Age of Conan Review
It's been more than three and a half years since Blizzard unleashed World of Warcraft, and since then no other MMORPG has even come close in terms of popularity and lasting appeal. Many games have come and gone, some of which were decent efforts that simply weren't enough to topple the king, some of which were so bad they weren't worth bothering to play - even if they were free. The MMO veterans at Funcom released the somewhat well-received Anarchy Online seven years ago, and after a false start on another project, have been working on Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures for the last five years. Conan promises a realistic look along with all the spells, healing, and bashing of most fantasy games, but an M rating - the first for an MMO - is also included. This means cussing is allowed in chat, topless character models are fine, and blood and gore are common occurrences.
Age of Conan starts off players as a slave, a survivor of a crashed ship on the island of Tortage. Character creation gives you a good number of options, and three races and twelve classes are included, all of which is chosen right from the start. Tortage is full of danger and is under control of a madman and the priestess that gives him power. During your first twenty levels, players work with others and alone as a sort of extended tutorial to the game. When you leave Tortage at level 20 or so, the world opens up and your real adventures begin.
The lands of Aquilonia, Cimmeria, and Stygia are expansive and impressive, stretching out in fields and climbing up in huge mountains, with settlements and towns spotting the landscape. While there are plenty of fantasy elements here - evil shamans, shambling undead, magic bestowed by the gods, massive ancient ruins, supernatural beings - you won't find very many of the classic fantasy races here. It's pretty true to the Conan books, so there aren't any gnomes, dwarves, ogres, orcs, trolls, dragons, and the many stereotypical monsters that you might expect. The more realistic look, better graphics (with a steep increase in system requirements - more on that later), and change in fantasy landscape really does make a big difference. All of the players and most of the NPCs actually look like humans so you may find that your first impression may not catch you like World of Warcraft's infectious cartoon style did, but its grounding in a more believable fantasy world might be just as charming if you give it a while.
Combat in Age of Conan is very different than in some games. Here, melee attacks are not unleashed an auto attack key, and special moves are more complex. In this game, you press a button for every attack you make, and you can attack in three directions: left, center, right. (Later in the game, you get a down-left and a down-right attack as well.) Your special attacks are combos that you start, but then use your regular attacks to complete. So Ursine Brawl I for the Bear Shaman will require you to start it, then hit a left attack, then the right and you will finish it up with huge damage and a powerful animation. These combos can lead to fatality moves if you kill an enemy with them, and some are really brutal and satisfying to do. From severing limbs (and then heads) to crushing parts of the body to impressive impaling maneuvers, fatalities look very impressive - in the Conan beta they looked a little disjointed, but that's been fixed - and can really stave off boredom when you're taking out hordes of enemies with your buddies.
Healing is unique, as well, as the game allows healing classes to still contribute to much of the group's damage. Players are supported mostly with heal-over-time spells that are tossed on before or during a battle and can be quickly unleashed, and in the meantime these classes are quite capable of doing some powerful combos and casting some nasty spells. In fact, their healing often actually improves when they get in the fight. There are some more classic-style heals with cast times as well, but they are fired out generally in a frontal cone - this requires people to coordinate their positions, something that many games don't impose on healers. Still, this is an incredibly fun game for a healer, who gets to keep their group alive but still kill stuff at the same time. Generally, most everything in this game has at least some partial area effect to hit multiple enemies or friends with, and that goes for melee attacks, spells, heals, and buffs as well.
It makes for a much more action-oriented style of play, too. It's a totally unique experience in an MMO, quickly moving from camp to camp or room to room, smashing enemies' skulls and keeping your companions alive without having to stop constantly and watch a cast bar. Sure, playing damage-based casters like the Demonologist and Necromancer do feel a lot more like other MMOs than the other classes do, but they're more of an exception than a rule in Conan.
Most of the features you've come to expect out of an MMO, many of which are thanks to World of Warcraft, are working in Age of Conan. Mounts, quick travel, auction houses, banks, mailboxes, quest NPCs, journals, linking items in chat, maps (and these can be zoomed in on like Google Maps), and a ton of other stuff is included here. Interface mods are already available, although it remains to be seen how far modmakers can actually go to change the game - so far, it doesn't seem that mods with the complexity seen in World of Warcraft are possible here.
There is a mix of different kinds of instancing in Conan, but for most of the game you will be fighting alongside people you may not have chosen to do so with. Unlike what you might be used to, not every combat-heavy zone is instanced just for the player and his or her group (although most indoor dungeons are), and while that may turn some off, the quest system and spawn rates generally make it less of a hassle than you might think - this is not like sitting idly in camps of monsters, slowly droning out the experience points back in EverQuest.
