Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures Beta

[[Arnold's Austrian accent vs. James Earl Jones]]
Age of Conan certainly has some big shoes to fill in the MMORPG market, seeing how just about every fantasy-based MMOG that has released since World of Warcraft has been a flop. The problem is that WoW was so genre-defining that it leaves other titles scrambling to differentiate themselves enough to pull players away from Azeroth, but be similar enough to feel accessible to the legions of MMORPG players whose first experience was in WoW. Funcom's Age of Conan is one of the most anticipated titles of 2008 because at first glance it looks like it walks that tightrope quite skillfully, but the real question is if that impression holds up once players get down to the nitty-gritty of the game.

A brief word to those who think that all there is to Conan is Arnold, excuse me, Governor Schwarzenegger speaking barely-discernible English, swinging a big sword around, and fighting James Earl Jones. Age of Conan is set in the world of Hyboria, which is a far richer world than the movies do credit to. Hyboria was created by Robert E. Howard and is a world full of depth and lore, and it is in this world that the Governator had his first big-screen adventures. The world is a fictional version of Earth, with a very similar geography, and the Hyborian Age is set at roughly 10,000 BC (give or take a millennium). It is in this world that Age of Conan is set.

One of the first differences to note between Hyboria and other fantasy worlds is that Age of Conan is set several thousand years before most other worlds, which are generally something vaguely in the Medieval Era. Age of Conan is a more primal and darker world, with far fewer trappings of civilization. Weaponry, for example, comes in bronze and iron; armor is made of the same metals, boiled leather, or heavy furs. No crossbows or suits of full steel plate are to be found.

This primitive world is the backdrop for one of the most ambitious MMORPG projects to come in the post-WoW era. Age of Conan is one of the most anticipated titles of 2008 (it's slated to release in March) and won multiple awards at the 2007 game shows. Funcom promises us a rich world, a tactically advanced combat system, deep endgame content, and amazing PvP. The question is, does it deliver?

One of the most striking initial impressions of Age of Conan is that the world of Hyboria is a lot darker and grittier than the standard MMORPG fare. Combat looks brutal and bloody, and feels like a battle scene from Braveheart rather than a fantasy world full of fairies and elves. Maybe that's because there are no elves in Hyboria...hrm. The graphics are certainly impressive and the dark art style is a nice break from the cartoony graphics of WoW, but graphics alone aren't enough to really differentiate a game in this genre.

One thing that must be said about Age of Conan's current status is that it is buggy. And let's be clear that "buggy"� doesn't mean the odd little thing here and there, it means the game is bugged to hell and back. NPC dialog is wrong or just absent, quests are broken, items don't work properly, and a myriad of other problems. That said, the client was stable and didn't crash, and the bugs mostly seem to be minor inconveniences. There's also something to be said for the fact that this IS a beta test, and one of the main reasons that companies beta test games is to clear up bugs. It may well be that Funcom will be able to squash most of them and AoC will release with very few bugs. But for a game that's scheduled to launch in 3 months, there's an awful lot of the little buggers to be found, and it's enough to cause concern that either the release might be pushed back or the game could be shipped with a lot of issues. With Vanguard so fresh in many gamers' minds, that could well be enough to sink this promising title.

Age of Conan was built using Funcom's proprietary DreamWorld engine, which is clearly capable of delivering beautiful graphics, and Funcom also promises will allow them to add content patches far more efficiently than any other MMORPG. Dreamworld was originally developed for Anarchy Online back in 1996 and delivered an impressive-looking game back then, and has been updated to do so again over a decade later. The game also runs in DirectX 10 and is the first MMORPG to do so, which allows for even more impressive graphics and sound. And speaking of sound, Conan will be delivering his Austri-English in 7.1 surround. It's enough to give any child nightmares.

As far as how the game ran, it was quite smooth on a Athlon 64 3000 with 1.5 gigs of RAM and a Radeon X800 Pro, but I'm a bit concerned as to whether my experience in a lightly-populated beta environment is really an adequate demonstration of how the game will act once it's live. Age of Conan's listed system requirements seem deceptively low considering its level of graphical sophistication (you can find the system requirements and test your own computer for compatibility with AoC at , by selecting Age of Conan from the drop-down menu), and I'm suspicious that the requirements that while the requirements Funcom came up with are sufficient to run the game if you're playing by yourself, they might not hold up well in large-scale endgame content, such as the 200+ player PvP battles that we've been promised. The suggested system requirements might suffice for a casual player, but if you want to fully experience the game you're going to want 2 gigs of RAM and at least a 256MB video card, if not a 512.

The MMORPG graveyard is littered with games that looked and sounded great, but felt like the developers forgot to actually make a game in there with all of those pretty graphics. Without further ado, let's talk about gameplay.

