Funcom launches free trials for its fantasy MMO Age of Conan today. You can pick up one of 20,000 exclusive free trial keys here at Eurogamer - just head on over to the giveaway pages for European servers or North American servers as appropriate. There are 10,000 keys available for each, and anyone can play on any server. Each trial key unlocks seven days of free play, and three exclusive in-game items.
But why should you give Age of Conan a second chance after its launch disappointed so many last year? Funcom has made many claims for fixing the game's flaws and flooding it with new content, but do they stand up? We sent our long-suffering Hyborian correspondent Rob Fahey back into the game to find out.
An hour into my latest adventure in Age of Conan's Hyboria, I'm discovering that playing a long-abandoned MMORPG character is absolutely nothing like riding a bike.
Unaccustomed to the pace of the game, my chubby digits mash helplessly at the number keys like a chimpanzee trying to play Chopin. My combos fail, my buffs don't shine and my health bar falters perilously as I struggle to relearn the input sequences.
I'd forgotten how intense and tightly sequenced Age of Conan's battles are. Accustomed to World of Warcraft, where the global cooldown on abilities seems glacial by comparison, I'm taken aback all over again by how much direct input Conan wants from me. As my fingers slowly recall the patterns they need and I start being able to string together hits, I'm recalling something else, too. Conan's combat is damned good fun. I wonder if the rest of the game is finally living up to that?
A little context: you can track my tempestuous relationship with Age of Conan through its review and re-review here on Eurogamer. I was cautiously but enthusiastically optimistic about the game at launch. Half a year later, I was crestfallen and cynical. Promises hadn't been kept, content hadn't arrived and the game had been "polished" with all the efficacy of a tramp cleaning your car window with a mouthful of spit and yesterday's newspaper.
I'd manfully struggled through the game to deliver one character to the level cap, but my two others remained stranded. My Guardian was sitting at level 37, dumped unceremoniously in a corner of the Wild Lands of Zelata. I had ground to a halt with him - literally. I simply couldn't face another round of bugged quests and sparse content.
Yet, all these months later, Age of Conan is making all the right noises again. From those still playing, the news has been glowing - almost suspiciously so. The engine is fixed! The content is polished! New zones and dungeons have been added! From shortly after the arrival of new game director Craig Morrison, it seems, Funcom has taken to keeping its promises and Age of Conan has been turning into the game I'd hoped it could be from the outset. I'm dubious - but it's worth a look, right?
Thus, I rejoin my noble Guardian. He's got a log full of quests I don't remember, bags full of stuff I don't recognise and an action bar filled with abilities whose purpose I can't fathom. It's going to be a slow start.
As I push my way through a handful of the quests in my log, I put the game engine through its paces. A lot has changed. For a start, Age of Conan is now running smoothly and consistently at 60 frames per second. Aside from the occasional glitch with texture loading, the game's graphics are now pretty much perfect, barely stressing my mid-range PC even at high settings. Best of all, across the entire three weeks spent playing the game for this feature, I didn't experience a single crash. The technical issues which dogged Age of Conan after launch have, it seems, completely disappeared.
In the last few days, Funcom has even managed to put to rest one of the biggest criticisms levelled at the game, the lack of the heralded DirectX 10 support. It has finally rolled out, albeit in a "test" form which needs to be switched on by the user. It's not perfect, but it does look pretty - the most notable changes are to foliage in the game, with trees and lush grass swaying gently in the wind, but other additions like "god rays" (sunbeams piercing the clouds) and enhanced underwater lighting are also very nice to look at.
Technologically at least, Age of Conan now works - but as frustrating as the game's hitches were, they weren't the reason I dropped my Guardian. To tempt me back, the game's content is going to have to have improved - a lot.
I began my rapprochement by hauling my heavy-armour-clad backside back to Old Tarantia, the game's central and most impressive city, which boasts a fairly large outdoor quest area and a handful of dungeons. It's a good stepping stone to haul me up into the early forties, whereupon I can head off to the Field of the Dead, a huge zone in the mountainous north where should bring me right up to level 50.
I'm a little concerned about this part of the journey. Funcom's headline addition to the content comes later in the game, with the Ymir's Pass zone, which is aimed at levels 55 to 65. If I have to spend 17 levels grinding through weak content to get there, I suspect that I'll be abandoning my Guardian again in a hurry.
A day later, I'm level 42 and I'm wondering what on earth has happened. I've blasted through the Tarantia Noble District, delved into the Outflow Tunnels solo dungeon, and travelled around a little to hand in various quests. In the process I've picked up five levels and, more importantly, I've had a huge amount of fun.
