On the downside, the game needed more varieties of face textures and hair. I never felt fully comfortable with any of the hair options. Hair is one of the hardest things to do in 3-D, but I've definitely seen other games do it better. There was also some sloppiness to iron out in terms of penetration issues and floating beards. And, the much anticipated Age of Conan females? They were not in the version shown.
The game world has been strongly crafted to feel like the world Robert E. Howard described. Each climate feels unique and true to the nature. Icy, snowy lands look and feel cold, and the warmer, jungle areas are just as true to life. Visually, they captured both the spirit of the novels and did it with some really high-end artistry.
However, I cannot say the same attention was given to the story. All the quests were fine and did a good job of weaving the game's themes into adequate situations, but they were not anything special. I still found myself wrestling with the dialogue trees and quickly began to skip through to the end. The only thing that kept my attention was the fact that they put a lot of effort into truly top-notch voice acting. It is by far the best I've seen in an MMOG, but sadly the words coming out in my limited experience didn't match.
The most obvious example is the first story. The player begins as a rowing slave from a wrecked ship. You wash up on shore and of course undergo the forgivable artificiality of a tutorial, but while I understand and applaud the need to explain things away, the logical leap they make is laughable. Funcom wants players to feel like a hero from the start, and they succeed in that, but I'd say they do it in spite of the story. Quite literally, your character has hit his head and remembers nothing of what he was before his years as a slave. The epic quest, from the first few levels I played, seems to be all aimed at unlocking the memories of your undoubtedly heroic past life. The story neatly wraps everything into a nice generic package, as is necessary, but it's been done and done to death. I saw the Bourne movies and I beat Assassin's Creed, and those two were already using a tired cliché, albeit effectively. I was disappointed to see it recycled into Age of Conan. I had hoped for more from a game with such a rich intellectual property behind it.
The amazingly detailed characters and world help the game overcome that story and really capture the IP, but they could also be the game's ultimate commercial Achilles' heel. I am all for the advancement of 3-D graphics technology, and I love a pretty screenshot as much as the next guy, but I also want a game that I can run on my computer at home. I was surprised and impressed that Age of Conan was as stable and polished as we found it. There were minimal glitches and the game ran smoothly, but it did so on a PC with more neon lights than a suped-up Honda Civic.
This to me is the biggest mistake MMOG companies have made since World of Warcraft. At every conference, the MMOG developers gather around and talk about what lessons they learn from WoW. Yet, I have yet to see one get the single most important thing WoW did correctly: run on a PC that a huge percentage of the population and likely anyone who halfway considers himself a gamer, owns. The system requirements are sane, and they open the game to a huge audience that these boundary-pushing titles cannot. The barriers to entry in an MMOG are already so high, why add another with system requirements? Let Crytek overheat people's 8800s and make MMOGs that regular people can run.
That said, Funcom seems to be cognizant of what their game is and what it is not, and I believe their expectations are in line with the limitations their system requirements place upon the game's ultimate subscriber numbers.
Age of Conan is the refreshing anti-WoW in an age of clones. It clearly took some lessons from the King, but it does not appear that they made decisions based on whether or not WoW did them. In some ways, it is very familiar; in others, completely innovative; and in yet more ways, harkens back to MMOGs that preceded WoW in a very good way. It's clear that this game is the result of years of experience from MMOG veterans and while its not perfect and most definitely not for everyone, it has the potential to carve out a niche and succeed where so many other games have failed. Age of Conan is slated to hit stores on March 25, 2008 with a string of beta tests in the interim.