|Title||Age of Conan|
|Kelly Score ™||95 / 100|
I’ve been playing massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) more or less since the genre got its name: about 1996. In that time I’ve played at least ten different games of this type: I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the horrendous. And I’m aware that MMOGs face a tremendous challenge beyond just the initial appeal of the first few weeks of play: they have to somehow capture and hold the players attention for years. And when those years have passed, it is nearly invariable that even the best game will end up being remembered by its flaws and disappointments rather than its strengths.
Thus it is that any review of a MMOG is purely a “point in time” perspective. And at this point in time, after about two weeks of play, I can say that Age of Conan is a brilliant game. I can not remember a MMOG that, from day one of its launch, performed so well or impressed me so much.
I won’t spend pages and pages explaining what a massively multiplayer game is in general terms- I’m going to assume the reader understands the general concepts. In Age of Conan (AoC), like all of these games, you start by creating your character. Your choice is limited to three races of human: if there is one disappointment in the game for me, this is it- I’d like to have more variety. However, you do have tremendous flexibility in terms of creating the look of your character. Each physical attribute is accompanied by some preset values, but you can also click on an “advanced” setting and experiment with the details: adjusting the spacing between your characters eyes, the shape of their brow, the angle of their ears, and the width of their bellies. You can’t make an inhumanly grotesque character, with a body the diameter of a pencil or the physical attributes of a beached whale. But you can tweak the variables within the range of “normality” you’d expect to see in a movie
Even during character creation, one of the main differences in AoC versus other popular online games is hinted at. As you work on your character, he or she is standing in the storm tossed hold of the slaver ship which carries you. When you start Age of Conan, you are thrust into a single player experience not unlike what you might get from a game like Oblivion or Sacred. For the first twenty levels, you are the hero in your own role playing game, and the plot revolves around you. Yes, by level 5 or 6 you can start to interact with other players, but during those first 20 levels the game is really best thought of as a single player experience. A back story is established for your character, one which will be revisited every ten levels or so until you reach the maximum of level 80.
This approach, granting each player a single player “I am the hero in my own fiction” experience in the midst of a massively multiplayer game, is brilliant. It serves to overcome one flaw I’ve often felt exists in MMOGs: a sense of purpose, and a sense of a plot in which my character can make a difference. The defining moments during these “character defining” interludes, at least during the first 20 levels, are brilliantly scripted as can only be possible when the game revolves around the single player. Yet you and your character still have a massively multiplayer world to explore beyond the single player aspect.
Age of Conan is a brilliantly crafted in other ways. The environments and cities are breathtaking, huge, and seem “alive”. NPCs wander about more in other games, and many of them have no purpose other than to enliven the locales. Zoning outdoors is minimal, which makes the areas seem more “whole” than in EverQuest 2 for example. I don’t feel like each quarter of the city is a big room that I pass through a door to enter- instead, I perceive the whole as a large city, the way it should be.
Sound quality is first rate, with lots of ambient noises and full voice overs for the first 20 levels. Here is another of my complaints: as soon as my character progressed beyond level 20, I entered a world of mutes. The NPCs no longer talk, instead they grunt, chuckle, and gesture silently. It is a shocking transition after the good voice acting of the first 20 levels, although I fully understand why it is so. “Voicing” all of the NPCs can be a huge and costly undertaking: I recall that it cost several million dollars and added almost a year to EQ2’s initial development, and not surprisingly EQ2 more or less stopped voicing most NPCs after the first couple of years. But the sudden silence is jarring.
Graphics are stunning, adopting a realistic style akin to Vanguard or EQ2, but with grittiness that makes the world seem more real. Character movement is obviously motion captured, and combat is particularly elegant. Which brings me to the combat features of Age of Conan: combat.
Many reviewers have focussed on the combat as the main strength of the game- I find it less exciting. The basic concept: meleers can control and adapt their attacks, choosing left, right, and overhead swings, as well as their defenses, likewise focussing by direction. This makes it not just desirable but critical for meleers to actually chose their attacks: there is no “auto attack” in Age of Conan. It is done in such a way that melee doesn’t feel like mindless button mashing, but I personally wouldn’t consider this difference to be major or particularly significant. It is a nice change, but shrinks in comparison to the “single player experience interleaved with a MMOG” design that is what truly impresses me.
One thing that *does* impress me about combat in Age of Conan is how they handle support classes. Support classes, in my definition, are classes that don’t normally have a direct role in most combat- primarily healers, but also crowd control classes and some spell casters. In most massively multi-player games, healers in particular can become rather disengaged from the fight: your job becomes staring at the hitpoint graphs belonging to your party members, and repeatedly healing them. Age of Conan, though, has a novel way of dealing with healing. Most heals (the majority) heal the entire group, do so in a “heal over time” method, and require that you stand very close (I.E.: in the middle) of your party’s meleers. So healing is something you do proactively from the midst of the battle: you don’t pay continuous attention to individual party members health in quite the same way you do in other games. Further, the healing classes all seem to have “damage plus heal” or “heal plus damage” spells, some of which appear to actually do more healing than the “pure” heals. The result is that healers end up attacking the monsters in order to heal their party: the dynamic is substantially different from playing a support class in any of the other MMOGs I’ve tried.
