There are few more critical moments when starting a new massively multiplayer RPG than selecting your first character class. Of course, it's always possible to go back and start again - and in the long run, if you stick with the game, you're bound to try several classes.
However, most players stick with their original decision, often in not-so-blissful ignorance of the fact that there's a better option for them out there, mistaking a misguided choice for flaws in the game. (We levelled a warrior in World of Warcraft all the way to the late 40s before realising that we hated warriors.)
If you're new to MMOs, it's a doubly difficult choice. But even seasoned players will find that their favourite class archetypes either don't appear in a new game, or make the transition to a new combat system in a way that changes them beyond recognition.
With that in mind, we've put together this basic guide to the classes in Funcom's Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures - which launches in Europe this Friday - with a view to helping you make an informed decision once you've installed the game. We can't say we've played them all to a high level, but with first-hand experience of several of them, and an understanding of how they all fit into the game's unique playing style, we can guide you smoothly through those critical clicks in the character creation screen.
We can't help you pick a hairstyle, though. That ball's in your court.
Hit me with your rhythm stick
It's been said many times before, but it bears repeating before we begin. Age of Conan features an active combat system that's a little different from that in most MMORPGs. Although you will still be clicking on spells and abilities in a bar, there's no auto-attack; it's replaced with a number of directional physical blows that you'll need to be hitting constantly to make the most of weaknesses in enemies' shields. Furthermore, many of your abilities will be triggered by combos of these directional attacks, and killing an enemy with a combo results in a gory fatality move.
This makes Age of Conan a game geared, on a fundamental level, towards melee combat. Of the game's twelve classes, there are only four traditional "casters" - magic-users - that don't use combos and aren't particularly suited to getting in a close-quarters scrap. Inescapably, these don't feel as fluid and natural a part of the game system, so be warned - if you're not a fan of battering stuff in the face, this may not be the game for you.
The four archetypes
Age of Conan's twelve classes are divided into four "archetypes" of three classes each: soldiers, priests, rogues and mages. Each archetype follows a different story thread through the first twenty levels of the game.
Soldiers are heavily armoured warriors who can take a lot of punishment, and deal it back with a broad range of melee weapons. Broadly speaking, these are the "tank" classes; their role in a group is to stand at the front and taunt enemies into concentrating their attacks on them, allowing other classes to go about their business unmolested.
Priests are healers. They use magic to keep themselves, and their groups, alive. They wear light to medium armour and have limited weapon selections, and naturally they have offensive abilities too. A key point to note about Age of Conan's priests is that their healing spells are less effective on themselves than they are on group members.
Rogues are sneaks and damage-dealers. They excel at stealth, and doing large amounts of physical damage without attracting enemies' attention. They wear medium armour and use both melee and ranged weapons.
Mages are offensive magic-users. They wear light armour and possess destructive spells, as well as being able to summon creatures as pets to fight with them, or shapeshift into different forms.
Guardian: The Guardian is the tank of tanks; a heavily-armoured warrior designed for group defence. It can pair one-handed weapons with a shield, or use a polearm to attack multiple enemies at once. In offensive terms, it makes interesting use of Age of Conan's unique combat system, with attacks that deplete stamina (the resource for physical attacks) or create vulnerabilities in enemies' shielding. Shield guardians specialise in soaking up damage, while polearm-bearers are expert at taking down multiple enemies with huge knock-back strikes. Tanking can be more dynamic and fun in Age of Conan than many other MMOs, and the Guardian will always be in demand for groups.
Dark Templar: An evil blend of plate-armoured warrior and magic-user - a sort of bad Paladin - the Dark Templar is one of Age of Conan's many interesting hybrid classes. Wearing shields and one-handed weapons, the Dark Templar can leech health from enemies for limited healing spells, and even convert damage dealt into health top-ups. If that sounds overpowered, note that many of the Templar's abilities also have damaging side-effects. Bizarrely, it will also gain buffs from damage dealt to members of its group. This class will need careful balancing from Funcom to work, but for students of the unusual, it's probably the most interesting experiment in the game.
Conqueror: Rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the most able solo classes in the game, the Conqueror is a powerful all-round front-line fighter situated somewhere between Guardian and Barbarian, and quite similar to Lord of the Rings Online's Captain when in a group. It wears heavy armour but no shields, and can dual-wield, but just as important as its melee attacks is its range of commanding auras that boost groups of allies, and detract from enemies' power. If you want to deal more direct damage than a pure tank, but want the security of plenty of armour and hit points, the Conqueror is a fine choice.
