It's at this point that we could start to argue that the game's cutting-edge, realistic and hardware-intensive visuals were a similar mistake. After all, few MMOs that have gone down this path have succeeded in doing more than alienating half their potential players. But we're not going to.
Yes, the system spec requirements are high, but for what it is, the game is well optimised. Yes, the art may be hit-and-miss in some places (monsters, mostly), but where it counts - craggy nature, impressive architecture, cool armour and weapons, and above all, varied avatars that drip with charisma and sex appeal - it's a resounding hit. Age of Conan is a gorgeous, atmospheric game, trading some environmental variety for total credibility. Funcom has been absolutely clear on what players would want from Conan's world, and it has delivered it.
There's another aspect of its world-building, though, that is an awful lot less impressive. Age of Conan is a very, very heavily 'zoned' game. This is no kind of seamless virtual world on a par with World of Warcraft or, for that matter, GTA. Although some zones are large, you'll regularly see continuity-breaking loading screens, sometimes for minutes at a time, often for something as simple as entering a house or inn.
Even worse, many outdoor questing zones - the sort you would expect to be genuinely massively multiplayer - run in several instances on the same server, meaning you could be stood in the same spot as your friends and not see them without switching instances from a drop-down menu. And for what? At the end of the day, when you zoom out to the world map and look seriously at your adventuring options, Age of Conan's world, the amount of content available, is simply not that large.
Time and again, Age of Conan simply doesn't meet your expectations of modern social gaming. The whole crafting and trading side to the game, the backbone of player interaction in the vast majority of MMOs, doesn't make its presence felt in any real sense until halfway through the levelling curve, and we don't have a handle on it yet. The chat interface has severe limitations. PVP matches aren't even remotely integrated with the game world, or offered any introduction; you register for matchmaking through a relatively well-hidden menu option. There doesn't even appear to be a mail system.
Single-minded, shallow, slick and highly entertaining in the short term, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is definitely a solid proposition - as an RPG. As an MMO, it's unproven - probably compromised, possibly somewhat limited. That doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. This is a game with broad appeal that does what it set out to do with verve and polish, and will please a great many of its players. Those looking for complex social systems behind their slaughter have Warhammer Online to look forward to. Those who just want to mash monsters into a bloody, particle-shaded pulp with friends need look no further.
We'll offer a full review in the coming weeks - before your 30 days' free play are up and you need to decide whether to subscribe, if you buy now. If we had to predict the score, we'd say it's a 7, but that could vary either way depending on how certain things shape up - notably, the endgame, crafting, and PVP. The next couple of months are still make-or-break for Age of Conan, but by pulling such a professional launch out of the bag, Funcom has given its baby the best chance of success.