Quickly, they shot us on to Conall's Valley, an enormous outdoor zone where the local Cimmerian clans are in a brutal war against the conquest-oriented Venir savages. One developer dared us to find the end of the zone in the time allotted, and I never did. It is not just huge, it looks huge. That's a key difference between Conan and too many MMOGs that boast acreage statistics. It's one thing to have a huge seamless zone, but it's an altogether difference challenge to create the sweeping views and towering mountains that give that scale heft. Funcom pulled it off.
There, we got a chance to run out of the besieged town and throw our swords into the enemy. It was not until a bit of time here - on the heels of the dungeon experience - that we learned our characters and the group dynamics. As we ran out against a seemingly endless stream of enemies, people started to pull off some neat tricks. I personally beheaded my first enemy at this point, which without the cheat codes on, does pack an emotional punch. To pull it off, you need to strike the killing blow using one of the tactics and then hope for the best on a pre-determined percentage. It's rare, but it definitely whetted by appetite for blood, as my enemy sprawled out, blood spewing all over the place.
We also started to realize the meaning of death in this zone. For anyone who played Dark Age of Camelot, the death penalty will be pretty familiar. There's a death sickness - a long term debuff on the character - and if you fetch your gravestone, you can mitigate it. In all honesty, I like the challenge of running out to find the stone. The game was never so complex that finding it was the issue; instead it just encouraged me to avenge myself on those who took the life in the first place. They were always nearby.
Once we reached a point where we were comfortable talking to each other, Funcom then set up a five-on-five capture the flag PvP tournament. We all entered the queue and waited for the game to begin. In a normal situation, this would be much like other MMOGs. You open the UI, tell it what you (and in this case your group) want to do and then leave it in the corner while it finds a match. Once matched, you teleport in.
In a slight twist, where most games kind of shield enemies from each other to make it as anonymous as possible for fear of abuse, Age of Conan encourages it. They put all the players, both sides, on a little bridge together while everyone loads into the area. Only after everyone's had a chance to make a rude gesture or two do they finally send you back to your base and kick off the fight.
Player vs. player was a much different beast than bopping monsters, as it usually is. Monsters sit still, players don't. While the controls in this case did create some stationary and epic encounters, there was a lot of chasing people. That said, they seem to have struck a good balance with the endurance thresholds and sprint speeds to make sure it's not an eternal twitch stalemate for the hand-to-hand guys.
In fact, for one of the first times in recent memory, I didn't feel like a useless piece of fodder against the ranged classes. The best kill ratio in both matches belonged to a caster, but when a warrior got in close, he could shred them pretty quickly, and with a bit of cleverness could pull of some fun signature moments.
In one situation, our group was running up the hill to the other team's flag when one of their casters hid himself on the ramparts and rained lightning down on us. I sprinted ahead and came up behind him. While he frantically turned to face the onslaught, I quickly activated my knockback tactic and threw him down from where we came. Let's just say, fall damage is very much enabled. That move led to our first and only flag capture.
I'm shamed to admit, but I was also humbled by an enemy who chopped my head off as time expired. We had a clear moral victory in that first match, but it's hard to get excited about your kill ratio when through the transparent UI pop-up all you can see is your body on the grass, blood spewing out of the place where your head used to be.
Age of Conan has impressive character customization with more sliders than anyone could humanly wish for, much like many MMOGs. The difference for them is that everyone has this cave-man feel, and it makes for a twist on the norm. On top of the regular sliders for nose length and how much the guy's ears stick out, they also put some time into scars, broken noses and other brutal tokens of life. At the end, I spent 20 minutes building the ugliest characters I could. I made some really ugly guys and quite a few I'd run from on a dark road, but the tools do not go so far as to let people leave reason behind.