| 1-20 Quest Content
Divergent Combat System
Production Values (graphics and sound)
| Grind-Heavy Mid to High Level Progression
Lack of PVP Risk/Reward
Neanderthal Player Base
Post-20 Quest Content
Under-Developed Crafting, Social Games
All that said, combat and questing is where Age of Conan lives and dies, literally, and it is a bit deflating that the much-hyped system doesn't clean your house, baby-sit your kids, and cook you a giant filet mignon dinner given some of the traditional genre features that Funcom opted to overlook in favor of focusing development time on simply sticking the pointy end into the other man.
You'll start out by selecting one of twelve classes, most of which are fairly flexible hybrids in terms of traditional genre/class roles, though some are certainly more proficient at aspects of gameplay than others (good luck trying solo PVP with your Dark Templar, for example). Advancement follows the traditional class-based model, with skills gained at certain level thresholds, and some token variety thrown in in the form of feat trees. Ostensibly a way for players to differentiate their gameplay experience, the trees offer two ways to play your class (assassins can choose the PVE-centric Lotus build or the PVP-effective Corruption build, with a few mix and match skill choices in both). There are limited choices for playing effectively, however, and, as in all class-based games, there's a preferred build and the rest of the builds, leaving player choice as something of an illusion.
The game's starting area, the pirate-infested coastal village of Tortage, is jam-packed with quest content and a couple of introductory dungeons (the Underhalls and White Sands, both of which are open PVP areas depending on your choice of server), providing the new player with ample opportunities to get used to the newfangled button-mashing before taking their first steps into the larger world.
The narrative quests, despite being an extremely unoriginal riff on the tired 'chosen one' motif, feature high quality voice acting and cinematics that make use of the in-game engine to great effect. The writing is frequently humorous, unabashedly aimed at a mature audience, and a cut above the usual MMORPG quest fare (try not to chuckle when the scantily clad madame of an establishment known as 'The Bearded Clam' asks for your assistance). The only shame is that the immersion party ends when you leave the starting area around level 20, as Funcom's quest content devolves rapidly, settling into the familiar 'kill 20 rats/barbarians/quest designers' model that we've been rolling our eyes at for the past decade. By the time you actually get around to meeting King Conan himself and shooting the breeze in his palatial Aquilonian throne room, you're level 60 and have more than likely completely forgotten about the story content that tapered off 40 levels prior. You're also not likely to care that he sends you off on a series of NPC kill quests that effectively relegate you to the status of a coffee-fetching intern in a loincloth.
Depending on your racial choice at character creation, you'll be shipped off to your corresponding homeland after making the streets of Tortage run red with the blood of your enemies and getting a feel for the divergent combat. Stygians find themselves newly arrived on the docks of snake-infested Khemi, Cimmerians in the beautifully rendered highlands of, crazily enough, Cimmeria, and Aquilonians return home to the sprawling capital city of Tarantia. Level-specific content is fairly similar regardless of racial area, though the Tarantia Noble District and the majestically realized Fields of the Dead seem a wee bit larger and generally more fun than their counterparts.
Progression in Age of Conan slows a bit as you reach mid-level (80 being the current cap) and whether its a result of Funcom abandoning the narrative prevalent in Tortage or a general lack of quests that necessitates monotonous mob grinding, it feels suspiciously like the developers decided to meet their launch deadline fully aware that the starting areas were finished and not necessarily representative of the rest of the game.
Through it all though, the combat remains interesting, if not exactly the genre-defining revolution that Funcom's marketing folks would have you believe. Melee combat can be broken down into the good (block and dodging systems with tangible effects on survivability), and the bad (balance issues regarding players in heavy armor, as well as various dupes, bugs, and exploits that have skewed the playing field).
Spellcasters don't fare quite as well as melee types in terms of interesting combat, as the system basically boils down to a button press per attack/swing, leaving casters with the same mechanic seen in MMORPGs since the beginning of time. The need to lock onto a particular target is lessened just as it is for melee players, but aside from nice AoE grinding capabilities, folks that choose a spellcasting class will likely wonder what all the fuss is about in regard to the combat system.
Terrain and tactics have their part to play in Age of Conan's combat, conspiring with the novelty of the melee game to ward off boredom during the mid to high level progression grind. Collision detection is also a factor, opening up the possibility of choke points and other strategic maneuvers, and the game's stealth mechanic is a breath of fresh air when compared with the deified rogue abilities in other games. Every class can stealth in Age of Conan (though assassins can do it indefinitely and also move quickly while cloaked), and whether or not you're visible is a complex equation that takes into account your armor type, the lighting and terrain conditions, and the perception skills of opposing players and AI mobs. It is entirely possible for a level 70 assassin (in cloth armor) to sneak up behind a plate-armored level 80 guardian and get off a highly effective surprise attack. It is also impossible for said assassin to then disappear in the midst of combat, so he'd best be sure to dispense with a good portion of the target's health bar with his first strike; otherwise he's liable to find himself on the wrong end of a decapitation.
At the end of the day, the combat system is just different enough to be fun, but its not quite as revolutionary as Funcom's hype machine claims, since it ultimately boils down to clicking the right buttons (only this time there are many more of them in sequence instead of the traditional snare/DoT/ranged/melee routine we've all done ad nauseam).
Age of Conan's player versus player system is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, should you roll on a free-for-all server; you'll likely appreciate the constant state of worry that seems to hang like a damp shroud over your every move. Aside from Tortage and a few areas of the capital cities, you can expect death at every turn, and due to the aforementioned trigger-happy player base, that is precisely what you'll get unless you roll with a large group or stick to the shadows.
While this can and does add immersion in regards to the brutality and lawlessness present in portions of Howard's world, the mechanical implementation leaves much to be desired. Even with the very recent addition of PVP gear and experience points, the question remains as to whether it is worth the hassle, since there is effectively no consequences for killing another player. Griefing, while impossible to define objectively, does exist, both in the form of spawn-camping and level disparities, and the current system does nothing to address either issue.
As with crafting, Funcom is in the process of developing a solution (in the form of the hotly debated notoriety system as well as the murderer-friendly ‘Shady Camps' currently in testing). However, due to the volatile nature of testing servers and the fact that many systems undergo drastic changes before making it onto the public shards, the current state of the live game's PVP component can only be described as severely lacking, and curiously ham-handed for a title that markets itself as PVP-centric.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, Age of Conan has a mountain of potential, and while the same can be said of many other MMORPG also-rans, Funcom does have experience in righting the ship and building a successful product following a less-than-stellar launch. Were it not for a rather lengthy list of standard feature omissions (some of which are already being rectified) and a whiney player base that inexplicably expects MMORPG combat to approximate skill-based FPS titles, the game would be a pleasant time. Chances are that it will be a fairly solid title in the near future, and as it stands right now, it’s worth a look if you're tired of traditional combat systems and into dark fantasy.