Conan's Second Coming

Funcom bridges the content gap.

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.

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Funcom staff manning the Content Improvement Machine.

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.

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