQuest theme grew tiresome after awhile), yet the music within AoC was a testament to my ears. Whenever I would enter a new zone, I’d often turn up my speakers just to hear the crescendo of vocal lyrics and instrumental majesty. I can’t say enough about the sounds and music in AoC; the audio directors truly matched the auditory scenery with the world that Funcom created.
Just as the music sets players up to be immersed in a fantasy world, so too has the art direction for Age of Conan hit upon the perfect style to encapsulate Robert E. Howard’s tales of thick jungles and hard-edged northern wastelands. From the heads on pikes outside of the Connall’s Valley settlement to the gruesome monsters lurking within the Sanctum of the Burning Souls, each piece of Age of Conan seems to just add another chunk to the still forming puzzle.
In general, the views in Age of Conan are simply spectacular. No other MMOG can really compare to the level of fantastic realism that AoC displays, and few MMOG development studios would really try to emulate their work. That said, it would be safe to assume that Age of Conan has had a fairly large impact on the sales of graphics cards in the last few weeks. While most computers with an Nvidia 8800GT run the game perfectly, there are a few computing exceptions that have problems with Age of Conan far past what you would attribute to simple graphical slowdown. However, as I said in my first impressions I’m running Age of Conan on a fairly modest computer (2.2 Ghz Dual Core, 8800GT 512 MB, 2 GB RAM, and a decent sound card) without hiccups.
The graphics in AoC are beautiful.
While the graphics in AoC may be fairly upscale to look at, there are a number of graphical bugs that still exist within the game world. Many NPCs often have miscellaneous body parts appearing through their clothing (including some nipples), while other NPCs randomly have their eyes closed when you talk to them or hands that appear to big for their bodies. Of course, all of these things are small, but they only serve to break the level of immersion in the game for many MMOG players.
On the miscellaneous notes side of the coin, I’d like to also add a piece about the strange axis behaviors that seem to occur consistently within Age of Conan. While I may be walking around town, my character seems to “catch” on certain graphical tiles within in the game, forcing me to either jump around the foreign object or find some way around it. This may not seem like a big deal, unless you’re journeying with your party on auto-follow and look up to find yourself without a group and surrounded by vile creatures. Ouch.
Despite all of the qualms that I laid against Age of Conan, there are few MMOGs in the post-World of Warcraft era that have filled me with this much excitement and caused me to stay up into the wee hours of the morning in order to hit that next level. Each new area opens up a fantastic new adventure for me to journey through, and I get truly excited when I open up new options for my chosen class. Though the game still needs improvement, the developers at Funcom have created a true dedication to Robert E. Howard’s works. As Age of Conan's game director Gaute Godager described in his many writings, this game was a testament to Robert E. Howard’s writings. I expect that Howard himself would be proud of this epic adventure.