"KING CONAN BIDS YOU WELCOME."
Later, these words will be bellowed from the stage by a man reading from an oversized scroll at a merrily confused crowd of games journalists, Funcom developers and Z-list Norwegian TV celebrities. For now, they're content to appear in giant yellow capital letters on a scoreboard here at the Holmenkollen ski jump arena, on a thickly wooded hilltop above Oslo, on this rapidly cooling spring evening.
Men on horseback carrying pikes gallop past the sign through a cloud of smoke from the spit-roasting hogs. Wandering, fur-clad barbarians gnawing on bones mingle with marketeers in sunglasses, excitable leather-jacketed game fans and barefoot hippy chicks. There's fire-breathing, and fireworks, and live blacksmithing demonstrations, all in the shadow of the crumbling ski jump (sorry, "wizard's tower").
King Conan - there he is, up on his throne on the stage, holding the same sprawled, brooding posture for hours on end, bless him - bids us welcome to his war-camp. But in reality, we're welcoming him. For this most unusual event is the launch party for Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, Funcom's brutal online RPG.
The game launches in the less than a week (by the time you read this, early access servers will be live, and the game will be on sale in a matter of days). If anyone from Funcom isn't here, it's because they're still at the office, frantically patching and rebooting the beta and then patching it and rebooting it again, working overtime to get this beast of a game - the most technically advanced and hardware-intensive MMO ever - ready. The games industry is known for its crunch times, and there's no crunch like an MMO crunch.
If they succeed, they could easily have Norway's biggest-ever entertainment export on their hands. If they fail - it doesn't bear thinking about. Loose talk at the party has the game's budget at 80 million dollars. That's a lot of money for an independent PC developer, and not an amount even the richest publisher would want to see go down the drain.
So here we all are, shivering and drinking and eating and cheering our way through the night, wishing King Conan's virtual world a trouble-free birth, and mulling over what Funcom showed us and discussed with us at a city-centre cinema earlier in the day.
"Bip-bop-bip-bop daggadaggadagga pew pew pew pew!"
Gaute Godager, Age of Conan's lanky, bug-eyed and personable game director, is making vintage shoot-'em-up noises into his microphone. He's trying to explain his philosophy of raid boss design - in Age of Conan, he says, it has a frantic, old-school arcade edge to it, with fast action and simple gimmicks that require some fancy footwork and twitch skills to get around.
Even though the game is so very nearly out, raiding is one of several things seen for the first time at the launch event - others include a glimpse of guild-versus-guild siege warfare, the spectacular spellweaving that high-level magician characters will deploy, and an encounter - digital this time - with Conan himself. Godager also spends some time trotting through the game's basics.
These are covered in detail by the previews you can find on the gamepage, but we'll summarise them here: active melee combat, with directional attacks and defences, and combos; "mature" content (blood, dismemberment, nipples); high-end graphics; a single-player storyline, with cinematics and dialogue trees, for the first 20 levels; city-building for guilds; mounted combat.
Raids are for 24 players, in four groups of six. After his shoot-'em-up analogy, Godager also likens the co-ordinated movement they'll require to a ballet performance; it has to be said, the one performed live on screen looks more like a rugby match, with scrums of players hammering the boss - Age of Conan has a lot of melee classes - while ranged attackers and healers run along the wings. Less graceful, but still demanding - and there's a definite focus on physical positioning in the fights we see, with one web-footed gangling demon spreading clouds of poison gas behind him, while another pair of winged devils - a succubus and incubus - have to be kept physically apart to prevent their devastating joined attacks. Unlike many MMOs, Conan features collision detection, and it seems that raid designs are using path-blocking tactics to good use.
Another thing shown off by the raid is the excellent high-level armour designs. Many MMOs with a more realistic graphical style have struggled to pack enough charisma and differentiation into their avatars and armour sets. But Funcom's artists succeeded in achieving a look that's realistic, unique, sexy and a primitive sort of cool. They deserve kudos for this, even if much of the animation is a little bit off.
Town and country
Spellweaving is demonstrated by a Priest of Mitra - the game's most focused healer class - in Thunder River, a high-level zone of stepped plateaus and impressive waterfalls. The point of spellweaving is to give high-level caster classes their own alternative to the combo-based combat, stringing spells together with some nifty finger-work in an extremely prolonged and powerful cast. The graphical routine is certainly amazing: the priest levitates, and is surrounded by floating ankhs and statues of Mitra that build themselves out of the ground. But it's triggered by a cheat, so we don't yet fully understand the mechanic involved, a little worryingly this late in the day.
Siege warfare is shown in video form only, and it's hard to get a feel for at this stage, although the use of the heavier mounts - Mammoths and rhinos - as living battering rams is an appealing prospect for those who like to knock things over. Sensibly, guilds will have to declare times that they're vulnerable to attack, ensuring that both sides can get a force together. The keeps you fight over will be quite cheap to build, but you'll need a very expensive tier-three guild city first - a huge effort in terms of resources, although once gathered, there's no lengthy construction as the city rises smoothly and quickly from the ground.