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A couple of weeks ago I gave readers an exclusive preview of Age of Conan, and now I have the absolute pleasure to bring you the WarCry Network’s official review of the game!

Yes, Age of Conan has been out [officially] for 10 days now, but if you were one of the organised ones (or rather, one of the eager players that put their copy of the game on pre-order the same time man first landed on the moon) like me, you would have begun your adventures in Hyboria a few days earlier thanks to Funcom’s early-access program.

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For those of you familiar with my work around here on the WarCry Network, you would know that I have been a supporter and fan of this production for quite a while, and very rarely have I ever had anything negative to say about the game or Funcom, its developer. I’ve written countless editorials on issues pertaining to Age of Conan or MMORPG gaming in general, written beta journals, given the gaming community insights into the development of the game. So what about this review? Well, unlike other reviewers that would have only gone as far as playing this game since the press were given beta access, I am actually basing my opinions and review on the two weeks that I have personally invested in Age of Conan, and now speaking not only as a critic, but as a paying customer. Yes, a customer: one individual among thousands and thousands that actually matter in this equation. The one thing important to keep in mind is that in this review I’m playing the exact same version of the game as you.

This review will head itself under five main criteria: Graphics (the look, mood, complexity vs. simplicity, and performance); Sound (music, sound effects, quality, etc.); Gameplay (learning curve, risk vs. reward, variety of gameplay experiences, player control, combat, soloing vs. group play, etc.); Design (GUI, world design, game mechanics); and Story (quest design, variety of quest types, plot, and player/character immersion). All of these criteria will be assessed and given a score out of 20 (the higher the better, obviously). After each of the five criteria have been assessed, a cumulative score will be given out of 100, and obviously the closer to 100 the cumulative/overall score is, the better. So without further ado, the review:

Graphics
First of all, let’s start with the disappointment: No DX10 at launch. Age of Conan, from January 2007, was tagged to be one of the flagship games for Windows Vista’s DirectX 10; a game that, for users with DX10-capable GPUs and systems, was going to be completely run on the DX10 engine and not just “feature” a small portion of DX10’s capabilities. I’m not a DX10 user myself, but I do know several people that bought/upgraded to new systems specifically for Age of Conan in order to play the game on using DX10, and to wait a bit longer for the DX10 Age of Conan experience, as you can imagine, would be rather frustrating. We’re told that Age of Conan in DX10 will go live some time in fall (northern hemisphere).

Despite this blunder, Funcom, with their patented DreamWorld Engine, have managed to create a world as if it were meticulously painted, stroke by stroke, with Robert E. Howard there giving the artist direction in the creation of the masterpiece. The environments are breath-taking and every zone in the game comes complete with a “Oh wow!” moment. For example, as you leave Conarch Village (Cimmeria) to head in to Conall’s Valley to begin making your descent towards the Cimmerian outpost, there’s a sense of grandeur that you feel as you traverse on the path or walk through the knee-high grass. In front of you, stretching for miles, is the valley, and you can see it all or a good margin of it depending on your GPU and system’s capacity. My machine is relatively old (AGP motherboard), but even on my graphics card (xfx 7950GT 512MB), I can set the view distance to a comfortable 1000 metres (and push it further if I really wanted to) to get a good scope of any zone in the game.

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The character models in Age of Conan, for me anyway, make me feel like I’ve just come out of a DarkHorse Conan comic book. There is grit and beauty in every character, but at the same time reminding you there is still some fantasy element in this game. The character creation tool gives players the option to make their character(s) as rugged or pristine as they feel, and yes, when up close and personal, even two characters with the same facial model can be distinguished from each other depending on how each player has manipulated them with the tools provided. The only other character creator that I can think of that matches Age of Conan’s in terms of creating a truly unique-looking avatar, is City of Heroes’. If you want a Barbara Streisand “schnozz”, you can give yourself one; if you want Arnold Schwarzenegger “pecs”, you can give yourself a set; and if you want Angelina Jolie lips, then yes, they can be yours as well!

