Confident in a much-improved MMO, Funcom launched its re-evaluation campaign for Age of Conan this week. We're marking the occasion by giving away 1000 free copies of the game, and re-evaluating our own stance on it below.
I've got history with Age of Conan. Ever since Eurogamer started revisiting MMOGs on a regular basis, it's been inevitable that some games will have their ups and downs - but few quite as steep a rollercoaster ride as Funcom's rough-hewn epic of blood, steel and breasts.
Twelve months ago, I was too lenient. Giving the game 8/10 in its first review on the site, I was aware of problems - some gaps in the content, bugs in the game engine, and so on - but optimistic. No MMO has a totally smooth launch, and Conan's was rougher than most, but I - foolishly - scored the game on its potential and on the heartfelt belief that Funcom, the company which had resuscitated Anarchy Online after a terrible launch and turned it into a warmly-regarded cult hit, would have the problems smoothed out in no time.
I was wrong. Nine months ago, when the time came to revisit the game, it dropped to a 6/10 despite several major improvements. Huge problems remained, patches were slow in turning up and often introduced more problems of their own, promises had been broken and the community was deserting the game in droves. If the original 8/10 score was based on cheery optimism, the 6/10 re-review was based on grinding realism - and a crushing feeling that the team simply wasn't capable of turning this mess around.
After a string of substantial, game-changing updates, however, it's high time to take another look at Age of Conan. For the purposes of re-reviewing, we're throwing out the past - this isn't a review of 12 months of tortured development. It's a review of Age of Conan as it stands today, this week - of the experience that you'd have if you played the game with fresh eyes.
The first thing you'll notice is that the number of servers is altogether more modest than it was originally. Only a handful remain, the survivors of a decision to merge servers together in order to keep player numbers up. The server merge has compensated for the huge fall in subscriber numbers reasonably well - the game is busy, even at off-peak hours, and it's never very difficult to find a group or someone to pick a fight with.
The next thing you'll notice is that it looks good - really good, in fact. Conan's client runs in two distinct modes, DirectX 9 and DirectX 10. Under DX9, the game is very pretty; with huge view distances and detailed environments, it's technically the best-looking MMO on the market right now, even if its "realistic" art style doesn't quite offer up some of the eye-candy vistas you'll see in more high-fantasy games.
It's under DirectX 10 that Age of Conan really shines, though. Foliage sways convincingly in the breeze, while water ripples and eddies as you move through it, and casts soft caustic effects onto surrounding surfaces. Perhaps the most stunning effect is the "god rays" which shine through clouds and narrow gaps in buildings, projecting bright sunbeams across the environments. The DX10 client doesn't run quite as smoothly as DX9, even on a fairly beefy PC, but it looks fantastic and will be a real treat for anyone who has invested in a top-end system in the past year or so.
Let's leave aside the window-dressing, and talk about the game experience. One thing that hasn't changed significantly is Tortage, the zone in which you'll spend your first 20 levels. This zone remains a peculiar (but effective) mixture of single-player and multi-player gaming, with your character alternating between running around the world with other lowbies by day, then flicking over to the "night-time" zone to play out your epic, single-player Destiny quests.