Age of Conan Open Beta Preview
The recent PvP beta weekend for Funcom's fantasy MMORPG Age of Conan has already spawned a preview from me, but now with a more complete beta underway, it's time for me to get writing again. This new beta opens up the introductory city of Tortage along with many surrounding areas dozens upon dozens of quests that get you through levels one to twenty. The level cap has been only 13 through most of the open beta, but the quests have stayed open so most players have been able to try most of Tortage's quests - in groups if need be.
In Age of Conan, you start out as a slave on a ship - this is character creation where you get a pretty good variety of face and body customizing options along with three races and twelve character classes. Mostly the three races all look human and only really differ in some facial features, and while that may seem limited, I think it's nice for a change having a game where everyone looks "normal". Gnomes and Trolls and Dwarves are fun, but let's not put them in every MMO - or even every fantasy MMO. The story begins as soon as you finish character creation, as the ship you're on crashes near an island and you're one of few survivors.
Much has been written in the past on Age of Conan's first twenty levels, but it's changed significantly since the developers first released info on it. Now, parts of the jungle island and the city of Tortage are done alone in a single player-like mode (although it's still served up by the game servers and chat functions work as they always do), while other parts can be done together with other players. Some of it is instanced, while other parts are dungeon-like areas where you will meet and interact with other players, even if you don't want to. While World of Warcraft is a fantastic game, all of its dungeons are run inside instances that are automatically private to the player and his teammates. Here, for better or worse you'll be sharing the action with other people. One nice part of this is that you don't have to put together a group before you go in; just find people once you're inside and start killing. It could be bad if you're on a free-for-all PvP server and want to be left alone, but well, if you're on a PvP server at all you should be ready for a fight at almost any time.
The good thing is that you won't need to group to finish all of Tortage's quests. Get a couple levels ahead of monsters and even the quests designed for groups will be doable. All characters are capable of soloing in Conan, too, because even healer-based classes are designed to do quite a bit of damage. Unlike in many games, healing in Conan is about putting heal-over-time spells on your buddies, then busting out spells to drop on your enemies. Sure, there are some instant heals, but they're situational and simply can't be relied upon to keep someone alive. This changes the whole focus of the game to basically out-bursting your opponents' damage, and it carries into the PvP as well as the monster-killing.
One thing I want to mention is that while Age of Conan has probably the most eclectic mix of zone types we've seen yet in a new MMO - instanced zones, single player action, the regular outdoor zones, PvP mini-game arenas, dungeons alongside other players not in your group, places for large siege combat, and raid zones - it doesn't seem likely that players get to choose their setting too well. On their way to level 80 and into the endgame, it's likely players will go through most of these zone types. We don't know what proportion of them we'll find throughout the game just yet, but so far, signs point to a pretty even mix.
Age of Conan gets rid of the traditional "auto-attack plus specials" melee system that has been going on since EverQuest. Instead, you must choose between a left, center, or right attack every time, and your special moves are actually combos that you activate and then perform with a sequence of regular attacks. It's a good system that adds a bit of action to the experience. Playing as a caster is pretty similar to other MMOs, though, so if you want to take advantage of the higher level of action that I'm sure will be advertised on Age of Conan's box box, don't play a caster. Otherwise, a feat system similar to World of Warcraft's talents and a pretty familiar interface will greet you. There are no stats in this game, however, and instead leveling will give you skill points you can put into things that WoW had as trade skills. There's climbing, the ability to regenerate mana or health faster, hiding and seeing hidden people, and quite a bit more. These changes are permanent, too, so it's important to choose wisely.
The system requirements and overall graphics definitely step up the pace and require more of your computer than most MMOs. The art style is generally realistic and the system requirements are fairly steep for an MMO game, but if you've got a machine that can handle Conan, you'll likely be happy with the visuals you wind up getting. The beta has previously suffered some crippling performance issues that left some gamers spending more time waiting for the game to respond than actually playing, but those issues have been mostly eliminated. The stuttering and hard drive thrashing is still there a little bit, but it's tolerable now and doesn't happen even a quarter as often as it did before.
Recently in the beta, players were moved to level 20 and we got to explore the home cities of the game's three major races. These cities are full of life, with excellent ambient sound that reminded me of Athkatla's multiple levels of atmosphere in Baldur's Gate 2. There are quite a few quests to do just inside the cities that get you oriented and teach you where major stuff is inside the walls. Funcom also enabled free-for-all PvP on all servers, and while it was frustrating to zone out of the city's safezone and get killed before even finishing loading, Funcom is already at work on a temporary invulnerability fix for the issue. So far, they've been pretty good at communicating with players and working out reasonable solutions to issues quickly. And once I was able to get away and then start doing fights against people, it was a lot of fun - chaotic, what with everyone trying to kill everyone else at once, sure, but it felt balanced without any one class being able to dominate everyone else.
One unique aspect of Age of Conan is that it was designed to be rated M from the start. The intent for this was to have only adults playing the game, and to give them more suggestive sexual themes and gore that fits the whole Conan universe better. I'm not sure that this will keep the young teenagers away, but the game certainly does deliver on the more adult themes. And you can perform fatalities with your combos as a melee-based character and even decapitate them while blood splashes onto the "camera", but don't expect these to look terribly impressive when compared to console action games like, say, chainsawing someone in Gears of War or anything. Fatalities are interesting in that doing them gives temporary combat bonuses to you and your group, but visually they're a little disjointed and not as satisfying to see as I had hoped.
PvP is going to be a bigger focus for Conan than many games have had, and the eventual culmination of it all will be open siege warfare between warring guilds. The basics of building your own cities wall by wall has been seen in videos, but few have seen how it all works and how large battles will go. PvP gamers are giving this one a serious shot on the free-for-all PvP server(s) that the game will launch with, though, as the next best choice is the five-year-old Shadowbane which, while free, stagnates horribly with only a couple of developers that can't keep up with the high level of play. Hopefully, Funcom is able to keep up with the PvP gamers and address their issues in a way that doesn't interfere with the rest of the game.
It's hard for me to say whether Age of Conan is the next good MMO game, as it's a tough call, but I think it's about as close as we could get to it being that. It's already got a number of drawbacks along with relatively steep system requirements for an MMO and a difficult set of bugs (including the odd crash here and there), but few MMOs have launched in much better condition. I will say that playing this game is a hell of a lot of fun, something that Vanguard was missing, and it should be a good choice should you decide to get all your guildies together and give the game a shot. It doesn't have the polish of World of Warcraft had at its launch and certainly doesn't compared to WoW today, but for those of us who have been playing Blizzard's behemoth since its launch, we won't mind a game that's a little buggy if it offers something truly new. Age of Conan launches on May 20, but those who pre-order can download the client early by registering their pre-order code with Funcom and start playing on the 17th.