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.