Age of Conan : Hyborian Adventures

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It is the nature of Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) to change and adapt, from simple patches, content expansions and balancing updates in an attempt to keep the game feeling new and fresh. When reviewing a MMO, in the end you can not review the game based on a future promise of content, since most times the developers never deliver on that promise or the idea has changed, also you can never quickly review a game and you should see the end game content as well as the beginning and in the end you must have traveled the game in many different ways to give a true accounting of experience and a proper review. Doing these is the only way to be fair and clear to the readers of the review who may have waited to see how the game has progressed.

For this review I played every class, across several servers and play styles from Player versus Player and Player versus Environment and Role Playing Player versus Player, spending much time, at of the time of the publication of this review just over 220 hours in game. Seeing how the game has changed and updated since it first launched on May 20th (17th actually with the Pre-launch and earlier with the closed and open beta) to where it is now a month later, a more stable, balanced and smooth gaming experience. So please excuse the length of the review as it is long due to the massive size of the game, in the end I could not justify giving Funcom’s latest adventure anything less.

Conan, the mythical hero, thief and King of Aquilonia who has been in the hearts of readers and movie goers for decades has finally been given a chance to enter the gaming age in a way fitting this oversized hero. Age of Conan (AoC) is a fantasy MMORPG I have been waiting for since Everquest was my online gaming addiction of choice. It has all of the great features a game like this needs, beautiful graphics, stable technology, amazing sound effects, high adventure, great gameplay, crafting and amazing raids. Not one single fantasy based MMORPG has offered all of these to this quality in years and even the most popular MMORPG available, World of Warcraft, is lacking in many ways.

For those who are curious, Age of Conan has more to do with the books then the movies which did not exactly follow the vision of Robert E. Howard. If you have not read a Conan novel or short story it does not matter as the lore of the land is readily available to those who want to learn more about Conan’s land of Hyboria and those who wish to just play the game.

I would have to say that Age of Conan has an uphill fight on its hands with attempting a new combat system that deviates from the normal auto attack combat feature gamers are used to, entering a overly saturated Massive Multiplayer Gaming market and some perceived and certainly unfounded anti-AoC views by those who are vocal and loyal to other games and are unwilling to look at the first game to give World of Warcraft a real challenge in terms of potential greatness in sales and subscribers.

For those who are giving the game a try, be prepared to hack and slash your way through some very smart enemies (smart for a MMO at least) and wade through gallons of their blood in this first true mature rated MMORPG which will challenge your reflexes and push your computer to the limit.

Gameplay

As MMORPG’s go Age of Conan is not more or less complex then any other MMO on the market, but what makes this game fairly unique is the true real time combat system. Instead of hitting an auto-attack key and letting the computer decide what goes on or selecting a target and just nuking, you must be close and face your target and hit a direction of attack key and then another or a combination key followed by a direction of attack key. This allows for instant attacking in a specific direction, which is important because Non-Playable Characters and Playable Characters can adjust how they defend. It sounds very complicated, but it is not and by the time you are level 10 you should have all of the gameplay mechanics down.

Healing and some offensive spells must be performed by facing your opponents or even selecting where the area of effect spell will be triggered. This allows for a faster then normal game play experience for the average caster and healer, making it more exciting and of course a much different game then those who prefer to play a supporting role in groups and raids are used to.

Part of the appeal of the game and this part never becomes old is the fatalities. Chopping heads, stabbing through hearts and spraying blood everywhere is amazing fun and something you end up doing and anticipate doing over and over again. Once you do a fatality, blood will hit your screen in random spots and beyond the animations this is a perfect way to see you have demolished someone. Fatalities are exciting, especially in massive combat situations when the carnage is at its maximum.

Races and Classes

Age of Conan has three distinct playable races, each with a wide variety of physical traits and abilities, the Cimmerian’s, a race which bears a resemblance to the Northern European tribes or Celts who are large and fierce warriors, the Aquilonian’s, a Greek or Roman race who want to rule the world but cannot rule themselves and the Stygian’s, a Persian race who controls the forces of dark magic and the mysteries of Hell. Each race has a very distinct look and feel to them and with a large amount of physical features to tweak eliminating the potential for 10 of the same looking character running around. In fact there are potentially millions of character types with the character editing features available in the character creation process.

Each race has a limited potential number of classes to play, there is some cross over of course, but for example if you wish to play a Necromancer, you must be a Stygian. This might sound very limiting, but in fact it follows the lore of the Conan universe.

The various classes in the game are varied and you will find at least one or two that fit your play style if you are new or old to the MMO Genre. Assassins are fast, fluid killers, Barbarians are pure killers, Bear Shamans uses nature in battle, Dark Templar’s are pure heavy combat fighters who wear heavy armor and wield magic to devastate all who oppose them, Demonologists call forth the powers of Hell, raising demons to aid them and use magic to destroy. Guardians are heavy fighters who stand in the front of battle, Herald of Xotli, dual wielding and magic using fighters who transform themselves into hellish demons, Necromancers call forth the undead to do battle, Priest of Mitra can heal and bring the dead back to life, Rangers are masters of the bow and tracking their enemies and Tempest of Set use magic and steel to devastate their enemies.

