This article starts with a bit of a dilemma, which might have been avoided if there wasn’t any need for a grade. Generally speaking, most of the entertainment products reviewed on this site can be scored, without the fear of making a mistake, in a “timeless bubble” where only the game is relevant, and nothing else. If the boxed product is broken due to bad implementation or bugs, you rate it as it deserves and you move on, because tomorrow providence (or the editor, to be fair) will ask you to write about another game, which you have to dissect, not leaving time to see the results of the developers’ desperate efforts to patch their product.
So, what happens when you need to inspect a MMO? These games are conceived to last for a very long period of time; the “timeless bubble” doesn’t apply anymore, and you really need to be careful how you poke the damn thing, because you might decrease the score due to problems fixed “for eternity” in tomorrow’s patch, and everyone will start jumping up and down, pointing fingers and calling you names. For this reason, I’ll try to figure out what’s ok and what’s not without trying too hard to pinpoint the plethora of bugs which are oh so present, what works and what doesn’t, trying to keep in mind that this game is still work in progress, even though its official status is “retail”.
These things are important, as Age of Conan is one of the first MMOs released after World of Warcraft which offers a viable alternative to Blizzard’s behemoth.
Funcom’s MMO, also responsible for Anarchy Online and The Longest Journey, is based on Robert E. Howards’ work, the author of the Hyborian universe and its main character, Conan. In the game’s context he is the king of Aquilonia, one of the 3 playable kingdoms. Howard’s world is one of extreme violence, constant warfare, with muscular characters, naked women and evil gods actively involved in Hyboria’s evolution. Howard’s work is very… human, with no elves or dwarves, heavily oriented towards war, adventure and violence more than anything else. And judging by these concepts, Funcom has managed to recreate his work with such accuracy that it’s hard not to be impressed.
Age of Conan looks incredible, starting with the concept, the geography and finishing with the actual tech. The game made my poor test machine struggle in pain, to such an extent an upgrade was urgently required. And applied. Hyboria is worth exploring just for the exploration’s sake, to absorb each separate region, from the Khoshepf deserts to the amazingly beautiful mountains in Connal’s valley. The draw distance is absolutely huge; you can actually see the whole “map” if you find a view spot high enough.
Such huge distances and density of detail created quite a few problems from a technical point of view. Unlike other MMOs, there are loading screens between areas, not very long, but present. To the system’s merit, each zone is huge, with detailed topography, crowded areas, crevasses, mountains and rivers which seem to have appeared from a single-player game, filled with content and things to see. This type of terrain however leads to overcrowded areas, and all sorts of silly situations, like blocking the entrance to a city with a mammoth, because in Age of Conan each player, NPC, mob or mount are influenced by the same collision system. For this reason, each area is instanced. For example, if I’m questing in the Field of the Dead and I want to join another player also questing there, it’s quite possible we won’t be able to see each other until we’re both in the same instance, selectable from a drop down list. The system works, but it can prove to be quite annoying at times. There are also there extra loading times when switching instances, too.
Moving on, Age of Conan has a rather well developed single-player section, for a MMO. Because each race starts in the same place, the entire area is conceived in such a way that solo play is possible, when the player feels like it. The switch between single and multi is made at a specific NPC, which triggers all the single-player missions, which end around level 20. This section of the game can be played whenever you want, with only one restriction: if you don’t finish it, you can’t leave the noobie area.