In last week's preview I talked a bit about some of the new features coming to Age of Conan in the game's first true expansion: Rise of the Godslayer. Since then, I've had some time to explore the game's lower-level content a bit more and even some of the upper reaches, as well as delve deeper into the new pet and alternate advancement systems. And while Rise of the Godslayer might not have the traditionally thought of "more levels" that expansions usually contain, it certainly isn't lacking in advancement to make or carrots to chase after.
One of the first things players will notice whether they're level 20 and entering the Gateway of Khitai or level 80 and working on the new upper-level content is that the new zones of Khitai are far more open and traversable than what they're used to. There's a lot less running through bottlenecks, and a lot more open spaces to explore. The Gateway of Khitai is actually quite beautiful as well, and with a decent enough video-card you'll be able to see the Great Wall off in the distance. Interestingly enough Funcom seems to have taken a bit of inspiration away from LotRO, as depending on whether its day or night will alter what quests you have available in the Gateway. One graveyard has a bunch of wildlife mucking about during the day, and at night those beasts will give way to ghosts and other undead enemies.
There's a new sort of focus on deities in this expansion as well. Players will be able to find shrines around the Khitan zones, and depending upon your donation or the use of some clever e-motes you'll receive different blessings and buffs from the shrines. I don't think however that there is any real weight to which deity you worship, as there is in SOE's EQ2, and instead the shrines serve as a nice Easter egg and a way to give players some boosts out in the game world.
In the last developer's letter, "random encounters" were unveiled as a feature that's packaged with Rise of the Godslayer. That may not sound like a big deal, but the name is misleading. Random encounters are a way to add some real meaning to the journey in going from the port of Khemi to Khitai. But rather than make players actually take the trip on foot, Funcom has decided to put in optional random encounters that take place as your character "travels" from one port to the other. Basically these random encounters serve as small instances for you or your party. There are a handful of different situations you could find yourself in, and each one is estimated to take 15-20 minutes at max to complete. You can avoid the encounters completely by paying for your trip, but should you choose to be cheap you can bet your tanned butt the caravan will want you to pay your fees in other ways and you'll be forced to join the Caravan Guard.
One such encounter is a stop at a small island where you'll be tasked with raiding a pirate encampment in order to retrieve the voyage's food rations from said pirates. It seems the ship has a small infestation of rats that means you need to go out and get more food by any means necessary. Another example has you firing ballistae at a massive kraken that's attacking the ship. They're short but brilliantly crafted little encounters that make the trip to Khitai seem a lot weightier than just zoning from one place to the other.
Another new toy is the much-touted faction system. Ordinarily, factions in MMORPGs are akin to simply saying "grind this mob" to the player, but the factions in AoC seem to do a decent job in my short time hiding that fact. There are enough quests and the combat is quickly paced enough to make raising your standing with one of the game's many factions seem like a rather enjoyable day of slaughter. But we'll see if my tune changes once I've been killing for weeks on end. The factions are a lore fan's dream though as each listed fraction comes with its own description and back story detailing who they are and what they're about, which will also serve to help the player choose which side they like and which side they want to decapitate. And considering there are 10 major factions and 2 hidden factions to toy with, each with their own rewards and back-stories, something tells me there will be a lot of forum discussion around this system in coming weeks and months.
Tied to the factions, though I haven't been able to experience it yet myself, is the game's new pet system. Two of the factions have pets tied to them and depending on which one you ally yourself with you'll be granted that faction's pet. One is a rather menacing and sharp-fanged tiger, while the other is an evil and terrifying looking wolf. The difference with these pets is that the player will raise them through to adulthood. At which point they will have to decide whether to keep the tiger or wolf as their combat pet or to make the animal its battle mount. Personally, I like the look of the tiger, but the wolf would probably make my enemies wet themselves so I'm still undecided.
Lastly I want to talk a bit about the Alternate Advancement system that makes its debut with the expansion. There are no new levels to gain in the expansion, but AA will allow players to accrue points and spend them on new skills and upgrades to existing abilities. There are three paths of AA experience from left to right on the new interface: Mastery (gained through PvE), Prowess (PvP), and Expertise (general purpose points). Each path is then divided into general, archetype specific, and class specific upgrades. Those AAs which have a blue background are general, those with a red background are archetype specific, and those with a gray background are class specific.
Why does the color matter you might ask? The AoC UI is now outfitted with a Perk Bar. Over on the left where players used to put things like potions or mounts the Perk Bar now rests for you to slot your AA-gained perks into. There are two slots for each General, Archetype, and Class perks and different upgrades require a different amount of slots, with the stronger skills requiring more slots and so on and so forth. So while you might have 50 AA abilities, you can only have up to six activated at any given time, making it necessary for players to plan and pay attention to what is needed and when.
There is a wealth more content to go over within Rise of the Godslayer. I've not even touched on the new dungeons and their focus on puzzle-solving and dynamic encounters. But we'll save that for our review of the expansion to come later on. I feel like a broken record saying this, but while Rise of the Godslayer doesn't add any new levels to gain, fueling that desire players might have to keep moving ever-upward, it adds more than enough lateral advancement to beef up your existing 80s. It also adds a host of new options for players leveling alts, and different paths for players to take up to level 80 and beyond. Not to mention it has playful tiger kitties to romp around with (joke). Age of Conan looks like it might finally be living up to the hype it once had in 2008.