Age of Conan: The Drums of War Have Sounded!

June 26, 2008


After a series of successful jaunts in books, movies, and comics, it was only a matter of time until Conan, a man of legend and loincloths, would eventually extend his bronzed and muscled grip into the flabby and pasty dominion of massively multiplayer online videogames. That time is now.

Funcom’s Age of Conan, a new MMORPG entrenched in the life and lore of everyone’s favorite barbarian, has been buzzing around the ears of eager gamers since of E3 2005. Now with 2008 upon us, the world of Hyboria has finally opened its doors and an exciting new realm lies in wait. The drums of war have sounded, but who will heed the call?

As a denizen from one of the three Hyborian nations, you’ll find a spread of diverse character classes to take up arms with in the game. Stout melee classes like the Conquerer and Barbarian can be championed by the Cimmerians and Aquilonians while the joys of summoning demons and setting people on fire are reserved for the Stygians.

Character classes in Age of Conan retain the usual roles in group and solo play, be it tanking mobs in PvE, disabling players in PvP, or healing in both. But players shouldn’t worry about being shoehorned into particular roles. The balance in the game is fair enough that soloing content and holding your own in a fight is possible for just about every class. So if you’re thinking about jumping that seemingly helpless healer who’s only a few levels higher than you, think twice. Things may not end well for you.

Speaking of player on player violence, expect plenty of it -- but not necessarily in the right places. You won’t find any trouble getting into fights out in the open but getting into an organized PvP match results in some pretty long queue times. With only team deathmatch and capture the flag setups presently available, organized PvP is a surprisingly under-supported facet of the game, though additional content like PvP ranks and gear is expected to arrive in future content patches.

The leveling curve has brisker pace compared to most MMOs, and the grind is counterbalanced by thoughtful touches to quest design and user interface. Quests which typically boil down to “kill this” or “collect that” appear in efficiently-spaced clusters within the same area for optimal leveling. The in-game map gives out a rough approximation of proper leveling areas while positional markers and waypoints lead the way towards quest objectives and new areas to explore.

The world itself is vast and well-populated by the creatures and lore of Robert E. Howard’s novels. Snarling wolves and lumbering trolls dot the countryside of Conan’s homeland while pagan sorcerers and demonic beasts prowl through the many dungeons and caverns located below. On the long road to level 80 there’ll be plenty of instances to get your feet wet with endgame raids at the top of the hill. Once you’ve amassed enough riches, players and guilds can opt to invest in manmade cities with a plethora of NPCs, trade posts, and workshops to make your digital home life easier -- in theory, anyway. None of the perks for having pimped out keeps are fully implemented, so players will have to wait a bit longer to reap the rewards of their architectural efforts.

Going along with the lack of functioning guild cities is the absence of siege warfare, the expected PvP endgame. You can’t do it yet, but eventually guilds situated in the Border Kingdoms will be free to make war and ransack each other’s cities for resources and wealth.

Players definitely won’t be disappointed with the polish that Age of Conan puts into the leveling arc, but the endgame is still an unfinished product. As with most MMOs, content patches and updates are sure to alleviate many of the problems and concerns surrounding Age of Conan’s present shortcomings, but as it stands the game is still a work of progress -- and one that’ll cost you a monthly fee to boot.

The murky swamps and icy terraces of Hyboria definitely set the stage for a bold new world ready to be explored, but the nitty gritties of the system holding it in place are more familiar. Speccing your character’s talents, getting a mount at 40, queuing up for PvP…it all bears a passing resemblance to a certain other MMO known for crafting wars. But for all of the features that Age of Conan borrows, its robust active combat system is the defining trait that sets it apart from the rest of the bunch.

You’ll find no auto-attack toggle here. Every swing and slice from your character is done manually through up to five directional attacks bound on your keyboard. The effectiveness of attacks is based on position, so gouging your enemies on their undefended sides will yield a lot more damage than wailing dead center on their shields. The collision detection isn’t perfect, but the game is smart enough to pick up on glancing attacks and latency differences as well as area effect damage from large sweeps of two-hander weapons.

Speaking of shields, defense plays a role in the game’s active combat scheme as well. You can re-assign your own positional shields as you see fit and even throw up your arms up in defense with the guard key.

As you lay waste to your foes, you’ll eventually come across combos, Age of Conan’s equivalent to special skills and abilities. Once a combo’s initiated, a series of directional inputs will appear onscreen where you’ll have to hit each one for the special effect of the combo to activate.

Mystics like the Priest of Mitra, on the other hand, have a more traditional single-button approach to casting magic, though they’ll still find plenty to do in juggling various spell types like heals, nukes, stuns, snares, debuffs, and so on.

The crowning aspect of Age of Conan’s combat is the ever-popular fatality: a bone shattering, screen splattering coup de grace performed at random by finishing off hapless victims with a combo. Fatalities are certainly one of Conan’s more indulgent features but they have some utility as well -- you receive a temporary boost to attack power and regeneration after the deed is done.

Mechanically speaking, Age of Conan’s active combat system provides a progressive approach to melee fighting in online RPGs, though this is offset somewhat by a lack of PvP features to support it. Still, the combat you do out of the game is genuinely enjoyable and a good change of pace from other MMOs.

Age of Conan’s hefty thirty gigabyte install is no joke, but neither are the graphics. You’re going to need a reasonably good graphics card and a fistful of ram to run the game on medium to high settings, but with the right set-up you’ll be treated to some pretty impressive visuals.

Benefiting from the game’s graphical ambitions is the character customization, which makes full use of the polygons it’s pushing with sliders that allow players to fully detail your muscular man-cake or buxom babe of an avatar to your heart and pants’ content.

The game’s expansive environments also enjoy a similar care to detail with primal jungles, monolithic cityscapes, and frozen wildernesses befitting of the low fantasy aesthetic of the Conan universe.

The soundtrack’s collection of leitmotifs and themes is always there to punctuate every change in scenery. Influenced by an eclectic pool of international sounds and styles, Age of Conan’s rousing scores and harrowing battle themes instill a sense of order and decadence in the otherwise barbaric landscape.

With style, substance, and attitude under its +4 strength leather belt, Age of Conan may have a ways to go before entering an age of refinement, but when that time comes it’ll no doubt find its place as an online world power. Only time will tell whether or not Funcom can chip away at the glacial foothold Blizzard has in the MMO market, but you can bet on Conan and his motley crew will be hacking and slashing every inch of the way.