Age of Conan – Review
Conan, the newly crowned king of Aquilonia has called us all to arms. Countless heroes, both men and women, have obeyed his call and have arisen to defend Hyboria from obscure cults and their petty gods, from mythological foes and armies of darkness. New alliances are formed, new cities are built over night, blood flows in rivers and echoes of battles engulf the lands in terror. Over a month has passed since the release of this highly expected MMORPG by FunCom, developer that you might remember as the creator of Anarchy Online, and time has come for me to take an in-depth look at what AOC has to offer, both good and bad.
After escaping from the wreckage of a slave ship, the unsuspecting adventurer is slowly but surely directed towards Tortage, a corrupted city filled with drunken sailors, whores, thieves and thugs – how convenient. Here, with the help of a few friends, the player will begin to unravel his forgotten past, story which will function for the rest of the game as the main plot. I thought that amnesia as an engine that drives the story forward can only be found in crappy TV shows where characters have car accidents all the time and forget everything right before the wedding, but I guess I was wrong: seems it works fine for games also. Tortage will cover the first 20 levels of any character and does that friendly manner, with more than enough quests to tackle, a decent storyline and voice acting for most of the NPCs in the city. The downside to it is the fact that every time you choose to restart the game the first 20 levels will always be the same, so for the undecided ones or simply for the ones that like to level more than one character at a time, going three or four times through Tortage in a matter days will most likely be at least boring if not completely annoying, clearly damaging the appeal of the game. Of course if the players would suffer from amnesia too then the repetitive game start would no longer be a problem.
An interesting game feature is that the player is given the possibility to choose if he wishes to play during the night which means he will enter a single player campaign in the attempt to cleanse the evil that has corrupted the city and in the same time advance with the game plot, or he can choose to play during the day solving more common problems together with his online friends in the multiplayer mode. Unfortunately this is only limited to the starting city, and although one can understand the reasons that stood behind this design decision, having the alternative game mode extended to the whole world might have been a good call.
The game classes that one can choose from at the beginning of the game circle around the normal definitions of melee, ranged and caster. They are grouped in larger categories that give several classes similar abilities, such as hide for the rogues. In case you didn’t know, barbarians are rogues and they can sneak around even if they weight about a tone.
Everything is just dandy in Tortage and maybe this is the reason why the closed beta limited the exploration only to this city and its immediate surroundings, because as soon as you depart for other areas the game seems to lose his polish: voice acting with a handful of exceptions is a thing of the past, quests seem to be scattered around without any game design perspective and the main story looses focus. The game pushes the player towards a quest orientated approach, which is highly commendable, but that can turn into a serious flaw if the total number of quests available to a player at a given time is not enough to drive one character up on the leveling ladder and I wouldn’t be making this comment if this wasn’t the case in AOC. Around level 30-35 the game seems to loose interest in the player and concentrates on some other highly important issues, like picking its nose for example. On top of that the quests that link one area to the other, the ones that should give the player a coherent line of events to follow, have two little problems: the first one being that they become available to the player much to early, at a level when one still has stuff to do in area A and isn’t really interested in leaving it for area B, and the second one being the fact that they lack any adventure value – quests with texts like “If you happen to find yourself in zone B, please tell my husband’s mistress that….” are most likely subject to players’ irony not to their undivided attention and interest, especially in a world shook by conflict from its very foundation as Hyboria is. On the other hand, quests in AOC do have one addition that I find to be of high importance: map marking. Upon accepting a quest the area of immediate interest to the player in solving the quest goal or turning in a completed quest is marked both on the map and on the corner-screen mini-map. Although this clearly reduces the importance of reading the quests’ texts, it highly speeds up the puzzle solving process because the chance of wondering around searching for a quest goal that is poorly described in the greatly reduced, thus leading to a system of fast rewards for the players, so thumbs up here.
The combat system in Age of Conan is again something innovating and I can only applaud the idea that stands behind it and the effort in making that idea something tangible. The basic combat system is built on the usage of keys which dictate what body area of your enemy your next blow targets. A mirror copy of this is the defensive system which uses shields placed around a character’s body in order to reduce the damage one takes in those specific areas. All players, regardless of the class they choose, will eventually have to use a series of key combos in order to trigger special attacks. Sounds great… in theory, but the whole system is pretty much useless and annoying actually. You can not change the position of the shields fast enough to make a difference in combat and if you do it before combat feels a lot like playing the lottery; the combos take too long to perform and while for a caster class that’s not actually a problem, for a melee class in PVP it means you will never get the chance to finish two button combos because no one is that retarded as to stand around long enough for the melee character to perform the death-in-horrible-pain-2-combo; high level combos include more than one normal attack button, meaning that the damage of the combo is spread around on at least two body areas, so again, I find the shields to be completely useless.
