Disclaimer: I have received special permission from Funcom to publish these beta journals and I publish them first with the approval of Funcom. I forward these journal entries to Funcom first to seek approval to ensure that the content I wish to publish is fair and accurate. These journal entries are not opinion pieces or reviews, but a means to discuss exclusively a reflection of the exciting content that the game will deliver to you on May 20, 2008. I have been given special permission to “break” NDA for the purpose of these journal entries, and write them with Funcom’s trust instilled in me. If you yourself are in the ‘Age of Conan’ beta, then please do not see this as an excuse for you to begin publicly discussing the game in any way, shape, or form. The NDA is still in effect, and many things are still subject to change during this crucial beta stage.
My thanks first and foremost go out to Funcom for allowing me to write and publish these journal entries in the first place. I am incredibly pleased to bring to you these journal entries, and hope you get as much joy reading them as I have writing them.
It was an Aquilonian I was playing, so that meant on completion of the Destiny Quest in Tortage, my first port-of-call was the capital of Aquilonia, the city of Tarantia, or “Old Tarantia”, as it is called in ‘Age of Conan’. Old Tarantia, if you’ve been fortunate to travel around Europe and visit the various Greek and Roman-influenced cities of the continent, will instantly give you this sense of awe and grandeur as you make your way through the bustling streets of this proud and glorious city, just like the great European cities: Rome, Valletta, Paris, Athens, Ephesus, Lindos, Madrid, Skopia, Bern, etc.
Strewn through the city of Old Tarantia are statues and sculptures made in honour of kings, and great warriors past, and if you’ve got a keen eye, you might even see a work in progress dedicated to Aquilonia’s Cimmerian-born monarch. Within this bustling city, you will see vendors, dock-workers, the odd destitute and penniless boor, guards with sword and shield in hand defending their posts, children running playing “chasey” (“tag”) through the streets, a cat being chased by an eager-looking canine, and depending on what corners you traverse, an over-exuberant gigolo and not too far away, a sultry-looking harlot. The devs weren’t kidding when they said they wanted to make Hyboria in ‘Age of Conan’ a living, breathing world, and historical context aside, Old Tarantia in its “life” offers the player a uniquely but only slightly skewed reflection of how life is in the real world.
I decided that it was actually time to get some adventuring done, so I took off my tourist hat and went about talking to some of the NPCs in Old Tarantia. Getting a feel about the place wasn’t a problem as certain NPCs will give you quests to go on a bit of a scavenger hunt around the city. One such scavenger hunt-type quest was for the stable owner in Old Tarantia, whom informed me that one of his most prized phillies had run off and it was my job to scout-about and track down where the spooked equine had gotten to. Let’s just say it all goes to the dogs. The city has more or less everything you need, and that’s not just for the lowbie character; players will continue coming back to the hubs (Old Tarantia, Conarch Village, and Khemi) if not for handing in quests, but to check in at auction houses, to stock up on new spell scrolls, or perhaps even to re-equip one’s self with some shiny, new weapons and armour, and thanks to the fast-travel system in ‘Age of Conan’, it’s not a trip that you will mind having to make, and I guess that’s one of the advantages of not playing in a “seamless” world: travelling from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ from anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour is not my idea of fun, and I’m quite sure this is what Funcom is going for as well. If you’re paying for a month’s subscription, you don’t want to be spending half your time on foot or horseback just getting from place to place. But having said that, the zones are magnificently large, and you can think what you like about zoning technology, but Funcom have gone to great lengths to give each and every zone in ‘Age of Conan’ that epic feel, not a world made out of plastic or coloured with pastels.
After getting a feel for Old Tarantia, my home-town, I decided that it was time to enter the grander world of Hyboria, but where was I to begin? Now, just because I was an Aquilonian didn’t necessarily mean I had to stick with Aquilonian quests in Aquilonian zones. No, quite the opposite in fact, and this is what excites me as a member of a large, hard-working, and goal-oriented guild. If you and your buddies decide that you all want to group and quest together, you can do so. It doesn’t even matter if you’re all Stygian, for example; you can make the journey to Conall’s Valley in Cimmeria, if you wanted to, and do your questing from level 20 to level 35 or so. With this in mind, I decided to make the dangerous trek as a fresh-faced Aquilonian to the dark and mysterious lands of Stygia, through Khemi, to the Khopshef Province.
