The Difficult Second Album has become part of rock lore; that awkward moment when a group of musicians, having finally got to tell the world who they are for the first time, have to prove that they have anything more to say. MMO developers (most of them frustrated rock stars, going by the proliferation of dodgy house bands at their conventions) know their pain; they face the Difficult First Expansion. In fact, it's worse, for them, because their first work isn't just a potent memory. It's still there, attached to the expansion, warts and all, and the contrast - whether favourable or otherwise - can be uncomfortable.
Funcom's task in expanding Age of Conan - with Rise of the Godslayer, revealed for the first time at gamescom this week - is even more difficult than most. Here is a game that was considered unfinished at launch, stretched far too thin over its 80 levels, and despite some admirable efforts to flesh it out in recent updates it's still a little on the slender side. In this case, the standard tactic of layering more of the same on top with a raised level cap won't cut it. In fact, it would just make matters worse.
It's to Funcom's credit, then, that its developers have realised this and thought laterally. There's no raised level cap in Rise of the Godslayer. There is a new continent, the Asian-themed Khitai (which comes with a new player race, the Khitan), but it contains lower-level content - for level 20 up - as well as a high-level challenge. There are no new classes, and no more levels, but there is an alternate advancement system that will broaden the range of each existing class as well as increase its power. There isn't just more stuff to do, but there's a greater variety of it; raising wolves and tigers from cubs to fighting companions to mounts, taking sides in factional struggles.
In short, Rise of the Godslayer expands Age of Conan horizontally, not vertically. It puts some much-needed meat on the old barbarian's bones. Game director Craig Morrisson doesn't quite put it like that, of course, but he agrees that the point is to make the whole game, not just the new content, better - and he's keen not to face the age-old expansion problem of making what's gone before suddenly meaningless. "With expansions there's often the feeling of breaking things up, and running the risk of having players become 'detached' from the original setting," he argues. "We didn't want all the great high-end content we have now, and have been building, to be instantly negated by their first few days of exploring in the expansion."
That said, most players will probably be diving into Rise of the Godslayer one of two ways: starting a new Khitan character, or heading straight for Khitai with their level 80. In the former case, you'll still play through the original game's Tortage slave-town story arc - with "a few changes here and there" - up to level 20. Then, whether you belong to the Khitan race or not, you'll be able to head east, towards Robert E. Howard's version of ancient China, the Empire of Khitai. The steppes of the Gateway to Khitai provide level 20-40 adventuring, and lead players up to the Great Wall. But not beyond it.
To get beyond the Wall and into Khitai proper, you'll need a high-level character. Morrisson says he's aiming for the first playfield within the Empire to be playable from "the high 70s through to 80". Beyond that, levels cease to matter, but it's not like there's no progression - the content will get harder, and require the new advancement points to be earned and spent on new abilities. "Once players start to move through they will have to have invested some into the alternate advancement system in order to progress further," Morrisson says. "Skilled and experienced high-level players might even find it possible to start exploring the second of the playfields early on, but they will of course be earning advancement points as they go along."
Once in Khitai, players will - in the suitably pulpy exclamations of Funcom's PR - "descend into the shadows that have fallen over Khitai, the fabled empire of the east! Ride across the grassy steppes and see the purple pagodas of Paikang rising from the vine-choked bamboo jungles! Unravel the corruption that threatens to taint the very heart of this beautiful land forever!"
Age of Conan's greatest strength is probably its sense of place, its vision of Howard's low-fantasy badlands, firmly anchored in humanity's real history. Going by the art, screens and trailer we've seen, Rise of the Godslayer is going to build on that with its re-imagining of ancient China and Korea: endless grass flatlands studded with abrupt rocky outcrops and bamboo fields, huge palaces perched in impassable mountains; the black-sanded desert of Kara Korum, the idyllic rust-coloured autumnal forests of Chosain Province, and the tangled jungles that surround the imperial city of Paikang.
It's starkly beautiful and mysterious, and Morrisson promises the largest zones they've ever built, with much more diversity of scenery and setting, and more open in design to encourage a sense of exploration - appropriate to an Empire that hasn't really been visited by people of Conan's kingdom before. The immersion won't be broken by the jarring geographical jumps of the original game, either. All the zones are next to each other and you can see from one into its neighbour, although there will still be loading times between them.
Naturally, the civilisation of Khitai won't be quite as peaceful and beguiling as the view. It's a civilisation in decline, once great, but crumbling into barbarism and decadence. It's also a broken empire, torn by factional warfare and threatened by a murky supernatural evil. That evil - unspecified, for now - was kept at bay by a local god, until that god was killed 25 years previously by Conan himself in the events of Howard's story The Tower of the Elephant. So Conan's actions have spurred Khitai's decline, and he's not exactly popular in these parts. Players will encounter a religious cult burning his effigy.
