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.