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Age of Conan 2 Week Review (read at your own risk)

Posted by grace-monday Wednesday June 4 2008 at 11:03PM
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Disclaimer: While I try to be as impartial as humanly possible, I may come off as completely bashing Age of Conan. Please realize that your experience with two-week old AoC (there will be bugs, glitches, and half-finished things) might be completely different than anything listed below. You may absolutely love or hate this game. I am no mind reader, I do not know you and hope that anything I've written here does not prevent you from trying out the game if you do indeed want to play it. Read the following summation at your own risk. You have been warned!!



Colourful Reason - Pre-release and Street Talk
Age of Conan was released a little more than two weeks ago to the market. When preordering the game, you had two options: 1) the 90$ Collector's Edition (CE) and 2) $50 standard preorder. Standard preorders, depending on where you preordered, you would receive a bag and a mount that was only later clarified as a "siege mount." A siege mount allows you, theoretically, to destroy player made structures (that have not been enabled ingame yet). Therefore, it is not faster (nor more practical) than running from point A to point B on foot. You also constantly get stuck on people, ground, rocks, yourself, causing you to have to dismount and walk around on foot just to clear the obstruction. Many people did not make the commitment to buying the CE version because they felt getting a free mount was better, only to be let down later on once they were high enough level to ride said free mount. Collector's Edition came with a 2%+ XP ring and a "drinking cape" which currently does not work as there is no drinking (of supposedly alcoholic beverages) enabled in the game. Many people got the CE version for the cape, as drinking in MMOs is a fond pasttime. As not to feel completely duped, a large chunk of the CE buyer community have tried to focus instead on the fact that they're all apart of a "club" of people who are prime supporters of Age of Conan, and try to ignore the fact that they were lied to.

Another hiccup, pre-release was the sold out availability of Early Access to the game. If you preordered and wanted to get into the game a week early, you were out of luck as Funcom's servers couldn't handle the weight of everyone downloading the 14GB client. This problem is supplemented by the fact that Funcom has no technical support (via telephone or dedicated email) and their forums are severely understaffed to handle these things. The best option for them was to close the EA by using a clause in their small print that denoted "limited availability." This left quite a few people very disappointed early on.

D-day came and went. Claimed by many to be the "smoothest MMO launch ever", AoC's release was not hindered by servers crashing. However, the severe amount of in-game bugs and again, understaffed GMs caused people much suffering. After the first week, a lot of people on the forums (read: paying customers) felt the game was still stuck in closed beta. Rage spread as the commentators fought against the "fanboys" on the forums. Quests broke, NPCs broke, items broke, and an early exploitation of the bank/auction house/mail system caused Funcom to take down those features in addition to the "Feat Fixer" (NPC who resets your class options/specifications, similar to WoW's talent points) in the starting area.

Other "fires" Funcom had to deal with over the two weeks after launch included the masses complaining about censorship (in an M rated game), the "PVP Question", issues with short and uninformative patch notes, nonexistent support both in-game and offline, and the biggest problem with customers not even able to run the game or get past the loader.

Step One: "Item Get!", Running AoC on your PC
Contrary to popular belief (read: the retail box), Age of Conan does NOT run DX10. Yes, all MMORPG players running Vista are still wasting their lives away, dealing with admin query boxes trying to run their old games (EQ2, WoW, etc). Developers have stated repeatedly that DX10 will be implemented in later patches of Age of Conan, but that still doesn't quell the overwhelming disappointment from the Vista camp.

Before we get to frame rates and quality, it's important to note that a percentage of those who've bought Age of Conan cannot get past the patcher/loader, or even TO the loader itself. And even if you get to and past the loader, numerous technical issues abound. Some clients will pretend like they're loading the game, then crash. Some clients will play for a second then claim "Out of Memory" on brand new rigs. Those who never had latency issues in the past are reporting jumps to 10,000ms. While your mileage may vary, these are important issues to keep in mind before plopping your money on the table. These issues do not discriminate and can be found on even the most "Crysis and beyond"-ready rigs.

Once you are in the game, if you really care about FPS, you can wrestle with the settings. Some people have no issues, others notice incredibly low FPS for no reason. When comparing two new prefab rigs, early in the game's release I was experiencing >40 FPS up until a certain patch with a quad core and 8800GT nvidia video card overclocked. Many have relied on turning off the shadows (in Age of Conan, EVERYTHING casts a shadow) to up their FPS to 70-100+. Either way, the game is playable down to 25FPS with ultra high settings. If you are a bloom-effect whore (hay LOTRO/EQ2 players!), you will not enjoy Age of Conan as their bloom effect is broken. As far as I know, there was never a point in time their bloom effect WASN'T broken. Attempting to play the game with the bloom effect on will cause portions of your screen to become overexposed while the rest of the screen remains the same. Simply displeasing to the eye.

