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."
However, as impressive as the distorted faces of the barbarians and the mounted combat demo was, there's something else going on in Godager's presentation that really caught my interest: the idea that Funcom is really trying to include everything that a classic fantasy MMO has done in the past ten years, and improve on it. As Godager talked about the diversity of gameplay he mentioned the mini-games of drunken brawling, the classic dungeon-crawling, and the sprawling storyline that sees gamers tied to the fate of King Conan himself. Then it was time to talk about the epic PvP combat in which players will build cities and fortresses and fight for control of a few resource-rich realms in the middle of Hyboria. This is where Godager's plan for the endgame lies, and the huge map, with all its resources and defensible positions tells of the kind of epic warmongering the game is intending to play host to.
It was this construction demo, in which Godager's high-level gaming team raised vast defences, a keep, and half a dozen buildings from the ground, that made me realise that there was an outside possibility that Age Of Conan will do what no fantasy MMO has managed since Dark Of Camelot, and that's create a compelling endgame.
The Funcom team isn't just trying to give us eighty levels of troll-butchery and lady-rescuing, they're also trying deliver some reason for gamers to fight, and to organise. Building cities, and then fortresses, will provide huge bonuses for your entire team - so there's every reason to defend them, or to attack them if you're without these resources. If this siege game can work - and we can already see major battles, diplomatic posturing, and all the intrigue and logistics that makes games like, say Eve, so compulsive and so worthy of investment of time - then Age Of Conan could run and run.
Despite this being the most interesting thread in everything that Funcom has achieved, it's also the one that won't make its true nature known until the game is up and running. Funcom knows this too: it can develop it and play it so far in beta testing, but the true nature of these kinds of game worlds never really comes out until the big guilds have got stuck in and figured how to exploit or break anything and everything. Once we hit that stage then Age Of Conan will either reveal itself to be a masterpiece, or a mistake. Either way, it should be an interesting journey.