Heads Will Roll!
What do I know of cultured ways,
The gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land
And bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile,
They fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs—
I was a man before I was a king
The Phoenix on the Sword
Most of us were introduced to Conan the Barbarian through the ridiculously cool Arnold Schwarzenegger flick, released in 1982. The movie is famous more for its over-the-top dialogues than its action (which is amazing in its own right), and lets not forget its soundtrack—one of the finest to come out of cinema.
But Conan is older than the movie, older than most of us. The character was created by Robert E. Howard back in the 1930s as an amalgamation of “the dominant characteristics of various prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with”. Here we are then, almost 80 years later with an MMORPG set in the lands and characters created by Robert E. Howard.
Age of Conan (AoC) is a barbaric game, much like the world and the character that it draws from. It is ruthless in its system requirements, unforgiving with its bugs, alluring with its splendid vistas, sprawling cities and naked women (yes, the game has nudity), and is thoroughly captivating. Fittingly perhaps, it is the game’s combat engine which will grab you by the throat and keep you enthralled. AoC’s combat elevates the morbid boredom inherent in MMORPG-combat to a level of sheer fun and visceral delight. Heads will roll and you will love the game for it.
The combat engine is the best part about the game. The first innovation it introduces is the concept of combos—much like in a game such as God of War—where you are asked to hit keys in a certain order to execute amazing moves and feats. This immediately connects you to the character and acts as a glue which marries your skills as the person behind the keyboard to the performance of your on-screen persona. Combat now isn’t just about knowing the numbers that go behind an MMORPG and playing to your character’s strength; it is also directly affected by how well you execute to your potential. This added layer upon the traditional MMORPG combat system goes a long way to making the experience so much more satisfying and immediate.
Much like combo systems in other games, you are rewarded for successfully completing combos, or for chaining combos, or for picking the right combo for the situation. Successful combos do more damage than regular combat, goading you to make more use of the feature. Spamming of the combos is avoided by use of a stamina system—the more devastating the combo, the more stamina it takes, pacing yourself is thus essential as well. The ultimate reward though is the fatality system that successful combos have a chance to trigger. While the combat keeps you glued behind the monitor, punching keys away, the fatalities will get your blood pumping and will often have you shouting manically at the butchering you have just wrought. Much like Mortal Kombat, fatalities in AoC are over-the-top: thrust your broadsword into the opponents eyes, chop off his limbs and then his head, cut him into two, bash his skull in using your club, cut his throat and hear him gurgle in pain, and so on. It’s brutal stuff, accompanied by painful screams, chopping sounds and satisfying animations. AoC is rated Mature, not just for its violence but also for the nudity and language that it often parades bravely and perhaps for some, unnecessarily.
The beauty of the game though is that nothing seems out of place, not even the violence. The world created almost seems to demand the blood and the guts. The art direction is brilliant and consistent, with splendid architecture and grand level design, as is the detailed character creation tool. Very rarely will you come across another player that looks like you, or even similar to you—the options here are as deep as those used in single player RPGs such as Morrowind. Adding to the visual appeal and world immersion is the use of mounts: you can choose from a war rhino, a mammoth and various types of horses when you hit level 40 (the level cap is at 80). And yes, the game has mounted combat. Some mounts will allow you to swing your sword as you gallop through your enemies, while others will acts as weapons themselves. There is nothing as satisfying as swaying through throngs of people in a teeming city, mounted on your very own mammoth. The game also adds player-versus-player combat, with the added layer of guild-versus-guild combat. Guild-versus-guild leverages upon the guild-cities that you can build along with your friends, which allow you to take part in unique quests, unlock guild achievements and manufacture siege weapons to bring down rival guilds! The depth and quality of combat in AoC will constantly delight you.
Locales vary from sprawling capital cities to corpse-ridden battlefields, to pyramids sitting on desert sands, to swamps. Set against such a backdrop, it comes as little surprise when your character lops off a head, or cuts someone up in two—it all fits. AoC is a great package tied up together nicely with a musical score that does the aforementioned movie proud… the game is almost perfect.
Where it succeeds, it succeeds magnificently, but the game also falters, and when it fails, it does so with equal grandeur, no half-measures here. The game is quite buggy, and has obviously been released a few months before it should have been. Forgive its high system requirements (you will need an 8800GT-class card if you want to play it with all bells and whistles, even so, it can run at a low frame-rate inside some packed cities), but you can hardly forgive its frequent crashes, or its gameplay bugs—which include the most fundamental oversights such as strength and dexterity not having any effect on combat! To be fair to the game though, most of the problems mentioned have happened to “other people”, our experience with this title has been headache-free, barring the occasional crash. Also to note is that the developers, Funcom, are on top of the problems for the most part. They might not be very active on the community forums, but they are keeping a healthy and needed, two-patch per week schedule. These patches not only fix issues but also add new content such as new quests, and new armour sets.
Ultimately, as with all MMORPG titles, it comes down to this: is it worth spending the monthly cash? Our suggestion would be to pick up the title and play the game for the first free month—if you have bad experience with its bugs, drop out, otherwise continue to play, what is an amazing title to hit the MMO scene.
If you do decide to get in, ping this author and we can perhaps quest together: character name of Harami, a Barbarian on the non-PvP UK server Crom. See you in Hyboria!