It wasn’t long after I stepped off the jetty in the region of Bushbur in the Khopshef Province, that I noticed, what I assumed was a level 20, soldier-class character only a matter of yards in front of me. The individual – who will of course remain nameless – I soon discovered was a Guardian class character wielding a particularly nasty-looking sword and shield. We stopped and stared at each other for a while, but it wasn’t long into admiring the artwork in the armour pieces he was wearing that he actually drew his sword (which also looked spectacular) and shield and decided to rush at me. It was here where the PvPer within me uttered a loud primordial “Yawp” and grinning, I said to myself, “It’s on like Donkey Kong!” Okay, so this is open PvP; so be it!
As I was playing a Ranger I had to think to myself, “How did I play ranged/nuker characters in other MMORPGs against melee-based opponent?” Unfortunately I had to resort to kiting at first just to see how this guy would react to my movements, which in the first moments of the battle seemed more like a cheesy Benny Hill video clip only without the footage sped-up to double speed, but this was not fault of the game’s mechanics; simply my own decision to alter the parameters of this particular encounter. I was quite sure that the Guardian noticed the bow and arrow quiver on my back and immediately assumed that I was a Rogue character of some sort. By him charging at me it was my assumption to see how I was going to react, but then again I often read too much into things and he may well have just wanted to rush in like bull that has just been smacked on the backside by a cast-member of Jackass.
After a bit of dancing around I had a look at the feats in my feat tray. Yes, I had a snare, and I was going to use it! In order for the snare to be effective and give me enough time to get off a few more ranged combos and shots on my shield-wielding opponent, I had to gain a bit of distance between him and me. In order to do this I had to sacrifice a bit of my stamina and sprint to a spot where I felt comfortable. I felt a distance of about the equivalent of 30 to 40 metres would be ample, so it was at this point I triggered my snare combo (which was in its weakest manifestation at this particular level – it does improve in effectiveness) and watched the Guardian’s movement speed go from a solid jog to a sluggish hobble, a bit like watching a father and child in a three legged race where they haven’t quite got their walking rhythm in-sync. Anyway, this allowed me some time to fire off a couple of combos; just enough to take a chunk out of the Guardian’s massive amount of hitpoints.
The Guardian, especially the one-handed weapon and shield spec, it seems, is very good one thing: taking damage. When you can take copious amounts of damage, you tend to have a good habit of outlasting your opponent, so as a Ranger, I conceded that while why inherent DPS was superior to that of the Guardian’s, my resistance to damage was close to zilch. As a ranged DPS specialist, this made my task against the Guardian two-fold: keep him at distance; and whittle down his health whilst doing so. Allowing the Guardian to get into melee range would mean disaster for any ranged-based class, because let me assure you, not even the Guardian is a slouch when it comes to dishing out some damage, which is something I’ve admired Funcom for as my favourite class to play in any MMORPG is the “tank” class. Okay, so Guardians won’t be the main damage-dealers of any team in ‘Age of Conan’, but they appear to be able to hold their own in a fight and quite definitely surprise any opponent with the amount of damage they can do.
So my plan of attack so far: kite the Guardian and keep on spamming my snare to keep him at bay. It doesn’t sound terribly exciting, does it? Not being one for tired, old tactics, I thought I’d flip my plan on its head and try something new, because I knew that my opponent, the Guardian, would now probably have it in his head that I was going to continue kiting him until his health did drop. I guess kiting would be a viable tactic in this scenario or those similar, because it’s not like you’d want to let a melee combat specialist get within melee range, but I think the main difference here as a Ranger in ‘Age of Conan’ is keeping on your toes to keep well out of melee range and give yourself enough time and spice to fire off those snare and armour-piercing combos.
At this point, the Guardian was down to about 25 per cent health, but had managed to get me down to about 33 per cent health with a few hits on me as I brisked by him in tight spots in order to gain some ground. The Guardian didn’t seem to be regenerating his health very quickly, but I wasn’t about to sit comfortably thinking this game was in the bag.
The nice thing about the Ranger is that the class also has a handful of very useful melee combos, and so when I spoke about flipping my plan on its head and trying something new, I meant using my melee combos, but of course at the risk of having the Guardian rip through my light armour with his sword like a lightsaber through a piñata, but no risk, no reward, right? So hitting the shortcut for ‘weapon swap’ I switched to my one-handed sword – which was particularly nasty itself – back-heeled, and turned to face my heavy-clad opponent.