Most of the classes will seem familiar, in at least one way or another to RPG and MMORPG veterans. Assassins are Assassins, perhaps with just a few different abilities, but in the end they are the same. But some classes you will find in other games certainly have a unique twist in Age of Conan, Necromancers can call forth multiple undead early on, Dark Templar’s are similar to Shadow Knights from Everquest. What makes the game use of classes is fun and some what unique is every class is solo-able, if that is something you enjoy, with the ability to be devastating if they need be, but also they all work very well inside groups. Something that the hardcore gamer has not seen in a very long time and is a welcome addition to the game, no longer will your favorite class be unwanted until higher levels like they are in other MMORPG’s.

Those classes that use pets, Demonologists and Necromancers specifically, control their pets exactly the same way as other games control their pets. Defend, Attack, Stay, Go Away, etc. This makes pet control easy, but some extra commands might be nice for extra control, especially with the Necromancer and their extra pets.

Of course I could not play every class to the higher levels, so actual changes that happen to each class as you level is hard to describe, but usually I found by level 20, what you have experienced is what you will continue to experience. Luckily you will find it a fast experience to reach level 20, it is something you can do in a single day, so if the character you choose just is not right for you, create a new one and move on.

Player versus Player

Unlike most of the Player versus Player (PvP) MMO games on the market, the PvP side of things is just not a bad copy of the PvE (Player versus Environment) game. While everything is the same map wise, the actual Player versus Player gameplay is a huge difference in the end. First off there is no real fun way to do the PvP unless you are in a guild and they are of substantial size and they all play together, you will find your self dead more then you are alive. Age of Conan is a gankers (someone who preys on easy targets basically to annoy) and a griever’s paradise (a person who loves to make everyone else’s gaming experience hell), you will be jumped almost all of the time unless you are in a good group with people watching for those who are sneaking up on you. Cities and instances are the only locations where you will not be attacked quickly and openly, especially by higher level players. Every one of my friends who started out on a Player versus Player server have left for a Player versus Environment but Funcom is taking steps to balance the game so people can not ruin the basic PvP experience. So I do expect to see a return to a PvP server eventually.

Where the PvP gameplay absolutely has promise is the city building and siege warfare. While you can do this on both the PvE and PvP servers, it is a true challenge and achievement to do this on a PvP server as everyone is competing for resources, players and building their city, while attempting to keep their competition from gaining ground on them. It is exciting and the potential is amazing.

One great aspect to the Player versus Player side of the game is the mounts and how they are used or can be used by smart players and guilds. Horses, Mammoths and Rhinos are the current in game mounts. You can perform combat moves on them but how they are really useful is in siege warfare. Mammoths and Rhinos can damage structures and while slow in actual speed can do massive damage. This is why you can not use mounts until level 40, another interesting gameplay decision I was not happy with, but later understood and respected why the developers did such a thing.

The city building is a huge aspect to crafting, but also to the actual Player versus Player side of the game. If your guild is large and powerful enough, with dedicated crafters and architects (one of the crafting skills) you can build a city, raise walls, buildings and eventually defend it when other guilds attack you in open warfare. While other games have offered a similar experience in Player versus Player combat, Age of Conan is taking the experience further by building on core ideas. In the future when I have a chance to participate in a few of these battles I will do a full review on the open warfare system.

Crafting

Crafting is by far my favorite aspect to any MMO Game, from EVE Online to Everquest building, harvesting, mining and more is what makes this type of game special for me and many other gamers. In Age of Conan crafting is similar to other games of the type, but what makes this side of the game fun is the grinding aspect in other MMO Crafting systems is gone. You craft via quests with collecting and creating items, you are never forced into this system of being bored because you have to produce 1000 raw iron ingots, to make 500 sword blades just to gain some experience to make the next sword on the list.

Unlike other games where you start crafting at level 1, you can not start crafting until level 40 in Age of Conan and you can not start gathering materials until level 20. At first this seems just wrong and anti-crafting but it actually is something that makes sense once you are able to do such things. To being gathering you are given a quest and sent forth to cut down trees or mine ore or what ever material is needed. If you can harvest a specific item in the world you will see an actual graphical change to it as you near it. Such as for cutting down trees, leaves are falling all around the actual tree.

As mentioned before you do not have to grind your way through the crafting process, but perform quests and as you level up and complete crafting quests, higher quality and newer items you can make become available to you. This does keep the crafting and adventuring side of things fairly equal in importance for people. No more can a crafting alternate character be rolled and used to just create items, something done in Everquest way to often. You must level your character up for him or her to be a useful crafter.

In the end the crafting system is good and advanced but very easy to use. Will it be a long memorable way to help control crafting and the economy? Only time will tell of course, but things do look good in the short run.

Now days every game seems to push your PC hardware to new limits and Age of Conan is the same. While the game requirements are not as high as other games such as Crysis, to see this game and play it well you should have plenty of memory (RAM) and a good video card. With Windows Vista, go for 4 Gigs of RAM and at least a 512 Meg video card. I actually bought a new PC just to play this and I am glad I did, while I can play the game on my older PC, the game just looks amazing on maximum and runs between 60 and 140 frames per second depending on where I am and what I am doing, cities and crowded areas give me around 60 and in instances, even in groups I have seen 80 – 90 frames per second in combat.

