We've covered this terrain before, but in case you weren't paying attention: Age Of Conan is the MMO based on the original Robert E Howard fantasy novels, rather than the Arnie remix of later years. That means the Funcom fantasy expedition is neck-deep in the mire of Howards' ancient cultures and composted evil. As Game director Gaute Godager puts it: "Hyboria is a vicious cake, covered in layers of dark culture."
What was most evident in Godager's GDC '08 showing of Age Of Conan was just how far the game has come in the past six months. The last time we saw it Hyboria was looking beautiful, but rough and a little unwelcoming. We worried about the finish of the game, the unseen character classes, and the unusual combat system. As much as it was hard to deny the grim splendour with which Funcom's artists had recreated the fantasy world, it was also a worrying prospect: a game reminiscent of those underdeveloped experiences that have dogged the PC across the years - bugged and unrefined. This time around, however, there is plenty of reason to hope that this might be one of the best online experiences of 2008. Not only does it seethe with detail and design, it's also looking like it works.
The Age of Conan we saw on those presentation PCs was looking ripped and oiled: the game visuals and interface have been buffed and what was already quite beautiful now seemed polished and presentable against the other MMOs on the market. The visuals for what we saw in San Francisco were incredibly tight - superb animation, full day-night cycle lighting, incredible view distance, and so on. The hands-on play and high-level dungeon demo was the kind of pitch-perfect fantasy MMO that the likes of Vanguard have been grasping at without success in the last couple of years. There's very little new or surprising about this aspect of Age of Conan - aside from the way the talent systems open up or the way the level structures are delivered - and the core game is still a mix of tanks, healers and damage-dealers. Nevertheless we now get the sense that this is simply the backbone of the game, and that Age of Conan has much more going on in the background.
Godager must have performed his demo half a dozen times to various audiences, but he could still barely contain his enthusiasm for what he was narrating. When the mount demos resulted in a battle in which players were beheading enemy soldiers Godager whooped and cheered and the gore. This was not, he pointed out, a game for kids. Unlike the universally approachable cartoon realms of World of Warcraft, this was a game "by mature gamers, for mature gamers." And by mature, he means people who like to see a bit of appendage-severance in their combat. It's not really shockingly violent like, say, Prototype, but nevertheless goes quite a lot further than the Disney world of MMOs that we're used to. The sheer ugliness of many of Conan's characters will delight anyone who enjoys heroically nasty game worlds. And they're individually ugly, as Godager points out: "We want to be able to recognise people just by their faces."