Launched in mid-2008, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures was eagerly anticipated by many, only to quickly garner a reputation as the MMO poster child for false promises and missed opportunities. Many players lamented the lack of content after Tortage, which is the game’s starting area for players in the level 1-20 range and features fully voice acted quest chains with conversation trees like you might see in single player PC RPGs. Those that made it through the emptier post-Tortage content had issue with the lack of endgame. This, combined with reports of a buggy client with hefty system requirements turned Age of Conan from a game that promised to offer something new into a game that didn’t offer anything at all. It was common to see community members associate the game’s developer – Funcom – with broken promises and mismanagement.
Now, two years later, following a number of content updates and a new expansion released last month, has Age of Conan yet evolved into an enjoyable game? How much does perception play into a game’s future success, and can perception be changed?
Since Funcom began offering their unlimited trial of Tortage, and being bored with World of Warcraft’s pre-Catacylsm slump, it felt like a good time to check in with Conan. My own personal experience with the game, up until this month at least, had been pretty limited. I played the original limited trial and could barely stomach an hour of the game. I’ve never really been a fan of “low fantasy” settings, and Conan’s universe is arguably one of the earliest trendsetters for low fantasy, having been featured in stories written as far back as 1932. The whole wearing a loincloth and posing atop icecapped mountains with thong-wearing chicks with physiques almost indistinguishable from that of the muscular hero scene has never really done it for me. It all seemed a bit boneheaded. Which, in retrospect, is a pretty unfair judgment on my part, considering I like plenty of lowbrow crap that’s arguably of less merit than what is now considered to be a series of literary classics.
Unfortunately for me, Age of Conan already had two strikes against it. One being the setting, and the other being the nature, or at least the implied nature of the game itself. It’s about the only M-rated MMO I can recall, and pretty much every bit of advertisement for the game centered around the prevalence of violence and nudity, two things that seemingly both Funcom and the press considered to be cornerstones of being a barbarian. It’s a fair enough assumption. That being said, most games that advertise these sorts of things as their primary draw are generally shallow at best. The combat system itself seemed built to reinforce the singular drive for more violence, differing from other MMOs in that each button you press equates to a single strike from your weapon, and that “fatalities” can be performed on opponents and include things like decapatation and covering your screen with blood. It seemed that Age of Conan was nothing but fur underwear, bare breasts, and dismemberment. It seemed the sort of thing for teenagers to play while listening to Korn or Drowning Pool or whatever, rather than something with actual merit. Bad early press seemed to confirm its shallow nature, so I generally ignored the game’s existence.
What I’m trying to get at here is that I’m not exactly what might be considered the target audience for Age of Conan. And, even so, I had a hard time imagining anyone else was. MMOs by nature require subscriber numbers to be successful, and anything not reaching World of Warcraft’s numbers is almost universally seen as a failure by investors and players alike. So, was there really a market for an MMO based in Conan’s fiction? I would quickly find that while everyone may not be interested in Conan specifically, there are tons of folks (not all of whom listen exclusively to Korn and Drowning Pool) out there who are not only more accustomed to a low fantasy setting, but even prefer it. And who else to turn to but one of the original loincloth-wearing skullcleavers himself.
The biggest thing I would discover is that Age of Conan’s world feels real, and that this would be the biggest factor in my choice to go from trial to retail. You can probably find a number of reviews stating that Age of Conan is a good-looking game, and probably the best looking MMO. What a lot of them don’t mention, however, is that the environments seem like actual places. If I were to compare the environments in World of Warcraft to those in Age of Conan’s, I would say the former’s feel like nicely illustrated backdrops, wheras the latter’s feel like an actual world. There is a great sense that your character (or you, if you prefer) is occupying a believable space. It’s kind of an abstract concept, sure, and just reading about it or looking at screenshots does not convey the impressive believability of the game.
You can easily imagine the oppressive humidity of the jungles surrounding Tortage, with the haze lingering heavily in the distance and the thick vegetation choking nearly every surface. White Sands Isle, accessible via a small rowboat in Tortage, is especially enthralling at night, where a cloudier sky is periodically lit by lightning, heralding the approach of a storm that could briefly chill the wind. Grasses and other groundcover wave lazily beneath shady nooks between trees, hillsides roll believably and mountains loom with the suggestion of genuine mass. The whole deal doesn’t feel manufactured in the slightest, and fuels your wanderlust into charging forward into the distance just to see what’s over the next ridge. The fact that these places are so inviting is really the primary point I want to make for this particular entry. At the time of writing, I am nearing the end of Tortage, and cannot wait to see where I end up next.
