Here at Eurogamer, we talked about doing a feature on Age of Conan's PVP system way back then - fully expecting a patch within weeks. We waited, and we waited, and we rescheduled, and we delayed - each delay from Funcom driving our own schedule back. A quarter of a year later, the last big patch finally, finally brought with it this system... Except that it didn't. We got half the system, PVP levelling and gear, but no consequences, no fugitives and hunters. The second half, the half that justifies the entire existence of the first half? We'll be happy if we see it before the New Year. (I guess we'll do that feature then.)
You might have spotted the obvious problem in this. Rewards, but no consequences - in a game without factions, so anybody can kill anyone else. Yes, as you might expect, the game's higher level zones became a bloodbath, as bored top-level players run around mindlessly ganking those trying to level their characters through the last few stages. Think of your worst night in Stranglethorn Vale, World of Warcraft players, and then think how much worse it would have been if it were a free-for-all where everyone could gank each other - no safety in numbers, no friendly green-named pals to keep the bad guys at bay.
It's calmed down significantly now, thankfully, as players recognise that they can level PVP faster by taking part in mini-games rather than open-world PVP. However, it still serves as an illustration of just how detrimental Funcom's inability to deliver the content it's promised can be. For many players, half a PVP system ended up being even worse than no PVP system at all.
PVE servers, of course, were largely immune to this problem - and actually, it wasn't just them. It's worth mentioning that plenty of other servers suffered from no noticeable ganking, largely because there was nobody there to gank you. Age of Conan's server populations have collapsed since launch, leaving many servers so empty that it's hard to find anyone to play with in certain zones.
Much of this exodus came early, when bugs and technical problems stopped being patched quickly enough to address serious concerns. There has been steady attrition since then, as even players who have reached high levels find that the end-game - merely competent raid encounters, and vast swathes of content which are really only accessible to those in large, well-organised guilds - simply isn't diverse or satisfying enough to hold their interest at present.
Funcom is presently in the process of merging servers to keep the populations up, which should improve matters, although we're a little "once bitten, twice shy" about optimism over promised changes.
And yet... Despite all of this, Age of Conan remains, somehow, a compelling game. Its world is undeniably beautiful, albeit somewhat small and restrictive compared to many of its rivals'. The combat system is still hugely entertaining - fast, visceral and immediate, in a way which no other MMOG has quite managed - and some of the classes, like the Herald of Xotli and the Demonologist, are genuinely innovative hybrids that are great fun to play and master. Moreover, Conan's lore is appealing - his world a fascinating one to explore.
For all that we're cautious of optimism, we're keen to see what the game's new director Craig Morrison can do. There's talk of an overhauled crafting system, and with it far greater variety in how characters look (still a problem, especially for those levelling up, who tend to look basically the same for level after interminable level). If it takes as long to arrive as the PVP changes are taking, though, it's hard to tell how many players will be around to see it.
Age of Conan remains one of the most innovative and interesting additions to the MMORPG family in recent years - but for now, it's a tough game to recommend. In absolute terms, the game you'd play now is a better game than the one we played at launch - but an MMORPG is as much a service as a game, and Funcom's service has fallen down badly when it was needed most. With that in mind, we have little choice but to mark it down - all the while holding on dearly to the hope that the team still have it in them to turn Conan's fortunes around.