I'm standing high atop the windswept peaks of the Eiglophian Mountains, looking out across the switchbacks and narrow ravines leading to the tiny settlement of Dinog nestled near the roots of the hills. Its an altogether magnificent scene, or, at least it was until I looked down to see the tip of a sword sticking out of my gut, the blood-red drops of gore trickling off its tip and soiling the pristine white of the snow-capped ledge beneath my sandaled feet.
Phuxurmom, a conqueror according to my combat spam, swings his sword deftly and, in two swift strokes, my assassin lies sprawled in a pool of his own guts as they spread beneath him on the frozen tundra, his head a few feet removed from the rest of his body and his arms embarrassingly akimbo. All I can do is hurriedly click the respawn button to save my poor avatar from the tea-bagging fate that is surely worse than his latest pseudo-death. The joke of it all is that there was no rare spawn nearby, no resource node within a country mile, and really, no reason at all for the bloke's sword to be sticking out of my gullet other than the sheer spitefulness and possible adolescent maladjustment of its owner.
Welcome to Hyboria, as imagined by Norwegian MMORPG developer Funcom, a virtual land ostensibly based on the sword and sorcery pulp-lit of the late Robert E. Howard, but having more in common with a testosterone-fueled game of Counterstrike than anything dreamed up by the man who gave us camp classics like Kull the Conqueror and Red Sonja, in addition to the legendary King Conan.
Funcom's take on the Howard mythos is equal parts attempted innovation and shameless pandering to gamer's baser instincts, and while it succeeds on some levels, and in fact has the makings of a solid title with several years of longevity ahead of it, its current incarnation is unfortunately handicapped by the general asshattery of its player base, in addition to a spoonful of questionable design decisions. Whether it was Funcom's intention to invite the dregs of online gamer society onto its servers or not, the bountiful boobs and the open PVP bereft of reason or consequence did just that, and the game's word of mouth has suffered mightily as a result (though, contrary to some of the more amusingly clueless stock-price quoting forum trolls, the game and the company are far from dire financial straights).
The game itself is a bit of a conundrum; beneath the bugs and knee-deep player bile, there clearly lurks the makings of a fun and addictive title. The much-touted combat system attempts to be revolutionary (not a hugely difficult task given the simplistic nature of MMO combat, but still), and though it misses the mark on a few occasions, Funcom does deserve credit for being the only studio even remotely interested in thinking outside of the traditional box. Aside from combat, though, there's not a lot to do, hence the vocal exodus of both the short-attention span crowd and those looking for a more traditional set of MMORPG gameplay features.
Any discussion of Age of Conan is bound to get around to its visuals, and with good reason. The game is unquestionably the best looking MMORPG to date, full of eye candy both in terms of its lush environments and the startling attention to detail given to character models and movement animations. The motions are, for the most part, fluid and life-like, a far cry from the jerky, comparatively primitive offerings of other games on the market. That said, all the sexiness comes at a hefty price, namely the steepest system requirements in the genre, and the caveat that even with a three-thousand dollar tyrannosaurus of a gaming computer, you're still going to lag like a drunken wooly mammoth and experience significant frame rate issues when attempting to engage in siege combat (or really, any combat with more than a few people on screen). Also mildly vexing is the heavy use of zones and layered instancing. For all its splendorous beauty, Funcom's Hyboria feels fairly confined, due in no small measure to the large number of load screens and the inability to open all but a handful of doors.
Character creation is similarly hit and miss. The models look stunning, but the large variety of sliders made available to you are largely for show, ensuring that you'll be seeing a lot of (admittedly gorgeous) duplicates of yourself running around the game world. You can choose from a wide assortment of tattoos and scars, but regardless of where you set the various body slider bars, you're going to end up with beefcake Gears of War extra or a pouting, curvaceous fantasy nymph fresh off the set of a pornographic film.
Age of Conan's sound suite is lively and varied. From the voices of the game's many NPCs (which, sadly, give way to text-only interaction after level 20, with the exception of the destiny quest line) to the clangs and crashes of steel on steel and the clip-clop of horse hooves across the cobbled streets of Tarantia, Hyboria's soundscapes are vast and dynamic. Also of note is the seminal score by composer Knut Avenstroup Haugen. It is truly a shame that some folks will no doubt turn off their in-game music in favor of internet-tough-guy death metal and the latest in crap-pop, as Haugen has delivered a stunning soundtrack that could ably compliment a big-budget fantasy motion picture, and does wonders in terms of immersing players in Howard's darkly decadent world.
The game's user interface is adequate, if not spectacular, and, while the modding community hasn't gone crazy over it as they have for competing games, the functionality and extensibility are present and accounted for, both in terms of visual re-design friendliness as well as light-duty scripting capabilities.
Age of Conan's gameplay is heavily focused on combat, to no one's surprise, but what is mildly shocking is the utter simplicity of the other traditional spheres such as crafting and socialization. Crafting, in particular, is so completely an afterthought that you can't even take part in it until your character reaches combat level 40 and the system that is then revealed is incredibly anti-climactic. Want to make a sword? Its as easy as running to your nearest NPC vendor or auction house, buying a few hilts and blades, and pressing the 'make' button on the crafting screen. Gathering is also a bit of a let-down, in that it involves some fairly tedious repetition in order to acquire the rare materials needed to proceed to the next level, and is also inexplicably tied to your combat level, effectively eliminating the ability for crafting-oriented players to take a break from the constant bloodletting. Also, rolling on one of the many open PVP servers will probably impede your progress on occasion, as the 'red equals dead' mentality of the majority of the player base means that there is always someone looking to get their jollies off of knifing someone in the back while they're harvesting a resource node.
To Funcom's credit, they have recently announced a bevy of forthcoming enhancements to the crafting system, including class-specific 'culture armors' which appear to be intended to amp up visual diversity and provide accessible higher end gear that doesn't require a guild city or elite Armorsmithing feats. Skinners and weavers will also be receiving new recipes, and sweeping changes to resource drops are in the works. All that said, as it stands today, the system is severely lacking in comparison to nearly every other A-list MMO on the current market.
Socialization is similarly downsized; you won't find much in the way of things to do that don't involve violence. Emotes are few and far between, and those that are present are hidden behind an extremely clunky activation mechanic that can only be described as counter-intuitive. Character differentiation is virtually non-existent, which puts a bit of a damper on the role-playing environment. My level 80 assassin looks exactly like every other dagger-wielding squishy on the server, and unique armor, equipment and weaponry is, at this point at least, a distant pipe-dream.
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