If this isn’t the first article you’ve read about Funcom’s upcoming game, then you probably already know that between the years when Atlantis went tits up and before the sons of Aryas started doing their thing, there was an age undreamed of, where many shining kingdoms were spread across Hyborea. There was the dark and mysterious Stygia, Aquilonia the proud, and Cimmeria where the Atlanteans fled. And during this age there came a man of great mirth and melancholies for whom this age is named, the Age of Conan.
Speaking of the Age of Conan, I recently had the opportunity to attend a press event and get a hands-on look at one of 2008’s most anticipated games. Several people from Funcom, including Product Director Jorgen Tharaldson were on hand to answer questions and get killed by the press in a few PvP matches.
My experiences in-game began with character creation which was fairly comprehensive, considering that not every character customization feature had been added for this demonstration. Most notably absent was the ability to play female characters, as that option just wasn’t ready at the time. So I set to work making my dark haired Aquilonian with an Amish style beard. Some of the hair and beard styles weren’t quite ready, and didn’t fit on the face properly, leaving a noticeable gap between the cheeks and the beard, but that’s to be expected at this stage, as the game is still in beta with a currently scheduled March 25th 2008 launch. These little problems were made up for by an abundance of sliders for the body and face. A particular favorite among the standard face lengtheners and eye shrinkers, was the broken nose slider, which allows a player to adjust the direction and severity of their avatar’s broken nose. The triangular slider used to choose body type was also a nice change from the usual two dimensional left-right sliders, and gives the feeling of having more freedom when choosing how big, thin and/or, muscular you want your character to be. Aside from the bad hair dos and no girls (which kind of reminds me a little bit of high school) the only other thing I would have liked to have seen would be an age slider, but that’s more of a personal preference than something the game was lacking.
Character creation took place on the deck of a galley in rough seas, where the player plays the part of a slave, forced to spend his days toiling away on the oars. But this existence is over as soon as you’ve finished with character creation, so with my nose sufficiently broken, my loincloth on tight, and my beard at the ready, I was good to go. The adventure begins with your character being washed ashore on a tropical beach with no memories. The beach is on an island called Tortage and the stage of the game is the tutorial. You spend your first 5 or so levels in a solo tutorial instance, where the first person you meet upon heading inland is a scantily clad vixen chained up in the jungle. She sends you to slay her captors where you learn the basics of combat with a wooden club.
I must say I enjoyed the combat system of Conan more than any other MMO I’ve played this year. The Age of Conan combat system has changed a few times since it was first shown to the public. In its current incarnation, it has the right mixture of game design, animations, and art direction to make combat a satisfying experience. At low level, when you don’t have access to much in the way of special abilities, you have your three basic attacks: from the left, the right, or an overhead attack that aims down your opponents center. When in combat, the enemy you have selected displays symbols in each of these left-right-overhead areas indicating their current defensive status from each of those directions. The idea here being that you have to choose to attack the least protected area if you want to do the most damage. The enemies in the tutorial area were fairly easy to defeat, but they were tough enough to show that you couldn’t defeat your enemies by just wading in to combat and attacking without strategy, like you can get away with in many other MMOs, but if you paid attention to their defenses you could truly mow down your foes with efficiency. I have no hard numbers on this but it seemed like a ratio of 3 hits to down an opponent with button mashing, to 1 to 2 hits with strategy.
That’s the simple design that makes combat in Conan more active than in many other MMOs, but it’s not the only thing that makes combat fun. At higher levels this system becomes more in-depth when you gain access to special moves and combos. A special move is handled in the same way as in other MMOs, maybe a hit does more damage, maybe you can knock a foe back… the list goes on. But what makes them fun is that if you follow up a special move with specific directional attacks, you do a combo and do mare damage. If you finish an adversary with a combo you have a chance to perform one of the finishing moves that Age of Conan is becoming famous for, like a good old-fashioned decapitation.
We had a chance to try out our prowess with combos later on when we left Tortage for a higher level raid area. I explored two such areas with my colleagues in the gaming media, Connal’s Valley, and a place called The Maze. Of course combos weren’t the only thing that I learned here. This is where I learned about the death penalty in Conan; good news, the penalties only stacks three times. The other thing that I learned is that if you go back to where you died and retrieve your tombstone, the penalties are lifted. So death isn’t that bad if you die somewhere that you can get back to easily, which I learned the hard way.
When playing MMOs, I have a tendency to get too wrapped up in combat, and push too far ahead, where I subsequently get overwhelmed and die. Age of Conan encourages this kind of play (at least from me) with combat momentum, where you swing your sword to the right, and your whole body follows through to the right. The motion captures for this were well done and it adds to the feeling of immersion, and helped make the combat more intuitive by appearing more natural. It also encourages you to pay more attention along with the directional attacks and combos. One problem I often have with MMOs, especially at lower levels, is the lack of a “coolness factor” for my character. But with the style of Age of Conan, and the satisfying combat, you feel cool right from the start, swinging a crude wooden club and dodging rivals in a loincloth.
I won’t say much here about Conan’s graphical qualities, because we’ve also got a number of screenshots coming out today as well. But what I will say is that the game looked pretty much the way it does in the screenshots. The graphics looked great of course because we were running the game on high end machines, but they had a laptop set up with Age of Conan running and graphics and game-play didn’t suffer too much. I honestly don’t care too much about flashy graphics as long as the game runs clean and I know what I’m looking at. I also think it’s important that the characters, NPCs, creatures, towns, and terrains all fit together in a cohesive artistic style. Funcom has done a good job on this front, finding a nice mix between a stylized look and photorealism, and the characters look like they belong in the world.
We finished off the demo portion of the day with a few PvP matches in a capture the flag scenario. The was a bit frantic at first, but once everyone got comfortable, and figured out how to work as a team the fun factor increased. I’m was told that a characters PvP level is separate from their actual level, a mechanic intended to help balance PvP and make it more accessible. The rest of the game is divided up into the first five levels of the tutorial instance, up to level 20 as a solo RPG, and then beyond that the world opens up to being a full MMO. So there’s a little something for every player.
After playtime ended I had the chance to talk to Funcom’s Product Director, Jorgen Tharaldson. Because of the current stage that Age of Conan is currently in, he couldn’t really answer many of my questions but we did have an interesting talk about the current feud between members of the Age of Conan and Warhammer Online fan bases. When asked about the debate Jorgen said, “I think our game will be awesome.” But then he added, “I think Warhammer will be awesome too. We’ve taken different design philosophies. They are taking a more traditional approach to MMOs, and we are trying something a little different.”