"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.
We're also treated to a tour of the game's capital city, Tarantia, seat of Conan himself. The scale of the place, split into three zones, is remarkable, as is the detail in the architecture, which you can clamber over using the climbing skill. Although there'll be some more relaxing questing around everyday city life here, and bards in the taverns will recite Conan creator Robert E. Howard's poetry, it's not entirely safe - you'll need to make your way past an invading force to get to Conan's palace.
The meeting with the barbarian himself is a little anti-climactic, though, and a reminder that Funcom has had to cut a corner or two to bring its majestic vision and impossibly ambitious game to life. It's hard for Conan to appear a kingly tower of testosterone when he's moonwalking down some stairs with a giant yellow question mark above his head. It seems all NPCs really are created equal, even if some are more equal than others.
That goes for players too of course, so it's a relief to hear that an apprentice system - similar to City of Heroes' sidekicks - is in place. Lower-level players can group with higher-level friends, and gain temporary boosts to all their stats and abilities, and although they can't get quests or gear to keep, they can sell whatever loot they get and take the money back with them. Not that catching up will be slow - up to level 60, you can expect to gain a level for every two or three hours' play, and it's expected to take 250 hours to reach the level cap of 80.
Funcom has clearly put some thought into letting people play the game how they want, and another excellent feature in this vein is the epic mode, which transforms any of the game's solo-friendly zones or dungeons into an much harder area suitable for group play, with rewards to match.
Nipples, rhinos and RAM
The rhino doesn't work.
It's a small thing, really, and we feel a bit uncharitable for mentioning it. Bugs happen in game demonstrations all the time. But when one of the game's three mounts won't even appear in front of the world's press - and this in the week before release - alarm bells do start to ring. The beta has been unstable and slow, the servers down as much as they were up. Age of Conan wouldn't be the first MMO to stumble into the market on shaky legs, but in a post-WOW world, can it get away with it?
In fact, the rhino example is doubly unfair, because if there's likely to be a problem with Age of Conan it's not bugs, but technical accessibility. Historically, MMOs with steep system requirements - think EverQuest 2, or Vanguard - have not done well. And yet here is a game that takes up 25GB of hard drive space and requires heavy patching at launch, needs the very latest drivers and Windows updates to run, and makes similar demands on RAM and graphics cards as Crysis. Is Funcom confident it has made the right choice?
"It's scalable," argues designer Joel Bylos in a roundtable interview. "I think this is a very good question, but I think it also hits into other parts of the Age of Conan market. We're a mature game for 18-plus. 18-plus is the demographic which has throwaway cash, young earners, those are the people with the best computers. In that regard, our demographic and our rating are coming together with the hardware requirements.
"I think we aimed for it to run on Oblivion computers two years ago, and it does that. I have a gig of RAM and a two-year-old graphics card at home, and I'm getting 30 frames a second. People can expect to get fairly steady FPS on the minimum spec. Hopefully. That's what we're aiming for."
"I think it's a problem to an extent," agrees writer Shannon Drake, "but at the same time for the direction we wanted to take the game and the engine in, you have to do justice to Hyboria, and we really wanted to push the technology forward. That means obviously making sacrifices in terms of grandma's PC being able to run it."
A journalist from across the Atlantic has another pressing question about the game's readiness for release: the beta does not feature nipples. Are they going to make it back into the game?
"Oh God," groans Drake. "Nipples not showing up in the beta is a scripting error, from what they tell me. But they will be there. We know how important that is, especially to Americans. Americans are very touchy about nipples.
"The ESRB meeting was surreal," he continues, describing the meeting with the American censors. "Eight grown people sitting around the table: can we have nipples? Well, we can, but they can't be too perky. But what if she's just cold? Can we prove she's just cold? Well, not really. They can't be perky because she's aroused, because that would imply she's going to have sex."
(We've played the retail version of the game since then, and are happy to report that it's running quite smoothly, and nipples do appear in a suitably modest, non-erect form.)
One thing's for sure, there's never been an MMO launch like it. Back at the party, we've relocated to a blissfully warm bunker, where camp Norwegian power-metal band Turbonegro is crunching through its classic, Blow Me Like The Wind, while belly-dancers gyrate in a cage. Hardier souls are still outside, crowding around a camp fire, wrapping themselves in furs and swigging wine from the bottle. PR stunt or no, there's a genuinely wild and woolly feel to proceedings now; the spirit of Howard's stories meshes perfectly with this untamed Scandinavian knees-up. This is how they do things in the far North.
There are still many question marks hanging over Conan - not just the quest-giver kind - and the next few weeks could be a very bumpy ride. But there's no doubt that Funcom's heart is in this, and heart counts for a lot. We'll have detailed hands-on impressions of the game later in the week, and let you know if - and just as pertinently, when - you should start playing it. For now, we'll restrict ourselves to returning King Conan's hospitality, and wishing him god speed.