Who hasn't dreamed of running through far reaches of sand and stones, humid forests and windy plains wearing only a loincloth and the necessary belt to hold it and your trusty, ridiculously badass-looking sword in place?
Okay, maybe not that many people, but in the vast and rough world of Conan, these are the kind of images that my mind would have expected, along with the scantily-clad women tied to a nearby pole as if we were meant to cross the desert to come across her... Happy was I to find the scantily-clad woman tied to a pole within the first five minutes of Age of Conan, and the rest of the world was lush and lively (for the most part), as I hoped. A pity it was nowhere as vast, however.
In the Conan literature, Hyboria is a huge land. Over twenty years before Frodo, Sam and friends had crossed the vast and largely empty Middle-Earth in the 1950s, Conan, in Howard's small stories, had already crossed much of Hyboria, a vast continent inspired by ancient Europe and very similar in its inspiration and design to Middle-Earth.
Cimmeria to the north is a mountainous and harsh land of cold winds, icy nights, scattered resources and dangerous creatures. Its people, the belligerent Cimmerians (of which Conan himself is a proud member) are similar to the Celts of the Roman age, with their blue war painting and barbaric raid parties.
Stygia, on the other hand, is a land covered by endless deserts, punctured with pyramids, ancient temples and tombs ridden with curses and dark magic, directly inspired by Ancient Egypt and its largely spiritual and superstitious people.
Then there is Aquilonia, a nice foot to the balance holding the other two plates, a civilized kingdom with a rich culture of political intrigues and scholarly pursuits, relative religious and social freedom and a powerful and organized army, obviously inspired by Ancient Rome or Greece.
Even though the three aforementioned lands are the only ones used by Funcom so far, the rest of the continent is covered with different lands and people, to the point where the works of Robert E. Howard look like a raking job of the planet where all of the oldest peoples and civilizations ended up in a single pile in the middle of the world map, and many of these lands (if not all) were visited by Conan at one point or another in the books.
Now Conan is old and King, so it's up to the player to walk in his footsteps (at a distance - I'm sure the old panther isn't too fond of being followed by stray dogs).
At any rate, I was excited at the idea of exploring this vast and brutal land myself, spending hours wandering in the desert or the virgin forest only to stumble upon a forgotten cave or temple only to get out of it with some old king's sword (Hey, Conan did, why not I?).
I was disappointed to find out that I couldn't simply head straight into the forest until I found the edge of it. The game starts on an island, so I would have fallen into the sea at best if I had done that, but even that misfortune wasn't allowed. Instead, the forest was mostly impassable, save for a single path that was clearly put there so we may follow it to the next point in the game. Now, this was only the starting area, so I was ready to forgive that lack of freedom in exchange for a solid start in the game.
Tortage itself wasn't so bad, but the island felt small, and once again the only way to go was where we were expected to. The White Sands Isle was slightly better, some stretches of it being open to exploration, but once again there were many paths that were designed so that we had to use them.
From here on, that was how most of the world would be. No hidden areas, no random caves or temples to explore, no far stretches of empty land on which to build a lonely shack. Old Tarantia, the gleaming capital of Aquilonia ruled by King Conan himself, seemed somewhat unfinished. Most of its doors closed, and surrounded by palisades once you left the safety of its walls, its outskirts and surrounding lands inaccessible for exploration. No running along the road to get from one land to the other, avoiding or fighting off any nasties preying on poor travelers either. Instead, there were coaches ready for me minutes away from the city to carry me effortlessly to my destination, loading times being the only indication I could possibly have of the distance I had travelled.
The Stygian Capital of Khemi was similar; only a small island in the center of the city (even though you can still see the buildings across the water) may be visited. The remainder of the city is blocked by invisible walls in the water, so the rest of the city is little more than a wallpaper behind the part of the city that I was allowed to explore. In comparison, Conarch Village in Cimmeria, the "capital" of the rough land, was more interesting despite its smaller size, due to its uneven terrain and the number of paths I had to find and take to get anywhere.
The more hazardous lands such as the Wild Lands of Zelata or Conall's Valley seemed large enough when looking at the map, but still had too many cliffs and roads that made sure I knew where I was supposed to go, and I quickly found myself at the end of the region, with a "that's it?" thought in the back of my head. Open area regions such as Poitan and the Lotus Swamps, where a guild may build its city, didn't have much in the form of paths - which is great - but still didn't have much space, and I quickly found myself at the edge of the map once more.
Another interesting part is that in the Lotus Swamps, Poitan, and others "uncharted" lands, mobs will appear and attack you as you travel, or even jump you as you harvest resources, which makes things more interesting, and binds resource gathering and adventuring together.
To counter the unavoidable overpopulation of these small zones, there are instances. You may not choose first hand in which instance you will end up, and even though you can usually switch instance easily enough by running to a respawn point, joining friends, unless you're grouped with them, is somewhat difficult since there are usually at least a dozen instances to scroll through when you're looking for someone.
The good part is that despite its small size and lack of content, the land is lush and lively. Even with DirectX 9, the vegetation and scenery are among the richest I have ever seen in an MMORPG and the sheer beauty of the scenery, even when you can't actually get to it, is worth taking the look - which makes it even more sad that it there is so little exploration to do. Many locations have "landmarks" that while they don't add anything in particular in the form of content, bring a lot of spirit to the locations. A lone pond surrounded by ruins in the Lotus Swamp comes to my mind as an example.
Content is rather easy to find (when available), since the size of the zones make it easy to guess where NPCs are located, and they are often all crammed into one area. Thus filling up your quest journal and emptying it in one killing (and leveling) spree is very feasible. The other good news is that many areas are suggesting future content, such as an annoyingly teasing closed gate along the path out of Old Tarantia. We can only hope that the land will finally be open to us in all its beauty and immensity before long.
Bottom line: Hyboria for now has little to make the explorer and wanderer happy, and sometimes Age of Conan feels like Dungeon Siege with prettier graphics, but whoever likes to get from point A to point B quickly and likes to get quests done without having to travel for hours will be happy.