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.
This system acts broadly as you'd expect an action game to. Each swing has an area of effect, and only affects enemies caught in that zone - so for example, a sweeping attack will hit any enemies standing in front of you. This is unlike conventional melee attacks in RPGs, which only strike the enemy you target. On the other hand, this also means that you have to worry about positioning more. Both you and your enemies can physically dodge out of an attack, which makes battles into much more fast-paced, dynamic affairs. The game even extends the concept of shields using this; you'll do more damage to enemies when you hit them on the side that isn't carrying a shield.
Despite the clear similarities with action game battles, however, it would be disingenuous to characterise this as much more than a unique twist on the MMOG conventions. Under the surface, exactly the same dice rolls which have always determined battles in RPGs are still being made. As you level up and attain more powerful weapons, you'll be able to tackle tougher enemies, just as normal.
Interestingly, the game also uses combos as a key part of its battles - tap a number of the action keys in the correct order and you'll fire off a powerful attack, much like a beat 'em up. Later on, these combos even include Mortal Kombat style Fatality moves. Here, too, the action element is a layer over a more traditional mechanism. You learn these combos as you level up, and must equip them in slots before using them; in essence, they are melee combat skills which are fired off by a combination of button presses, rather than a mouse click or shortcut key.
In simple terms, then, the skill based element is an addition to the traditional RPG progression curve. However, we have no doubt that some players will become very adept at this aspect of the game. Indeed, for them there's a unique PvP system called Drunken Brawling, which allows you to enter taverns and start fights (after imbibing specific drinks which improve or disimprove various battle statistics). This mode is entirely level- and gear-independent - a talented newcomer could easily hand a level 80 his backside on a platter - and sounds very much in keeping with the macho, chest-beating world of Conan.
See Them Driven Before You
Conan's other Big Idea is the introduction of single player elements to the game - an approach which is evident on a number of different levels. On a simple, subtle level, many gamers will appreciate the effort which has been put into the dialogue and conversation options in the game. Most MMOGs are rather basic in this regard, leaving the branching conversations and carefully crafted dialogue to their offline counterparts. Conan promises far better developed characters and narrative - which may seem surprising given its rather barbaric setting, but it's worth bearing in mind that its creators also worked on stunning adventure titles The Longest Journey and Dreamfall.
On a rather less subtle level, the game actually sees players working their way through quite a bit of strictly single-player content in the first 20 levels of the experience. The character creation screen is a rather grim galley, full of unhappy-looking whipped slaves, one of whom you choose as your avatar. It's strictly human-only (tough luck, furry weirdos), and you choose between three races, two of whom are more physically focused (they align roughly with the Romans and the Celts in our world), one of which is more magical (aligning somewhat with the Egyptians).
There's a vast amount of customisation you can perform on your character - tweaking stats like age, scars, piercings and tattoos, along with the usual body shape and facial feature sliders - but no class customisation. Not at this point. The reason for this is simple; your ship wrecks, you are washed ashore on a tropical island, and frankly, a Priest dressed in rags with a lump of timber to defend himself isn't much different to a Warrior in the same position.
Upon waking up on the beach, you start to receive your first quests and fight your first battles - but at this point, the game is entirely single-player. You won't see other players until such time as you arrive in the first city, Tortage, about an hour in. By this time, you'll have chosen (or will be about to choose) the first major refinement to your character, the choice between Soldier, Priest, Mage and Rogue. However, you won't choose a final character class - refined specialists like the Guardian (a tough, armoured melee class) and the Demonologist (adept at firing off area-of-effect spells) - until level 20.
The whole journey to level 20 takes place on this initial tropic island, in the vicinity of Tortage, and is a peculiar blend of singleplayer and multiplayer action. When you log into the game, it is daytime in Tortage, and you can meet up with other players and go out to raid the nearby slaver camps, ancient ruins, dungeons and what have you - much as you would expect from an MMOG. Go to an inn and rest, however, and you'll wake up in the middle of the night - with no other players around, and loads of single-player content to explore.
It's an odd feature, and one we didn't really have a chance to explore in our brief play-time with Conan. The intent, obviously, is to ease players into the game, and to introduce them to story and gameplay elements without forcing them to go through embarrassing trial and error (and withering catcalls of "noob!") in a party of other players. How well it works is likely to seriously colour many people's experiences of the game - but for MMOG newcomers, especially, it's likely that this gentle introduction and the ability to play at your own pace will be very welcome.
Hear the Lamentation of the Women
Outside of Conan's two big ideas, the game isn't lacking in small to medium-sized ideas to help it stand aside from the MMOG pack - at least to some extent. While Funcom is acutely aware that this genre is no longer solely the preserve of hardcore gamers, and claims to have spent a lot of time making sure that gamers with only a few hours a week can still progress and enjoy the experience, there seems to be plenty of content planned for the ultra-hardcore as well.
Guilds, for example, will be able to build their own cities in the game - an endeavour which will require that they collect all the resources, such as wood and stone, required to create the various buildings. Castles, too, can be built and occupied by guilds - and can also be besieged, in massive set-piece PvP battles which incorporate trebuchets, catapults and legions of footsoldiers.
Interestingly, while this sounds like the sort of endgame content many players only ever get to glimpse in MMOGs, Age of Conan will be opening it up to lower-level players as well. While precise details weren't forthcoming, the developers told us that a system will be in place to bump up your levels in PvP battles, so lower level players can compete on a somewhat even footing. PvP ranks will be separate from PvE ranks, and "Blood Money" earned by killing other players in battle will be usable to buy specialised PvP equipment.
On a more basic level, it's also worth noting that Conan looks really very pretty. The team's stated intent was to build a game which surpasses Oblivion graphically, and on high-end PCs at least, it certainly achieves that goal in places. The tropical environments, in particular, have a Far Cry feel to them, but with thirty zones spread across the world of Conan planned for release (which leaves vast areas still untouched - and plenty of material for future expansions), there's plenty of variety in there as well.
Even more impressive is the level of detail which has been built into the various environments and the behaviour of NPC characters. In towns, NPCs walk around according to basic desires (they get hungry, or thirsty, and wander about to tend to their own needs) rather than sticking to pre-programmed paths. When raiding enemy camps (which, we're told, will dynamically adjust in size and difficulty depending on how many players are in your team - clever!), sentries will run back and raise the alarm if you give them half a chance.
Riddle of Steel
Based on the source material, you might expect "clever" to be one of the last words to be applied to Age of Conan - but that's exactly how the approach taken by the designers to this unique MMOG feels. The marriage of action gameplay and single-player sensibilities with a massively multiplayer world is vastly ambitious, and like all ambitious projects, there's a huge risk of failure.
However, what we've seen of the game in about three hours of play has been largely positive, if still rather rough around the edges - and we can't help but feel that if Conan gets this right, it'll win over many fans both from outside the world of MMOGs, and from existing games which are starting to feel a bit too similar.
It may be pumped full of human growth hormone, dripping with testosterone and threatening to descend to Gears of War levels of overt homoeroticism at any moment, but Age of Conan is much more than just a buff body. We'll hopefully be running our hands over the bulging e-biceps of a more advanced build of the game, and making appreciative "aah" noises, sometime in the next few months.