"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.
Here at Eurogamer, we talked about doing a feature on Age of Conan's PVP system way back then - fully expecting a patch within weeks. We waited, and we waited, and we rescheduled, and we delayed - each delay from Funcom driving our own schedule back. A quarter of a year later, the last big patch finally, finally brought with it this system... Except that it didn't. We got half the system, PVP levelling and gear, but no consequences, no fugitives and hunters. The second half, the half that justifies the entire existence of the first half? We'll be happy if we see it before the New Year. (I guess we'll do that feature then.)
You might have spotted the obvious problem in this. Rewards, but no consequences - in a game without factions, so anybody can kill anyone else. Yes, as you might expect, the game's higher level zones became a bloodbath, as bored top-level players run around mindlessly ganking those trying to level their characters through the last few stages. Think of your worst night in Stranglethorn Vale, World of Warcraft players, and then think how much worse it would have been if it were a free-for-all where everyone could gank each other - no safety in numbers, no friendly green-named pals to keep the bad guys at bay.
It's calmed down significantly now, thankfully, as players recognise that they can level PVP faster by taking part in mini-games rather than open-world PVP. However, it still serves as an illustration of just how detrimental Funcom's inability to deliver the content it's promised can be. For many players, half a PVP system ended up being even worse than no PVP system at all.
PVE servers, of course, were largely immune to this problem - and actually, it wasn't just them. It's worth mentioning that plenty of other servers suffered from no noticeable ganking, largely because there was nobody there to gank you. Age of Conan's server populations have collapsed since launch, leaving many servers so empty that it's hard to find anyone to play with in certain zones.
Much of this exodus came early, when bugs and technical problems stopped being patched quickly enough to address serious concerns. There has been steady attrition since then, as even players who have reached high levels find that the end-game - merely competent raid encounters, and vast swathes of content which are really only accessible to those in large, well-organised guilds - simply isn't diverse or satisfying enough to hold their interest at present.
Funcom is presently in the process of merging servers to keep the populations up, which should improve matters, although we're a little "once bitten, twice shy" about optimism over promised changes.
And yet... Despite all of this, Age of Conan remains, somehow, a compelling game. Its world is undeniably beautiful, albeit somewhat small and restrictive compared to many of its rivals'. The combat system is still hugely entertaining - fast, visceral and immediate, in a way which no other MMOG has quite managed - and some of the classes, like the Herald of Xotli and the Demonologist, are genuinely innovative hybrids that are great fun to play and master. Moreover, Conan's lore is appealing - his world a fascinating one to explore.
For all that we're cautious of optimism, we're keen to see what the game's new director Craig Morrison can do. There's talk of an overhauled crafting system, and with it far greater variety in how characters look (still a problem, especially for those levelling up, who tend to look basically the same for level after interminable level). If it takes as long to arrive as the PVP changes are taking, though, it's hard to tell how many players will be around to see it.
Age of Conan remains one of the most innovative and interesting additions to the MMORPG family in recent years - but for now, it's a tough game to recommend. In absolute terms, the game you'd play now is a better game than the one we played at launch - but an MMORPG is as much a service as a game, and Funcom's service has fallen down badly when it was needed most. With that in mind, we have little choice but to mark it down - all the while holding on dearly to the hope that the team still have it in them to turn Conan's fortunes around.
6 / 10