Conan

May contain scenes of a sexual nature. And button mashing.

Warning: Conan, the new action adventure from THQ for PS3 and Xbox 360, may contain scenes of a sexual nature. In fact, it most definitely will contain scenes of a sexual nature according to Tom Smith, who's working as creative manager on the game.

"We're going all out on the M-rating," he says proudly - but don't expect Conan to go round jumping on women or putting things in their drinks in dodgy prehistoric nightclubs. "If you read the stories, Conan's actually a pretty nice guy, especially with the ladies. He won't force himself on maidens; he would consider that to be rude."

Which sounds a bit odd, for a Barbarian - you can't help wondering if he also has a thing about coasters. But let's not forget, Conan's still very much into slicing people's tummies open and popping their heads on spikes, something which Smith says the development team is keen to emphasise in the game.

"It's very violent and very gory... It's an action adventure game with a strong focus on the action, the killing, the chopping of things in half and that kind of stuff," he explains.

Push the buttons

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Expect lots of blood, gore and general spurtiness.

Action adventure with an emphasis on combat? Isn't that just a fancy way of saying button masher?

"We want to be friendly to the button mashers, because I think a large number of people who come into the game will start off that way. But we really want to build and encourage the player to experiment beyond that," Smith says.

So, the buttons you, well, mash will do different things depending on the type of fighting style you choose to develop. You'll start out with around 25 moves, but there are more than 100 to unlock, from grapples and stuns to sweeping hits and dual-wield slashes.

"The foundation of the game is the combat system and the number of options within it. The biggest downfall of the genre is repetition of fighting the same guys the same way throughout the entire game, so we really wanted to try very hard to avoid that," Smith explains.

"You can choose to focus on one of the weapon sets a little more and if you like fighting with a certain weapon, you can build upon that. Within each move tree there are enough options to keep you going for a long time."

And whether you like it or not, you'll have to work out new moves as the enemies you face become tougher to defeat. For example, in the earlier missions, you'll be able to take down baddies with a simple grab - but later on, you'll need to stun them first before you can attack.

Yabba dabba-doo

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Conan faces off with a variety men in skirts and stupid hats throughout the game.

So what kind of missions can you expect? Well, Conan is set in the prehistoric world of Hyboria. During the demo, Smith shows off one level which seems to have an Egyptian theme to it, and another with a distinctly piratey flavour. There are around 20 missions set in six different environments, and although THQ is keeping quiet about the storyline for now, it won't directly follow that of the 1982 Schwarzenegger movie.

"It's an original story that we built taking pieces from the previous Conans, definitely with the flavour of the original Robert E. Howard stories. It's got all the classic elements - giant monsters, evil wizards, women to rescue." And nob, of course.

Most of the enemies are human, but there are also mythical creatures - including, in one level demonstrated by Smith, a giant sea monster who might look a bit familiar to God of War fans. As, indeed, might quite a bit of the game - and Smith admits that GOW has been something of an inspiration, as has Ninja Gaiden.

Its all about "the depth of the move set, the variety and the number of options", says Smith. "We've been trying to blend the range of options you have in a pure fighting game with the encounters and level pacing of a more mission-based game."

But will Conan prove to be as impossibly hard as Ninja Gaiden? " We're going to have variable difficulty levels, so on the highest that's what we're striving for. But certainly on the easier difficulty levels, not quite so crazy.

"We want to be a little more friendly to the normal person, but we want players who have played Ninja Gaiden to flock to this game and get that same sort of thrill on the hard difficulty levels."

Smash and grab

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Here's hoping our hero isn't struggling simply to lift that enormous sword off the ground.

Although the core of Conan is about combat, there will be some puzzles to solve and rewards for exploring the various environments you find yourself in. "You aren't just purely killing - you take a break from time to time," promises Smith.

But judging by the levels we've been seeing, you will be killing an awful lot of the time. There goes Conan hacking through someone's torso; now he's chucking some bloke onto a handily positioned spike before pushing someone else into a nearby camp fire. It's all very gory, with arteries spurting in all directions and Olympic-sized pools of blood collecting on the ground.

According to Smith, "It's not just who you're fighting, it's where you're fighting - whether you can knock them off things, knock them into things, use fire... Pretty much anything you see you can is something you can use to kill people with."

And, naturally, you can chain together light, heavy and grapple moves to pull off a variety of combos. So you could just use a triple sword swing to bring down an enemy - or if you were feeling flash, you might grab him, push him onto the ground, steal his sword and stab him to death with his own weapon.

"We want to make sure we're also very appealing to the players who aren't button mashers, and those players should be able to experiment and show off with all the cool things very early," says Smith.

"A lot of these games, they'll give you a number of things to do but all of the combat will boil down to the same set of moves. The branching out of your options is what I think will attract people to the game. We really wanted to get away from that and make sure that anything you see you can interact with." Again, that'll include the ladies then.

Where is Barbary, anyway?

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Conan's specialist subjects include dual wielding, death grips and hitting people with fiery sticks.

Conan is due out on Xbox 360 and PS3 early next year - but why not the Wii? "Nobody's figured out sword combat on the Wii yet."

There's Red Steel, though.... "It's a good start, but Red Steel hasn't quite figured it out yet. But believe me, I'm a big Wii supporter," Smith is keen to note.

Conan is only at the pre-alpha stage, which might explain why the graphics don't look as polished as you might expect from a next-gen title. There also appear to be a few key elements missing - there's no online mode, for example, although of course you'll be able to unlock achievements. There's not even an offline multiplayer or co-op mode, which seems like a bit of a shame.

In short, it's a bit hard to get excited about Conan if you're not a fan of button mashers - sorry, action adventure games with an emphasis on combat - or of the original stories or film. It all feels a bit too familiar. But it's still early days, so there's still plenty of time to add in new elements - and who knows what they're keeping under wraps for now.

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