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Age of Conan has been consistently demonstrated as a mature MMOG with a special emphasis on barbaric combat. At an event in San Francisco last week, the Funcom team got together and really let the press dig into the game. It was the first time they showed it, not with hype and circumstance – this summer, they demoed it with beheadings set to 100 percent – but with the confidence to let the game live or die on its own merits. Over four hours, I was able to play through the first seven levels, experience a mid-level dungeon and zone and get acquainted with their instanced PvP.

Based on the famous novels by Robert E. Howard, Age of Conan provides players with all the usual MMOG trappings. It has everything any AAA MMOG needs to have -quest-driven character development, dungeons, instanced arena PvP, combat, crafting, AAA graphics and a strong story. Then, as any successful MMOG must, it throws in a few ripples. They rethought the basic combat mechanics, added a territory control endgame and introduced a fresh look at the traditionally sterile first few levels. The question is now, have they pulled it off?

A big promise Funcom made is a single-player experience through the first 20 levels that makes the player feel like a hero, not a rat-slaying peon. It sounded great on paper, but while the first few levels were a solid MMOG experience, that’s all they were. Full disclosure: I am so programmed to grind through those levels that it was not until a day after the event that I even remembered the “single-player” aspects. So to me, the experience was not altogether different than what I am used to.

Age of Conan has been in development since 2003 and it occurs to me that in this area, the genre may have passed them by. The much-hyped single-player experience does have cut scenes, tree-based dialogue and some good sequences, but from what I saw, it is not a heck of a lot different than what any MMOG has to offer. Back in 2003, these innovations were hallmarks of the RPG, not the MMOG, and really would have set it apart. Today, they’re part of the mainstream MMOG experience.

Perhaps aware of this, Funcom seems to have played the feature down both in rhetoric and action. It’s also not a pure single-player experience. Players start in an MMOG area and work through a basic tutorial mission before they come to Tortage, the first city. All the while, other players are running around. The single-player experience amounts to an instanced class quest that players can weave in and out of. Go into the bar, talk to the right person, and you shift into the evening, which is the instanced single-player experience. Every so often, it boots you back to daytime, which is a traditional MMOG shared space. Players can power through that epic quest and gain their levels, but they can also play in the MMOG world. This is not a strict single-player RPG followed by an MMOG, but a weave of the two.

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It certainly felt a lot more like an MMOG than a single-player game, but that is not an indictment of the experience. The story was solid and definitely referenced the mature tone without clobbering the player over the head, and the whole experience was refreshingly polished. The best indication is that as I worked my way through the first few levels, rarely did I feel stuck, lost or an urge to check my watch. It is a solid start. It had a fair bit of typical “fetch me this, kill that,” but I can say I was genuinely entertained.

The strongest part of the first few levels – and I would suspect the game in general – is that for the first time in a long time it feels like a world and not a guided trip through Disney Land. There are challenges and creatures along the way that have nothing to do with the mission at hand, and combat doesn’t always wait for you to get ready. For example, right out of the tutorial, I started on a road that led down into the town. My goal was to gain access to that town, and had I wished I could have stuck to the path and got it done, but unlike so many games, there were not sheer cliffs to make sure I stayed on the rails. To my left, I saw a camp of bandits, way above my level and clearly not on my side. The simpleton that I am, I decided to fight them, and I even got one’s head before they took me out. I died, but I had fun, and it had nothing to do with the mission at hand.

That wasn’t the only example, either. Later on, in the instanced mission, my goal was to reach a warrior and deliver a message. Most MMOGs, that’s check the radar, point due west, hit “num-lock” and wait. Here, the island was filled with encounters that blocked my way. There were bandit camps I could storm, if I wished, and alligators that jumped out of the dark swamp, whether I liked it or not. I delivered my message, but this was a perfect example of a FedEx quest used properly. At its most basic level, Lord of the Rings (the books, not the game) is a big FedEx quest. It’s the adventures along the way that make it interesting. Too often, designers seem to focus on the end that they make the means an all-consuming straight line. Funcom brings back some of the variety of earlier MMOGs and is better for it.

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Last week’s event marked the first time I was able to get hands on with the controls, and it was interesting to see that they’d already addressed my biggest concern: clunky combat controls. Combat is much different in Age of Conan than most MMOGs. Rather than targeting and using special moves, players simply face an opponent or opponents and swing their sword in one of a few directions. At one point, Conan had six directions players could swing the weapon, all controlled from the keyboard with the same hand that directs movement. The mechanic sounds brilliant with an Xbox 360 controller (where a flick of the right stick does the job), but for those who want a mouse and keyboard, it sounded like a recipe for carpel-tunnel syndrome. More recently, at E3 2007, they’d simplified it down to five directions in an arc over the WASD buttons (namely Q-1-2-3-E), but still, that seemed a bit much.

Fully aware that any shift to a basic assumption of MMOGs requires adjustment time for players, they’ve wisely cut it down to three directions (controlled with the 1-2-3 buttons) over the first few levels. Ultimately, the five-button arc from E3 will be how it works, but players get their feet wet with the exact buttons that usually control combat in MMOGs. It made the experience original, yet intuitive and should make the transition to the full five-direction much more fluid; although, at this particular event, we never did get to try it.

