Last time we checked in on Age of Conan, back in July, it's fair to say we were more impressed than we'd expected to be. Certainly, our first impressions weren't challenged in some key regards; the sheer level of violence and sexuality came across as more juvenile than adult, and the whole affair felt a bit like World of Warcraft on a cocktail of steroids and strong booze. An innovative combat system, interesting approach to storytelling and the tantalising promise of great PvP battles, however, made Conan into a strong prospect for one of the year's most interesting MMOGs.
Five months later, we revisited Conan in the freezing northern fastness of developer Funcom - which sounds a bit more dramatic than the reality, which turned out to be a quite nice office building on the outskirts of Oslo. We're not sure what we expected - a few designers drinking out of the skulls of rival development teams, perhaps, or maybe some longboats in the yacht moorings outside. Pleasant sandwiches and miniature Dime bars just didn't seem very, well, Hyborian.
Within the world of Age of Conan, however, things remain comfortably barbaric. By the time you're finished with the character creation screen, you already feel like you've done a shot of pure testosterone through your eyeball. Finish the first set of introduction quests, and your voice will have dropped two octaves, you'll be in danger of a life-long priapism and you'll have a strange urge to run out into the fields and bite a cow. Miniature Dime bars? Only if you can eat them from the hollowed out corpses of your foes! Rargh!
Fightin' Round the World
All this concentrated (if, well, slightly forced) masculinity will be no surprise to anyone who's been following the development of Conan. However, there have been some pretty big changes to the game since we saw it back in July - perhaps the biggest of them being that it's no longer one of this year's most interesting MMOGs. In August, the game was delayed until 2008 - 25th March, 2008, to be precise - and thus takes its place as one of next year's most interesting MMOGs.
A few hours playtime with the game reveals that the team isn't squandering the extra months it's been granted by the delay. Taking on board feedback from the beta test, Funcom has overhauled some parts of the game - while, as might be expected, some of the more complex systems like PvP are finally ready for their close-up.
The most obvious change we noticed is to the combat system. Conan remains fascinating - if not entirely unique - in that it has a pseudo real-time combat system, where you select a direction in which to swing your weapon much as you might do in a normal action game. However, in the last five months the system has been simplified at lower levels to provide a better learning curve for new players - while a new shield indicator gives more feedback on the effectiveness of your attacks.
New players starting out in the game will now only have access to three attack directions - front, left and right - with a further two being unlocked later in the game. Even more notably, players will now select their combo skills (essentially the game's special moves, and the beating heart of the combat system) from a toolbar, or by pressing a numeric hotkey. The skill is then activated by pressing one of the directional buttons. Previously, players learned key combinations to trigger combos; Funcom assures us that this system is still in the game at later levels, but the new hotkey triggers will make everything a bit more familiar to players of other RPGs.
One of the most visible changes to the combat is the addition of the shield indicator - a set of stylised caret icons which float around the foe you're targeting. Each enemy has three indicators, which they can move either above their heads or to the left or right - indicating how well they're blocking attacks from each of those directions. Three icons in one position means attacks in that direction will be blocked totally; no icons at all means you'll score boosted damage for attacking that angle.
It feels a little artificial at first, but we quickly settled into this system. It gives combat an almost rhythmic feel, as you watch the indicators to work out where you'll score most damage - and while easy enemies will generally take ages to move their shields around, leaving you to hack away merrily at unprotected sides, tougher foes will present a more formidable timing challenge.
Other aspects of the combat continue to impress. We love the fact that all attacks are, to some extent, area-of-effect; swing a sword in front of you, and it'll hit any enemy foolish enough to be within reach, not just the single enemy you're targeting. Characters with ranged weapons get an FPS style aiming system, while magic users also need to aim their spells - they have a "shaped" area of effect, often in the form of a cone in front of the player. Even more so than Tabula Rasa, this is shaping up to be a twitch gamer's MMORPG.