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.