Ah, Conan. The uncouth barbarian who hailed from the lands of the north, adventured as a thief and a mercenary, ruled the waves as the pirate Amra and eventually took the throne of the powerful civilised nation of Aquilonia. Robert E Howard's tales may be as simple, rough-hewn and crass as their eponymous hero, but they are no less compelling for all that.
In crafting an extensive world full of swords, sorcery, barbarism, brutality, treachery and of course treasure, Howard created the perfect environment for a videogame. And isn't there some echo of Conan's own struggle in the story of Funcom's much-vaunted MMO? A rude and untamed underdog in itself, coming to the world not with silver-tongued talk of polish and perfection, but rather with bawdy pledges of decapitations, gushing sprays of blood, and plenty of bared, bouncing tits - a vulgar contender from the North, taking brave aim at the throne of a civilised land.
At least, that's the romantic view we suspect Howard would have preferred. We've been playing Age of Conan now for the entire length of its free trial period - if you bought the game on day one, you need to make a choice this week about whether you're going to carry on with a subscription. It's a good opportunity to sit back and work out whether Conan's broad, earthy approach to MMO gaming has enough vulgar charm to keep you going - or whether the distinctly rough edges on this barbarian champion are just too much for your tastes.
Much has already been made of Conan's unique introduction zone, which eases players into the game through a combination of traditional MMORPG style quests with a single-player RPG story mode. This zone, Tortage, accomplishes what it sets out to do with some panache. It introduces players to the basics of playing each class, gives them their first complement of essential skills, equips them with some decent gear, and introduces them to key aspects of the Conan lore and universe.
It's a great introduction. Funcom deserves significant kudos for creating such a terrific early experience. MMORPGs generally don't start offering their narrative and gameplay rewards until you've put many, many hours into them, leaving us all the more impressed by the fact that ten hours into Age of Conan, you're taking on and defeating a vicious tyrant who has been built up by hours of solid narrative.
At level 20, you're deposited into the wider world - with each of the three races being automatically transported to their own racial capital to begin the most standard assortment of MMORPG quests. It's at this point that players experience a bit of culture shock with Age of Conan - this being also, arguably, the point where the game's content begins its slow descent in quality and polish towards the level cap of 80.
After Tortage, there's little more voice acting. There are no more single-player sections, there's very little guidance or funnelling to get you through the content. Perhaps most disorienting of all, the rate at which you gain new skills slows down dramatically, which can make the game start to feel stale. Despite the Feat Points awarded for your talent trees every level, characters feel like they evolve very slowly, with the treats along the levelling path being distributed all too sparsely - an impression reinforced by the extremely slow rate at which the appearance of the gear you're wearing improves. In part, this is down to the fact that Age of Conan sticks to a realistic palette of browns and greys for its items. However, Funcom has definitely been economical with loot. There's a good chance that you'll spend the first thirty levels wearing pretty much identical-looking stuff.