Last week's event marked the first time I was able to get hands on with the controls, and it was interesting to see that they'd already addressed my biggest concern: clunky combat controls. Combat is much different in Age of Conan than most MMOGs. Rather than targeting and using special moves, players simply face an opponent or opponents and swing their sword in one of a few directions. At one point, Conan had six directions players could swing the weapon, all controlled from the keyboard with the same hand that directs movement. The mechanic sounds brilliant with an Xbox 360 controller (where a flick of the right stick does the job), but for those who want a mouse and keyboard, it sounded like a recipe for carpel-tunnel syndrome. More recently, at E3 2007, they'd simplified it down to five directions in an arc over the WASD buttons (namely Q-1-2-3-E), but still, that seemed a bit much.
Fully aware that any shift to a basic assumption of MMOGs requires adjustment time for players, they've wisely cut it down to three directions (controlled with the 1-2-3 buttons) over the first few levels. Ultimately, the five-button arc from E3 will be how it works, but players get their feet wet with the exact buttons that usually control combat in MMOGs. It made the experience original, yet intuitive and should make the transition to the full five-direction much more fluid; although, at this particular event, we never did get to try it.
They have also simplified their combinations, which was a highly controversial decision in the community. It used to be that they would trigger automatically, and the player would click the lit up direction (there is a UI for your swings in the center-bottom of the screen) in sequence to perform a special move, such as a knockback, agro or stun. Now, players trigger the desired move much like they would a feat in another game. They're equipped to a hot bar and act on timers. Once you click it, the sequence lights up and if you follow it, the move is performed. This change accomplishes three important things: It keeps the player's focus on the action and not the UI, it is easier to grasp for traditional MMOG players and lets players fight how they want, with less risk of accidentally performing the wrong move. Under the previous system, players needed to remember that for example, "1-2-1" was a knockback, while "1-2-2" was a stun. With self-activation, you quickly learn what combination follows and can instead watch the blood flow.
The system is not perfect, though. For one, even when leveled up to the 20th level, my character never had a "combination" that required a second move. I simply activated the tactic and then hit the first direction to light up. Boom, move performed. There is such a thing as oversimplified.
Outside of tactics, there's more to combat than just randomly hitting one of the three directions. With each weapon and direction, there's a follow-up move that naturally flows after. If you hack from right to left with your sword and then quickly hit the left to right button, the second blow flows out of the first and is delivered more quickly. You know it's working when it feels right, and over time you're able to develop a rhythm. This means that like real life, a switch from polearms to swords won't just depend on the character's stats, but actually require the player to learn the best way to wield the weapon. It's subtle, and it's a nice wrinkle that keeps the players on their toes.
Beyond that, Funcom also promises directional weaknesses among opponents. For example, if an enemy has a shield in his left hand, it is likely not as effective to hit him there. They even tell us that the AI will actually move a shield to a weaker side if they find themselves being pounded there.
After a few levels of the low level experience, we warped forward to an outdoor, level 20-plus dungeon. This is just about the point where the game was supposed to go full on MMOG and gave us a chance to try out a more advanced character. The transition was OK, as I quickly decided I wanted to be a sword/shield guy over using polearms, and we went in groups of five to explore.
The previously mentioned oversimplified tactics aside, combat held up at this level and gave me enough variety. There were some traditional MMOG problems, like agro-intensive casters that I just couldn't keep the spiders off of, but in general, it was positive.
The dungeon itself, though, was a bit of a letdown. As far as I could tell, it was divided into individually themed quadrants. In one, we took down a giant spider; in another, some humanoid enemies. However, the whole thing seemed artificial. The humanoids mingled with spiders for no apparent reason, and each one just seemed to be a dungeon crawl without the purpose. Granted, the artificial nature of the demonstration was likely to blame (we were, after all, artificially leveled up and teleported to the start of the dungeon). So, we wandered in circles and killed things until it was time to move on. I suspect it was just a chance to get used to fighting in groups, which seemed to work as one would expect.