As far as performance is concerned, I can run the game on high settings with a few tweaks in the options here and there (namely turning “Bloom” off, and lowering the view distance to 1000 metres) even on my dinosaur of a computer, but if you want the best visual and most pleasing-to-the-eye experience from Age of Conan, then you’re going to want to meet those “Recommended” system requirements Funcom have slapped on the retail boxes. While lower-end machines will still be able to run the game quite well and enjoy Funcom’s scenic Hyboria, well, let me put it this way: Would you prefer to experience the best, or have someone else describe it to you?

On the whole, even as a DX9 game Age of Conan is visually appealing and utterly impressive graphically. The only question that is yet to be answered is how the game will look when Age of Conan DX10 goes live. If the DX9 client is anything to go by, then I can only imagine that eyes will refuse to leave the screen come this later summer or fall. The only negative I can see in Age of Conan’s graphics is its demand on computer system resources and the need for a newish/high-end machine in order to run the game smoothly and be pleasing-to-the-eye.

The score: 17 out of 20.

Sound
Sadly, I’m one of these people that still has stereo sound/speakers on his desktop computer, but thankfully, I have managed to experience Age of Conan in 5.1 and 7.1 digital surround sound. The audio engineering team at Funcom is to be applauded for their amazing ability to bring such sound to life for players on every-day home computers. The sound effects and music in 7.1 is mind-blowing, to say the least; in 5.1 it still delivers; and even in stereo sound with my humble Logitech speakers and subwoofer I am still able to sink myself in to the audio environment of Hyboria and its distinct sounds.

It may be a minion of the undead lurking up behind you, an arrow whistling passed your ear or the crunch of the snow beneath your feet in the Eiglophian Mountains; it’s a refined, clear, and crisp sound that accompanies it. Furthermore, all sounds are in-sync with the according action. Drawing your sword from its sheathe is accompanied with its perfectly timed sound effects, and it sounds completely authentic. Funcom have gone to great lengths to ensure that as a player you are pulled in and immersed even by the audio elements of the game, and this is an important feature, because, like the movies, sound consists of half of the experience.

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Regarding the music, every nation and every zone has a theme attached to it. It’s difficult to describe the music in words, but take that epic orchestral sound that you might find in movies like Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Conan the Barbarian (of course), Braveheart, and Highlander, and that’s what you might find in Age of Conan. Not to mention the combat-dynamic music that has a tendency to get your pulse racing as your cutting down a Nemedian soldier or slicing through a Vanir Skulker. Mounted combat even has its unique combat music, and for both types of combat music, the longer you’re in the fight, the more intense the music gets; a bit like one of those fight scenes in a movie where the fight between the good guy and the bad guy is topsy-turvey, both combatants are frantically doing their best to out-best each other, and the music tells this story! For those of you fortunate enough to own the Age of Conan Collector’s Edition, you’d know that you are the proud owner of an Age of Conan soundtrack. My advice: take the CD and play it in your car, put the tracks on your iPod, make A Hymn for King Conan the bridal waltz at your wedding, what ever! Just listen to it in and outside of the game.

For outstanding music and sound effects, and for making the game enjoyable to listen to even on stereo sound, Funcom has pulled-up trumps with their audio engineering.

The score: 20 out of 20.

Gameplay
What sets Age of Conan apart from any other MMORPG on the market at the moment is its patented “real-time” combat system. Combat is no longer auto-pilot or easy street in MMO gaming! Yes, for once in an MMORPG you actually have to think about where you’re going to land your attacks. Thankfully, despite this level of player-combat interaction, the learning curve is relatively insignificant. At the start of the game, combos are simplistic, but as you progress through the levels combos scale and higher ranks of certain combos increase in intricacy. Furthermore, there’s the element of mob shields (an area of their body that they are protecting: left, middle, or right side), and of course you do a lot more damage to the mob when you finish the combo on a side with little or no protection.

