E3 2007: Age of Conan Preview


Age of Conan is likely one of the most anticipated MMORPGs headed to market, likely rivaled only by Warhammer Online. With its main competitor not at E3, they had the spotlight to themselves. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, the demonstration suffered some unfortunate setbacks. Find out what we thought of this Eidos / Funcom project:

E3 2007: Age of Conan Preview
Eidos (Publisher) / Funcom (Developer)
Article by Dana Massey

imageE3 2007 seemed to fall at an inopportune time for Funcom’s Age of Conan team. As usual, the game’s visuals were astounding, the ideas were top notch and the team’s enthusiasm for their project was infectious, but unfortunately, through circumstance, they were not able to truly put their best foot forward.

Through absolutely no fault of their own, the entire demonstration was undermined by a shoddy shared web connection in their Fairmont Hotel meeting room. Essentially, the whole building was on one line and that’s not exactly ideal for an MMO. As a result, the demonstrations their developers attempted had a lot of inconsistencies, warping characters and other lag-related glitches. I’ve seen this game at a dozen shows in the last few years and never have they had these issues before, so while I am certain that the problems were not the fault of the game, it did make it difficult to see everything I had hoped to.

Age of Conan is a next generation MMO from Norwegian developers Funcom, set in Robert E. Howard’s fantastical prehistoric universe that was later made famous in the United States by a series of movies starring Gov. Arnold Shwarzenegger. Funcom’s version uses cutting edge graphics to translate this world first to the PC – where they will eventually exploit DX10 technology – and then later to the Xbox 360. The game, which is published by Eidos, is also easily the highest budget anyone has ever put into an “M” rated online game. It’s bloody and it’s brutal.

imageIn their booth – connectivity issues aside – two developers sat at terminals and worked their way through a high level area. Their goal was to kill a bandit king who had holed himself up. As a bonus, they undertook this mission with a Necromancer, something they’d never shown before.

The Necromancer is a pet class and thanks to the unique control scheme Age of Conan employs, a rather original take on one. Necromancers have eight “pet points” to spend on creatures in their control. In this case, they had the most basic collection of one point scorpions. However, on the other hand, they could also have brought out a larger, AOE dealing creature for a cost of four points. The key is to use those slots effectively and bring out the best possible combination of creatures in any given situation. To control the pets, the player simply faces whatever enemy they want and the pets run after that character. The creatures themselves do not get caught up or draw agro. Instead, they funnel it all back to their master. On the upside, this system is extremely simple and easy to use (face it and they kill it), but besides base “AI states” such as defensive, aggressive and passive, there really is not much in the way of control over the creatures. In fact, in the heat of combat, it seems like they just jump around from enemy to enemy. This approach is entirely different from other MMOs where the pet is often used as a tank or in games where players can give more complex instructions. Ignored by the enemies, the scorpions are essentially a glorified damage over time (DOT) spell on whatever character the player faces. It’s unique, but it struck me as a touch over simplified.

imageA small highlight of Age of Conan for me has always been their approach to enemy camps and the E3 demonstration once again highlighted this. In too many MMOs, monsters sit around and wait to be killed in small clumps. In Age of Conan, bandits arrange themselves into camps, complete with patrols, guards, etc. It’s the classic fantasy scenario where the good guys pick off the sentry or patrol, so as not to bring the full force of their enemy against them at once. In AoC, players can play this out and solve camps in a variety of ways, such as the untimely and quiet death of a scout, or perhaps, by having someone sneak in through the shadows and quietly take out the guards at the gate. Any game that replaces an inherently artificial and almost certainly accidentally created mechanic like classic “pulling” with something that feels real gets a special place in my heart and with camps, Age of Conan has done just that.

The demonstration showed a group of two, but in Conan, they can go as high as six in regular circumstance, although they did allude to a prestige class – the Commander – that allows for a larger group. On the flip side, Funcom believes their game could be played from cover to cover solo, although they don’t recommend it and point out that anyone who attempted such a feat would miss out on a wealth of group oriented combat. Nonetheless, that commitment should please the more solitary adventurers among us.