I didn’t waste much time; as soon as the Guardian was in range I triggered my first combo and managed to wipe a further eight per cent off his health (it might have been up to 15-20 per cent had it not been for the Guardian’s already-decent damage resistance), but it wasn’t shortly after he took a big swipe with his sword to take a solid 15 per cent off my total health; even-Stevens, almost.
It’s usually at this point in fairly intense PvP fights where something bizarre happens to me (client-side), like my wireless mouse’s batteries running out, my trustworthy broadband connection suddenly cutting out, falling victim to a massive lag-spike (which results in a flash-forwarded death, usually, like “What happened in between 18 per cent health and death? Did the server crit me?”), or an NPC mob suddenly appearing behind me (i.e. getting too close to aggro range) and finishing off the job for my opponent. Thankfully none of these occurred in my battle with this tenacious Guardian, and it actually got to the point where we were at about 10 per cent of our total hitpoints. We were now down to basically our last combo each before imminent death.
The combos I had at the time didn’t really have any secondary effect, so what I was gunning for was a critical hit on the Guardian to finish him off; a regular combo hit would not have been enough to take him down due to his still-impressive hitpoints and damage resistance. So I swang, he swang, and got our hits off on each other, and yes, that critical hit landed! A flash of “Critical” floated above his head with the damage numbers as he slowly slumped to the ground in a heap leaving me the victor with about two or three per cent hitpoints to spare. It was the Guardian, however, that would have the last laugh as I was hit with a “bleed” type combo, and a damage-over-time effect was in place. So a bit like Bill after being hit with the “five step heart explosion”, dramatically I fell to the ground in a heap, but this time the PvPer inside of me uttered a loud primordial “KAAAAHHHHNNN!!!!”
So what did learn from this PvP encounter? Well, firstly, Guardians, even in ‘Age of Conan’, stay true to the “tank” feel, but the difference with them in this game is that they are quite capable of dealing some good damage, and that makes the scary, as opponents anyway. Secondly, the Rangers work best when at range, but can also hold their own damage-wise when in melee combat. At no point during the fight did I feel comfortable as I knew because of my combos, wanting to gain ground between myself and the Guardian, and conserving my stamina, I had to be on my toes, like a I mentioned before. The combat system, I feel, will encourage players to actually think about what they’re doing: positioning, which combo to use (and when?), and when to flip your plans on their head and try something different. I think if anything is going to kill a player in PvP, it’s going to be the predictability factor. Like I said earlier, old-hat tactics could be viable and might work for you, but be prepared to try something new with ‘Age of Conan’ and not to rely on what worked for you in “other” games.
My corpse lying on the sandy grounds of the area of Bushbur in the Khopshef Province provided for me a small opportunity to take in the sights of this Stygian zone. I’m a big fan of the movie Gladiator, and everything about this zone, the Khopshef Province, reminds me of the scenes filmed in Tunisia (where you first meet Proximo, played by Oliver Reed): the white sands, the red clay-bricked huts and buildings, hand-woven patterned shade-cloths, vendors in their stalls wearing turbans and other exotic head-pieces on their heads, caravan masters, livestock, and who could ever forget about camels? The Khopshef Province has a dry and unforgiving feel about it, and it’s the sort of zone where you best be on your guard, because you never know when a brigand or rioting miner slave is going to pounce on you and attempt to sever the coil attaching you to the bounds of mortality.
Sadly, I don’t think I could do the Khopshef Province justice in my descriptions and thoughts about it in the space I have allotted myself and remaining in this journal entry, but it is something I will definitely carry on with in a subsequent journal entry, but I will say this before I sign off: never before have I felt so enthralled with a computer-generated environment as I have with the zones in ‘Age of Conan’. Major kudos needs to go to the game’s art director, Didrik Tollefsen, assistant art director, Mark Regan, the rest of the art team and environment team for creating such breath-taking vistas, be they the glorious structures that consist of the city of Old Tarantia, or the looming sand dunes and dark pyramids of the Khopshef Province.
No vultures are coming to eat at my corpse; I’m offended!
Okay, I’m off to cut some birthday cake (yes, I’ve notched up another year, 27), so until next week (yes, you’re just going to have to wait and see what next week brings), this is Stephen “weezer” Spiteri…
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© Stephen Spiteri, May 2008