The club and how to swing it
No quote has attached itself more firmly to Conan the barbarian than the immortal line of Schwarzenegger's incarnation - in which he said that "to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women" was pretty much his favourite pastime.
It's a great line, not least because it sums up the tone of Robert E Howard's world - and based on that tone, we knew from the outset that Funcom's Age of Conan MMO was going to be a game focused on player-versus-player combat. The world of Hyboria is a place where people smash each other's faces in at the slightest provocation. PVP had to be right at the heart of Age of Conan. You simply couldn't imagine this game without the ability to crush your enemies and see them driven before you.
Of course, we know that Age of Conan hasn't turned out quite like everyone had hoped. At the heart of our gripes lay the continuing wait for key features and content promised months ago, and right at the top of that list were the PVP systems. Certainly, you've been able to smack each other in the face right from the outset, but Conan's PVP promised far more than that. It promised a world where fighting other players had a rich set of rewards and consequences, not to mention one where massive sieges of player-built cities and fortresses would be possible.
With the advent of a few major patches in recent months, we're finally at the point where Age of Conan does most of what it promised at launch in terms of PVP. So now's a good time to sit down and look through what exactly Conan has on offer for those who fancy a spot of enemy-crushing and lamentation-hearing.
The first thing to note is that the game now has PVP experience and ranks which are completely independent of your normal experience and level. There are five PVP ranks, each of which comes with a variety of class-specific armour items for Level 80 characters to wear. This is, beyond any shadow of doubt, the best gear in the game. Much to the annoyance of raiders who have spent weeks and months grinding end-game dungeons and bosses, PVP gear is significantly more powerful than anything they're wearing.
Of course, Conan is a game where equipment doesn't have a particularly huge impact on your character (unlike the hugely gear-dependent World of Warcraft, for instance), so it's not that PVP-geared characters are incredibly imbalanced. However, the message is clear - if you want the best stuff, you'd better be prepared to start lopping off other players' heads for it.
The second thing to note is a consequence of what we just mentioned regarding gear. Conan, arguably more than any other mainstream MMORPG right now, is a skill game. You need to target your foes, keep them in front of you, master movement and dodging, and manage button-combo skills and a varied cooldown cycle in order to be an effective PVP player. It's fast, very frantic and in many ways closer to an action game than a conventional RPG.
Sometimes, this action-focused ambition bites Age of Conan in the backside - such as when your network connection, the game's network code, or a combination of both causes a lag spike or temporary connection drop. In a game like WOW, you'll often come back and find little damage has been done; it's designed to handle some bumpy network conditions. In Conan, you're probably dead in the water - your cooldown cycle is shot, you've just missed a key combo, and your opponent is standing behind you using your back as a pincushion. These things happen; Conan's vocal band of fans would argue that it's a reasonable price to pay for such intense PVP battles.
As with any MMORPG, Conan's classes are a huge bone of contention for many PVP players. Happily, however, this seems to be a field that's pretty well balanced at present. Funcom has heavily tweaked its class balance since launch, and will undoubtedly continue to do so, but despite a general feeling that ranged classes have it easier in open-world PVP encounters (since they can "kite" their foes around, firing off attacks then running away), no single class has an overall advantage.
Arguably the best compliment that an MMO developer can receive for its class-balancing is that its official forums contain a roughly equal number of calls to downgrade ("nerf") every class. At the moment, Conan's forums are pretty close to that magic balance. Praise where it's due.
Murder, he wrote
If you're a beginner to PVP, though, a class with some ranged ability is definitely the place to start in Conan. We'd recommend the Herald of Xotli (a hybrid class which wields dual-handed weapons as well as firing off nasty dark magic attacks) or the Bear Shaman (which combines priest-style healing with decent armour and melee combat abilities - an unusual type of Paladin, essentially) for newcomers, since they're both flexible and fun to play in PVP.
So, where will you actually be carrying out this head-bashing and throat-cutting? That depends on whether you've rolled your character on a PVE (player-versus-environment) or PVP server. Funcom's own figures suggest that the majority of Conan's players play on PVP servers, which says a lot about the appeal of the game.
For these players, World PVP - essentially, the ability to pick a fight wherever you like, with anyone you like - is a key part of the game. For those on PVE servers, world PVP is extremely limited - you won't really be fighting your fellow players unless you venture into the Border Kingdoms (a PVP-specific zone) or choose to join a PVP mini-game. More on those shortly.
World PVP has been the target of much of Funcom's patching in recent weeks. The team has a tough job on its hands, because although there are three distinct nations and races in the game - Cimmeria, Aquilonia and Stygia, none of which had particularly friendly relationships in Howard's fiction - Funcom has opted not to use factions for its PVP. Instead, anyone can kill anyone else, no matter where you may be. Simply draw your weapon and hit someone, and you start a fight - often pulling nearby players and even NPCs into the brawl.
In the raw state Conan was in for the first few months, this led to utter anarchy. The addition of PVP gear and levels, however, was eventually followed with the launch of the consequence system, which is designed to ensure that towns and cities don't end up littered with the corpses of level 20 players ganked by bored level 80s.
