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.
The gear situation isn't improved by what must be Conan's biggest post-launch bug - the fact that most of the stats on your items don't actually do anything at the moment. You can stack up the Strength stat all you like, it won't make a second's difference to the damage you deal - a fix is apparently coming shortly, but this critical problem has persisted for a month already.
All of this said, a great many players won't find the game's sluggish character progression, or even that glaring bug, remotely as problematic as it should be on paper. Why? Because on a basic, moment to moment level, Age of Conan is fun. It's bloody good fun, with the emphasis on the bloody. And that's just enough to paper over the cracks.
The decision to take away the auto-attack function common to MMOs, replacing it with a range of melee attacks - all of which have an area of effect, rather than just hitting one targeted enemy - turns the basic combat experience upside-down. After playing melee classes in other MMORPGs, Age of Conan's are a revelation. With collision detection fully active and your sword swinging in arcs in front of you, positioning becomes absolutely vital to success in battle - and as your character evolves, increasingly complex combos require that you learn button press sequences in order to pull off devastating attacks quickly.
The result is a system that's fast and involving, and which manages to be challenging while generally remaining intuitive. Casting classes don't feel the love to quite the same extent, and remain a little more similar to their ilk in other MMOs - although they, too, get significantly more focus on area-of-effect spells. Even healers get in on the action, with the ability to spam area-of-effect healing spells. Besides, some of the game's more innovative magical classes are pretty effective in melee too - we especially like the Herald of Xotli, whose ability to transform into a raging, melee-combat-adept demon every couple of minutes is a pretty unique experience for any fan of squishy mage play.
On the class front, Funcom seems to have got most of the balance right from the outset. The developer continues to tweak all of the classes as it progresses, playing with abilities, talent trees and so on in each of its twice-weekly updates - but none of the classes can truly be described as "broken" at this point. They're all pretty fun to play, and the diversity of opinion about which classes are best tends to imply that no single class is standing out as being desperately over- or under-powered.
That's the thing about Conan right now. Every time you find something that's broken or annoying, you find a couple of things that work right, that feel good, and that more than counterbalance the problems. A huge and common complaint with the game is that the content thins out as you progress, and there is definitely a case to be answered here.
The number of levelling zones is actually very small - in fact, the world in Conan seems extremely small overall, compared to the sizes of other MMORPGs at launch - and at some points, the number of quests available seriously dries up. As a result, you can find yourself having to level up by mindless grind, not something an MMO should be asking its players to do in this day and age.
Funcom claims to be aware of the problem, and to be working to introduce new zones and tons of new quests in the near future - but this is stuff that should have been in the game on day one, not on day 30 or day 60, or later still. The fact that a number of quests are bugged or broken, thus rendering the rest of some lengthy quest chains totally inaccessible, certainly doesn't help.
The odd thing is that, despite the fact that Age of Conan is blatantly unfinished, we don't have any reservations in saying that it is one of the smoothest MMO launches we've ever seen. That may seem a contradiction, but it's not - rather, it's a fairly relevant criticism of how the MMO industry treats its early adopters in general. Conan, at least, has a stable - not to mention incredibly attractive - game engine, gameplay that works, and servers that stay up.
Hell, it's even got an endgame, for the small number of hardy souls (i.e. the long-term unemployed) who are touching the level cap already. The quality of the raid content hasn't really been explored in any depth yet; there are concerns about boss battles degenerating into massive melee scrums backed up by healers spamming area-of-effect spells, but it's equally possible that guilds simply haven't grasped the strategic aspect of the game yet. Only a little more time will tell on that front. However, for those at high levels, the options already exist for guilds to create their own keeps and so on - a hardcore, resource-hungry activity that may well keep people busy for long enough for Funcom to shore up any faults in the rest of the endgame.
For the majority of players, for whom the journey to level 80 will be more sedate, Age of Conan a somewhat unpolished and occasionally rough experience - but like Conan himself, this is a noble savage.
It's hugely impressive to look at, with enormous, sprawling vistas that look better than anything the MMO genre has previously turned up (although at a cost - you'll want 2GB of RAM, a dual-core processor and a mid-range graphics card for this, at the very least). The lack of any consistency in the world is disappointing, admittedly - compared to the free-roaming of WOW, it's inter-zone loading times are a huge step backwards, but it's forgiveable for the epic beauty of the zones and cities.
Age of Conan is also, crucially, enormously good fun to play. Great combat animations and fast, exciting gameplay are two things MMORPGs haven't traditionally been noted for, and Conan provides them in spades. For fans of lore, the game is also a goldmine, being absolutely full of great dialogue, interesting quests and solid background material.
We can, in some areas, see trouble ahead. The player economy concerns us, because there's no obvious gold sink in the game, and thus no apparent mechanism for controlling runaway inflation - which could kill that aspect of the game stone dead. The endgame, right now, is unproven, simply because not enough players have reached it yet. Even one of Conan's strongest points could be an Achilles' Heel of sorts - the intense nature of combat means that this isn't a game you can play with one eye on something else, as you can with levelling, gathering or doing daily quests in WOW.
In the next six to twelve months, Age of Conan will live or die on how successfully Funcom can address these issues. Right now, though, the game as it stands is a rough diamond - very good, bordering on great thanks to a regular stream of comprehensive patches from Funcom. Yes, King Conan deserves his tribute, but the peasants will be watching closely to see what moves he makes to secure his throne.
8 / 10