Back in the days of glory of single-player games, your introduction to a new game would usually be the tutorial, or the first mission in the game's campaign. In the world of MMORPGs, your introduction to the game usually has one more step before you can jump into the action (not counting installation issues, server crashes and unbelievably long patching times, which are in the best of cases an annoyance, and in the worst of cases an introduction of the game to the trash bin): the character generation system. This system fulfills a need that most players will have; the need to give their avatar in the world a look they like and to differentiate themselves from other players, much like the need to wear a dress or a suit that isn't worn by everyone else in a reception. As the technology available to game makers becomes more powerful, players are also asking for more freedom to make their characters look the way they like.
In Age of Conan, the character generation system is similar to that of many other games. First thing you get to choose the sex of your character and then, once you've chosen their race and class, its looks. The system works in two ways: you can choose basic elements of your character’s physiology, such as its face and height, general fitness, by adding more muscle or fat, etc. You then have the ability to customize your alter ego further using the advanced button - and that's when things become interesting - this button gives you access to a system of sliders with which you can change the width of your nose, the thickness of your legs and the tilt of your eyes. While the choice of faces is limited, you have many sliders that noticeably impact your character's appearance, even though you still see the basic face from which your looks evolved. In addition to that, you have the usual selection of haircuts, facial hair, and tattoos, plus the added ability to add scars and markings to your character's body and face.
The character generation system in Age of Conan is fairly powerful, despite a few weaknesses, such as the Mark of Acheron, a mystical tattoo that all characters start the game with, and that you are stuck with until level 60. Since it is quite large and not particularly stylish (at least in my opinion), it can be an annoyance to some, and since it is tied to the in-game provided background for your character, anyone who doesn't want to adhere to the storyline from a role-play standpoint will have to be creative to justify its presence, or ignore it completely.
Naturally, customization doesn't end here, and once you are into the game, your first customization options will be your outfit. As you start the game, your only gear will be a leather loincloth or a courtesan ensemble for ladies. Barely enough to avoid scaring the apes away and prevent the game from getting an Adults Only rating (you can take them off, of course, but you will see that slaves apparently wear underwear under their rags – but no bra). As you advance through the starting area you will get basic armor pieces, such as savage rags, reptile skin loincloths and boots. Do not be surprised if you look like a Christmas tree once you arrive to Tortage. Better that than being naked, right?
Don't get your hopes up once you arrive in Tortage either, though. While you will gain access to a number of different armor sets, looks are rather limited in the game. You will have access to cloth, light, medium and heavy armor, all with their looks and properties. There is no social clothes, so if you want a new look, you have to look at armor. Many sets of armor seem to have only one texture set, so you will be stuck with leather armors that look the same far longer than you care for. In addition, many armor types are unavailable to some classes, which limits your ability to dress up further. For example, Guardians, who are allowed to wear heavy armor, cannot wear cloth, which prevents them from wearing things like dresses, loincloths, and the like.
Another weakness of the gear system is the somewhat uselessness of some gear. Each piece of gear has specific statistics which will grant your character bonuses in certain areas, such as damage reduction, resistance to some effects, etc. However, even rare loot often gives insignificant bonuses to statistics when compared to their normal progression and while it allows more freedom to a degree, since you don't have to wear the best gear to win a fight, it tends to defeat the purpose of looking for gear in the first place. Gear purchased from NPC merchants are typically useless and much weaker than the gear you will get as quest rewards at the same level, so it's a waste of money to purchase them. Gear available in the auctions is usually equally useless, since most of what you will find there is what other players don't want to use, at least until people start to craft and sell their produce. In other words, don't bother with anything else but loot drops and quest rewards if you're looking for a gear upgrade.
Besides your equipment, you also have a number of abilities which you can customize for your character and particular skills and feats that you can raise or ignore as you see fit, which is a very nice freedom to have. As you level, you gain skill and feat points, which may be distributed as you wish. Skill points are used to improve general abilities that aren't tied to your class such as: running speed, health recovery and hiding (which works
similarly to stealth mode in many games, with the difference that it isn't restricted to rogue types).Feats work the same way, however your selection of feats is determined by class. There are three feat trees that you may develop, and all three focus on a different aspect of your character class. Selecting some feats over others may grant you access to new combos and abilities, or greatly improve the effectiveness of abilities that you already possess, so using strategy in selecting them will make your life much easier. Thankfully, you may re-allocate your feat points by speaking to a feat trainer if you found that you made a wrong choice.
To conclude, Age of Conan does a very good job at allowing you as much freedom as possible when it comes to your character, except for one thing: equipment. The game is still young, however, and hopefully the crafting economy will fill up that hole when more players start to focus on crafting. As far as everything else goes, except for exceptions like City of Heroes and its costume design tool and Star Wars Galaxies and its vast selection of social clothes, Age of Conan allows you a respectable amount of customization to make sure you have as few clones running amuck in Hyboria as possible.