We've been playing Age of Conan for only a few minutes when it happens. Padding through the tangled jungle of a tropical island, I happen upon a slaver camp - a cluster of tents and small fires, filled with unpleasant types who would rather end my break for freedom now, clap me back in chains and sell me off to the highest bidder.
Understandably, there's a bit of a scuffle. I start out with just a chunk of wooden planking in my hand, swinging it wildly at people's heads; at some point, a bladed weapon drops, and I switch over to that. I slash ahead of me, a nice clean swing - and chop his head right off, eliciting a gory spray of arterial blood and a nasty gurgling sound. Some of the blood sprays right onto the screen, oozing down it stickily before fading away.
"Oh yeah," grins the genial Norwegian chap behind my chair. "You got a critical! That's really good. This isn't a game for kids, huh - pretty adult stuff."
He's not wrong - well, not wrong about the game not being suitable for kids, anyway. You can debate the meaning of "adult" all you like, but in the context of the Conan franchise, it's not likely to be a very enlightened debate.
The extensive world of graphic novels from which Age of Conan takes its inspiration (the Arnie movies are simply another spin-off) is an angry teenage boy's fantasy world, filled with muscle-bound heroes beheading and screwing their way to amoral victories. Whether you call that "adult" or consider it to be quite the opposite is entirely a personal point of view. Let's just say it's not for kids, and leave it at that.
The developers of Age of Conan have a point about the content, though - it's definitely unusual for massively multiplayer game to trade in blood and gore, at least on this level. But that's Conan for you. It's World of Warcraft after a year of pumping iron, frothing at the mouth in a wild-eyed episode of 'roid rage. It's Lord of the Rings Online, two bottles of vodka down, standing in the middle of a town square somewhere in Norway with a crowbar held in a clenched fist, ready to brain anyone that walks too near.
And for all that, it may also be the most innovative and interesting MMORPG you'll play this year.
To Crush Your Enemies
Age of Conan sets out to do a couple of very unusual things with the familiar massively multiplayer formula - aside from featuring boobs and blood, that is. Firstly, the game does away with the conventional turn-based battles of most MMOG titles, focusing instead on a more direct, action-influenced approach. Secondly, it aims to bridge the gap between singleplayer and multiplayer RPGs, by providing the kinds of quests, dialogue and narrative which most MMOGs are forced to abandon by the requirements of the multiplayer world.
We don't doubt that Conan's combat system is going to be the aspect of the game which commands most attention - so we'll focus our attention there first. While the developers seem keen to promote this as a real-time fighting system, much like the ones you find in any third-person action game, the reality is that they've crafted something rather different. What Conan actually offers is a clever compromise between real-time and turn-based combat - a best of both worlds approach, in a sense.
You can see where the claims of action gameplay spring from readily enough, though. When you walk up to an enemy in the game and unsheathe your weapon, you can immediately start swinging away. The movement keys in the game are the FPS favourites, WASD, with the keys directly above that shape (Q, 1, 2, 3 and E) being allocated to different types of weapon swing. Q and E are wide sweeps from the left and right, respectively, while 1 and 2 are tighter, steeper swings and 3 is a forward stabbing motion.