They have also simplified their combinations, which was a highly controversial decision in the community. It used to be that they would trigger automatically, and the player would click the lit up direction (there is a UI for your swings in the center-bottom of the screen) in sequence to perform a special move, such as a knockback, agro or stun. Now, players trigger the desired move much like they would a feat in another game. They’re equipped to a hot bar and act on timers. Once you click it, the sequence lights up and if you follow it, the move is performed. This change accomplishes three important things: It keeps the player’s focus on the action and not the UI, it is easier to grasp for traditional MMOG players and lets players fight how they want, with less risk of accidentally performing the wrong move. Under the previous system, players needed to remember that for example, “1-2-1” was a knockback, while “1-2-2” was a stun. With self-activation, you quickly learn what combination follows and can instead watch the blood flow.

The system is not perfect, though. For one, even when leveled up to the 20th level, my character never had a “combination” that required a second move. I simply activated the tactic and then hit the first direction to light up. Boom, move performed. There is such a thing as oversimplified.

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Outside of tactics, there’s more to combat than just randomly hitting one of the three directions. With each weapon and direction, there’s a follow-up move that naturally flows after. If you hack from right to left with your sword and then quickly hit the left to right button, the second blow flows out of the first and is delivered more quickly. You know it’s working when it feels right, and over time you’re able to develop a rhythm. This means that like real life, a switch from polearms to swords won’t just depend on the character’s stats, but actually require the player to learn the best way to wield the weapon. It’s subtle, and it’s a nice wrinkle that keeps the players on their toes.

Beyond that, Funcom also promises directional weaknesses among opponents. For example, if an enemy has a shield in his left hand, it is likely not as effective to hit him there. They even tell us that the AI will actually move a shield to a weaker side if they find themselves being pounded there.

After a few levels of the low level experience, we warped forward to an outdoor, level 20-plus dungeon. This is just about the point where the game was supposed to go full on MMOG and gave us a chance to try out a more advanced character. The transition was OK, as I quickly decided I wanted to be a sword/shield guy over using polearms, and we went in groups of five to explore.

The previously mentioned oversimplified tactics aside, combat held up at this level and gave me enough variety. There were some traditional MMOG problems, like agro-intensive casters that I just couldn’t keep the spiders off of, but in general, it was positive.

The dungeon itself, though, was a bit of a letdown. As far as I could tell, it was divided into individually themed quadrants. In one, we took down a giant spider; in another, some humanoid enemies. However, the whole thing seemed artificial. The humanoids mingled with spiders for no apparent reason, and each one just seemed to be a dungeon crawl without the purpose. Granted, the artificial nature of the demonstration was likely to blame (we were, after all, artificially leveled up and teleported to the start of the dungeon). So, we wandered in circles and killed things until it was time to move on. I suspect it was just a chance to get used to fighting in groups, which seemed to work as one would expect.

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Quickly, they shot us on to Conall’s Valley, an enormous outdoor zone where the local Cimmerian clans are in a brutal war against the conquest-oriented Venir savages. One developer dared us to find the end of the zone in the time allotted, and I never did. It is not just huge, it looks huge. That’s a key difference between Conan and too many MMOGs that boast acreage statistics. It’s one thing to have a huge seamless zone, but it’s an altogether difference challenge to create the sweeping views and towering mountains that give that scale heft. Funcom pulled it off.

There, we got a chance to run out of the besieged town and throw our swords into the enemy. It was not until a bit of time here – on the heels of the dungeon experience – that we learned our characters and the group dynamics. As we ran out against a seemingly endless stream of enemies, people started to pull off some neat tricks. I personally beheaded my first enemy at this point, which without the cheat codes on, does pack an emotional punch. To pull it off, you need to strike the killing blow using one of the tactics and then hope for the best on a pre-determined percentage. It’s rare, but it definitely whetted by appetite for blood, as my enemy sprawled out, blood spewing all over the place.

We also started to realize the meaning of death in this zone. For anyone who played Dark Age of Camelot, the death penalty will be pretty familiar. There’s a death sickness – a long term debuff on the character – and if you fetch your gravestone, you can mitigate it. In all honesty, I like the challenge of running out to find the stone. The game was never so complex that finding it was the issue; instead it just encouraged me to avenge myself on those who took the life in the first place. They were always nearby.

Once we reached a point where we were comfortable talking to each other, Funcom then set up a five-on-five capture the flag PvP tournament. We all entered the queue and waited for the game to begin. In a normal situation, this would be much like other MMOGs. You open the UI, tell it what you (and in this case your group) want to do and then leave it in the corner while it finds a match. Once matched, you teleport in.

In a slight twist, where most games kind of shield enemies from each other to make it as anonymous as possible for fear of abuse, Age of Conan encourages it. They put all the players, both sides, on a little bridge together while everyone loads into the area. Only after everyone’s had a chance to make a rude gesture or two do they finally send you back to your base and kick off the fight.

