As you may know, we withdrew our original review of Age of Conan: Rise of the Godslayer shortly after publication last month. In short, we didn't give the original reviewer enough time with the expansion, but this only became apparent to us once the piece was live. We're very sorry about this, and we're happy to present a second look at the game to make up for our mistake.
Age of Conan is the bloke who turned up to the party having forgotten to pull on his trousers. It's hardly his fault, in a sense; barbarians often seem to run around in the prehistoric equivalent of Y-fronts, and not a merchant trader from Cimmeria to Stygia has ever batted an eyelid at their manly thews being on display all over the place.
It sets the tone for the rest of the evening, however. No matter how fine a pair of trousers the star of my tortured metaphor subsequently dons, everyone will still refer to him as "that bloke who turned up with no trousers on", rolling their eyes and giggling behind their hands.
Conan's trouserless arrival in May 2008, and its subsequent travails, provide a rather sad object lesson in how an MMO's launch can colour the discussion around the game for years to come. Its broken, buggy state when it first appeared burned the fingers of thousands of players - and yes, in common with much of the games press, I didn't help by foolishly judging the game on potential rather than true merit in our launch review. Whatever else it becomes, or has become, for many gamers Age of Conan will always be, first and foremost, a cock-up.
That's a salutary lesson to developers who take a "ship it and worry about patching later" attitude, certainly, but also a terrible shame - because Crom knows, Funcom has made a Herculean effort to make things right in the past two years. With the launch of the game's first paid expansion, Rise of the Godslayer, the Conan team might have hoped to draw a line under the rough ride of the original game.
They won't, of course - but they've got every right to hope, because by any standards, Rise of the Godslayer is an impressive slice of MMO gaming. Having finally fulfilled the promise of the game with recent patches and updates, delivering a largely smooth and gap-free progression to level 80 and a respectable amount of endgame content to keep you happy once you get there, Godslayer is the first chance the team has had to really expand upon the experience rather than filling in gaps.
What they have delivered is neatly divided into two parts. There's a new race to play as, the Asiatic-featured Khitan, although no new character classes. Like all other races, they spend the first 20 levels pursuing a narrative-led adventure through the pirate city of Tortage. After the climactic battle in Tortage, however, you set sail for a new territory - the Gateway to Khitai, a gigantic new zone whose quests will take you all the way to level 40.
Gateway to Khitai is a testament to how much Funcom has learned since the launch of Age of Conan. One of the most prevalent and valid criticisms of the game was that after the fantastic, rich Tortage experience, the game dumped you into zones that were comparatively devoid of content and arguably downright dull. Much has been improved in those original zones, admittedly, but Gateway is what they should have been from the outset.
You arrive not at the heart of an unknown village, but rather to the smoking ruins of the trade caravan on which you were travelling, which was attacked by barbarians almost within sight of the gates to your homeland. There's a real sense that the story which you began in Tortage is continuing - exactly the sense which the game previously lacked.
As new quests take you further afield in the zone, you pick up strands of further interconnected stories. The one downside is that, while there's lots of interesting lore in the region, it's hardly a major departure visually - rocky steppes are familiar territory for Conan, and although the Mongolian influences are novel, it's a fairly homogeneous region, overall.
The far border of the zone is defined by the Great Wall, which looms over the region from its Eastern end, and it's beyond that wall that the second part of Godslayer's content is located: Khitai itself, a collection of zones influenced by the landscape, architecture and mythology of East Asia, especially Korea and Imperial China, although hints of cultures as diverse as Japan, Thailand and Cambodia all make an appearance in the game's luscious artwork. These zones are exclusively for level 80 players, and represent a truly vast expansion of Age of Conan's endgame.
Unusually, Funcom has opted not to expand the level cap beyond 80. Despite this, there's a distinct difficulty curve to the four new level 80 zones, starting off in Northern Grasslands, just beyond the Great Wall, and reaching a peak in the jungle zone of Paikang, far off on the eastern coast. In fact, by the time you're exploring Paikang's broken highways and suspicious jungle temples, you'll be fighting level 85 enemies - but your own level won't have budged an inch.
