Age of Conan

Crickets start chirping as night falls, making it difficult to spot the Varin invaders crawling over the hills around you. Having just taken out a key camp, you feel elated, but know that the journey back to the Cimmerian stronghold is going to be a harsh one – particularly as you’ve used up all your potions and there are at least a hundred warriors and sorcerers scouring the landscape looking for your head to stick on a pole.

On the plus side, killing the enemy commander is worth a sizable bag of money, and there’s plenty of slaughter still to perform before morning, and your companions are clearly itching for more. Time to start the blood flowing…

This is Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (AoC) the first MMORPG in recent memory to stand a chance of survival in these post World of Warcraft times. Initial take up has been impressive too, with Funcom quickly selling out of the special edition, while chalking up 400,000 subscriptions at the same time. AoC has timing in its favor: with WOW treading water until its next expansion and while WoW: Wrath of the Lich King is delayed, there are a few months of opportunity for AoC to capture an eager audience and make them its own. AoC is also a chance for fans of single-player RPGs to get online and see how good playing with others can be.

AoC has plenty to recommend itself: the combat system is probably the biggest draw. Eschewing the automatic attacks of its peers in favor of an interactive scheme, you need to pay much more attention here, or you’ll be dead before the mob falls. If your enemy blocks in a set direction, then you need to switch your attack, or if other attackers join the fray, then you need to adjust your playing style. This is kept all the more interesting by the combos that melee and ranged classes can execute: attacking in a variety of directions to pull off massive hits. It works extremely well and makes combat less of a grind-fest – useful when you’re called to sprawling dungeons when your quest log is light.

Completing quests rewards the largest amount of XR and is thus the focus for leveling your character through the 80 levels. The quests themselves are comprised of the usual collection, kill, escort and messenger, but thanks to quality story telling and interesting characters, it feels novel enough to keep you interested. Your character’s main quest arc (outlining your destiny), and all the quests in the starting zones are voiced too, adding to the atmosphere further, and it’s a shame that this stops once you hit 20.

Conan’s log

Your quest log’s map shows you where you should be investigating; goals are shown on the minimap and main maps as well. Spot a goal close to your current location, and you can double-click it to make it your focus so you can easily see what you need to be doing in the area. Some of the kill quests are a little on the large side, but drop rates are refreshingly high, which means that you don’t have to annihilate a whole species just to make someone a new cloak.

Character creations are reassuringly detailed, covering everything from the gender, race and class through to the width of noses and roundness of stomach. Female appearances tend to flirt with the RuPaul idea of femininity, but the men are more recognizably macho, particularly the Cimmerian barbarians. The twelve classes ostensibly adhere to standard archetypes, but in reality are much more versatile on their own – healers can handle themselves in hand to hand combat, while mage classes can swing two-handed swords.

Feat points earned at each level improve your abilities and spells, or open up new ones in exactly the same way as WoWs Talent system, providing character customization to enable you to perform specific roles – subtleties that dictate whether you succeed or fail in PVR leveling or dungeon running. Having 80 levels means plenty of scope for trying out different builds, and resetting your Feats is thankfully easy to do.

AoC does have a few problems; but most are small glitches that have little impact and can be put down to launch teething problems. Class balancing needs work, particularly in terms of FVR but these should be easy enough for Funcom to work in without breaking the PvE game and with the likes of WoW still tweaking classes years after release, this is part and parcel of the MMO genre.

Even so, being corpse-camped by someone you don’t even see can be frustrating so joining guilds and forming allegiances is the only way to survive if you’re going to venture onto the PvP servers. The lack of finesse in combat is a little worrying though. Regardless of group make-up, fights are reduced to every man/large busted lady for themselves brawls, rather than well-orchestrated fights. By the time enough players hit the big 80, there should be improvements to the interface to make this all run smoother – and it’s certainly not unworkable as it stands, just ham fisted.

New players won’t have a hard time picking up the interface or play style. And with enough interesting ideas present to feel fresh and new, along with its wonderful looks, AoC is the most important MMO release in recent memory.

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