Age of Conan has been consistently demonstrated as a mature MMOG with a special emphasis on barbaric combat. At an event in San Francisco last week, the Funcom team got together and really let the press dig into the game. It was the first time they showed it, not with hype and circumstance - this summer, they demoed it with beheadings set to 100 percent - but with the confidence to let the game live or die on its own merits. Over four hours, I was able to play through the first seven levels, experience a mid-level dungeon and zone and get acquainted with their instanced PvP.
Based on the famous novels by Robert E. Howard, Age of Conan provides players with all the usual MMOG trappings. It has everything any AAA MMOG needs to have -quest-driven character development, dungeons, instanced arena PvP, combat, crafting, AAA graphics and a strong story. Then, as any successful MMOG must, it throws in a few ripples. They rethought the basic combat mechanics, added a territory control endgame and introduced a fresh look at the traditionally sterile first few levels. The question is now, have they pulled it off?
A big promise Funcom made is a single-player experience through the first 20 levels that makes the player feel like a hero, not a rat-slaying peon. It sounded great on paper, but while the first few levels were a solid MMOG experience, that's all they were. Full disclosure: I am so programmed to grind through those levels that it was not until a day after the event that I even remembered the "single-player" aspects. So to me, the experience was not altogether different than what I am used to.
Age of Conan has been in development since 2003 and it occurs to me that in this area, the genre may have passed them by. The much-hyped single-player experience does have cut scenes, tree-based dialogue and some good sequences, but from what I saw, it is not a heck of a lot different than what any MMOG has to offer. Back in 2003, these innovations were hallmarks of the RPG, not the MMOG, and really would have set it apart. Today, they're part of the mainstream MMOG experience.
Perhaps aware of this, Funcom seems to have played the feature down both in rhetoric and action. It's also not a pure single-player experience. Players start in an MMOG area and work through a basic tutorial mission before they come to Tortage, the first city. All the while, other players are running around. The single-player experience amounts to an instanced class quest that players can weave in and out of. Go into the bar, talk to the right person, and you shift into the evening, which is the instanced single-player experience. Every so often, it boots you back to daytime, which is a traditional MMOG shared space. Players can power through that epic quest and gain their levels, but they can also play in the MMOG world. This is not a strict single-player RPG followed by an MMOG, but a weave of the two.
It certainly felt a lot more like an MMOG than a single-player game, but that is not an indictment of the experience. The story was solid and definitely referenced the mature tone without clobbering the player over the head, and the whole experience was refreshingly polished. The best indication is that as I worked my way through the first few levels, rarely did I feel stuck, lost or an urge to check my watch. It is a solid start. It had a fair bit of typical "fetch me this, kill that," but I can say I was genuinely entertained.
The strongest part of the first few levels - and I would suspect the game in general - is that for the first time in a long time it feels like a world and not a guided trip through Disney Land. There are challenges and creatures along the way that have nothing to do with the mission at hand, and combat doesn't always wait for you to get ready. For example, right out of the tutorial, I started on a road that led down into the town. My goal was to gain access to that town, and had I wished I could have stuck to the path and got it done, but unlike so many games, there were not sheer cliffs to make sure I stayed on the rails. To my left, I saw a camp of bandits, way above my level and clearly not on my side. The simpleton that I am, I decided to fight them, and I even got one's head before they took me out. I died, but I had fun, and it had nothing to do with the mission at hand.
That wasn't the only example, either. Later on, in the instanced mission, my goal was to reach a warrior and deliver a message. Most MMOGs, that's check the radar, point due west, hit "num-lock" and wait. Here, the island was filled with encounters that blocked my way. There were bandit camps I could storm, if I wished, and alligators that jumped out of the dark swamp, whether I liked it or not. I delivered my message, but this was a perfect example of a FedEx quest used properly. At its most basic level, Lord of the Rings (the books, not the game) is a big FedEx quest. It's the adventures along the way that make it interesting. Too often, designers seem to focus on the end that they make the means an all-consuming straight line. Funcom brings back some of the variety of earlier MMOGs and is better for it.