The starting area of the game felt familiar, which isn't an entirely bad thing, as a new MMORPG can be awfully overwhelming, especially to players who aren't long-time computer gamers (i.e. a large part of WoW's population, which is a major target market for AoC). You get some quests, kill some local wildlife and human vermin, and level up to get ready for the "real game"� to come. The one really innovative aspect of the newbie area is that it is divided up into day and night, and you can choose which time you want it to be by sleeping on a cot in town. Daytime equates to your standard MMORPG world with other players running around, but nighttime is a bit more interesting. You see, at night, the world creates an instance of itself with you as the only player. Anybody who has played right around launch time of any MMORPG will appreciate this, as you can actually get quests done instead of just being bogged down amidst a hundred other newbies asking "How I mine for fish?" in general chat.

One innovative design element in Age of Conan is that players don't choose their classes when they create a character. Instead, you play through the first bit of the game, and choose a class at level 5. At that point you select an archetype (soldier, mage, rogue, priest) that best fits your playstyle. The archetype is a kind of basic class, and when you reach level 20 you select your actual class. A rogue, for example, and become a barbarian, an assassin, or a ranger. This lets players experience the game and sort of evolve into their character rather than having to make those choices right at the start, and it seems like a really cool feature for new players who aren't sure what they want to play.

Combat is the heart of any MMORPG, especially one with "Conan"� in the title. This is where Funcom says that Age of Conan is truly different from those that came before, with a combat system that feels more like an action-RPG. Rather than just selecting "attack", you can swing at one of three different target areas on your opponent's body, and your foe can distribute defense points to guard each area. In PvE combat this ends up just being a dressed-up rhythm game, though. Instead of pressing a generic attack key, you now need to press the attack key that corresponds with the least-defended area of your target's body. A new feature, maybe, but it doesn't really seem like it adds much entertainment value to the game after the first couple of iterations.

Until you get to PvP. There have been many complaints in the genre about PvP being almost entirely reliant on the power of the characters involved and that the skill of the players behind those characters is barely relevant. Age of Conan's combat system looks to be swinging the pendulum in the other direction, and quite successfully at that. Defenses can change rapidly and players really need to be on the ball to adapt, dodge incoming attacks, and deliver blows to the most vulnerable areas of their opponents. It's nice to see features that reward player ability and reactions in a PvP environment, and Funcom has said that they want PvP to be a central aspect of Age of Conan. Now we MMORPG fans have been told that before (cough, Shadowbane) and only relatively low-level PvP is available in the beta, but Funcom promises that endgame PvP will be more engaging than anything seen before.

One of the most interesting PvP aspects of the game is the Border Kingdom. King Conan, in his wisdom, has somehow managed to communicate to his advisors (sign language, maybe?) that he wants to expand his realm into the Border Kingdom. What this means to players is that they can build castles in the Border Kingdom. Nifty, eh? Trick is, the Border Kingdom isn't big enough for everybody, and so these castles will be fought over by guilds looking to establish a presence. To sum up, for those that haven't fully appreciated the possibility for awesomeness here: the game will feature a full-scale siege warfare system that lets guilds build and then fight over control of castles. The potential problem here is that small guilds may be elbowed out of contention by gigantic mega-guilds, but Funcom says they have plans to accommodate small guilds as well, with towers and other smaller castles that they can control. We'll just have to wait and see how this one works out.

Endgame content is not yet available in beta, but let's just say that if Funcom can accomplish half of what they've promised, they'll have a winner on their hands. They have a full team of developers working on endgame PvE content, from smaller instances all the way up to full-scale raiding. They've also promised us some truly amazing PvP features, such as fluid mounted combat and large-scale warfare involving catapults, castle sieges, and armies of NPCs being ordered around. Endgame PvP in most MMORPGs feels like an afterthought, so there's definitely an untapped market here that AoC can take advantage of. Instanced PvP like WoW has can be fun for a while, but it feels more like a mini-game than part of the actual game world. Funcom wants to bring us PvP that actually affects the world, with players able to lay siege to and claim castles and territory. Real PvP, where we can actually crush our enemies, see them driven before us, and hear the lamentations of their women? A lot of gamers can get on board with that.

[[Final Thoughts]]
The appropriate overall rating here is cautiously optimistic. Funcom seems to have a good balance of familiarity (read: WoW-like content) and innovation, and they're finally making a game in which PvP is a serious element. That said, veteran MMORPG players will say they've heard this before, from Shadowbane to Vanguard to Darkfall. It's one thing for a developer to say they have all of these amazing plans, and it's another to actually implement them. Funcom does seem off to a good start, though, and there are certainly many MMORPG players who are bored of the current fare and are cheering them on, hoping Age of Conan will be something great.

+ Awesome art style and graphics
+ The game feels familiar and is easy to pick up
+ Finally, a game that has some serious focus on PvP!
+ Set in a rich world with a long history

- Lack of innovation in the early game
- James Earl Jones doesn't do any voiceovers, and no NPCs turning to snakes were in sight
- Combat system might get tedious for grinding
- Current beta build is full of bugs

Wait and see:
+/- A lot of the best features of Age of Conan aren't yet available in the beta

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