"In the next six to twelve months, Age of Conan will live or die on how successfully Funcom can address these issues." That's how we closed off our initial review of Age of Conan - acknowledging grave flaws, but with immense optimism thanks to an early flurry of patches which steadily improved the game, week on week.
Let's not beat around the bush - our optimism was misplaced. Re-reading the initial review caused a number of heartfelt sighs and shaken heads this week. In almost every place where we fretted that Funcom might slip up, the company went and did exactly that.
Four months after launch, the game is best summed up as disappointing. It still has potential and even flair, but for all that it could be, it's failing to live up even to what it should be.
So what's changed so much since June? A few major things have upset the apple-cart. Firstly, Funcom has consistently disappointed its players in terms of content delivery. A rush of patches after launch, which greatly improved the game's performance and polished its content, was followed by week after week of broken promises.
Major overhauls were coming, we were told. Really soon - any day now, in fact. New zones, a new player-versus-player system, class updates. If these had been new things, we would have grumbled a little about how long they were taking to arrive - but for the most part, these were things that should have been in the game at launch.
We confidently expected Funcom to patch them in within a matter of weeks. That time can now be measured in months, and some big content updates are still missing entirely - others, like the PVP system, are half-implemented, and probably won't appear in full until midwinter.
That's not to say that the updates which Funcom has trickled out haven't been welcome. The most recent major patch is arguably the biggest update to Age of Conan since launch, and it fixes a slew of problems with the game. We were fairly impressed with the game engine at the outset, but many players reported instability and it certainly had its share of visual glitches. In the wake of the latest patch, Conan's engine is now up there with the best of them.
It's hard to find a bad word to say about the game from a technical standpoint these days, and it's telling that what used to be a flood of technical complaints about Conan on various forums has dried into a trickle (usually focused on asking when the DirectX 10 support, another feature promised for launch and still absent, will arrive).
So, that's positive. Also positive are the numerous tweaks we've recently seen to the rest of the game's content. A great many quests and encounters have been tightened up, streamlined or bug-fixed, whole new quest chains have been added. The actual process of levelling a character now flows much more smoothly from start to finish - rather than sputtering to a premature halt and wallowing in boring grind from the mid-fifties onwards.
There's a "but". Actually, there are a few Buts, but the most prominent one is this - but this is a game that's been out for four months. What we're describing here is how the game should have been at launch, and even at that, Funcom still hasn't patched in everything they promised at the outset. MMORPGs do get a grace period that other games don't get, but not a four-month grace period, and especially not a four-month grace period where the Holy Grail patch, the patch which will fix it all and make it all better, is always frustratingly coming "soon".
Perhaps the biggest and best example of Age of Conan's tardy delivery of changes is its PVP system. Funcom was talking about a complex, level-based PVP system before the game even shipped. Within a month of launch, we had been given the outlines of a system which would give players PVP experience for their kills, opening up PVP-specific gear - and of a corresponding system which would turn regular gankers into fugitives, placing a bounty on their criminal heads for other players to collect.