No, there's no big number at the end of this article. (Although, if you look closely, you might find one or two small ones in the final paragraph.) Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, Funcom's heavyweight massively multiplayer RPG, is released today, but we feel - as is very often the case for MMOs at launch - that we can't offer a full review of it just yet. Our limited time with Age of Conan has left too much still to explore, and there's still the one entirely unknown quantity - how the game and a massive community of players will react to each other.
We expected one other factor to be holding us back. After the beta test proved to be an unstable, resource-hungry, slow and jerky mess that required constant patching and server downtime, we feared the worst for the bloodthirsty upstart. Age of Conan would simply not be ready to be thrust upon hundreds of thousands of demanding gamers this week, we thought. We were wrong.
In actual fact, the Norwegian developer and game operator has pulled off one of the smoothest MMO launches in history. We've been playing the retail version of the game since last weekend, and it has been largely bug-free and effortlessly playable, running reliably and at a fair lick of speed. The transition from limited early access to full-blown launch in the US earlier this week went well, and there's no reason not to expect the same in Europe today.
Only persistent problems with players getting stuck in one mid-level zone, Lacheish Plains, have blotted its copybook. It's still hardly accessible - you'll need an ocean of hard-drive space, the latest drivers and Windows updates, some patience with patch downloads, and preferably a ton of RAM and a beefy graphics card, if you want to play Age of Conan. Once you're in, though, you'll get what you paid for. In purely technical terms, we've no hesitation in recommending you play it from day one.
That, of course, is only one of many sides to this story.
Funcom has staked everything on a number of attitude-changes in Age of Conan: explicit sex and violence; lush, realistic, high-end graphics; dynamic, combo-based combat; a single-player introductory storyline; and a conversation system borrowed from adventure games and the likes of Bioware RPGs that's supposed to bring stories and relationships within the world of Hyboria to life. Most of these are significant departures for an MMO, most of them have been pretty well realised - and most of them run the risk of compromising the game in the long run.
Combat is probably the biggest sea-change, at least within the realm of fantasy MMOs. Very effectively showcased in the five-level, single-player opening, it's fast-paced, visceral and superficially very satisfying. Matching directional attacks to enemies' shield indicators, harming multiple enemies with carefully placed blows, and the greater importance of positioning (Age of Conan features proper collision detection, and manipulating enemy placement with knock-backs is a key strategy) add an extra layer of physical involvement to everyday battles.
It's less abstract, but it is also a bit messier. Physical abilities need to be triggered with combos of button-presses, and it'll be a while before you learn to slot into the slower rhythm of these while keeping up the more frantic pace of regular blows. There also seems to be little rhyme or reason, not to mention animation cues, to changes in enemy shielding, making the rhythm-action element seem arbitrary at times. Nonetheless, the brutal gratification is hard to resist, augmented by some gruesomely mulchy sonic and visual splatter effects, and the fatality moves (combo finishers) are a well-judged blend of chance, stat modification and skill, and a mighty pay-off.
It feels good. It feels like a Conan game should. It's resulted in what must be some of the most enjoyable melee classes in MMORPG history, especially the Conqueror and Barbarian, but including interesting magical hybrids like the Dark Templar, Herald of Xotli and Bear Shaman. But there are several rather sizeable buts.
The pure magical classes with weak melee attacks and no combos - and to a lesser extent, the Ranger - are mostly effective, but feel underdeveloped; strangers in a strange land, they don't fit into this relentlessly gory and confrontational game so well. Smothering their spells in overblown effects as compensation, and offering high-risk, high-reward spellweaving combos as a latter-level treat, are not adequate compensation for the fact their pacing is off and they're simply less involving to play.
Then again, that aspect of the casters might be a blessing. Combat is relentlessly intense. We didn't tire of it particularly in a week's heavy play, but after hundreds of hours' play, it's possible to imagine wanting to return to a slower, more studied and tactical and even predictable style of play. There's also a sense that many major group encounters are just going to degenerate into massive melee scrums, and that the clear distinctions and interplay between classes that make for the very best experiences MMOs have to offer will simply be missing. Player-versus-player fights feel similarly random and unstructured, but we wouldn't rule out improvements here as players learn their classes properly, and Funcom implements some balancing tweaks.
