About a week ago, I finally got myself into the Age of Conan beta. With the embargo lifting today for us reporters, I thought I'd share my very early impressions of the game. There will be a full beta report coming in the next week or so, but even though I haven't had a chance to play a great deal, the game has already made some initial impressions on me that I can share.
As a result, this beta preview preview will talk about character creation and the newbie experience. A lot of the time we, as more hardcore players, underestimate the importance of those first few levels. In the rush that many people have to reach endgame content, we forget that most people will live or die on their first few hours of gameplay, deciding whether their subscriptions will last more than a month or whether this game will be just another box lining their shelves.
Still, you don't want to listen to me waxing poetic about the importance of the early game experience. Chances are that if you clicked on this article, you want to hear a little bit of something about Age of Conan.
From the very first moment that you enter the game (after what I would consider to be a long progression of associated company screens - Funcom, Eidos, Nvidia, Games for Windows... all easily skipped with a click), you get a real feeling of what you're in for. Your first glimpse of the world of Age of Conan is, appropriately, aboard a slave ship and you're the cargo. Your view of the ship is a dimly lit hallway. The camera sits at one end. On each side of the hallways slave men sit on planks, rowing the ship, far down at the other end a slave girls stands for... I don't know... slave encouragement? The sounds of the boat are crisp and clear (I want to be honest and say that the sound team on Age of Conan has done a brilliant job in all aspects, I am a fan of the sound in AoC).
This, my friend, is character creation. Your first choice is gender. Do you want to play a male character or a female character? If you choose the female, the camera swoops down the hallway to stop in front of the slave girl. If you choose male, the camera comes to rest in front of one of the rowers who stands up and presents himself to you for your alterations.
I don't know why this particular bit filled me with glee. I think that it's the interactivity of it all. Right from step one, I got a sense of how the story would be presented. For those of you who might not know, I am a story junkie. I can't get enough of it and I enjoy when it is presented not as a side attraction to a game, but as an integral focus. By using their opening in this way, from step one, you are engaged with and participating in the story, which starts with characters who were once slaves being washed ashore after the wreck of their boat.
Beyond that, character creation is pretty much what you would expect from an MMO. There are basic options that will allow people who don't care terribly much about the specific details of their character's appearance to breeze through with basic customization, but you also have the advanced options that open up sliders. Personally, give me the deeper selection of the sliders, but I do know people who will be eternally grateful to Funcom for the option to avoid them.
I should also mention here for you sticklers out there that this is also where you choose your race, your class and all of those necessary character building elements. For those players who aren't familiar with the lore of Conan, (and make no mistake, there are a lot of them out there who are still waiting for this game), handy little descriptions are given for the different races and classes that will make choosing just that much easier.
Your early game experience really helps you with the feeling that you're an escaped slave who has just washed up ashore outside of the city of Tortage (which is held currently by some really bad dudes). Armed with only a broken oar, you set about moving toward the city. Right away, you are thrown into combat and believe me when I say that oar can be a bit of a kick-ass weapon.
Long time MMO players are going to find something fishy the first time that they jump into combat, but it isn't something that's terribly difficult to overcome. The Age of Conan UI is, in some ways, fairly typical of MMO UIs. For now, let's just talk about the action bar at the bottom of the screen. Normally, first level characters have an empty action bar save for one or two first level powers that fit into the "1" and sometimes "2" boxes. In AoC, the first three boxes are filled with arrows. These arrows, rather than being your classic special attacks, are actually directional attack commands. When you press up (2), your character jabs forward, when you press left (1), he attacks the enemy's left side. This, to start with, I found just a notch or two cooler than the standard MMO fare. I felt like I had some real control over what my character was doing and his approach to doing it. Maybe it's just me, but I found something very satisfying about wanting to hit a guy on his left side and actually seeing my character do it.
As you advance in level (which at the beginning happens quite quickly), you gain access to combo attacks that are more like standard MMO attacks, but in order to use them, you must choose the ability and then use the appropriate swing (left, right or middle) to complete the attack.
While this might sound like a little thing to some, and it may sound like an annoying feature to some others, I personally found that it creates more engaging combat. Suddenly, I'm carefully choosing which attacks I want to use and I have to do a little bit of keyboard dancing to activate the combo and perform the appropriate swing. I find that I can't just mindlessly spam 1,2,3 - 1,2,3 like I usually do until the other guy falls down. I will be very interested to see how this plays out at higher levels.
Before I cut this beta preview... preview short, I wanted to talk about an element of Age of Conan that I have absolutely loved up until this point. Voice-overed dialogue.
I know that there are going to be some folks out there who will think I'm crazy. I know it isn't something that everyone enjoys, but for my part, I think it's something we don't see often enough in MMOs. Then again, I'm a story fiend and voiceovers really do help with an engaging interactive story.
NPCs in AoC (at least those that I have come across up to this point) have fully developed voiceovers. It's not even just a small portion of the text. It's complete NPC dialogue. Now, while I do say that I like voiceovers, the thought of them often makes me cringe. It isn't enough, in my opinion, to just have voiceovers. I've heard too many really poorly acted voiceovers (the XBox 360 Conan game is a great example) to get too excited about them. Often, it's like the actors were just handed a script and told to read without knowing anything about the game, the characters or the situation. With Age of Conan, I felt like the actors and by extension whomever was directing the actors, took the time to know and understand the context of the dialogue that they were delivering.
That brings this beta preview to a close. As I continue to play, I will continue to post about it and give you my impressions.