Age of Conan is a mature game. This does not mean realistically motion captured sex acts are occurring all over the Hyborian countryside… although that does sound intriguing. Rather, AoC more “realistically” portrays city life: there are prostitutes who actually admit to being sex workers, blood flows and heads get chopped off in combat, bars have booze steins lying about and drunks stumble in the streets. If you remove all your clothing you will be naked, but only in the “restricted movie” sense (I.E.: female avatars have nipples, but no sex organs are visible). All in all, it is a refreshing difference from the “Disney-fied” MMOGs I’ve normally played. However, I can’t say that the mature rating has particularly done anything to reduce the number of asshats in the world. Either 12 year olds are buying the game on their Mommy’s credit cards, or 40 year olds commonly act like 12 year olds: in this, the game is no different from other MMOGs.
What about player versus player (PvP)? PvP is a feature of Age of Conan, and is handled more or less like Dark Age of Camelot managed the feature: that is, on normal servers, PvP only happens in certain areas, and is an “optional” part of the game. You can choose to form a guild, and build a city. You can then choose to claim certain “resource areas” and, if you do, your guild will be required to fight to hold them. I think your cities can also be attacked, and there may be some sort of PvP arena areas.
You will notice that I’m pretty vague about player versus player features. That is because I hate player versus player features. I like grouping up with my friends and killing monsters, not being ganked over and over by mental midgets and their gangs of miscreants. So I appreciate the “opt in” PvP in Age of Conan. You can also choose to play on “pure PvP” servers, where (if you so desire) you can gank and be ganked by armies of Beavis and Butthead clones to your hearts content.
In terms of grouping, chat, and guild features, Age of Conan has some flaws. Chat is rudimentary, although functional: some features MMOG players might be used to, like being able to customize text colours by channel, are notably absent. Creating a guild is easy- free and anyone can do it starting at level 20. But you will be forced to choose your guild membership rank names from “canned” selections: if you want your leader to be called “Chief muffinhead” and your new members to be called “Pinkies”, you are out of luck. Things you may be used to like guild achievements/history, per-player officer notes, and a stand alone guild membership list, are missing in action.
As a side note, I suspect that at least some of the guild management and chat options limitations are related to the fact that AoC will eventually be available for a console: the XBox 360. As such, I imagine that the developer felt that chat features and guild management complexities were unnecessary, and that perhaps some features like live chat will supplement them. If this is true, I think Funcom’s thinking is in error, and hopefully they will correct the shortcomings over time.
Regarding hardware requirements, Age of Conan is demanding. A machine with a dual core 3 Ghz Intel/2.4 GHz AMD processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM, and an ATI X800 / Nvidia 7-series video card can probably play the game at low or medium settings. A quad core machine with four gigabytes of RAM and dual GPUs (ATI 2xxx+ / Nvidia 9 series) could probably run at high settings, with some features tuned down slightly. Age of Conan does take advantage of multi-core CPUs and GPUs (E.G. SLI / Crossfire). However, there are some problems at this point in time with certain dual video card/SLI configurations that reduce performance rather than increasing it. And of course there is the usual flood of people claiming to be unable to run the game at all no matter what they do- so your mileage may vary. I will say that my Nephew and I now have the game running on at least four different configurations with varying levels of performance in the range described above, and it is working on all of them.
I’ve only been playing Age of Conan for about two weeks. I started this review with a warning about the limited nature of any review of a MMOG. Unless you’ve played the game for a couple of years, observed the developer’s ongoing treatment of players and the progress of the games never-ending development, and leveled at least a character or two to the end game, your review will be flawed. Conversely, if you have played that long, your opinion will be tainted by ennui: even the most flawless online game will build up negative experiences for a player over years and years of play.
However, I have enough experience to say that Age of Conan is off to a great start. There are some serious flaws in the game involving exploits that appear to have allowed some players to reach level 80 (the maximum level in the game) in a couple of days, and other issues like initial problems with the in game banks and trading, but I’ve already observed effective patches for many of these problems being deployed by Funcom. The servers have been up with only brief (< 4 hour) outages for periodic (two or three times weekly) maintenance, and myself and my half-dozen associates have not experienced any game-breaking bugs. As I understand it, over 400,000 players have signed up and are playing the game, so the servers are definitely under load. If they keep this up, Age of Conan is and will remain a fantastic contender for your spare time for years to come.