Funcom originally intended for the first 20 levels of Age of Conan to be a single-player experience only. They since retreated from that, concentrating that storyline into half to two-thirds of those levels, allowing you to switch between night-time single-player and regular daytime multiplayer questing at will. The story concerns your amnesiac character, freed from slavery by a shipwreck, fighting against slavery and oppression in the pirate town of Tortage.
It was a smart decision. The joins show a little - it's a slightly more disjointed experience than the seamless introduction to Lord of the Rings Online, but only slightly - but the balance is right, the options many, and the storytelling is as sound and involving an introduction to Conan's world as you could wish for, with well-drawn major characters coming together in a genuinely neat and satisfying climax. Leaving Tortage for a more conventional MMO structure - and losing the voice acting of those 20 levels - is a little jarring, but compensated for with a greater sense of freedom.
Nevertheless, you can't help feeling that Funcom's desire to elevate these aspects of the MMO to the same level as a single-player game have rather uncomfortably split Age of Conan down the middle. Take the dialogue system as an example. It's intended to be more immersive than simply clicking through windows of quest text, but unfortunately the majority of the dialogue is not interesting enough to hold the attention, and the conversational options are purely cosmetic.
The end result is just to slow the whole experience down, and ask you to click OK five times - in five different flavours - instead of once. Similarly, the game's user interface is very slick and attractive, but nothing like fast enough for a piece of software that will be used as intensively, for as long periods of time, as an MMO. Clarity and speed are everything, as only Blizzard and Turbine seem to understand at the moment.
It's at this point that we could start to argue that the game's cutting-edge, realistic and hardware-intensive visuals were a similar mistake. After all, few MMOs that have gone down this path have succeeded in doing more than alienating half their potential players. But we're not going to.
Yes, the system spec requirements are high, but for what it is, the game is well optimised. Yes, the art may be hit-and-miss in some places (monsters, mostly), but where it counts - craggy nature, impressive architecture, cool armour and weapons, and above all, varied avatars that drip with charisma and sex appeal - it's a resounding hit. Age of Conan is a gorgeous, atmospheric game, trading some environmental variety for total credibility. Funcom has been absolutely clear on what players would want from Conan's world, and it has delivered it.
There's another aspect of its world-building, though, that is an awful lot less impressive. Age of Conan is a very, very heavily 'zoned' game. This is no kind of seamless virtual world on a par with World of Warcraft or, for that matter, GTA. Although some zones are large, you'll regularly see continuity-breaking loading screens, sometimes for minutes at a time, often for something as simple as entering a house or inn.
Even worse, many outdoor questing zones - the sort you would expect to be genuinely massively multiplayer - run in several instances on the same server, meaning you could be stood in the same spot as your friends and not see them without switching instances from a drop-down menu. And for what? At the end of the day, when you zoom out to the world map and look seriously at your adventuring options, Age of Conan's world, the amount of content available, is simply not that large.
Time and again, Age of Conan simply doesn't meet your expectations of modern social gaming. The whole crafting and trading side to the game, the backbone of player interaction in the vast majority of MMOs, doesn't make its presence felt in any real sense until halfway through the levelling curve, and we don't have a handle on it yet. The chat interface has severe limitations. PVP matches aren't even remotely integrated with the game world, or offered any introduction; you register for matchmaking through a relatively well-hidden menu option. There doesn't even appear to be a mail system.
Single-minded, shallow, slick and highly entertaining in the short term, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is definitely a solid proposition - as an RPG. As an MMO, it's unproven - probably compromised, possibly somewhat limited. That doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. This is a game with broad appeal that does what it set out to do with verve and polish, and will please a great many of its players. Those looking for complex social systems behind their slaughter have Warhammer Online to look forward to. Those who just want to mash monsters into a bloody, particle-shaded pulp with friends need look no further.
We'll offer a full review in the coming weeks - before your 30 days' free play are up and you need to decide whether to subscribe, if you buy now. If we had to predict the score, we'd say it's a 7, but that could vary either way depending on how certain things shape up - notably, the endgame, crafting, and PVP. The next couple of months are still make-or-break for Age of Conan, but by pulling such a professional launch out of the bag, Funcom has given its baby the best chance of success.