Well, today is the day that many have been looking forward to for quite some time. For some, it has been as long as five years. In case you have been living under a big ‘ol MMO rock for the last few months, and don’t know what I’m talking about, today marks the launch of Funcom’s Age of Conan.
To celebrate, or perhaps commemorate the event, I decided to write this little entry in my ever-expanding blog. No, this isn’t an official review. I haven’t spent nearly enough time in-game to properly review the game. What I can do though, is put together an article on my thoughts about the game from my experiences in Closed Beta and in Early Access.
Let’s start by talking a little bit about Funcom’s beta. I’m going to go out on a limb here and proclaim the Fileplanet Open Beta to have been a bit of a gaffe on Funcom’s part. By that I mean that it shouldn’t have happened. My opinion may have changed if they had called it a Fileplanet Preview or something similar, but it left a bad taste in the mouths of some people, being told they had to pay for a beta (actually, they weren’t paying for the beta, they were paying for a Fileplanet membership, but why muddy this with logic?), and then being brought in for an extremely buggy experience (not that everyone was having the same bad time. Personally, I hardly crashed at all and experienced very little lag).
It was this very buggy experience that had a large number of people expressing concerns about the game’s launch, pointing back to Funcom’s Anarchy Online launch and its issues (it had a few) and suggesting (ok, suggesting is the wrong word, let’s say loudly proclaiming) that Age of Conan would fall flat on its Hyborian butt come the 20th.
Well, today is the 20th, and it seems as though Funcom has pulled through. I’m not saying that there are no bugs, what MMO launches totally without them, but the game that people will be playing today is vastly improved from the one that they got to see during “Open Beta”.
But in the end, you know all of this. I’m here to give you my opinion. Not on the rigmarole that led up to the game’s launch. That’s two or three different blog entries right there, but on the game itself.
When I look at a new MMO for the first time, there are a number of different factors that I try to take into account. From this, I have a good chance of knowing within the first eight hours of gameplay whether this game is the game for me.
I know these aren’t the same elements that everyone uses, and that this isn’t universal, but I do want to share them just the same, and let you know how Age of Conan stacked up in my mind:
Do I have a good sense of who my character is and what they are doing in the game world?
Age of Conan:
The opening cinematic in AoC does a pretty good job of introducing me to my character. There’s nothing like a little bit of drama to help out in this department. I think though that the best story decision that Funcom made comes in the form of Tortage - Night, where players can move apart from the multiplayer aspect of the game for a time and move through their own stories solo.
I know what some of you are thinking, and it’s one of the first thoughts that I had when I first heard about this. “Why should I play an MMO that’s really just a single player RPG in disguise?”
The answer to the question, I’ve come to realize after playing through a few times, is that while yes, you can segregate yourself off from the rest of the population, no, it doesn’t play like a single player game. Not quite.
In order to make this mechanic work, Funcom did a couple of things right:
First, they give the player a good, solid storyline grounding as a reason for the shift.
Second, they gave the players complete and total control over a) when they switch from day to night and b) whether they do it at all. Even without the night time solo adventures, players can still be entertained by what seemed like a plethora of daytime quests.
Third, they made the night quests engaging, immersive and full of life. As I’ve said in previous writings about AoC, the dialogue and voice acting are stellar. It was through these night quests that I really got a firm grip on each of my characters and their motivations.
Is the gameplay innovative and interesting?
Age of Conan:
Gameplay is one of those tricky words. Everyone uses it and no one quite has the same definition for it. For me, I’m using it to mean the way that I interact with the game world. Combat always seems to play a large role in that and in Conan, where I haven’t had the chance as yet to do much else, it plays a huge role.
Since this is just a launch day preview and I can go into detail on other stuff later, let’s talk combat:
In my opinion, Age of Conan has the single most innovative combat system to-date in MMOs. I have, of course, read the criticisms that many people have about Conan’s combat system. I’ve read the posts from people who call the system “a button mashing mess” and I’ve read the posts from people who say that combat in AoC is just like the combat in every other MMO. To those people, I respectfully suggest that you haven’t taken the time to actually look at the system of combat.
Let’s start with the melee combo combat, since that‘s where most of my experience is at this point. On the surface, I can see how people might mistake this for button-mashing. After all, you’re really just pushing a button for your combo, and then pushing another button to activate it. That’s not just button mashing, that’s twice the button mashing that you’d get in your average MMO that only requires one click to activate a move.
That particular argument falls apart though when you look at the fact that that buttons you choose to mash, and when you mash them play a more significant part in the combat than mashing the buttons alone.
