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Age Of Conan: Hyborian Adventures Review

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The universe of Conan the Barbarian is the perfect antidote to any fantasy fan bored with endless streams of elves, dwarves and dragons inhabiting Ren-Faire versions of Medieval Europe. The world of Hyboria as created by author Robert E. Howard and others over the years is a "low-fantasy" playground filled with savage peoples about a half-step above Neanderthals battling with "civilizations" only a half-step above the savages. It's a world where human sacrifice, blood-sports, slavery, regicide, exploitation of the weak and tyrannical rule by strength-of-arms is the norm. Magic isn't pseudo-science; it's trucking with dark powers beyond human comprehension and bargaining your soul away for power. It's also, judging by Norwegian developer Funcom's new MMO Age of Conan, a terrifically fun place to play that even the game's painful lack of polish can't diminish.

Jewel of the Baruchan

Age of Conan takes place during the period of Hyborian history during which Conan is King of Aquilonia. A fragile peace brokered between the hostile nations that surround Conan's adopted homeland has begun to break down and threats are encroaching on the land from all direction. Into this volatile situation comes the player, a slave on a Stygian galley ship branded with a mysterious mark. When the ship is destroyed and the player washes up on the beaches of Tortage with no memory of their former lives, an epic odyssey to discover who they were, what the mark on their chest means and who's behind this new threat to King Conan's world begins.

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If there's one aspect that Age of Conan absolutely nails, it's the graphic representation of Conan's world. Age of Conan is a beautiful game, filled with extraordinary landscapes ranging from the harsh sands of Stygia to the broken terrain of Zelata to the frozen wastelands of Cimmeria. Every place filled with treats for the eye ranging from large effects like the beautiful sunsets of Khopshef to subtle details (like the fly-covered "road apples" in Tarantia). In the jungles of Baruchan, for example, players must fight their way through a tangled maze of vegetation inhabited by animal poachers, gorillas and Pict Tribesmen. While it's never really brought out via quest dialogue, elements in the environment -- sprung traps, gorilla corpses in nets, trappers who have been used as target practice by the Picts -- tells players all they need to know about the struggle going on outside of the city of Tortage.

The game's avatar creation system is equally impressive. Age of Conan lets players choose everything from the size of their derri??¨re to how big their chest is to the angle of their eyebrows. It's not quite the classic City of Heroes/City of Villains system in terms of variety, but it's actually superior when considering how many subtle variables players can control and how good the resulting avatars look. Players can even pick scars and/or tattoos that indicate their character had some kind of life before the game begins. Of course all this graphical beauty comes at a price -- high system specs. Even on our gaming systems using an Nvidia GeForce 8800 we experienced some slight frame-rate slowdown and had to turn off a few of the graphic bells and whistles. Owners of older systems may be looking at the need for a complete upgrade.

There Will Be Blood

The major element that makes Age of Conan stand out from its competitors is its delightfully bloody combat system. There's no watching the status bar, clicking auto-attack or spamming special abilities. Combat in Age of Conan is more akin to an action game. Players control the direction of their attacks via the "1", "2" and "3" keys (and later get two more directions attached to "Q" and "E"). They also develop "combos" that do extra damage, place status effects, trigger some funky powers or provide the occasional insta-kill fatality. Players can protect themselves by using three "Shields" that can be rotated via some finger-twisting use of the "Control" key or slaved to other hot keys. Spellcasters aren't left out the fun either as they develop a similar "spellweaving" system that can drastically enhance the power of their magic at the cost of an occasional deadly backfire.

The difference in the play experience as a result of Age of Conan's combat system is profound. Since both players and mobs are all subject to a collision system and most powers are directional in nature, it makes even low-level combat a fascinating tactical challenge and multiplayer PvE against powerful opponents in the larger dungeons a completely different, joyously frenetic scrum filled with people desperately trying to coordinate movements, combos and spells for maximum effect. Properly managing mana or stamina reserves to take on three NPCs or a big boss monster and finishing off a battle with a beautifully animated decapitation or dagger to the throat just never gets old.

