It feels good. It feels like a Conan game should. It's resulted in what must be some of the most enjoyable melee classes in MMORPG history, especially the Conqueror and Barbarian, but including interesting magical hybrids like the Dark Templar, Herald of Xotli and Bear Shaman. But there are several rather sizeable buts.
The pure magical classes with weak melee attacks and no combos - and to a lesser extent, the Ranger - are mostly effective, but feel underdeveloped; strangers in a strange land, they don't fit into this relentlessly gory and confrontational game so well. Smothering their spells in overblown effects as compensation, and offering high-risk, high-reward spellweaving combos as a latter-level treat, are not adequate compensation for the fact their pacing is off and they're simply less involving to play.
Then again, that aspect of the casters might be a blessing. Combat is relentlessly intense. We didn't tire of it particularly in a week's heavy play, but after hundreds of hours' play, it's possible to imagine wanting to return to a slower, more studied and tactical and even predictable style of play. There's also a sense that many major group encounters are just going to degenerate into massive melee scrums, and that the clear distinctions and interplay between classes that make for the very best experiences MMOs have to offer will simply be missing. Player-versus-player fights feel similarly random and unstructured, but we wouldn't rule out improvements here as players learn their classes properly, and Funcom implements some balancing tweaks.
Funcom originally intended for the first 20 levels of Age of Conan to be a single-player experience only. They since retreated from that, concentrating that storyline into half to two-thirds of those levels, allowing you to switch between night-time single-player and regular daytime multiplayer questing at will. The story concerns your amnesiac character, freed from slavery by a shipwreck, fighting against slavery and oppression in the pirate town of Tortage.
It was a smart decision. The joins show a little - it's a slightly more disjointed experience than the seamless introduction to Lord of the Rings Online, but only slightly - but the balance is right, the options many, and the storytelling is as sound and involving an introduction to Conan's world as you could wish for, with well-drawn major characters coming together in a genuinely neat and satisfying climax. Leaving Tortage for a more conventional MMO structure - and losing the voice acting of those 20 levels - is a little jarring, but compensated for with a greater sense of freedom.
Nevertheless, you can't help feeling that Funcom's desire to elevate these aspects of the MMO to the same level as a single-player game have rather uncomfortably split Age of Conan down the middle. Take the dialogue system as an example. It's intended to be more immersive than simply clicking through windows of quest text, but unfortunately the majority of the dialogue is not interesting enough to hold the attention, and the conversational options are purely cosmetic.
The end result is just to slow the whole experience down, and ask you to click OK five times - in five different flavours - instead of once. Similarly, the game's user interface is very slick and attractive, but nothing like fast enough for a piece of software that will be used as intensively, for as long periods of time, as an MMO. Clarity and speed are everything, as only Blizzard and Turbine seem to understand at the moment.