For those of you who may not know, Age of Conan takes a number of factors beyond an armor class and weapon type into account when deciding combat. The primary example of Conan’s unique combat is in shield placement. Enemies in Age of Conan protect themselves using shields, swords and the like. If you attack a defended side, you will do less damage than if you manage to get them on a side that is undefended. While my explanation of the system is quite poor, we just happen to have a video that explains it nicely: http://www.mmorpg.com/gamelist.cfm/game/191/view/videos/play/1223
My point is that because of this system, Age of Conan combat goes way beyond simple button mashing. Instead, players need to make a number of decisions on the fly, and since the shielding on an enemy shifts during combat, what worked well at the beginning of the fight might not do so well at the end.
Personally, I found the combat to be a decent keyboard simulation of the thought processes that go through your head during a real sword fight: Where is my opponent weak? How do I attack that area? Where should I be standing for optimum effect? Which of the moves that I know (in real sword fighting for me, it’s like two) will hit him hard and where he’s not defended?
To me, that’s the key to the combat and what makes it so much fun. It keeps me on my toes and engaged far more than any MMO combat that I’ve played up to this point.
Obviously, melee combat isn’t the be all and end all of combat in Age of Conan, though I should admit that I’ve spent most of my time playing melee classes so I will only touch on ranged and magical combat.
Both seem to use the same principle of combat as the melee, requiring players to be in the right position to cause the right amount of damage (or in the case of healers, to heal). It’s a tricky balance, using twitch combat, but Age of Conan seems to have done it well. Look for more on ranged and magical combat in a full review.
Sure, some people call it graphics, but in the end, for me, it comes down to how it actually looks on the screen, and not how technically impressive the graphics are, so I’ll go with visuals.
Age of Conan:
Again, a big win for the team at Funcom. This is one of the best looking games (forget just MMOs) that I’ve played on my PC recently. I’ve read the posts that speak against the graphics in Conan and they very rarely criticize the actual look of the game. Instead, they criticize the technical issues that are raised by a graphically intensive game like this.
First, there are complaints about the level of system that is required to run the game. While this has certainly improved since the beta, I can see their point. It is a well known fact that World of Warcraft was successful in part because of the fact that it would run on systems that were out of date and there are those who feel that Funcom should have done the same thing. I respectfully disagree.
While I do agree that making Conan so that it would be accessible by the largest number of people possible may seem like a great idea, and should, logically, just make good business sense, I just don’t think that that was the game that Funcom was interested in making.
I suspect that the look of Hyboria was as important an element to this game as the combat or any other game mechanic in creating the game that Funcom wanted to build. If the world didn’t look as gritty and “real” as it does, something would be lost not only graphically, but more universally throughout the game in terms of immersion and capturing the essence of Conan.
By creating a game with higher system requirements, Funcom has:
a) broken away from the WoW mould. While both are MMORPGs and share a number of elements, their purposes and goals (other than, of course, to make money) are quite different. This decision pretty clearly says “we’re not trying to be WoW, and aren’t just trying to steal as many players away from it as possible”.
b) helped to set a new standard that will help to drive MMOs toward the top end of gaming.
c) placed longevity on their game from the other side. By this I mean that while the higher system requirements may be a deterrent to some initially, they should keep the game looking nicer (compared to its peers and other games being developed) for longer, maybe even extending the life of the game. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not this turns out to be a good move.
Well, I am rapidly running out of time for this brief preview, so I’m going to just lay all of my cards down on the table and answer the question that you probably started reading this preview to have answered.
Should I go out and buy Age of Conan?
My answer to the question is pretty simple. If you are a fan of MMOs, and are looking for something that’s close enough to the games that you know to be fun, but different and innovative enough to catch your interest, I would highly recommend Age of Conan.
I wouldn’t suggest going out and buying a lifetime membership (not that it exists), because the game is stylized enough that it’s not going to appeal to everyone’s tastes (what could), but even just to try it out and see what it has to offer, Age of Conan is more than worth the box price (30 days free with purchase).
Please keep in mind though that while I say quite honestly that AoC is an innovative new MMO, it isn’t a sandbox game. For some, anything that isn’t a sandbox will be called a “Wow clone”, and that’s fine.
For my part, Age of Conan has provided me with a new and exciting game to play, different from any other guided experience MMO not only in terms of mechanics like the combat I talked about earlier, but also in terms of look, feel and story presentation. Gamer to gamer, I think you should check it out.