Classes are divided into the four "classic" roles of Mage, Priest, Rogue and Soldier, with three different variations to choose from. None of them works quite the way one would expect and the developers deserve great credit for offering something fresh. The Herald of Xotli Mage class, for example, is a cloth-wearing two-handed melee DPS class that specializes in burst damage. The Bear Shaman Priest class actually works best in a crowd control/secondary healer slot -- the more he gets pounded on, the more he can heal -- and the Ranger can specialize in a variety of straight-line or circular AoE attacks. Class balance, as with any MMO, is a perpetual problem (at the moment, Rangers are overpowered between levels 20-40), and so is an uneven leveling power curve that cause some painful periods for some classes. Overall, though, players are in for an enjoyable experience regardless of the class they choose.

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The real beneficiaries of the combat system are those who enjoy hard-core PvP. In fact, once players get past the initial 20 levels on Tortage where the focus is on questing, learning the basics of your class and a series of excellent single-player "Destiny Quests," it quickly becomes obvious that PvP is the essential focus of the game. The real "goal" of Age of Conan is to construct and hold one of nine "battle keeps" that can be built on any one server. In order to do that, players must grind through a tedious time-consuming crafting experience to build a "guild city", enhance it to level three and the either build a battle keep or challenge another guild for theirs. These keep sieges are the game's ultimate expression of AoC's PvP combat -- huge battles with players on both sides using mounts, siege engines, sword and magic powers to snag bragging rights.

Wild West Heroes

The game's largest issue occurs during the "leveling" period between level 20 and level 80. Since so much of the game's focus is on the big battle keep PvP experience, there's not much in the way of organized PvP play between those two points, save a limited "Battlegrounds"-style capture-the-flag or team deathmatch game. While both of these are quite fun, they're mostly unconnected to the rest of the game and offer little to a player or guild's advancement. The result is (on a PvP server at least) the kind of old-fashioned Wild West gankfests that were de rigueur during the pre-WoW era.

For many players, of course, this kind of gameplay is a feature and not a bug. It certainly fits in with the game's lawless and savage setting so those who want a carebear-free world filled with 45-minute vengeance-a-thons will be very happy. That being said, it would be nice to see things like some kind of death penalty (there are currently none for being killed by a player), diminishing returns or smaller or lower-level world PvP objectives. Something that people can use to constructively channel their aggressions can reduce the pointless bloodbaths and help smaller guilds who will probably never be competitive in the race for battle keeps while still retaining the delicious paranoia of knowing there's an enemy around every corner.

The second issue is related to the first in that while the eternal gankfest of the PvP servers can get annoying, it does provide much of the mid-game with its excitement -- excitement that's missing in the PvE game by itself. Leveling in the game is driven by PvE questing and much of it is quite fun, particularly at the lower levels. The first 20 levels of content on Tortage are brilliant and while there are still some bugs to work out, they offer an enormously compelling and enjoyable introduction to Conan's world. Once players get off Tortage and into the real world, the 20-40 zones are almost as much fun as Tortage. They're filled with enjoyable storylines culminating in fun dungeon crawls and a decent selection of loot.

There's also a growing concern about a diminishing lack of quality in PvE content around level 50 or so. Common complaints include quests drying up, forcing players to grind through endless monsters in order to advance, and dungeons becoming less interesting and more slapdash (something we're already seeing in the 30's), with the largest ones bugged into practical uselessness. This isn't as much of an issue on a PvP server, where content just gets in the way of the endless bloodbath, but at the moment, a compelling story-driven PvE leveling path to the level cap of 80 isn't something you're going to find in Age of Conan.

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Flesh and Bones

In the two weeks since the game's launch, Funcom's been incredibly proactive when it comes to issuing patches and improving the game. Elements that were big issues in our "Out of the Box" impressions have already been greatly reduced or resolved by a dedicated programming team that must be working themselves like Stygian galley slaves. The game's chat system has been upgraded. Traders (NPCs who combine the function of auction house, guild bank, personal bank and post office) who were shut down to block a game-killing exploit are back on-line. Not-so-hot elements of the UI like party member indicators and blinking maps are gone or resolved. The game's client even runs better, matching an impressive record of smooth server performance that should finally eliminate the dread specter of Anarchy Online.

The result of Funcom's obvious dedication to the product and the impressive stream of fixes they've already issued give confidence regarding the future of the product. The game's major problems stem from missing or incomplete PvP and PvE content, not any lack of solid infrastructure or poor game design. Age of Conan as it stands today is a very enjoyable stew of wild bloodshed, sweaty decadence and the panicked realization that you've just gotten jumped by a group from an enemy guild. Age of Conan going forward should become a delightfully savage second home for plenty of howling on-line barbarians.

We'd like to think Conan himself would have approved.

Source: gamespy

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