The same pattern repeats itself in the next couple of days, as I edge my way up to the low fifties. The gaping chasm in content which faced players in Age of Conan only a few months ago has been filled - but not by a single new zone or dungeon. It's hard to put my finger on what has made the difference. Certainly, there have been new quest lines and objectives added to many of the areas, giving much more density of content to work through. The game has also sprouted a variety of parallel objectives.
There are more subtle changes here too, though. Content which was already in the game has become easier to find, with more NPCs and quests which point you in the right direction. Moreover, lengthy quest chains seem to have been broken up into distinct pieces, so missing out on a starting quest at level 35 isn't preventing you from accessing a major chain at level 45 any more. They're minor changes, but their effect on the game experience is anything but. I gain 15 levels without ever once having to go off and mindlessly kill monsters for the next ding, or stare at an empty quest log.
And then I hit Ymir's Pass. This icy, frozen wasteland, the home of the Frost Giants, shows Funcom's creativity firing on all cylinders. Perhaps the team knew how much was going to be measured by the quality of this new zone; the pressure was on, and you can almost sense that from the intensity of the zone's design. Ymir's Pass is a stricken, violent and war-torn zone, dripping with atmosphere and Conan lore. It's one of the most visually stunning areas in the game - and it's hopefully an indication of where Funcom is going to set the bar for quality in future updates.
It's hard to avoid comparisons with WOW's new Wrath of the Lich King zones when you play through Ymir's Pass. Here, too, is a northern wasteland, scarred with battle and filled with lore-heavy races and locations - Frost Giants, forces of Atzel burning and looting their way into Cimmeria, and various dodgy black magic types. Ymir's Pass sees Age of Conan wearing its "mature content" badge with pride again - not just in the form of naked breasts for the teenage contingent, but also by being downright nasty in a way most MMOs just don't do. There's screaming, blood, pain and unpleasantness, but there's also a solid narrative supported by a number of key, well-composed quest chains which put the nastiness in context.
Between Ymir's Pass, a little more work on my Destiny Quests (a character-specific quest chain which runs from the start of the game the whole way to level 80) and a handful of trips into group dungeons, I made 70 in no time: clean across the former content gap. Moreover, the whole journey was incredibly good fun - the best fun I've had in an MMORPG since I first got to rampage through the Death Knight's starting zone in WOW. But in Conan's case, the enjoyment lasted for a couple of weeks rather than a couple of hours.
Yes, I just compared Age of Conan to WOW, and favourably. Don't misunderstand - Conan still has issues with content and polish which WOW worked past years ago. The forthcoming changes to the game's itemisation are desperately needed, with Conan's armour and weapon systems still being utterly dull and uninspired. It's not the realistic models that are the problem, it's the fact that upgrades are largely meaningless - you find yourself discarding level 60 items because they're no better than the gear you first wore at level 40, which simply shouldn't be happening.
Moreover, Conan's endgame still needs work, even if it's getting there. Resurrecting my level 80 character, I managed to blag my way into a quick run around one of the new endgame raids, Xibaluku. I say "quick" - it actually turned out to be quite a time-sink, filled with boss encounters which turned out to be taxing even for a pretty decent six-man team. It's clear that Funcom is toying with ideas for evolving its endgame PVE encounters; several of Xibaluku's bosses came with mechanisms that had to be puzzled out, rather than being straightforward tank-and-spank fights. It's a step in the right direction, as are the technical fixes to the endgame PVP sieges, which are pretty much in working order now. The game is moving towards having enough to entertain its level 80 population.
On the downside, finding a group to enjoy all of this content with can be a little tricky. Age of Conan is, for the most part, extremely friendly to solo players. But even after the server mergers, it seems that the populations aren't high enough to make finding a group easy, and as ever, there's a chronic shortage of tanks and healers. Other MMOs solve this by diversifying those roles to make them available to other classes, a trick which Funcom could certainly do with learning. However, the community itself, after the mass exodus of the first few months, is for the most part friendly, helpful and mature.
The final test of Conan's newfound quality (and quantity) was the toughest. Having brought my Guardian up to 70 (he'll make 80 in no time, I'm sure), my eyes fell on another character on my login screen - a Tempest of Set, abandoned at level 30 but now apparently one of the best characters to play in PVP. Could I face going through the levelling curve all over again, so soon?
My cursor hovered uncertainly over the Tempest's character panel for a moment - but really, there was little doubt in my mind. Age of Conan isn't perfect yet, by any means, but the game is finally living up to its early promise. It's intense, entertaining and rewarding to play - and bringing a third character up to the level cap is looking like a pleasure rather than a chore. If it can sustain this rate of improvement - and that is a big "if" - it won't be long before Funcom has one of the best MMOs in the world on its hands.