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Return to Hyboria Part 1

Phil James Posted:
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I want to love Funcom, really I do.  I’m pretty giddy about The Secret World, and they also published an MMO based on one of my favorite IPs in the form of Age of Conan.  However, I just can’t bring myself to love them at all.  Let me summarise something that was going to be a one thousand word rant into a single sentence:

I’ve had bad experiences with Funcom...

Phew, you know what, that actually felt good not to unload all my rage and instead to express something mildly.

So rewind back to the launch of AoC and a younger – well, three years younger – and more naive version of me rushed out to buy the collector’s edition.  Huge box, nice map, discs and an art book – it has nudity in it so it must be art.  All in all, a bargain.  However, like many people, after my free month was up, I moved on, shaking my head and wondering where it all went wrong.  The overall failness (that’s a real word, I should know as I invented it) of AoC is fairly well documented both professionally and in forum rant versions too, so I won’t go into detail here.  I filed the game away in the compartment of my brain marked potential and mostly forgot about it.

The Wanderer Returns

Now and then I’d see the box on my shelf, actually I’ve put the box up on blocks and it is a shelf itself, and I’d be reminded of what might have been.  Then this very site named Age of Conan as the most improved game of 2009.  Once again the thing was a blip on my radar.  Fast forward a bit further, I’m scouting around for games to revisit as I’m now MMO-homeless. Then it hit me; in the space dedicated to oversized boxes (thank you Blizzard for taking over my living space), i could find my saviour.

“That’s it,” I bellowed uproariously.  “I’m going to Hyboria.”

“Shh,” hissed my wife, glowering at me with a sullen stare. “You’re spoiling Criminal Minds”.

I carried my box to my computer, mumbling something about episodes she’s already seen and installed Age of Conan.  Later that evening I was in and creating a character.

I had a grand total of four servers to choose from.  That’s right, four.  There is a PvE server, a PvP server, and an RP version of each.  This was disappointing, I remembered there being loads of servers.  Back in the day, Funcom proudly beat its chest about shipping 1 million units – that’s shipped, not necessarily sold to customers though.  To see that the subscription base had fallen so far was saddening.  Looking over my options, I didn’t want to play on a PvP server so I had the pick of two.  Hyrkania is the role playing realm and Crom is dedicated to just pure PvE.  I checked out the forums to make an informed decision.  I have to admit some surprise by what I saw there.  In a very short space of time, Age of Conan had gone from what I remembered as a behemoth of a game, with oodles of subscribers comprised of nudists and internet jackasses to one of those games with a small but dedicated user base.  The posts on the forums were all very polite and supportive, way past the point where other threads would have degenerated into name-calling and “your mama” jokes.  Encouraged by what I read, I opted for the Crom server.

And now a word on breasts.  Yes, you might have heard that this game has them, and you have heard right, it does.  You can create a character that has them, you can strip off and look at them.  In fact you can do a lot with them besides touch them – you can even do that if you like but they just feel like glass or plastic depending on your screen.  I opted for a male character, figuring that I’m married and I also have the internet, therefore I have all the access to boobs that I need.

I rolled a Guardian.  It may not be the fastest way to get to the level cap, but I do love tanking.  And I was in.

One of the great things about Age of Conan is the beginners’ area, the city of Tortage and its surrounding environs.  Of all the newbie zones in all the games I’ve played in this one is the most lush by far.  Three years can be a long time in computing and PC graphics never stand still, but even now it stands up against any other MMO I care to name.  The characters look great too and come with a whole raft of customisation.  What do you put on your characters?  That right, clothes, unless you like jiggling lady-bumps that is.  I never thought I’d pay this much attention to the armour models in a game, but AoC’s clothes look pretty darn real; you can see the weave of the cloth and it also looks like your character is wearing clothes instead of having them painted on their skin.

Anyway, enough gushing.  You start out as a slave on a ship which gets wrecked on Tortage Island, you are told by a chap called Kalanthes that the slave master Saddur has survived too so you’d better get your skates on and catch him.  Tortage is designed to take characters from level 1 to 20, it has a pretty strong storyline, and quests are given with fully voiced dialogue and subtitles.  The first quest you pick up after being washed up on the beach is to release a woman named Casilda from her chains.  Some level 1 dude on the beach has the key and you are instructed to *ahem* “slit that bastard’s throat”.  From the outset, AoC sets the tone: this ain’t no nicey-nice MMO so reach down, find a pair and start stabbing stuff.

Stabbing Stuff

One of the things I did like about playing the first time around was the combat system.  Melee characters do away with their foes by using combos.  You have some basic directional attacks - my guardian has three, mapped to keys 1, 2 and 3 which are upper left, up and upper right respectively.  As you level you get abilities which require the correct combo of directional attacks to complete.  It makes a great change from auto attacking and spamming your favourite skills, although sometimes I do forget which game I’m playing and just stand there while waiting for my abilities to cool down.  Must remember to keep on bashing those buttons.

Your target has three shield indicators to show you where they are most heavily defended.  This adds another tactical level to the combat as just spamming away at the same area will result in all their defence being moved there.  Not really a game you can play on autopilot and watch TV at the same time.

Rinse, Repeat, Rinse, Repeat...

There is a pretty strong story arc running through Tortage, and it uses a system that I once hoped other games would adopt too.  During the day, you run around with other players doing all the fun little side quests on offer.  Once you’ve had enough of that, you can return to the Inn and rest until night.  Then you enter an instanced version of the island and you do the quests that are geared toward the main story arc.

This is all well and good, and it may sound like I’m enthusing quite a lot for a game that I claimed to give up on in disgust.  However, and it’s a pretty big however, Tortage is the only newbie zone in the game.  While it is impressive and very well put together, it does get very tiresome after your first run through.  Imagine you don’t really know what class you will be playing.  Usually people’s advice will be to try a few out up to level 10 or so and see which one you like best.  This becomes quite a drag when you are running through the same zone over and over and over etc.

During my first time playing the game, I ended up with a character I didn’t care much for as I had tried several classes out.  Finally I just couldn’t bear running through the zone again.  So I stuck with the last character I rolled and played that one for most of my time there.

Now it’s a couple of years later and Tortage seems fresh again, not completely but their parts that are stale now have a fresh coat of nostalgia too, so I’m enjoying revisiting this old stomping ground.  Although, If I don’t stick with my guardian though and feel like rolling an alt, I’ll definitely be scouring the internet for speed-levelling guides to get me out of there as fast as possible.

So far the game is as I remember it-  Tortage seems like it hasn’t been touched by time or updates.  It still serves as a fabulous point of entry into the game and I’m enjoying myself.  The test will be the real, post level 20 game, though where it could all go horribly  wrong.  This is the point where I and many others jacked the game in.  I’m due to finish up here in Tortage very soon and my feeling of hope is lined with a bit of dread.

Stay tuned to see how it all turns out.


Phil James