I've had a difficult time writing this preview. You see, I'm a "hook" type of writer; I need a theme for my articles. I've considered the cheap hook – the Schwarzenegger movies; the obvious hook – the Howard novels; the violence hook – it's M rated! But, none of them seemed to grab my attention. And if I can't feel it, I can't make you. What is it about this game that has me interested? Well...it's an odd hook, but I'm going to go with: the whole package.
There are times if feels as if going to events as press to view new games really means viewing the new MMOs. They dominate shows; with the budgets at stake it's easy to see why. Following them all when your site isn't devoted to MMOs specifically can be time consuming. Not following them can be the kiss of death.
Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures has been on our radar for 2 years. We've previewed it at E3s past, read the press releases, and updated our image galleries. But until very recently, Funcom wasn't prepared to release more than tidbits. What I saw at GDC this year was a very solid, very well-defined game by a company with experience in the market who knows exactly what they want to make. It was refreshing, to say the least.
There's no "canon" where the Conan universe is concerned; multiple writers over the years have mucked about so much that it's hard to get a decisive timeline to the lore. Yet, no matter who wrote what or when, it is a very primitive, bloody, sweaty, visceral world. Age of Conan (AoC) is set after Conan has become king: after he's destroyed, well, everything! It's 10,000BC or thereabouts. You'll enter the world as either an Aquilonian, Cimmerian or Stygian, lending variation and diversity to the visuals and cultures of the world.
Although the books historically were rather misogynistic, Funcom has built very strong female characters into the game starting with the avatar system and continuing through the NPCs and storyline. Howard was a product of his time – before World War II when women went into the work force – and therefore the ideas he laid forth would make for a less enjoyable experience for the women of today. *grins* At the same time, the universe has always been very sexual and erotic. Exactly how to portray this and not garner a deadly AO (Adults Only) rating, is something that Funcom has yet to establish.
Once you've created your dream barbarian (and really, who hasn't dreamt of wearing a loin cloth and wielding a sword?), you'll wash up on the shores ready to begin your story in single player mode. This isn't to say you won't be online, quite the contrary; you'll simply spend your first 20 levels or so learning to play the game, exploring the game world, understand the lore, and absorbing the game systems in an area that is free of PvP, people begging for handouts and annoying spam. I hope you may be getting that I like this idea. This also means that should this character not be your character of choice, you can simply choose another and no one will be the wiser. The only drawback I see to the system is you lose those precious first few hours of bonding with friends/new friends in a game. But, to enter a multi-player world with an understanding and as a character you intend to play I think, will more than compensate.
It's odd the little things you notice in a game. After Funcom representative Jorgen Theraldssen picked himself up from the shore and stumbled into the village, I noticed color. In this primitive, basic world were bright aqua greens from the water; vivid purples in the flowers on the ground; intense reds in the buds dropping from the trees. The world could easily have been done in earth tone hues only, but the artists gave it life.
The quest you receive at level one is only a beginning to a series of quests culminating at level 80. They're intertwined and choosing to follow them will give you the option to experience a depth of storyline that Funcom has worked very hard to include in their other MMO, Anarchy Online, and hopes to bring successfully to AoC. To begin this process, you're immediately engaged not with scrolling text windows but with cut-scenes enacted by the key NPCs. Jorgen assured us that the production value of the single player experience would continue throughout the multiplayer as well.
Jorgen was anxious to show off the combat in the game, the showpiece of this particular event. Combat is in real time forcing you to choose each move. There's no auto-attack, no whack-a-mole. Watching melee, in particular, gave you a feel for how combat in this game is different. You don't aim at a target, you aim for an area. This means you can miss completely, or cut a wide swath through several opponents at once. You'll also need to duck, roll, jump backwards and do whatever is necessary to keep out of the way of harm's reach.
Technically, there's no "magic" as is known in fantasy games in the Conan universe. When magic is used, the mystic is tapping into the dark forces of the universe. Magic can be stacked, leading to powerful abilities. Of course, being that you're tapping into the dark forces it can also well, backfire. And umm, kill you. This will take you straight to hell. *smiles* Nothing like fighting your way out of hell! Use the powers too often and you'll end up on the side of darkness... Jorgen wasn't particularly clear what the implications of this "journey into darkness" meant for game play, but he seemed excited by the idea. Cryptic developers are the worst.
This brings us in part, to the M-rating Funcom is working towards. People bleed in this game. There's hacking and goring and skewering and the chopping off of heads. It's quite thrilling and visceral and very much an adult game! It's about time! And if you really want to be effective while cutting wide swaths through the enemy hordes, just work on keeping your killing parties in formation. Doing so will earn you bonuses over time.
The UI is worthy of mention. Although due to release in October 31 of this year, early next year it will also release for the Xbox 360. Combat combos are highlighted on a radial menu; each time one is available, it lights up. The game will "teach" you as they become available. In essence you just follow the lights. This works well with both keyboard and a gamepad and once complex combos are learned or unlocked, you can move them to hotkeys. But it won't require different UI designs for different platforms.
What would a primitive, nomadic culture be without camps? (Primitive and exposed?) Camps will play an important role in quests and lore. Each camp within the game is unique and will dynamically spawn enemies based upon who enters and the manner in which they do so. If one person enters stealthily, the number of NPCs may be limited and sleeping; a large group rushing in may cause the guard at the front to rush back and warn entire legions - of the same camp. Of course, this could just be the first time you enter camp... the next time it could be completely different.
There are dozens of little things that I noticed but the last worth mentioning here I think is the music. As it should, music has come to truly enrich our gaming experience in the previous few years and AoC really aims to use this vehicle to its full potential. Along with the vibrant colors I didn't expect to see, I noticed majestic deep music. And, the music wasn't simply "background noise"; it was dynamic, adjusting tempo with the ebb and flow of the character's progress. As the character did well, the music became brighter, more uplifting. As he did poorly, the music reflected this. It lent an ambience to the game that you might not have unless they were to spend hours recording volumes of sound effects only to hear them all too often. The emotional pull of the music was fantastic.
I knew a bit about Age of Conan before seeing it again. I learned quite a bit more. I chewed on what to write and about it with several people I trust. I simply couldn't point and say "there, that is why you want to play". But in each conversation, as I listed each of its positive attributes they became more interested in playing the game. I realized it was the sum of these attributes that made the game interesting, not any single I'd mentioned. And really, don't you want the game to capture your imagination, not "part" of the game?
My children both play games so I often play them first, getting to know exactly how something may effect my sensitive and easily stimulated older child vs. my stoic and imperturbable younger.
I like games for games; for the pure enjoyment of them and believe that no game is wholly bad, though some are real stinkers.
I also have the dexterity of a camel in mittens so find playing FPSs difficult (and I also don't like the gore) and RTSs at times can stump me. I just can't seem to move quickly enough to keep up with them. Some of my favorite games are arcade games and I'll spend 3-5 years on the same 5-6 levels because I just never get any better. But, I have fun.