In addition to the hack and slash at ground level, AOC comes packed with a mounted combat system, which does not surprise by ingenuity, but by its simple presence because probably most of us have given up on the hope of seeing something like this and have accepted the mount simply as a travel form. Although of little use in PVE, the mounted combat system is a source of great fun and brings into PVP a sense of power and speed unsurpassed by any other MMORPG of this kind. Several types of mounts are available to players of level 40 and above and although they do cost a small fortune, I can assure you the money are well spent.
The crafting system will also open up for the player at level 40 and comes as an addition to the already obtained gathering skills which can be all learned and practiced by everyone. Except for the common professions that target the creation of armor, weaponry and enhancements of the first two, Age of Conan introduces a bran new one: architecture. The architect is the guy you want in your guild if you are ever planning of building a guild city, since he is the only one that can put all those resources you and your palls have gathered in the bank to good use and raise city walls, keeps any other normal mythological city features,
The only problem is that the guild city is in an instance. Actually the whole game is a long sequence of loading separated instances. Now, I may be wrong, but isn’t the goal of any MMORPG to have all the players on one single server that has only one single instance of the world? I mean we got used to having dungeons treated as instances, but now the open-world also? Instead of trying to come up with a solution to make one single world for everyone, AOC refuses progress and actually takes this issue on step back. It’s sad because having a naturally generated conflict by the limited spaces a guild city can be build upon would have been something that could have driven the game forward simply on the PVP system, without any story/PVE support.
On a graphic level FunCom huffed and puffed and released a high-poly MMORPG and now I can’t help thinking that this should be considered to be contradiction of terms: no game that targets such a large number of consumers should be created for high-end CPUs and video-boards. It is unacceptable to make a PC that runs most games in high-detail, spit out blood at 40-50fps when confronted with the latest generation MMORPG. Yes, the shadows are cool, yes, the water effects are nice, yes, I saw some sunsets that made me want to call ex-girlfriends to apologize for being a jerk, but was all this really necessary? We are not playing games for the scenery, but for the game mechanics, for the game story, for PVP and other features that by some arbitrary reason FunCom considered they should be neglected. Basically we are playing games for fun and call me a freak if you disagree with me, but a slideshow of extraordinary pictures can keep you hooked for hours maybe, while some great story telling and killing people can do the same for months. Now don’t expect some revolutionary graphics that will make you loose touch with reality and make you fill the walls of your house with the names of the developers in adoration – I only said high-poly. For some strange reason, whole areas have a minimalist, spartan approach to them when it comes to color palette. This simply a pompous way of saying that they spilled the barrels of grays and browns into the game, they took two steps back like trying to see a bigger picture hanged on a wall and since they are color-blind decided that it’s simply perfect.
On top of this you add the recipe of hideous UI, some bugged character animations and inventory objects in 3D that look all the same and you got pretty good picture of how Age of Conan looks at the moment – all dressed up in its parents’ expensive clothes that just don’t fit (the pants are 6 numbers larger then they should be, the socks don’t match and the hat is pink). As a general example of what I am talking about: you can morph your character at the beginning of the game and if you are narcissist like I am you will spend at least half an hour trying to find the perfect combination of hair color, eye color, skin color, hair style, facial features and tattoos. Too bad that when entering the game your character’s face is not present in the interface and the physiological differences between one character and another are so small when wearing an armor that you could even make a bold male with a dark beard and name him Lola and no one will ever suspect she’s a guy. And speaking of character animations, I wonder why is it so hard for a developer to understand a player will care less if quest X in zone Y has been fixed and more that his character, the only thing that is always on his screen except for the crappy interface, runs around 98.967% of the time like a chimp on ecstasy – hilarious hide animations not included in the comment.
But rest assured, FunCom’s bug fixing campaign is fairly active and updates and patches pop-up every week. The fact that the subscriber pays for a beta game version is another story; I personally would feel insulted if I would be paying for this because I don’t remember FunCom hiring me for the position of game tester. The fact that the bug fixing process features “top-notch” solutions such as invisible walls against wall climbing exploits makes me doubt the developers will ever go down to the core of the problems in the attempt to fix them, but more likely will patch things up, stitch things together in the attempt to keep the game in one piece.
Bottom line, Age of Conan has a lot of potential, proposes some new interesting game features for an MMORPG of this genre and might just have what it takes to be the next big hit. But not just yet… For now the game is buggy, the story is inconsistent, the gameplay can be frustrating, the world is a series of instances that brake the game into tiny, tasteless pieces, the classes are unbalanced and overall the game has a feeling of closed beta it just can’t shake off. FunCom is promising fast updates and patches to compensate for the game problems, but for now all we can do is take their word for it. They might succeed in squeezing something great out of this old IP, but while they are doing that, if you haven’t bought the game already, my advice is to catch up on some single player games or stick to the MMORPGs you are currently playing. Come back in few months to check if Conan has learned some new tricks or if he is still acts retarded and bangs his head against the walls trying to figure out why water effects are not what players are looking for.