We're also treated to a tour of the game's capital city, Tarantia, seat of Conan himself. The scale of the place, split into three zones, is remarkable, as is the detail in the architecture, which you can clamber over using the climbing skill. Although there'll be some more relaxing questing around everyday city life here, and bards in the taverns will recite Conan creator Robert E. Howard's poetry, it's not entirely safe - you'll need to make your way past an invading force to get to Conan's palace.
The meeting with the barbarian himself is a little anti-climactic, though, and a reminder that Funcom has had to cut a corner or two to bring its majestic vision and impossibly ambitious game to life. It's hard for Conan to appear a kingly tower of testosterone when he's moonwalking down some stairs with a giant yellow question mark above his head. It seems all NPCs really are created equal, even if some are more equal than others.
That goes for players too of course, so it's a relief to hear that an apprentice system - similar to City of Heroes' sidekicks - is in place. Lower-level players can group with higher-level friends, and gain temporary boosts to all their stats and abilities, and although they can't get quests or gear to keep, they can sell whatever loot they get and take the money back with them. Not that catching up will be slow - up to level 60, you can expect to gain a level for every two or three hours' play, and it's expected to take 250 hours to reach the level cap of 80.
Funcom has clearly put some thought into letting people play the game how they want, and another excellent feature in this vein is the epic mode, which transforms any of the game's solo-friendly zones or dungeons into an much harder area suitable for group play, with rewards to match.
Nipples, rhinos and RAM
The rhino doesn't work.
It's a small thing, really, and we feel a bit uncharitable for mentioning it. Bugs happen in game demonstrations all the time. But when one of the game's three mounts won't even appear in front of the world's press - and this in the week before release - alarm bells do start to ring. The beta has been unstable and slow, the servers down as much as they were up. Age of Conan wouldn't be the first MMO to stumble into the market on shaky legs, but in a post-WOW world, can it get away with it?
In fact, the rhino example is doubly unfair, because if there's likely to be a problem with Age of Conan it's not bugs, but technical accessibility. Historically, MMOs with steep system requirements - think EverQuest 2, or Vanguard - have not done well. And yet here is a game that takes up 25GB of hard drive space and requires heavy patching at launch, needs the very latest drivers and Windows updates to run, and makes similar demands on RAM and graphics cards as Crysis. Is Funcom confident it has made the right choice?
"It's scalable," argues designer Joel Bylos in a roundtable interview. "I think this is a very good question, but I think it also hits into other parts of the Age of Conan market. We're a mature game for 18-plus. 18-plus is the demographic which has throwaway cash, young earners, those are the people with the best computers. In that regard, our demographic and our rating are coming together with the hardware requirements.
"I think we aimed for it to run on Oblivion computers two years ago, and it does that. I have a gig of RAM and a two-year-old graphics card at home, and I'm getting 30 frames a second. People can expect to get fairly steady FPS on the minimum spec. Hopefully. That's what we're aiming for."
"I think it's a problem to an extent," agrees writer Shannon Drake, "but at the same time for the direction we wanted to take the game and the engine in, you have to do justice to Hyboria, and we really wanted to push the technology forward. That means obviously making sacrifices in terms of grandma's PC being able to run it."
A journalist from across the Atlantic has another pressing question about the game's readiness for release: the beta does not feature nipples. Are they going to make it back into the game?
"Oh God," groans Drake. "Nipples not showing up in the beta is a scripting error, from what they tell me. But they will be there. We know how important that is, especially to Americans. Americans are very touchy about nipples.
"The ESRB meeting was surreal," he continues, describing the meeting with the American censors. "Eight grown people sitting around the table: can we have nipples? Well, we can, but they can't be too perky. But what if she's just cold? Can we prove she's just cold? Well, not really. They can't be perky because she's aroused, because that would imply she's going to have sex."
(We've played the retail version of the game since then, and are happy to report that it's running quite smoothly, and nipples do appear in a suitably modest, non-erect form.)
One thing's for sure, there's never been an MMO launch like it. Back at the party, we've relocated to a blissfully warm bunker, where camp Norwegian power-metal band Turbonegro is crunching through its classic, Blow Me Like The Wind, while belly-dancers gyrate in a cage. Hardier souls are still outside, crowding around a camp fire, wrapping themselves in furs and swigging wine from the bottle. PR stunt or no, there's a genuinely wild and woolly feel to proceedings now; the spirit of Howard's stories meshes perfectly with this untamed Scandinavian knees-up. This is how they do things in the far North.
There are still many question marks hanging over Conan - not just the quest-giver kind - and the next few weeks could be a very bumpy ride. But there's no doubt that Funcom's heart is in this, and heart counts for a lot. We'll have detailed hands-on impressions of the game later in the week, and let you know if - and just as pertinently, when - you should start playing it. For now, we'll restrict ourselves to returning King Conan's hospitality, and wishing him god speed.