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September 4, 2007
Gencon '07 - Age of Conan

By Linda "Brasse" Carlson

There is nothing more intriguing than seeing a shrouded booth with a sign "M - under 17 not admitted". Welcome to the Age of Conan.

FunCom, the Norwegian game company that brought us Anarchy Online, is no stranger to salacious content. AO was loaded with some very revealing costume options, which were not only embraced by the female characters, but often (and sometimes disturbingly) flaunted by the hulking, masculing looking Atrox. An Atrox in a thong and tutu is not a sight you'll soon forget. The Scandinavians have a very different outlook on what they are willing to put into games, and from all impressions, do not much care what the ultra-conservative types in North America think. It is very much a "if you don't like it, don't play it" attitude.

To be honest, I didn't see anything at all in the booth or demo that would be unusually titillating. Flying limbs are not new to anyone in the over 10 crowd these days, and there was no sign of females in overly-revealing clothing to be seen.

This meant that I needed to focus on the game-play. One of the criticisms Age of Conan has endured in the past is that the UI was threatening to take over game-play. It is clear that FunCom's Dev team has been hard at work paring it down and making things more organic and less intrusive. The new UI looked much less daunting, and allowed more immersion in the world.

I was able to spend some time with Jason Allen Stone, Game Content Designer, as he played his Bear Shaman in the wilds. He showed me a world that has changed much since I last saw Conan demonstrated. "We are trying to develop a game that is heavily story-driven and deep. All of the stories are interconnected, so that the tasks you undertake in an outlying area will tie in with the tale later on when you get to the city.

There are more than a hundred voiced non-player characters, all in important roles. Lesser quests will be offered with text only - a good clue to indicate when you are really on to something is when the character actually speaks to you.

In both cases, the style of the text is very much in keeping with Robert E. Howard's prose. A sample line of quest dialog: "What is it girl, why such sorrow in your eyes?"

The quest dialogs sometimes offer both good/kindly or bad/evil choices, which I am interested to see played out.

Going back to the UI, one of the most significant changes was in the style and use of the "Combat Rose". It is not only leaner and cleaner, it is now more intuitive. Best of all, there are different display options that the player can choose between, depending on their preferred play-style.

Jason took the tough little Bear Shaman through some battles for me. Combat itself is starting to feel familiar, although certainly very different from other MMOGs. There is no targeting key. Instead, you must keep in mind where your opponent is, and position yourself such that your attack range (often referred to as the "cone of attack") takes in the creatures you want.

If you are facing multiple creatures, you will hit the closest one in your range, just like real life combat, but of course, being the heroic age of Conan, you can often damage multiple targets at once.

The tab key is used to take you in and out of combat, and fortunately, you cannot hit friendly NPCs; having used tab to target for so many years, I am very likely to take a swing at some high-ranking official by accident, otherwise!

Once in combat, you will begin to learn combo moves, which increase in complexity as you gain experience and skills. You will eventually learn to build moves that take advantage of an opponent's weakness on the left, right, or vulnerability to certain combos.

The opponents will also defend themselves according to AI routines - if you hit a mob a few times in the torso, he will defend it, possibly leaving an opening for a slice from the left.

The death penalty, often a bone of contention in MMOGs, is simple and not crippling in Age of Conan. You will be weaker for a time after death, but receive no experience penalty. There will be many resurrection points throughout the game; you need to discover their presence before you can use them, but they will save long runs back from faraway bind points.

The game is progressing apace, although I am sure the Devs are very, very happy that launch has been delayed until 2008. They still have plenty of work to do, including releasing female player models! I look forward to that day.

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