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.
Conan the... Architect?!
Several of Conan's more advanced systems are also shaping up as the game approaches its launch. We had a glimpse of the crafting system, which looks similar to World of Warcraft's rather simplified mechanism - find a recipe, gather ingredients, and er, that's it actually. One twist on the formula could turn out to be interesting, though; it was suggested that gathering better ingredients to use with the same recipe could yield improved items. Details on this were scant, but the implication that you could forge the same weapon with a tougher metal and end up with a better piece of equipment is certainly interesting.
The ultimate expression of the crafting system in Conan, however, is not equipment - it's cities. Guilds will be able to build their own cities in the game, constructing a rising medieval metropolis on an instanced piece of land. Such an endeavour will require massive resources and high level crafting skills, of course - and there's even an Architect profession for crafters to pursue, allowing the construction of the most impressive buildings.
Architects aren't only useful for city-building, though. The game's vast Border Kingdoms zone, which is the major world PvP area in the game (most servers will offer only consensual PvP outside this zone), will offer the opportunity to build castles - and to lay siege to the walls of enemy castles, in huge PvP battles featuring up to 200 players. This kind of gameplay is Conan's real end-game, although it'll also be accessible to players who haven't hit the level cap (at level 80) just yet.
Various other game systems will also really come into their own in the Border Kingdoms. One of the aspects of combat we really like the look of is mounted combat - the ability to swing your sword from the back of a horse (or other mount, right the way up to gigantic wooly mammoths), rather than having to dismount to fight.
It's not quite as simple as doing battle from a horse, though; mounts take a while to get up to speed, have large turning circles, and provide a significant damage boost when they're running at full tilt. Inertia, see? Horseback combat will be a case of making multiple passes of a target, swinging each time; while on mammoths, the real power of the mount is its ability to knock down buildings and walls with its huge tusks.
PvP isn't restricted entirely to the Border Kingdoms, though - and nor is it restricted entirely to vast battles on an epic scale. Various other systems in the game exist for PvP players, ranging from the silly Drunken Brawls, which are essentially bar fights whose outcome is determined from the combination of drinks you've had, through to team-based games like Capture the Flag. The latter are quite nicely implemented in the game; there's actually a "game browser" in the game's own GUI, which allows you to hunt for and join games from anywhere in the world.
CTF in Conan is certainly an entertaining brawl - with the game's melee and magic classes translating surprisingly well into the traditional FPS game style. The map we had an opportunity to play was a well designed affair which funnelled players into close quarters as they traversed the space between two bases - keeping the melee interesting, while providing flag runners with plenty of route choices. With the right balance of classes, it could turn out to be a great bit of variety for the game.
Visit Scenic Hyboria
In terms of presentation, Conan certainly still has a few rough edges - the female models were being entirely overhauled when we played, resulting in a lot of bald Sinead O'Connor lookalikes prancing around the towns, and the animation is very ropy in places, with jarring transitions from one action to the next.
The performance of the game, however, was very solid for a pre-release MMOG, and the environments were suitably impressive - ranging from the dank gloom of Tortage by night (a story driven single-player experience which brings you up to level 20) through to a bright, snowy hillside and rural village we glimpsed later.
Character creation is something we weren't able to play with previously, so we were keen to have a look at that - and were hugely impressed with the work which Funcom have put into this aspect of the game. Naturally, every character you can create is masculine enough that he looks like he wrestles bears and has unnatural liaisons with gorillas, and it's almost compulsory to select an array of scars to adorn your flesh.
However, the game's controls for editing facial details are fantastic - each of the sliders is obvious and clearly labelled, and unlike many games which allow users a large degree of control over facial structure, the game avoids the trap of creating hideous aliens at the slightest provocation. Instead, a sensible set of controls mean that it's easy to make characters that look unique without looking horrifyingly deformed.
While we're very impressed with how some of the game mechanics and systems in Age of Conan are shaping up, we're under no illusions about the appeal of the game. Funcom has pinned its colours firmly to the mast by ramping up the level of violence and sexual content - and while it describes the game as a "mature" MMOG, we don't doubt that many adults will find that aspect offputting.
Certainly, there's more to the maturity of the game than just blood and boobs. Funcom's depth of experience in the adventure game genre, for instance, has contributed to a great dialogue and conversation system, and we're assured that this will feed into genuine moral choices and mature storytelling as the game progresses.
We hope this isn't lost in the gratuitous nature of some of the rest of the game. We're not sure if it was a bug or intentional, but the story NPC early in the game who informs you of the plight of her kidnapped younger brother, all while stroking herself and arching her back sensuously, didn't fill us with hope for genuinely mature handling of sexual subject matter.
Only time will tell how genuinely "mature" Conan really is - but in the meanwhile, we're happy to give the benefit of the doubt on the basis of the excellent combat and well-considered PvP. We're definitely looking forward to giving Conan's well-oiled pecs another appreciative rub come March.