Players lucky enough to have a DX10-compatible video card will be treated to even greater visual treats. Improved atmoshperic effects, greater definition in textures and ground cover, and vivid rays of golden light highlighting the edges of grass. The game is filled with loads of options to really unlock some truly gorgeous visuals. More than any other PC game in recent memory, Age of Conan makes me want to upgrade my system.
I am usually loathe to use the term “immersion” in regards to games, partially because I’m pretty jaded at this point and partially because it’s so overused by game forum sperglords that it has lost nearly all meaning. But if ever I’ve been tempted to describe a game as immersive, it’d certainly be now. The fantastic vistas, the variety of classes, the combat system, the equipment design and music all contribute to greater sense of an untamed, primal frontier waiting for you to carve out your own mark in the harsh way of the world. I found that approaching the game with an unassuming state of mind really helped the game click for me; to accept what the game offered rather than grading it on whether or not it hit a series of potentially outdated bullet points on a mental list of “crap I like to see in MMOs”. I found the low fantasy setting that I groaned about earlier ended up being its greatest strength; a rougher, grubbier mentality helps convey a relatable reality.
Your point of view on this reality is, of course, your character. As a fellow who can spend hours in even the most basic of character creation screens, Age of Conan’s options were really overwhelming at first. Once you’ve picked your race, gender, and class, you get control over basic details of your character, such as physique, skin color, and hairstyle. You can even pick from a selection of voice styles to fit your character. Beyond this screen, however, are the advanced options, where you can tweak individual settings for the base you’ve created. In an effort to keep things simple, changes you make to the facial features are based on one of the presets you choose in the first screen rather than something you can build entirely from scratch, but there’s still lots of variety to be found.
While a big part of Age of Conan’s appeal is exploration, it’s not the only thing it has going for it. Questing is proving to be unusually enjoyable, largely in part because the NPCs feel a bit more alive, and their tasks seem a bit more personal due to the branching conversation trees. Rather than presenting you with a flat window of paragraphs that instantly make your eyes glaze over, conversation is broken down into smaller chunks as the NPCs gesture and convey their request through more believable dialogue. You are given a few choices for responses at each turn, which aren’t too terribly complex and generally boil down to a favorable, negative, or inquiring response. I would never claim it to be particularly deep, but it’s certainly nice to have in place of passive walls of text, and it doesn’t seem any more transparent than the very obvious choices presented in acclaimed single player RPGs like Mass Effect or Oblivion.
Really, even as basic as a feature like this might be considered, it’s another element Funcom has included to help convey the sense of a world you occupy rather than one you observe. It’s my understanding that the voice acting ends after you leave Tortage, but I’m more than willing to accept that. It seems a somewhat unrealistic expectation by the community to ask for voice acting in a game as large as an MMO, unless you want to get the Oblivion effect where everyone just sounded the same. Considering the state of other games’ quest systems, I would much rather have text broken down and presented to me like a real conversation via a gesturing, somewhat more alive NPC – even if it’s not voice acted – than be presented with a window asking me to confirm or deny a quest I didn’t even feel like reading.
While advancing through Tortage, you will periodically be presented with “Destiny Quests”, which are quests pertaining to your character and the main storyline of the game. To complete the tasks for the Destiny line, you are given the option to go to an instanced version of Tortage at night. Other players do not occupy this copy of the game world, allowing for a more dramatic and personalized experience, like scripted encounters with other NPCs and late night rallying of a resistance against the city’s cruel regime. In one quest, you’ll even get captured and taken prisoner, after which you have to fight your way out of the keep and make it back to your headquarters at the inn. Like the conversation trees, it’s fairly basic when compared to some singleplayer games, but it’s a welcome addition to the type of game that just presents you with nothing but a level grind.
As I make my way through the game and work on this article, perhaps the strongest argument I can make for the game right now is that I look forward to playing it. It’s very inviting and plays well, particularly in the combat system, which I’ll detail more in the next installment. So far, the sprawling nature of Age of Conan’s world is plenty for me to enjoy, even after the much-discussed first 20 levels are through. As I am looking forward to seeing what’s next, I certainly hope you are too. Be sure to check back soon for the next installment.
Cameron is a new contributing editor to VariableGHZ, and is also responsible for the new design.