As an added bonus to exploiting your opponent’s weak spot(s), if triggered in perfect timing and under the right conditions, you have a chance of pulling off a fatality move. A fatality move will also grant the player a buff to their health, stamina, and mana regeneration plus increasing their damage output and chance to trigger successive fatalities. This buff is quite brief though (think of it as a “rush of blood”).

Ranged combat also utilises the real-time combat system, as bow and crossbow users are able to direct their attacks in the given direction. You are also able, as a bow or crossbow user, to enter into first-person shooter mode, a sort of “sniper mode”. This makes Ranger-type characters very deadly and very accurate

Offensive spells are cast much in the same way they are cast in other MMORPGs, but at level 50, spellcasters unlock their Spellweaving ability, the spellcaster’s answer to the melee combo system. Spellweaving allows spellcasters to combine their spells and other effects to make them brutal against opponents, beneficial for teammates, or better for themselves. The player must be cautious, however, as Spellweaving has many risks which may be fatal for the spellcaster or his/her teammates. A fellow guildmate showed off his Spellweaving infront of me on his Priest of Mitra, and without giving too much away, the franticness of it due to the sheer risk vs. reward element it was offering brought a unique dynamic to spellcasting as a gameplay feature.

I’m one of these players that likes to solo quite a bit, even in MMORPGs, and thankfully Funcom has looked after us lone wolves. There is an abundance of quest content, and that means those that prefer to fly solo are able to reach level 80 without a wingman or two. Despite this, however, an MMORPG is about joining in on the social aspect of MMORPG gaming and partaking in group quests. Yes, there is lots of group content, and even the quests that can be soloed are enjoyable when attempted in a group. Solo quests offer decent rewards, but you can expect better quest rewards from the quests that require a group or a raid-size group to partake in, so Funcom have stayed true to the risk vs. reward mantra trumpeted in the MMORPG genre: the higher the risk element, the better the reward(s).

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Regarding PvP, PvP and RP-PvP servers allow free-for-all PvP, which means that you can attack and can be attacked by any player at any time, all with the exception of “hub” cities, namely: Old Tarantia, Khemi, and Conarch Village, the central cities to Aquilonia, Khemi, and Cimmeria, respectively. In my honest opinion, free-for-all PvP is how Age of Conan is meant to be played. Forget the potential for ganking and griefing for a moment, and remember that Howard’s Hyboria is a cruel, harsh, unforgiving, and unpredictable world. This, in its truest sense, is reflected in the PvP and RP-PvP servers; they are not for the faint of heart. This is not to say that play on the PvE server is mundane or flowery, no, as players on any server type can still engage in PvP either in the PvP mini-games (CTF or Team Annihliation) or through the Border Kingdoms, the siege warfare zones of the game.

Needless to say, there is lots in Age of Conan to keep you busy for a long time, and there is strong replayability value in all of the gameplay features Age of Conan has to offer. Sieging and raiding offer players strong end-game content, and now that trade houses are fully functional again, the player-base can begin driving the in-game economy and raise their fund to either deck out their own character(s), or pave a path to glory with an awesome guild city and battlekeep.

Funcom has implemented elements from other MMORPGs into their game and have managed to add just those little bit extra bits to make them unique in Age of Conan. With innovations such as the “real-time” combat system, combos, fatalities, Spellweaving, mounted combat, and much more, Funcom has made Age of Conan vastly unique and so are to be congratulated for trying something new and delivering something both fresh and exceptional.

The score: 20 out of 20.

Design
Age of Conan is not a seamless world like other MMORPGs. This is mainly due to the fact that each zone is complex in its infrastructural and graphical design. So in order to pull off creating a world that is rich in detail even with areas as large as they are in the game, zoning and instancing technology was used in the design of Funcom’s Hyboria.

