Each new mmorpg release appears to be getting an increasing level of hype and attention, as the recently expanded market of addicts fully saturated with World of Warcraft look for a new digital drug of choice. The most recent entry is Funcom's Age of Conan, which has received surprisingly positive reviews; as if the specialist press are in the mood to talk up the struggling PC market, or more likely they simply haven't grasped what makes a good subscription MMO. Given how most developers seem to be struggling with the same conundrum, the latter certainly seems more likely.
Funcom's boldest claim is that Age of Conan's combat system will provide more immediate thrills than the toolbar orientated stuff that has gone before. They have added three buttons for you to swing your weapon either to the left, right, or forward; and you can double tap the movement keys to have your character leap a short distance to avoid incoming blows. Tapping the weapon keys in a particular order wil provide combos that do higher damage, and can often be used as finishers in gory 'fatality' moves. It sounds fine in principle, until you realize its been implemented as a very thinly disguised copy of the same toolbar set-up as the games predecessors. Rather than working out combos, or having them trigger after a selection of swings, you are required to press a key to perform the opener from the same old toolbar; and then you are prompted on-screen to mimic some 'left, right or middle' icons with your sword. The prompts are slow and extremely easy to follow. You spend less time looking at your avatar, and really you're playing a traditional mmorpg where you have to key a few more 'Simon Says' button presses to accomplish the same thing.
And that would perhaps be fine if the abilities in question were as interesting or varied as we have come to expect in an RPG. Unfortunately, the moves you attain as you progress through the game seem to all accomplish the same thing, which is 'do a bit more damage'. Sure, some have status effects attached, but these are irrelevant given how underpowered the effects are, and how quickly enemies die. The only real differential is which attacking side the combos finish on, but given the entirely predictable way the enemies change their defenses and move about, you really do end up hammering the same combos again and again. Its fun for a short while, in a Diablo clickathon kind of way, but less immediate and less satisfying.
And this remarkable lack of depth means that the classes within the game play quite similarly. All have been set-up to be easily soloable, and the entire class dynamic that supports and encourages grouping in these games is AWOL. Warcraft and Everquest 2 tread that fine line between making classes self-reliant, while giving each type weak points that means grouping and strategy is essential for dungeon running in instances. Endgame in Age of Conan consists of a mass of combatants hitting on a boss with whatever move is ready, while a small selection of healers spam the same spell over and over. It's simple stuff, and just not good enough to support long term subscription fees.
There are other game breaking things I should mention so lets move on to itemisation. A crucial part of mmorpgs is the ability to power up your character, not just through levels, but by equipping items that will enhance your statistics. Believe it or not, Age of Conan shipped with every item modification in the game broken. A recent patch has apparently fixed this, but there are still many people investigating the difference the weapons, armor and other equipment actually makes in this game. It doesn't even provide much of a visual incentive given how similar all of the equipment looks. Looting is also a chore, as you wade through hordes of monsters on your quest through Hyboria, each one dropping a heap of useless items that quickly fill up your inventory. I've not made this many trips to storage since the original Resident Evil.
These problems filter over to the games economy, which is non-existant. If nothing is worth buying, it quickly follows nothing is worth selling. Worse, there are many reports of exploits in the game which caused some downtime at launch. I was surprised to see gold sellers getting in on the act so quickly during my playtime - how long is it before they realise that no one needs money in Hyboria after the mount has been bought.
We should also mention the world itself. The first 20 levels of your progress take place in a pirate village called Tortage, possibly the most non-descript and depressing place you will encounter in your virtual travels. The NPCs in this area admittedly have decent voice overs, but the content of the quests is predictably mind numbing. Every time you wish to reroll a new character, you will be forced to play through the same area again, as Age of Conan has only one newbie area. There are slight variations for different classes, but you'll be seeing the same brown little huts again and again for a long time if you are a fan of having many alts. The wider world is little better than Tortage, it looses the voiceovers, however there is at least a little more variety in the scenery. Don't expect to stand in awe and any landmarks though; while the graphics in Age of Conan might be technically excellent, they are uninspired, generic and bland. Which is about as much as I can say about the soundtrack too.
So does Age of Conan do anything right? The avatars you design have been given a lot of character and the customisation options are excellent. It's quite easy to get something you are pretty happy with quickly. The game also ran very stable on my PC, even at high settings. The game does offer some mindless fun for a week or so, and if you are a fan of mmorpgs to the point you insist on playing them to the exclusion of all other games then it might perform the function of a short holiday from your main game.
And that's all its ever going to offer. This game has so little depth, and so many broken features, it can never justify the premium subscription being required of its players. It's alarming that a game that has been in development so long appears on the market in such a sorry state. There's little to nothing within the game that will encourage most players to remain past the free month.
3 / 10