If it's a decision likely to throw newcomers - as, indeed, will the rather unforgiving difficulty of the level 80 Khitai regions, right from the very outset - it's one which has resonated with the game's players, who opposed the idea of a rise in the level cap. Instead, Funcom has adopted a middle ground, creating a new Alternate Advancement system which allows players to develop their characters without splitting the player-base or rendering the old level 80 content irrelevant.
Alternate Advancement is based on acquiring XP either through PvE or PvP, and then converting it into points which can be spent on "perks". There's a clear division between the two styles of play; PvE points are spent on PvE perks, PvP points buy you advantages against your fellow players. You earn the relevant XP through a whole host of actions, but it'll take you a while to earn the points required for high-end perks. However, in a nod to EVE Online, it's also possible to train perks one at a time by investing time in them, in which case they'll continue to train even when you're offline.
The other twist to the Alternate Advancement system is that you'll need to equip the majority of perks you train in order for them to take effect - and you only have a limited number of perk slots available. The consequences are far-reaching. In essence, five levels of character advancement have been replaced with an extremely user-configurable set of bonuses, meaning that there'll be more difference than ever before between level 80 characters, even of the same class.
It's not quite reaching the level of user customisation seen in something like Guild Wars, but as an exercise in putting clear water between Age of Conan and other MMOs, and emphasising Conan's long-standing focus on player skill, it's a pretty solid statement of intent.
Alternate Advancement isn't the only bar you'll be trying to push upwards as you journey through Khitai's undeniably gorgeous zones, though. The entire continent's gameplay is focused around 10 new factions - divided into five warring pairs, with the player asked to choose a side in each rivalry. Building your standing with these factions is the core task at hand, with a variety of quests - many of them repeatable, an echo of World of Warcraft's now all-pervasive Daily Quests - being on offer from each.
As you accumulate standing and tokens, high-level gear becomes available, although don't expect any of it to come easy. Godslayer guards its precious epic items jealously. Dedicated players will take many weeks or even months to get hold of desirable items - but this time, at least, they'll be getting gear worth flaunting.
The Asian setting has given Conan's art team a new lease of life, not only in terms of the breathtakingly beautiful environments, but also with gear that finally looks as epic as it sounds. Maintaining the game's low-fantasy feel while still providing players with visual rewards for their efforts is a tough balancing act, but it's one the game's artists have finally mastered, it seems. Most impressive of all are the new Tiger and Wolf mounts, each of which demands vast investment of time and effort to acquire, but which will provide dedicated players with the "wow!" factor the game had, thus far, been lacking.
All of this eye candy comes at a price, however. While the game's performance and graphical quality is incredible compared to its messy state two years ago, the Khitai zones place a fresh strain on PCs. They're bigger, more detailed and vastly more ambitious, and my trusty PC, which now breezes through the older zones of Hyboria with ease, found some of Khitai's more impressive sections to be a framerate-murdering challenge. It's arguably worth it for the visual spectacle, although devoted PvP players, in particular, will find themselves dialling down their graphics settings fairly quickly. Graphical glitches and lengthy data checks are also still an annoyance.
None of these flaws are game-breaking, and few of them seem to bother the game's devoted followers - and yes, there are plenty of those. The scaled-down number of servers now plays host to a pretty vibrant and active community of players, although there's a major cultural difference between the PvP servers and their PvE counterparts. The latter are genuinely friendly and helpful for newbies, the former, although arguably much closer to the PvP-focused "spirit" of the game, are rather aggressive and a lot quicker to tell questioning newcomers to "go back to WOW".
If Rise of the Godslayer's greatest strength is its laser-sharp focus on listening to the community and responding to what they want, it also makes it harder to recommend to new players. Gateway to Khitai is a welcome addition to the early game, but it's all you'll see of the expansion for a long while, with by far the best of the content being locked away behind the Great Wall.
For those active in Age of Conan already, however, Godslayer is a great step for the game. With well-considered new features, glorious artwork and fantastic music, it demonstrates Funcom's design and art teams firing on all cylinders, building on the work done by the technical team in bringing the game up to scratch over the past two years. Conan isn't about to threaten the biggest players in the MMO space, but it has found a niche for itself nonetheless, and Godslayer sees it settling into that role in confident and well-executed style.
8 / 10