As is well known in the MMORPG community, Age of Conan didn't have the most prestigious of births onto the gaming scene. Sure it sold extremely well, but it couldn't retain the subscriber base to match its weighty hype level. The game was written off as a letdown by many, but still retained a quite faithful bunch of fans that held on and hoped that Funcom would continue to shine and polish their version of Hyboria into a gem deserving of representing Howard's legacy. It's now two years later and Funcom has done just that. A slew of new additions, improvements to the base game, and new adventures crafted with the experience Funcom has gained from previous creations all come together to make Age of Conan one of the best games on the market. With Rise of the Godslayer, Funcom has put a much awaited crown on the King of Aquilonia.
Rise of the Godslayer is intelligently crafted to both fill in and round out the level one to eighty game and to create advancement beyond the level cap without the need of adding more pointless levels to the experience. At one time Age of Conan was distinctly lacking in content to help players get to the level cap, but returning players and newcomers alike will be heartened to know that said gaps have all been eradicated with patching over the past two years and Godslayer goes even further by giving players a whole new experience for the 20-40 range, as well as adding several new zones for players who have reached the cap already to explore. A lack of content is certainly not an issue for Age of Conan anymore.
The new zones themselves are also a glorious addition to the game. Where the old Hyborian adventures had you traipsing through rather crowded terrain, the first thing players will notice is just how open and sprawling places like the Gateway to Khitai are. And I'm not talking open and barren, but the designers have somehow managed to make the zones seem both massive and interesting by littering the landscape with plenty of interesting set pieces and landmarks by which to make your way. On top of it all, Funcom teamed with artists from Korea in order to capture the eastern look and feel, and capture it they did. The difference between the more barbaric vistas of the original game and the lands of Khitai is night and day. In fact I would say that the only downside of the marvelous work the artists did with the Khitan landscapes is that the prospect of leveling from 40-80 now seems a little less interesting and kind of a long wait to get back to the new stuff. Thank Crom for the off-line leveling system in that case.
Also new with this expansion is the Alternate Advancement system. Rather than tack on a bunch of new levels and offer new spells or ranks of existing spells, Funcom decided to introduce the AA system in order to give capped players a sense of progression. These things are often tricky to pull off, but luckily the AA system in Age of Conan seems to be well thought out and intricate enough to keep players enjoying the end-game for months. As stated in previous previews, AA's are split into three types: some are general purpose, others are meant for PvE, and others are intended for PvP use. To gain points for the PvE perks, players must engage in PvE. To gain points in PvP, they must fight other players. And to gain the general purpose points, they can do either or. Additionally Funcom was wise enough to institute a "timed training" mechanism whereby players can train perks simply by queuing them up and waiting for the timer to run down. The faster method for most players will likely be by simply playing the game, but for busy folks who might only get to play a few nights a week the queue system will allow them to train perks even if not logged in. The only caveat is that players must be level 80 to train perks with time.
The perks themselves range from the simply upgrade of stats to actual new spells which can be used by the player. Your hot-bar is now outfitted with a "Perk Bar" and each type of perk has two slots to occupy. So while you may have spent the past three months training up fifty perks, you only have room for a maximum of six, and two from each path. I liken it to Guild Wars skill system, making players think about and choose which perks they need to have at their disposal at any given time. Additionally many of the new skills have a distinctly Asian theme applied to them, which leads me to believe that future expansions with different themes will likely further explore the different cultures of Howard's creation and do so with appropriately themed perks of their own.
But new forms of character advancement wouldn't matter a lick if there weren't also a slew of new quests and encounters to explore. Rise of the Godslayer is an expansion which takes Age of Conan a bit off track from its original PvP focus, and firmly puts the game in league with other PvE heavy experiences where PvP is more a sideshow. Overall Godslayer seems more about fleshing out the original game and making sure there is plenty of content for all level ranges to enjoy, and to do that PvP seems to have taken a back seat. While this may be a little disappointing to some, the quality of the newly introduced content is of such a caliber that the lack of PvP focused additions should be forgiven.
To some, this may be off-putting, but I feel it's as though Craig Morrison and his staff have identified their strengths and are (at least for now) focusing heavily on the story, solo-experience, and group play for Age of Conan. Perhaps in future expansions Age of Conan will flex its PvP muscle a bit more, but Rise of the Godslayer definitely excels in its ability to give players unique and interesting dungeon encounters as well as new solo quests. I don't wish to spoil too many of the boss fights to be found in the new dungeons, but encounters such as those found in the Celestial Necropolis are exactly the kinds of things that make dungeons such a popular feature of these games. By being about more than just another "tank & spank" loot piñata, the new dungeons in Rise of the Godslayer have managed to become one of my favorite new features and I wonder just how the design of these encounters will show up in Funcom's next project: The Secret World.
The new faction system that was added with Godslayer is also a boon of carrots on proverbial sticks for returning and existing players. I mean this in a good way. Usually when I see "Factions" making their way into a game, I expect massive grinds with no real substantial payout. But here Funcom has wisely made it so that there are seemingly plenty of quests to follow for players to gain notoriety within their chosen factions. There is also a great deal of lore put into each one, making the journey to revered standing that much more interesting. And of course once you've gained all you can gain from one faction, it's as simple as betraying your chosen brethren in order to begin gaining standing with the other side. Each faction has their own "membership benefits" in the way of loot and other rewards. And in the case of two specific factions, you can obtain one of two very unique pets and mounts.
The tiger and wolf mount and pet are two of the much-touted additions to the game, and rightly so. Through a long quest line that starts in Shaulun, I was able to obtain my own tiger cub. The idea being that each player must raise their chosen cub (you can also get a wolf from the Wolves of the Steppes faction) into adulthood and then decide whether to keep the animal as a combat pet or as a mount. The tiger mount has the benefit of being the fastest sprinting mount in the game, while if you choose to keep it as a combat pet you're likely to have a much easier time with some of the game's higher level monsters. On top of its practical uses, the thing just looks cool which really, when we're being honest is a big part of what these games are all about.
There are some downsides that come with the new expansion, but they seem slight in comparison to the triumphs of the overall experience. Load-times are still painfully long initially, for instance. And early on many of the mobs which are needed for various quests have a tendency to get bugged and become un-attackable. If there weren't so many other quests to occupy myself with, it would have been more troubling, but for now the bug remains as a minor annoyance that will likely be fixed soon. The only other real complaint I can lob at the expansion is the seeming lack of PvP content. I do think that Funcom still loves its PvP players, but it's clear that with this expansion the focus is on broadening the scope of the PvE experience and fleshing out the game as a whole. I'm sure that the recently released "Shrines of Bori" won't be the last PvP addition the game's competitive crowd sees.
All said and done, Rise of the Godslayer is exactly what Age of Conan needed. Rise of the Godslayer is the perfect dose of awesome to bring a mediocre game that once had a lot of potential into adulthood as one of the industry's best. Much like Anarchy Online before it, Funcom has revived a game that struggled at launch. Hopefully players will take notice and give the Barbarian King's MMO another chance. It certainly deserves it.