Melee combat differs from traditional MMOs. Instead of auto-attacks modified by a series of feats, Conan allows the player to swing their weapon in any one of five directions. Players equip feats that are in reality combinations. A half moon display at the bottom of the HUD shows each of these directions and lights up all the potential moves that would continue one of those feats. So after the first swing, three might light up, each a part of a different combination, after the player performs their second swing, perhaps only one or two light up, and so on. It’s a great mechanic in a genre that desperately needed one, although it seems difficult to do with a mouse and keyboard (more on this later).

imageWhat’s more though, different enemies are susceptible to attacks from different directions and players can figure this out organically. If a bandit has a shield in his left hand, it’s a safe bet that he has more defense on his left side. If his friend has heavy armor on his torso and big helmet, but completely bare legs, well then that’s also a clue. Don’t get too complacent though, Funcom told us that if the enemy AI senses a player has hit him too many times on his non-shield side, the enemy might well swap his sword and shield hands for a little added defense. The entire mechanic reminds me Fight Night Round 3, the EA Sports boxing game, and that’s definitely a compliment.

Even more interesting, when it comes to ranged combat, player skill does have some limited impact. Like other classes, archers need to face the character they want to shoot at and fire. Their targeting ring is a cone from the source outward and if a player is fast, they could actually run outside the cone’s radius and avoid an incoming projectile. RPG mechanics still determine hit or miss within the cone, but this nod to player skill again go toward a more organic combat system.

The final element of our demonstration was a look at one of the game’s high level dungeons: Black Ring Citadel. This is an 80th level raid dungeon with a maximum occupancy of 25 players, a number much lower than traditional raids in other MMOs call for.

image“We want to make this game approachable,” Funcom Product Manager Erling Ellingson told us during the demonstration. He doesn’t think that most players can go out and gather 60 friends and so rather than cut off this content to all but the elite few who have the time, they chose to do smaller raids.

Visually, the place had an epic Egyptian-esque grandeur. The textures on various decorations were unlike anything I’ve ever seen put into an MMO. We also saw them fight an epic monster, but again, as before, the connectivity issues took some of the fun out of the event, as the animations did not always line up.

Yesterday’s E3 Awards gave our “MMO of the Show” hardware to Tabula Rasa over Conan. This choice has stirred quite a bit of controversy in the Conan community, and it seems only fair, that I take a moment and explain the decision more thoroughly. Partly, the decision was based on the lack of hands-on time or even a thorough demonstration. The connectivity issues at the hotel were not Funcom’s fault, but they did take away from what they had to show. Generally, hands-on time is not a requirement, but in this particular case, it also detracted, as some of my most major questions about this game have to do with the way in which it is controlled.

imageAt this time, players have their right hand on the mouse and move their character with WASD. This is industry standard and fine, but to pull of Conan’s unique combat system, players control their direction swings with the Q, E, 1, 2 and 3 buttons. Q swings down and to the left, E down and to the right, and so forth. This mechanism is a great step forward and likely provides the visceral feeling of combat, but it is also a mechanism clearly suited to the Xbox 360’s right stick and not the PC. Consider for a moment trying to strafe to the left and swing down/left with the Q button at the same time. Likely, the player would need to put his middle finger above his ring finger (which holds down the Q) to pull off such a move. This doesn’t even begin to address chat on top of it all. That’s a decidedly awkward movement. Funcom insisted that the control was easy once players got used to it, but with such a large question mark hanging over it, it’s something I really need to try hands on before I stamp any awards on it.

Age of Conan might well be the best upcoming MMO we saw at E3, we just couldn’t tell from what was shown, while Tabula Rasa on the other hand, has given us plenty of opportunities to get in and form our own opinions. I remember my own lack of enthusiasm for that title back in the days before we were allowed to play. It’s actually a classic example of how hands-on time can change a writer’s opinion in a flash. The game turned out to be much more fun and deep than I’d given it credit for. Perhaps in the future, Age of Conan will also make a convert once it is ready to be demoed more openly.

imageThe other thing that left some concern was what they did not show. Combat, classes, dungeons and camps are great fun, but they’ve shown them before. In fact, at past E3s, they showed mounted combat, their RTS-style city system and other things that could really throw this game into a league of its own, if done well. This year, they decided to focus in on the nitty-gritty and admittedly openly that they’ll talk about these other features at a later date. For an E3 Award, we had to judge on what we saw, not what we might see down the line.

Integrated voice chat might be a part of Age of Conan’s future, according to Funcom, something that should ease the potentially convoluted control system and before we left, they gave us a tantalizing hint that their city building system, when they’re ready to once again display it, will knock our socks off. “Imagine Total War Online,” one of their representatives said with a grin.

Circumstance and bad luck hurt Age of Conan’s demonstration this year, but while some concerns remain, they showed a solid product that could yet live up the monumental expectations of its rabid fanbase. They may not have taken home an award, but they definitely showed that the game is on track and oozes with potential.

What do you think? Let us know!

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