Step Two: ???, Playing Age of Conan
The other day I was reading my newly purchased Brady guide to Age of Conan. I know, buying a strategy guide for an MMORPG is a bit silly but I was desperate for information on game mechanics and stats. Regardless, I turned the guide over and spotted on the back in great big letters, "A FRESH START". I giggled a bit and showed my boyfriend and we had a good laugh. To understand why I found that phrase reasonably humorous, one must first dive head first into Age of Conan's gameplay.

Age of Conan functions like any MMORPG, except much more shallow. Their selling points, initially, were their gimmicky dial combo combat system (remember playing Mortal Kombat and writing down all those fatality combos?), "prestige classes" (supplemental abilities granted at level 20 that better serve the greater good of guild/siege participation) and player built cities. At launch, the only thing that was promised and delivered was the combat system, which becomes quickly underwhelming as the longer you play, the more its novelty wears off. Prestige classes were nixed from the list and player built cities have been heavily hampered in development due partly to Funcom's own poor implementation skills.

So if all that glitters is dead, then what does Age of Conan bring to your already full MMORPG table?

Mule in a dress: looks good, but still slow and stubborn
Age of Conan is one of the most attractive MMOs on the market currently. Once you get the game up and running, character models are incredibly detailed and building facades shine in the sun. There are very few points in the game where you feel like you're looking at an "old" game. Sometimes the trees and shrubberies are poorly done and even with x8AA, appear jagged and plain. Spell effects are nothing to write home about (standard WoW quality sparklies), on-fire effects look substandard, and some camera angles during quest giver conversations are not properly done. But mostly, this game is very nice to look at.

The problem thereafter is the actual environment interaction. You will find running and jumping even on the flatest of terrain, will cause you to become stuck. Trying to rock climb in this game is a heavy liability as you are apt to get permanently stuck, needing GM intervention or worse, using your recall spell. The roads in areas are "cleverly" windy, forcing you to scale the hillside ON the road itself, as opposed to maybe finding a short-cut to make a straight line. Indeed, a straight line IS the shortest distance between two points. If you're use to finding short-cuts in all your old MMORPGs, you will find yourself getting caught on hillsides that will result in fatal falls (yes, you can die falling five feet, even at level 40.)

Geographically, Age of Conan functions with three major cities. However, these three cities are on a string and therefore you cannot simply go from Conarch Village (Cimmerian city) to Khemi (Stygian city). You must first go to Old Tarantia (Aquilonian city), THEN run halfway across the city to the dock and take a boat to Khemi. This causes much pain and waste of time once you start picking up quests that cause you to go through at least six zones before your final destination. Old Tarantia being the middle man in travel is therefore the most elaborate of the three cities (featuring its own instanced dungeons), Khemi being the smallest and most barren.

Alien to most MMO players is the severe amount of "instancing" Age of Conan has. Almost every zone will have at least four or five different instance versions to keep populations low and compensate for the slow respawn timers on important quest mobs. This causes issues with people who want to group as if you get to your location and none of your cronies are there, you'll have to re-instance and end up at a graveyard that is literally ten minutes away from where you were. There is an ability to summon members to your instance, but it rarely works. Because of these grouping issues, many people play solo causing an even bigger headache in regards to the slow respawn named quest mobs.

One-way street: no turns ever
When creating a character, you have your choice between three races that essentially look the same. The only difference between them is that only certain races can be certain classes. Other than that, there is no racial stats, no difference in starting stats, and no difference in starting zone. Everyone will get funneled into the same starting zone of Tortage. This may cause some headaches for alt-holics, who might be turned off by the lack of variety. It is somewhat worth mentioning that you will find yourself stuck on this island until level 15-20 depending on when you receive the option to leave without finishing your "Destiny Quest."

Classes in Age of Conan follow standard convention. During development there were more options for classes, but lacking meat, Funcom condensed a lot of their proposed classes. Classes fall under one of four flags: soldiers, rogues, mages, and priests. Under each of these flags, there are three classes you can choose from. Your experience with each class might vary and since the game is in its infancy (dare I say, "open beta"), you may have a hard time even outside of PVP due to half of your feats/abilities being incredibly vague and a lot of your spells or buffs being questionably helpful. Funcom has been very hush about what game mechanics do in the long run or how useful abilities are. And given how anemic the economy is, most people cannot afford to respec their feats to find out what's most useful to them.

Quests are nothing to write home about. Early promo material for Age of Conan bragged that this game would end the monotonous grind featured in other games, but with quests that require you to kill 50 of X, that is apparently a lie. You can level quickly, but the grind is not only still there, but it seeps out of every game crevice. You must grind your quests, you must grind your crafting, you must grind your dungeons. Nothing is safe from the monotonous grind. This is definitely not your "fresh start."

