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.
As an introduction to an MMO, Tortage is unmatched. Quests are fully voice acted, the storyline drags you through a genuinely interesting adventure that introduces most of the key elements of the Conan lore, and the general improvements to performance and gameplay have left Tortage feeling like an even smoother, more polished experience than previously.
Tortage has always had a problem, though - you have to leave. Of Conan's many huge issues, perhaps the biggest one in the early days was that players were spat out of the vivid, lively Tortage and into a far less interesting world where quests were few and far between, NPCs spoke in text boxes and a dull grind to level 80 awaited.
Sailing away from Tortage is still jarring, but much has been done to smooth over the seams. The main continent has sprouted a large number of NPCs with voice acting, which helps, but far more importantly, it has acquired far more quests. Leveling a new character past Tortage, I sailed to level 50 without ever emptying my quest log. I had a similar experience with a new level 50 character - the game allows anyone with a level 50 to create a new character at that level. It's not just that new zones have been added - old zones have been overhauled, filled with more quests and streamlined to guide you towards content you might have overlooked.
The only speed-bumps I hit in content terms were when I wasn't in the mood to team up, and ran into the game's forced segregation of solo and party content. Funcom doesn't let players do group content solo. Even when you're ten levels higher, a peculiar bit of combat mathematics kicks in which allows monsters in group areas to kick your backside. Personally, I found this very frustrating. It feels like an artificial way to force you to play the game as the creators envisaged it, rather than enjoying it at your own pace.
Speaking of walking into new zones, it's worth pointing out that that's actually something you can't do in Conan. Unlike most modern MMOs, Conan doesn't have a contiguous continent that you can just walk across - in fact, it doesn't always even have geographically continuous zones with load delays between them. Instead, you talk to a wagon train captain or a sailor, and after a load delay, you turn up at your destination. It's definitely an acquired taste. Some players even seem to like it, because it gives the impression of a truly huge world that fits with Robert E. Howard's fiction, but to me it still feels like a technological step backwards and breaks the world up too much, making it feel like a selection of game levels.
Let's skip forwards and talk about the endgame. Players tend to do one of a few things when they hit max level in an MMO. Some get involved in a guild and do big PVE raids and other such events. Conan has been steadily bulking out the content for them - the game features Guild Cities which can be constructed by large guilds, and is building up its collection of level 80 raid dungeons, adding the pretty solid Xibaluku to the roster in a recent update. It's still lacking some variety for 24-man top level raids, but what's there is pretty challenging, with Funcom finally learning to move away from plain old tank-and-spank boss encounters. Thanks to a recent overhaul of the gear system - which made armour and weapons much more powerful - there's also a proper incentive to progress.
Other players get involved in player-versus-player combat, which is one of the biggest draws for Conan. Prominently featured on the back of the box since launch is the promise of Sieges - gigantic PVP encounters in which people will get to fight with a hundred other players. Laggy and bugged at launch, Sieges are now running remarkably well - and if you're a hardcore, endgame PVP player, they're probably Conan's best feature.
The problem is, you have to be involved in a big, hardcore PVP guild to take part. I managed to experience a siege, and they're violent, chaotic and cracking good fun. The game's combat mounts, giant mammoths and rhinos which charge ahead and do massive damage to everything in front of them, come into their own in this mode, and it quickly becomes apparent that despite the chaos, team strategy is required for victory.
For those who'll never be able to dedicate the time and energy required to PVP at that level, there are consolation prizes. There are PVP mini-games, a separate system of PVP XP and levels, and open-world PVP zones (even on PVE servers), while a system of bounties and notoriety gives a meta-game element to taking out fugitive "murderer" players. Despite this, things still regularly descend into ganking. With no concept of factions to create obvious allegiances, PVP servers can still be thoroughly unpleasant. Some players thrive on this kind of free-for-all - others will thank Crom for the existence of more placid PVE servers.
The final thing which players tend to do at max level in an MMO is to go right back to level 1. Many MMO developers will attest that the most common thing people do when they reach the top level in a game is to go back and level up an alt - obviously believing that the journey is more fun than the destination. Here, Age of Conan suffers from perhaps its biggest problem.
Levelling up your first character in Age of Conan is fantastic. There's a huge variety of zones, a nicely-balanced difficulty curve, and a good sense of progression as you pick up abilities and improve your armour and weapons (some fans claim that the new importance of gear makes the game too much like WOW - my experience so far is that it simply makes Conan far more compelling and rewarding).
Levelling your second character is OK at best. You quickly discover that there are no alternate paths in Conan. The game has enough content to push a character to 80, and while within certain level ranges you'll be able to step off the path for a while, the reality is that you end up doing the same zones, the same quests and the same monsters, in the same order that you did last time. For this reason, levelling up a third character is terribly boring. Playing a fourth is unthinkable.
Age of Conan, at the end of its first year, is a game which has progressed in massive leaps and bounds. It has a solid, gorgeous-looking engine, a visceral, connected combat system (although a reduction in the number of spells and abilities for each class would be very welcome - most have far too many confusingly named, peculiarly similar abilities in their arsenal) and enough content to pull you through the experience. PVP is too chaotic for my blood, but I'm not much of a PVP player to be fair - those of a more combative nature seem to revel in Conan's offering. The ever-expanding endgame has plenty to keep hardcore players occupied, even though they'll never be satisfied - which is just how things should be.
In other words, Age of Conan is living up to much of the promise which led to my initial, over-optimistic 8/10 score. Even now, it's a flawed gem. It doesn't have the breadth, scope, polish or charm of WOW, Warhammer Online or Lord of the Rings Online, and it's hard not to see it as a second-string MMO - but unlike last time I returned to Age of Conan, it now feels like a game with direction, and a team that's capable of delivering on its promises. I was wrong 12 months ago - too forgiving of faults that ran deeper than I imagined. Today, Age of Conan is growing into the game I'd hoped it would back then. If only it hadn't taken so long to do so.
7 / 10