Player vs. player was a much different beast than bopping monsters, as it usually is. Monsters sit still, players don’t. While the controls in this case did create some stationary and epic encounters, there was a lot of chasing people. That said, they seem to have struck a good balance with the endurance thresholds and sprint speeds to make sure it’s not an eternal twitch stalemate for the hand-to-hand guys.

In fact, for one of the first times in recent memory, I didn’t feel like a useless piece of fodder against the ranged classes. The best kill ratio in both matches belonged to a caster, but when a warrior got in close, he could shred them pretty quickly, and with a bit of cleverness could pull of some fun signature moments.

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In one situation, our group was running up the hill to the other team’s flag when one of their casters hid himself on the ramparts and rained lightning down on us. I sprinted ahead and came up behind him. While he frantically turned to face the onslaught, I quickly activated my knockback tactic and threw him down from where we came. Let’s just say, fall damage is very much enabled. That move led to our first and only flag capture.

I’m shamed to admit, but I was also humbled by an enemy who chopped my head off as time expired. We had a clear moral victory in that first match, but it’s hard to get excited about your kill ratio when through the transparent UI pop-up all you can see is your body on the grass, blood spewing out of the place where your head used to be.

Age of Conan has impressive character customization with more sliders than anyone could humanly wish for, much like many MMOGs. The difference for them is that everyone has this cave-man feel, and it makes for a twist on the norm. On top of the regular sliders for nose length and how much the guy’s ears stick out, they also put some time into scars, broken noses and other brutal tokens of life. At the end, I spent 20 minutes building the ugliest characters I could. I made some really ugly guys and quite a few I’d run from on a dark road, but the tools do not go so far as to let people leave reason behind.

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On the downside, the game needed more varieties of face textures and hair. I never felt fully comfortable with any of the hair options. Hair is one of the hardest things to do in 3-D, but I’ve definitely seen other games do it better. There was also some sloppiness to iron out in terms of penetration issues and floating beards. And, the much anticipated Age of Conan females? They were not in the version shown.

The game world has been strongly crafted to feel like the world Robert E. Howard described. Each climate feels unique and true to the nature. Icy, snowy lands look and feel cold, and the warmer, jungle areas are just as true to life. Visually, they captured both the spirit of the novels and did it with some really high-end artistry.

However, I cannot say the same attention was given to the story. All the quests were fine and did a good job of weaving the game’s themes into adequate situations, but they were not anything special. I still found myself wrestling with the dialogue trees and quickly began to skip through to the end. The only thing that kept my attention was the fact that they put a lot of effort into truly top-notch voice acting. It is by far the best I’ve seen in an MMOG, but sadly the words coming out in my limited experience didn’t match.

The most obvious example is the first story. The player begins as a rowing slave from a wrecked ship. You wash up on shore and of course undergo the forgivable artificiality of a tutorial, but while I understand and applaud the need to explain things away, the logical leap they make is laughable. Funcom wants players to feel like a hero from the start, and they succeed in that, but I’d say they do it in spite of the story. Quite literally, your character has hit his head and remembers nothing of what he was before his years as a slave. The epic quest, from the first few levels I played, seems to be all aimed at unlocking the memories of your undoubtedly heroic past life. The story neatly wraps everything into a nice generic package, as is necessary, but it’s been done and done to death. I saw the Bourne movies and I beat Assassin’s Creed, and those two were already using a tired clich√©, albeit effectively. I was disappointed to see it recycled into Age of Conan. I had hoped for more from a game with such a rich intellectual property behind it.

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The amazingly detailed characters and world help the game overcome that story and really capture the IP, but they could also be the game’s ultimate commercial Achilles’ heel. I am all for the advancement of 3-D graphics technology, and I love a pretty screenshot as much as the next guy, but I also want a game that I can run on my computer at home. I was surprised and impressed that Age of Conan was as stable and polished as we found it. There were minimal glitches and the game ran smoothly, but it did so on a PC with more neon lights than a suped-up Honda Civic.

This to me is the biggest mistake MMOG companies have made since World of Warcraft. At every conference, the MMOG developers gather around and talk about what lessons they learn from WoW. Yet, I have yet to see one get the single most important thing WoW did correctly: run on a PC that a huge percentage of the population and likely anyone who halfway considers himself a gamer, owns. The system requirements are sane, and they open the game to a huge audience that these boundary-pushing titles cannot. The barriers to entry in an MMOG are already so high, why add another with system requirements? Let Crytek overheat people’s 8800s and make MMOGs that regular people can run.

That said, Funcom seems to be cognizant of what their game is and what it is not, and I believe their expectations are in line with the limitations their system requirements place upon the game’s ultimate subscriber numbers.

Age of Conan is the refreshing anti-WoW in an age of clones. It clearly took some lessons from the King, but it does not appear that they made decisions based on whether or not WoW did them. In some ways, it is very familiar; in others, completely innovative; and in yet more ways, harkens back to MMOGs that preceded WoW in a very good way. It’s clear that this game is the result of years of experience from MMOG veterans and while its not perfect and most definitely not for everyone, it has the potential to carve out a niche and succeed where so many other games have failed. Age of Conan is slated to hit stores on March 25, 2008 with a string of beta tests in the interim.

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