Priest of Mitra: The Priest of Mitra is the stereotypical healer, a through-and-through good guy with the strongest healing spells in the game. You can expect to be the primary healer in any group you join, and to be in demand with other players, but you won't get any melee combos. However, armour and weapon choices aren't as limited as you might expect, and the Priest of Mitra has some interesting offensive spells, notably a powerful knock-back that will allow it to hold enemies off or push them into the path of tanks and damage-dealers. Funcom has worked hard to make the core healer a less limited option than it is in many games, to good effect.
Tempest of Set: This slightly evil Stygian class has the broadest range of equipment options of the priests: light armour, shields, and a good selection of weapons and talismans. Don't mistake it for a tough fighter, though, with its limited amount of health and lack of combos. This is the class to choose if you don't believe healers necessarily have to be whitebread good guys, and want to mix powerful mage-style magical damage with healing abilities (but be warned, it is somewhat compromised at both). Expect to be surrounding yourself with enemies and then killing them en masse with spells over an area of effect, rather than actually fighting them, or casting at them from a distance.
Bear Shaman: This is the most unconventional healer in Age of Conan - in fact, it's one of the most unconventional classes in the game. It's not really a caster at all; wearing medium armour and using melee combos, the Bear Shaman is a front-line fighter which can buff allies and heal them strongly over time - and later on, resurrect them - rather than one that needs to stand back to cast spells. Tree-huggers will enjoy its strong alignment with nature, and ability to summon bears late in the game. It's the best-suited healer to Age of Conan's style of play, but be warned, it's still not an easy one to level. The Shaman is very weak in the early stages and has an incredibly limited choice of weapons - two-handed clubs and ranged weapons only. However, for a chance to simultaneously play a support role and enjoy the game's melee combat in full, it's got to be worth persevering with the inconvenience.
Barbarian: This, in many ways, is the class Age of Conan was made for. It's the class Conan himself used to be: a lightly-armoured, reckless fighter that moves and attacks fast, deals huge amounts of damage, and has a broad range of physical attacks and combos available. It can dual-wield or use two-handed weapons. Although it can use stealth, it's a much more in-your-face fighter than the typical sneaky rogue of other MMOs; think a swords-specced Rogue in World of Warcraft, but much more so. A very viable option for fans of intense, down-to-the-wire melee combat who just don't want to tank.
Assassin: A more stereotypical rogue, the Assassin is the game's stealth specialist, taking its time to prepare lethal attacks that deal the most damage in one shot of any class in the game. With only cloth and silk armour, dual-wielded daggers and crossbows to choose from, the equipment options are very limited, and many of the everyday abilities of the typical rogue have been transferred across to the Barbarian, so the Assassin is certainly a class for painstaking specialists only.
Ranger: Age of Conan's marksman class, the Ranger specialises in bows and crossbows and is the only class that can perform combos and execute fatalities with these ranged weapons. They can dual-wield melee weapons too, are reasonably well-armoured, can use stealth well, and make limited but effective use of the combo system when fighting up-close. Lacking a pet or minion, though, it's hard to keep enemies at ranged-weapon distance when playing solo, so don't be fooled by the extreme solo-friendliness of WOW's Hunter into thinking the same applies here. Group with a tank to enjoy the Ranger to the full.
Demonologist: The archetypal warlock on the surface, the Demonologist has very limited armour and weapons, casts very destructive damage-dealing spells, summons a demon pet to deal even more damage, and trades its own health for more magical power. It's certainly a spectacular and powerful class, but with no melee combos available, and Age of Conan's rather limited pet system, its options are somewhat limited. The demonologist is really just an uncomplicated, unsophisticated magical "nuke", but likely very powerful in player-versus-player matches.
Herald of Xotli: As the Bear Shaman is to the Priests, the Herald of Xotli is to the mages: an unusual show-stopper of a class, a hybrid of mage and solider, tailored towards Age of Conan's combo-based melee combat. Although very lightly armoured, the Herald can transform into a heavily-armoured demon, and deploy combos as it wades right into the thick of front-line fighting. With powerful magical attacks and the ability to make enemies flee in fear as well, this is one of the most versatile and enjoyable classes in the game.
Necromancer: On the face of it, the Necromancer is extremely similar to the Demonologist; a magical damage dealer which can summon minions, in this case the corpses of the dead rather than demons. It is, perhaps, a little less single-minded, with its frost spells making it better at crowd-control (the MMO art of halting and directing your enemies' movements), and some beneficial buffs for friendly players. But once again, the lack of combos or a truly effective pet system makes the Necromancer a slightly uncomfortable fit in Age of Conan's world.