All flash no substance. Unfortunately, this is the best way to describe Funcom’s latest entry into the MMO market, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. Age of Conan looked to be a real contender in a genre dominated by World of Warcraft, with over 400,000 in initially reported subscriptions and review after review giving it high marks. Around the late 30s to mid 40s, Age of Conan simply becomes boring and tedious to downright unbearable in the fifties, a far cry from the 1-to-20 gameplay showed off by Funcom at various shows and the beta Player-versus-Player weekend leading up to its release.
The innovative and compelling combat system is anything but, as it suffers from a hard-coded delay within the button sequence, leading most three-button combos to take five seconds to complete. Even though the combo system led to some downright amazing fatalities, no amount of limbs flying can take away from the reality that you are basically playing a "Simon Says" mini game. The problem of slow combos is compounded in PvP, where most melee players opt to circle their prey and swing wildly rather than actually use them. This also led to an early dominance in Player-versus-Player by ranged characters, something that just doesn’t seem right for a game based on Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Maybe someone at Funcom should have been looking at Cabal, because its combo system is hundreds of times more engaging and skill-dependant than Age of Conan’s system.
The questing in Age of Conan is your standard fare: kill X amount of Y, deliver goods from NPC A to NPC B, etc.. However, Funcom even dropped the ball here, with quite a few quest items and even some quest kills not shared with party members. To some degree, it actually becomes detrimental to group, not good for an MMOG. Not to worry though, for Age of Conan is a heavily-instanced game: the majority of the time, you will not run into more than 40 other players in your instance, so quest items and kills are not heavily camped. Unfortunately, this gives a single-player feel to the game, as you quite honestly will not run into the same person twice for days, except on the occasion where you are looking for someone in particular to kill or in a PvP hot zone.
PvP is also sorely lacking in Age of Conan; in factm over the month and two weeks of play time, I only entered four PvP mini-games and it wasn’t from lack of trying. This leaves PvP-oriented players like myself with only three options: attack guild or party members in hopes of starting a larger conflict, kill people in PvP hot zones, or grind to level 80 and take part in a siege system which, to this day, is still not working correctly.
I must admit that, even after 400+ kills and nearly 200 deaths, performing a fatality on another player doesn’t get old. That being said, PvP without risk-reward (no item drops or player loot) is no different than a game of Call of Duty 4, except you’re paying $15 a month for it.
If it has not sunk in just how incomplete a game Age of Conan is, then look no further than its crafting system, or rather, its lack of one. One of the major professions, in some degree the profession of Age of Conan, Gem Cutting, was bugged to a point that, during the first month, it would crash your client to even have a socketed item in your possession. Most of the tier 1 and tier 2 items are completely useless for most of Age of Conan’s professions, and in some cases, there are even items which cannot even be created due to a lack of materials present in the game. The prices of store-bought material for crafting progression are so high compared to money earned by the average player, it makes one wonder if there was even a developer overseeing the development of the game’s economy.
So just how did Age of Conan get such raving reviews and why? I believe many reviewers must not have leveled past 20 and did not experience how incomplete a game Age of Conan becomes. It’s understandable, considering how good Tortage, the game’s starting area, is, with well-developed characters, exciting quest chains, and top-notch voice acting. The graphics in Age of Conan, even without DirectX10, are absolutely breathtaking. The mighty stone buildings of Torentia, the dead swinging from the trees of Connalls Valley with ravens circling over head, running from rabid Picts through chest-high grass as it swayed in the calm winds of Poitain are all images I will not soon forget. Let’s not even begin to talk about the water effects and reflections, or we could be here for days.
Another thing Funcom handled especially well was the mature content. The nudity in the game was all within context (some Howard fans would claim tame in comparison to his vision) and the violence level was appropriate to the Conan theme. The guys at Funcom also had a great launch, with server stability at a high level for the first month.
If there was ever something done perfectly in an MMO, it would have to be the sound in Age of Conan (minus the waterfalls). From the ambient sounds to the beautiful voice of Helen Bøksle serenading you as you run through the Eglophian Mountains, it is simply amazing. It would be a tragedy if Knut Haugen does not receive some type of award for his composition.
The worst aspect of Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, for an adult gamer like me, is that its dwindling community will be blamed on its mature content and free-for-all PvP by future developers, when in reality, it’s the fact gamers are no longer willing to pay for an incomplete game and the promise of future fixes. Tabula Rasa should have been a warning sign for the industry, so let’s hope the guys at EA Mythic get the message from Age of Conan while working on Warhammer Online. If not, who knows? In a few months, maybe Funcom can deliver on its promises, but there’s always that guy on a frozen throne; I hear he’s itching for a fight.