With the consequence system, each player in Age of Conan is now either a "criminal" or "innocent". You start out innocent, but if you attack an innocent player, you're flagged as a criminal for five minutes. You can also end up being flagged as a criminal for trading with a criminal, or for being in a party with one.
Attacking or killing a criminal won't affect your status, so other players can kill them with impunity. However, if you kill an innocent player, you'll accumulate "murder points", based on the level difference between you. Pick up 100 murder points, and you're considered a Murderer - a special class of criminal that is attacked on sight by guards and can't trade with normal vendors, instead having to pay inflated prices to vendors in outlaw camps. Killing a murderer gives you double PVP XP, so they're an automatic target for just about everybody.
Want to get rid of your murderer status? That's a surprisingly tough task. Although points reduce over time, they only do so at a rate of one point every two hours, or every 1 per cent of experience gained towards your next level. More helpfully, there are Redemption quests available in most parts of the world, which lop off a handful of points - but you'll still be grinding them for hours if you end up with a lot of murder points.
You could argue - and plenty of players do - that this is excessively harsh, especially considering that guards are extremely powerful and can easily smack even high-level players around. While it's great in theory, the consequence system has itself had some unforeseen consequences. For instance, lots of players now sprint towards the nearest guard when they're in danger of losing in combat - and guards are particularly dumb NPCs who often happily attack someone defending themselves against an aggressor.
The system is exploitable and not entirely predictable at the moment. Unscrupulous guilds sometimes drop a low-level character into a melee between level 80 characters, knowing that it'll be extremely tough for their foes not to rack up some kills on the lowbie and end up flagged as murderers. Being forced to spend hours grinding down that murder point tally is a bitter pill to swallow, even if you won the fight in the first place.
Given the obvious problems with the system, we expect Funcom to return to the issue of world PVP and consequences sooner or later - although those players who gripe that the whole consequence system is a product of "care bears" getting their way are unlikely to find their wishes answered and the whole system removed. For most players, anarchic free-for-all PVP is a step too far. Your actions need consequences - it's just that Funcom hasn't quite got the balance right yet.
Siege the moment
If World PVP doesn't grab you, or if you're on a PVE server (where the consequence system hasn't really been a relevant change), there are other arenas in which to melt faces and slice limbs. First and foremost, there are a selection of PVP mini-games. As these are arguably the best and fastest way to earn your PVP experience and ranks (especially since Funcom decided to apply harsh diminishing returns to experience gained from killing the same people over and over again in world PVP), you'll probably be seeing the handful of arenas on offer a lot.
There are two game types available - Capture the Skull (the skull is actually a flag, so why they didn't just call it Capture the Flag is entirely beyond me) and the catchily-named Annihilate Opposing Team, in which you need to destroy a totem in the enemy base in order to stop them from resurrecting after death. Each team has six players on it, and the whole thing takes place in a fairly small arena area with multiple pathways between the bases.
If this sounds familiar, then yes - this is essentially a simplified version of the battlegrounds which anyone who's played games like WOW or Warhammer Online will have experienced. The arenas themselves are nicely designed, and Conan's fast, action-focused gameplay does work extremely well with this type of play. However, variety is sadly lacking, and anyone hoping to reach PVP Rank 5 had better have an extremely high boredom threshold.
The second type of PVP is really only for level 80 players, and constitutes what ought to be the most impressive aspect of Conan's endgame - player battlekeeps and sieges. The idea is that in the Border Kingdoms, there are a limited number of suitable sites for battlekeeps. Capture one for your guild, and you can build a keep and city - filling it with buildings that deliver significant bonuses, like the ability to craft the highest-level items.
The quid pro quo is that you have to specify times at which your battlekeep is vulnerable to attack. During those times, enemies can pitch their tents outside the city and begin a siege of the walls - using a variety of rather nicely-designed mechanisms, like siege weapons to break through walls, and mercenaries recruited from across Hyboria to boost their forces. The mercenary system in particular is a great idea, in theory offering players who aren't part of a big guild a chance to taste this kind of action.
In practice, this only works some of the time. At launch, sieges were buggy to the point of being almost unplayable. Today, they're still imperfect, but definitely much closer to the original vision. There are still problems, especially with people's game clients crashing and silly issues such as players being able to hop through solid walls, or cities being vulnerable at random times, but this is slowly maturing into the centrepiece Age of Conan needs.
World PVP, Mini-Games and Sieges are the holy trinity of Age of Conan's PVP efforts, and alongside raiding, form the bulk of the endgame as well. As we approach the half-year point, Conan's PVP systems remain far from perfect, and some features (like Drunken Brawling, a just-for-fun PVP mode which would allow players of all levels to compete with one another on equal standing) haven't made it in as yet. Nevertheless, Funcom has big plans. The Kingship update, for instance, is expected to introduce Legendary Battlekeeps outside each major city, forcing guilds to ally with one another to control these huge structures and build "wonders of the world" within them.
Yet many of the improvements required are more basic - more variety in the mini-games, a rethink of some World PVP consequences, and a further round of bug fixes on Sieges would all do wonders for the game. The basics, however, are all there. Crushing your enemies and driving them before you is superb fun in Age of Conan. With a little more work, PVP could easily be what redeems Age of Conan in gamers' eyes.