Age of Conan was supposed to launch with Direct X 10 support, but it did not and will be released later on thankfully. This should take the graphics of the game to extreme heights and the already fantastic effects and water even better. But those with a Direct X 9 only system will still see some of the best MMORPG graphics in any game, with only Lord of the Rings Online being comparable graphically to Age of Conan for overall quality.

From the starting area of Tortage to the main three areas of Stygia, Cimmeria and Aquilonia, each area has this distinct look and feel about it, from the people, architecture and the land are all unique and amazing. Stygia is similar to ancient Persia, deserts with barren rocks and cities made of stone. Cimmeria will remind you of Northern Europe or Celtic with dark deep green forests, high mountains, snowy peaks with cold glacial rivers and Aquilonia has the look of Rome or Ancient Greece with a Mediterranean look to everything, from architecture to the land around the city.

Each town and city has this great look and feel, they are not just straight roads with boxy buildings like oh so many current MMORPG’s, in Age of Conan they almost seem like they would be real living cities, built on the terrain and arranged in a way you would believe they would be in real life. It is simply amazing to walk around the larger cities and see how they actually look and feel, with a great NPC realism such as more NPC’s walking around and doing day to day tasks the cities would be truly incredible.

One of the immersive factors of this game is the little things from the way the water turns around bends, the way fish jumps up small water falls, wolves eating a dead deer, there are snakes, rabbits running around and even insects buzzing around dead bodies. Once you can run through an area and not worry about being attacked all of the time, it is nice to turn off your HUD and just view the game. It is spectacular on maximum settings and honestly it gave me that same feeling I had when I first played Oblivion and saw the world.

Possibly the best graphic aspect to the game are the characters and how detailed and lifelike they are in every way. Body size and type, scars and tattoo’s, hair and bear, breast size (seriously) and more, there are potentially millions of types of characters you can build at any time depending on race, sex and body. Your character is then fully animated from that point on and reacts perfectly. Hair moves, body parts are animated realistically, during combat and movement muscles flex and move in a real manner. Once you start looting weapons and armor your unique look starts to show in great detail and in high resolution it always looks amazing.

The GUI (Graphical User Interface) in the game is basic, well done and uncluttered, but for now at least is very limited and you can not customize your GUI or HUD as many MMO gamers do. Of course this could be easily remedied in the future, but for now the base system is easy and straight forward, especially in the use of hot keys to perform attacks, functions and abilities.

There is actually no bad look and feel to the graphics, in over two hundred hours of gameplay since launch, even seeing the same areas over and over, the game graphics never gets old and even the spell and combat effects keep fresh and stylized. Hopefully this will continue in the months to follow but of course only time will tell.

Audio

There is nothing like great audio in a game to help immerse you in the experience, but most MMORPG’s have low quality environmental, combat and general sound effects, unmemorable music and usually some very bad voice work. Age of Conan has gone over the top to make sure they are not going to be comparable to the average MMORPG, but something special and it is something you will notice quickly.

Voice over work in MMORPG’s is usually very bland and boring, Everquest 2 is the one main exception with some of the best VO work we can hear in a game, but most games are low on the scale for VO work. While the voice work in Age of Conan is not great, it is good, especially for some of the characters you will have dealings with. Hopefully every character will eventually have full voice work, but in a MMORPG that is difficult and expensive. Funcom did announce they are adding full voice over work for 60 of the most important missions in the game and that is a step in the right direction.

Music in the game is by far so good; you would expect it on a movie soundtrack such as The Lord of the Rings, epic, emotional, moving and powerful are words that come to mind for every piece of music you will hear in the game or on the sound track if you have access to that. Several times I would be listening to some of the game music and the music would change to combat music because I would be attacked. This actually left me mad because the great music ended too early, but even the combat music is excellent and while you will hear it often, it changes with the screams in each battle.

Sound Effects are the best in any MMORPG period, the sounds you hear in jungles, forests, mountains, deserts or dungeons are all high quality and sound realistic. Insects and animals, each one enhances this harmony of sounds which washes over your speakers bringing you deeper into the experience called Age of Conan. The level of quality of the sound effects are so high, I would have to say very few games have come this close to pure perfection, something I hate saying about games but is justified in this case.

  Value

At first the game may see like it is nothing more then a real time combat based MMORPG, but once you enter your starting city (level 20, and it does not take very long to get there) the charm of the game appears and it opens up in to this amazing rich game with three distinct areas, dozens of huge zones, massive combat and some of the most fun you can have at anytime. This game is massively superior to World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online and other current high rated MMORPG’s in many ways and should be a game to pull players of all types to it if they are willing to give it a chance.

Bottom Line

If you like fantasy based Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games or even Role Playing Games give this one a go. One of the most amazing games in either genre for a long time and while it does not completely revolutionize the genre, what it does it does very well. Must buy game, especially now, after a month of patches and updates that have improved the game.