We dropped by publisher Funcom's E3 booth in 2005 to see the debut of their fantasy-themed MMO Age of Conan- Hyborean Adventures and walked away, well, less than impressed. OK, I'll come clean… given the outrageous development cycle and cost associated with developing an MMO, I had Conan pegged as a game that would likely die on the vine, going completely AWOL before this year's show.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Dropping by Funcom at this year's show was, at first, like a case of deja vu– the booth (complete with "barbarian throne", babes and cheesy blow-up sword trinkets) looked exactly the same as last year, but I'm happy to say that the game itself looks worlds different, and much better, than I could ever have hoped.
The game is set in the fantasy world of Hyborea, created by legendary author Robert E. Howard. In this world, Conan the Cimmeran has seized the jeweled crown of Aquilonia, just as in the books. Your character starts as a galley slave, and must fight their way to freedom. Following your escape (and the sinking of the vessel that was your prison), you begin your adventuring career.
Characters can be any of three nationalities: Cimmerian, Stygian or Aqilonian. In the demo we saw, a Cimmerian was created, using the game's robust system. Since the player's avatar is so crucial in an MMO, the developers have built-in a great deal of customization options, using a slider system for dozens of different body parts. Everything from your character's overall build to the smallest details, such as cheekbone height, jaw length, brow thickness and almost everything else can be tweaked and adjusted. Some races have access to special character classes not available to others- Stygians, for example, are the only characters that can become Mages.
Class info is still a bit sketchy (the developer promised that info is available on their user forums but we could not easily locate it), but words like "healer, mage" etc. were liberally dropped. What we do know is that the game's first 20 levels will comprise a Single-Player campaign, designed to flesh out the character's backstory. Following that intro, the rest of the game's content, including the PvP areas, will be accessible.
This being a Conan game, three elements will be first and foremost according to the devs: "combat, combat and combat". Besides the staple man-to-man combat offered in other MMOs, however, Age of Conan will also offer up mounted combat as well as Formation and Massive combat, two multi-player modes. Formations can be as varied as a group of archers (which then gain access to a special Volley attack) to a formation of mounted cavalry (which gain access to a Charge ability that can decimate foot soldiers). Players will need a great degree of coordination to form and maintain such formations, however the rewards for doing so seem impressive.
Massive combat takes place almost like an RTS and uses a customized set of AI rules, complete with resource gathering and town building. In the demo, we got to see an enemy group form a complete town, beginning with a humble keep, expanding to barracks and eventually a fortified wall. When the barracks had produced sufficient troops, a Leader unit led them on a charge towards the player-controlled city across the valley. It was too bad for them that a lucky trebuchet shot decimated the formation before it could get within shooting distance of the walls. Personally, we can't wait to take control of the other promised siege weapons such as ballistae.
Hand-to-hand combat utilizes various cuts and thrusts, which can be chained together to gain access to devastating "finishing moves". For example, a player can initiate a three-move combo that will, if performed properly, lead to an automatic fourth move, decapitating the enemy. Mounted combat is even more impressive, both tactically as well as visually. A player's mount-speed influences accuracy as well as attack power- more speed equals less accuracy but more power should the strike hit. Swords, lances and other cavalry weapons can be used against hapless foot sloggers. We only saw a horse in the demo, but a cryptic comment was made regarding a mammoth which had us salivating.
With Age of Conan, Funcom is promising a "mature role playing game", one that embraces its ‘M" rating, and we can definitely report that, based on the numerous bloody decapitations, dismemberments and other martial mayhem we witnessed, that fans of Howard's oft-times dark and violent world should find lots to like here. It should be very interesting to see what actual dialogue and mission content the developers will be able to come up with- they have some very large shoes to fill in this department.
The dev team seems to be shooting for a Christmas-season 2006 ship date, with a possible closed beta in late summer, for Age of Conan: Hyborean Adventures, and we have to say that we're intrigued. Keep watching MyGamer.com for more details and news about this soon-to-be-released MMO.