Crafting in this game is scant and almost added as an afterthought. You may learn all gathering skills, but your trainer will take the first twenty pieces in lieu of teaching you. To progress and have the ability to gather higher level items, you will have to first finish gathering 20 pieces of whatever your skill is at currently. Gathering nodes like cotton and ash trees function with what appears to be a health bar. This bar will decrease as you farm that node, eventually reaching depletion and causing you to wait a very long time for it to increase to be farmable again. Actual crafting skills seem almost useless and it's quite hard to find someone who will buy your goods since money is tight among players.

I will gladly pay you Tuesday..
It's ridiculous to assume a new game will have a steady economy right off the bat. But Funcom is its own undoing as they poorly scaled quest rewards and trash drops, causing a bottleneck in the economy up to level 50ish. Equipment can be funneled back into the economy as there is no such thing as bind-on-equip preventing you from reselling that blue or green item you got from a dungeon. This forces prices low as demand is low and supply is high. The only items that are non-tradeable are items you receive from quests. Another blow to your virtual pocketbook is the fact that itemization is vague and poorly done. No one is quite sure what stats are best for them and green drops can end up being worse than standard trash drops.

Usually what will get an economy going is crafting materials and armor that sets players out from the crowd. With armor looking the same up until level 80, there is no incentive to look at the marketplace. And crafting materials are not in large demand because there is no real need to make anything currently since the system feels half-done.

Your fresh start!
The idea of MMORPGs, I thought, was that you as a player had options. You picked your profession, you picked your class, you customized yourself with armor and doodads, and leveled to attain this and also new abilities, cooler looking armor, and the convenience of a mount. Being level 39 in any game that gives you your first mount at 40 is exciting as you cannot wait to ride off like a medium-speed lightning bolt to your next quest destination. While you might have to sell the kids and the house to afford your mount, you can expect to see one before you're level 45 hopefully. And hitting the level cap should always be a treat with cool weapons, armor, and abilities. Not to mention a whole slew of end game places for you to experience. While crafting might always be a grind, it's even better when you get to use your ability to help people get what they want and make some money with it too.

All of the above sounds good, right? It's what we've come to expect in MMORPGs. Anything less is a travesty and should be sent over to Asia where they can change the business model, make the game free, and just supplement with items that can be bought with real money.

Well, your travesty is now. And it's here, in the States. And people are paying 50$ and 15$ a month to play it. It's called Age of Conan, if you haven't heard.

Step Three: Make $$$$
What you have come to expect from MMORPGs, coming from WoW, EQ2, and the like, is completely trampled upon in Age of Conan. The lore is fantastic. Conan is quite the interesting fellow. And it was ballsy to have complete female topless nudity in a game, though not hard to implement. The game is shallow and unfinished, warranting the question, "what were they doing during beta and early access?" While it is fine to have bugs for quests, NPCs, spawns and environment during the lifetime of an MMO, certain things baffle the mind as you wonder how crucial things slipped through gapping cracks in the beta system. This game was postponed more and more, supposedly in development for four to five years. Features that were promised were left out, which is common, but a lot of incentive was lost as well.

The gameplay is paper thin in Age of Conan, even without the bugs and technical issues. Customer support is at a nil. And information provided by Funcom about how the game works doesn't exist. Your abilities, no matter what the class, will always be vague and being able to spot a completely useless ability is constantly trial and error. Funcom keeps customers in the dark about almost everything, only jumping into action whenever a large outcry on the forum occurs.

You can't please everyone: should you play Age of Conan?
The answer is yes and no. The developers have stated numerous times that they did not set out to create a "WoW-killer." At the same time, the conveniences and depth you have come to expect in other games is completely vacant in Age of Conan. Whether this will improve with time is yet to be seen. You can be optimistic and hope, then buy the game when it's a year old, or AoC will quietly fade into the background like other failed MMOs.

If you want to grind a character to level 80, all the while struggling economically and having difficulties with questing (long respawn timers, broken NPCs, etc) and crafting, then yes. This may be your cup of tea. But I can name at least three free MMOs that will provide the same comforts and won't put you back 65$. Then with that 65$, you can go buy yourself a console game instead that will probably provide you with more stress-free fun. I hear GTA4 is really good.

If you're a PVPer, I suggest reading the PVP Question and pondering whether you want to PK in a game where there is no reward or incentive for all your frustration.

Playing any MMO so soon after launch is bound to make a poor impression on anyone. I suggest you take what you've read so far with a grain of salt. There's two sides to every coin and a lot of people actually like Age of Conan. They see promise in tomorrow and are willing to invest the time playing it today to see if their efforts are well met.

I will continue to level my Bear Shaman to 80 or until my free month of play time is over, whichever comes first. As time progresses, I will supplement this writing with my new observations. I'm currently "half-way" through the game in my mid-40's, and I imagine there's a lot more to see.