That's the main narrative thrust (and explanation of the title) of Rise of the Godslayer. The other story to be told is more malleable, because it's about your choices as a player, as you pick sides in the factional conflict that dominates the expansion. Every zone offers a choice between two factions to ally with - or even betray, later on - which will have "meaningful" implications for your questing path through the game, and change how NPCs react to you. Every faction also offers its own armour set as a reward, or rather four tiers of armour as you make your way up through the ranks - and some of the sets are stunning to behold.
At the mention of factions, many will immediately assume - or hope, at least - that they will offer some meaningful definition and purpose to the game's PvP, which outside of high-level guild battles is currently a total free-for-all. While that might happen, says Morrisson, it will do so organically rather than through any game systems.
"Of course, on the PvP servers having factional cities and camps with whom players ally will mean that players will find a very different PvP experience in those playfields," he says. "Having specific PvP-based quests is something we have considered, but I think we would want to see how the factional gameplay works out first. It is something that may change as we progress through the testing phases."
In fact, the expansion has a resolute focus on PvE questing and dungeons (of which we only know about one, a two-to-three-hour group instance called Pillars of Heaven, a temple colonised by bandits). There will be no new PvP content in Rise of the Godslayer at all. "That will come through live content updates rather than expansion content," Morrisson confirms. "We want new PvP content and any game types we might add to be available to everyone, not just the expansion players, so most of the new PvP additions coming are part of the usual live update cycles."
If anything, Rise of the Godslayer seems to be aimed squarely at the solo adventurer. This has quietly become Age of Conan's special skill in the year since its launch; it's now the casual, dip-in MMO with the hardcore attitude, more akin to Lord of the Rings Online than Darkfall, however mean its chops. The most mouthwatering items we know about in the expansion are quest rewards: the faction armour sets and the new mounts.
The mounts - a wolf, which Funcom hasn't shown yet, and an impressively burly and warlike tiger - are one of Rise of the Godslayer's cleverest touches. Such beasts are always one of the most spectacular and sought-after items in an MMO, but usually handled like a utilitarian afterthought by the game systems. Funcom, however, is looking to forge an emotional attachment and an epic quest line out of each one. You'll need to capture them as cubs, train them first to fight alongside you, and finally to bear your weight. In the case of the tiger, you'll even need to join a religious cult, fight a tigress barehanded, teach the pet cub skills as it grows, and craft a saddle before you can ride it.
What we know least about Rise of the Godslayer is what will be important in the long run: its new progression path, the alternate advancement system. You will earn points to spend on new abilities and combos, many of which will naturally have an Asian martial arts theme. You will also be able to train your abilities to a more powerful level using an offline, time-based skill-training system not unlike EVE Online's. The aim is more depth to combat and a diversification of each class, allowing them to take on more roles, according to Morrisson.
"Now that we have deployed the revamped items and statistics update, we have a much greater number of options for us to play with, and we want to build on that," he says. "The focus will be on providing more situational and interesting abilities that mean players can take advantage of the strengths and weakness of their opponents."
The time-based training means you'll need to specialise at first, but ultimately you'll be able to train in everything, effectively creating a more flexible character with multiple specs. "Over time, the players can earn virtually all the available abilities if they keep working through it, meaning that they will end up with a great many options for the character and are not restricted to one single role," Morrisson says.
It's an intriguing direction to take players in, and a useful opportunity to rebuild Age of Conan's combat around its new RPG system, as Morrisson points out. How clear it will be in terms of being able to measure your power against other players or the PvE content - and whether it can offer the same satisfaction and sense of purpose as a level "ding" - we won't be able to tell until we know much more. "We are working very hard to make sure that the alternate advancement system will have some really interesting elements to it," is all Morrisson can say to reassure us at the moment.
However, instinct tells us it's the right move for a game that, while vastly improved over its launch, is still only just living up to its early promise. Age of Conan needs to be broadened, not lengthened, and that's just what Rise of the Godslayer's alternate advancement, faction gameplay and new low-level as well as high-level content do. The top-notch artwork and apparently ample, rewarding and multi-faceted solo questing show that Funcom knows Age of Conan's strengths and is wisely choosing to build on those.
Some would argue that it's too soon, that the game is still too unsteady on its feet. Perhaps, but standing still is the true death for any MMO, and if Funcom has proved anything in the last year, it's that it's committed to keeping this game alive. If Age of Conan's Difficult First Expansion is substantial enough and polished enough when it launches - some if - maybe the Godslayer really will rise again.
Age of Conan: Rise of the Godslayer is in development for PC. It has no release date as yet.