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The zones and areas are beautifully constructed and well-strung together, but my only criticism of this design decision is the dreaded loading screen. I don’t mind the loading screen – this is helped by the fact that load times are relatively quick (also dependent on your system resources) – but why there are load screens for areas right next to each other or adjacent, I’m not sure, but it seems a bit superfluous to me. Why not make a larger zone to connect those adjacent areas (e.g. The Thirsty Dog Inn and the City of Tortage)? This is only a minor criticism, as the saving grace of it all is the game’s coding: zones load quickly, they look amazing, and instancing ensures that your Internet connection is not lagged-out due to there being too many players in a single zone.

Zoning technology was a sensible design direction for Age of Conan, despite its minor flaws, as we all know that Hyboria is a large world, and so as content updates and expansions are released, it’s simply a matter of adding an entry/exit point to a new zone somewhere already existent in the world to the new area or zone. It will be exciting to discover where Funcom decides to take its players in Hyboria next.

The loading screen art is beautiful, but after you’ve seen each screen once or twice over, it almost becomes a chore to watch them again. Perhaps some “Indiana Jones travel-type” loading screens wouldn’t go astray? You know, where there’s a red dot and line marking Indy’s journey from place to place?

Where the GUI is concerned, several mods have been released through various gaming sites already, but personally I’m a fan of the original. It’s simple, appealing to the eye, and you don’t have to read the manual first in order to understand where everything this and how to use it. Personally, I would recommend playing Age of Conan on a widescreen LCD monitor so as to avoid the intrusiveness of the GUI. I’ve seen the game played on standard screen monitors, and unfortunately, without those extra inches on the left and right, those hotbars, the chat-box, mini-map, and combat rose can get in the way. My hope would be that Funcom, in the near future, would add a GUI scaling tool so players would be able to shrink or enlarge the scale of the GUI to whatever is most comfortable for them.

Design-wise, Age of Conan excels in every area, with the only downsides coming from the occasional intrusiveness of the GUI on smaller monitors, and the frequency of the zone loading screen.

The score: 17 out of 20.

Story
Funcom is a story-telling games developer, and they have made no exception with Age of Conan.

From the very beginning of the game, you are immersed in this world of Hyboria and a devious plot to overthrow the Cimmerian-born king of Aquilonia. The characters you meet along the way are memorable and Howard’s dark and often morbid humour breaks through with the sort of quests that you partake in one your way from level to 80.

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The quests are very well-written, as they make you feel like you’re part of some thing grander, and you, as a player, are left with a feeling like it actually matters what happens to these characters that you interact with as a result of your own actions. I actually find myself imagining even after quests have been completed how things have panned-out for those characters involved; it’s this sort of story immersion that Funcom has done so well with: you’re as much a part of this world as the characters are!

As a player in this tapestry of drama and adventure, it felt truly as though I was single-handedly weaving the threads of this epic tale, unravelling it bit by bit, and this is why Age of Conan deserves full marks for its ability to lure the player so well to its cinema-esque story-driven game. The more you feel part of something, the more you take ownership of it

The score: 20 out of 20.

OVERALL
With every sense of integrity in my typing hands, I can honestly say that I believe Funcom has made a winner here, and is on to something big. While every MMORPG at the very start of retail has to make it out of the jungle first, based on what we’ve seen at release and how everything has come together from concept, to beta, and then to retail, the five years waiting for Age of Conan have certainly been worth it, and with 400,000 customers already subscribed to Age of Conan, it’s no doubt that thousands and thousands of players around the world have caught on to the magic of Hyboria and the exceptional work that Funcom has put in to the game since beginning development in 2003.

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With its eye-gasmic graphics, mind-blowing sounds, offering of diverse and unique gameplay experiences, clever and thoughtful design, and story-telling that would make Robert E. Howard himself proud of this production, Age of Conan is set to be a mammoth MMORPG. While it certainly will not be a World of Warcraft killer (that’s a Goliath that stomps over all of its Davids), Age of Conan will be a game that will retain its most dedicated of fans for many years, introduce many new players to the MMORPG genre, and without a doubt set the standard for MMORPGs for years to come.

The verdict: 94 out of 100.

Until next time, this is Stephen “weezer” Spiteri,

Out.

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