Eventually, there is an endgame in Age of Conan, and it involves casters summoning up huge powers, players building their own cities, a few raid zones, and then, well, we're not sure. Funcom's philosophy seems to be to have a little bit of everything, pull from every MMO that had something cool in it. So eventually players will be doing raids, while on a PvP server there's open combat where players are destroying each other's cities built with their own hard-earned gold and materials they gathered. Time will tell if these elements really are good, and while I could wait for months to get this review to you and tell you whether they are good or not, it's better to talk about the rest of the game now and leave the endgame as a big question mark. General impressions from beta were that Funcom hasn't spent as much time on these later elements as they probably could have, but while players are leveling right now and the average Early Access player is still around level 25 to 35, Funcom still has time to get any finishing touches in.
One regression with Age of Conan is that it's broken up into zones rather than being one continuous world like many games are nowadays. For some that's a deal-breaker but so far, I haven't really missed it because having each adventure area as a separate zone gives us some nice perks. For example, travel between zones is usually with a stagecoach or boat captain, and is instant (minus the load times) and doesn't cost any money. But also, outdoor adventuring zones are instanced, which is handy if one is overcrowded or has too many annoying people in it. Finally, there are both Normal and Epic versions of many outdoor zones (For any WoW players, that'd be like a Heroic version of Eastern Plaguelands or something), allowing more powerful groups to get a better challenge out of an area. Sure, the continuity of the world is broken up with this system, but the zones are still very large and the developers have given us compelling reasons why this system could be just as good as a continuous world.
And another element that I'm very impressed with is Funcom's release and development schedule. During the beta PvP weekend back in March, I was ready to give up on the game. It was certainly impressive, what little there was for us to try, but the game's performance was horrible and it really killed a lot of the potential fun for me. To my surprise, all of these issues were cleared up in beta and the game performed well even on mid-range hardware almost overnight, and the fun aspects of the game, which were already there, started to shine though. And since then, we've had many new patches and releases on a tight, swift schedule. The patch notes have been pretty complete, and few new bugs have been introduced even with the blitzkrieg patching style. The only exception to this is the Trader NPCs, which work as both a banker and the Auction House, which have been broken almost the whole time since release. That aside, overall the programmers behind Age of Conan seem to be very talented, and it's that technical talent that many MMO games could have really seen improvement with.
Just because you can run WoW at 25fps, though, doesn't mean you'll necessarily be jumping for joy in Conan. The system requirements are about as brutal as a two-handed mace crushing a skull into little bits, or at least it might seem like that on your three-year-old laptop or $500 budget PC. Just about any CPU that's either dual-core or the equivalent of 3GHz or better should be fine, and while 1GB RAM is the official minimum, I'd consider 2GB to be a much better starting point - and if you're running Vista, consider 2GB the flat-out minimum. Once the CPU and RAM are at a decent level then a solid video card is the biggest measure of the game's performance, especially if you start turning up draw distances, screen resolution, antialiasing, and more in the game's Video Options. The requirements list an Nvidia 7950 GTX under its recommended system, but I'd say that's closer to being a bit above a good minimum. If you're trying to play at high resolutions with the detail set to High, don't even show up without an 8800-level card.
But once you get that together, you will know where that upgrade money went. Conan has fantastic textures and plenty of great art, with sprawling cities and interesting NPCs (many of which have decent and/or amusing voice acting attached). It also comes at a cost of hard drive space as well, though: Age of Conan is almost 25GB fully installed. But that's miles and miles of high quality textures all over everything, and as long as you have the machine to be able to see it all, you'll be duly impressed with how the game looks.
The launch so far has gone together pretty well, too. With the lightning patch speed and decent servers to send out the rather large updates (I've seen 700MB come down in one sitting), I found myself doing a lot more playing than sitting and waiting or loading, even when the servers first went up for Early Access people on May 17th. The US retail launch on the 20th added a significant player load to the game, but the developers have handled it well and the game has done admirably since. Age of Conan has sold likely in excess of one million copies (there were 700,000 pre-orders worldwide) by now, and the servers are handling it fine. Some of the overcrowded servers have a queue time of a few minutes when upon login, but most of them have no queues at all during prime time. As of this writing, the European launch just happened with its own new set of servers going up, and while I can't speak to how well it's going over there, it's still doing fine in the US.
Age of Conan serves up satisfying action and a style all its own in an MMORPG package that's hard to resist - as long as you meet the system requirements, that is. It won't put WoW out of business, but then again, nothing will for a long time, and that doesn't mean this isn't a great game with tons of appeal and a hopefully more mature audience. The future is always uncertain for any game going head-to-head against a Blizzard title, butFuncom has put forth the best effort yet and they deserve any amount of success they can carve for themselves.