As promised yesterday, today I will be speaking about my actual experience with the game itself during my time in the Funcom offices on last week. Press members and fansite representatives were given two opportunities to play 'Age of Conan'. The first opportunity was part of the even program where we were lead the demonstration room to play a dungeon raid, the Sanctum of Burning Souls, located in the Wildlands of Zelata, a zone in Aquilonia. The dungeon itself is for players with level 37 to 40 characters and we were told by our guide, Jørgen Djuve (designer), the dungeon is intended for a team consisting of four to six members. The second opportunity to play came at the end of the day's formalities with two rounds of 10-minute Capture the Flag (CTF) PvP. In each instance, I played a level 39 Necromancer, and a level 39 Assassin respectively.
As we were ushered into the demonstration room, I noticed that each computer had a sticky note on them signifying which class was being played on it, so naturally, being most familiar with tank-type classes, I made my way to the Guardian computer, but only to find it already occupied by another esteemed member of the press. I did, however, manage to get my second preference (for the sake of the demonstration anyway), and that was the Necromancer. All characters were set to level 39 for the dungeon raid, and so a decent variety of spells, feats, and abilities were available to each player in getting them through this dark, hellish, and often brutal raid.
I'm not usually accustomed to playing caster classes; I prefer to be in melee and have a bit of dodging or damage resistance abilities to keep me in the fray, but I was completely confident in the abilities of my teammates despite this being the first hands-on experience for a few of them.
The Necromancers, as most of you know already, is a pet class as well, and at that particular stage of the class's development, already has three pet types available to it. Early on in the game, the Necromancer is able to summon pet, the Mutilator, which is an odd and rather nasty-looking scorpion-type creature. At the next tier, you are able to summon two pets and given access to the next pet-type "rank", so to speak. The name of the second pet-type escapes me at the moment, but for all intensive purposes, I was at the level where I was able to summon three pets at the highest tier available to me. The Blighter is another scorpion-looking creature, but much like the Mutilator, they looked quite nasty. The pet-summoning classes are able to control their pets by assigning orders to them via small interface right next to your own health, stamina, and mana bar. You are able to set your pets to idle, defend, attack, assist, and be dismissed (not particularly in that order). Since I'm a bit of an aggressive player at heart, I set my pets to 'assist' so that they would immediately attack the target I begin attacking.
I got around to setting up my spells and drag a few abilities into my hotbar. I won't go into too much detail as to what those spells and abilities were specifically, but a few that stood out to me were: "Absorb Shield", protects the caster's team against damage by absorbing the first few points of damage from each hit; "Flame Shield", wreathes the caster in arcane fire and attackers have a chance of being hit for instant fire damage; "Firebolt", Inflicts instant fire damage on the target (a fast-casting spell); and "Glacial Storm", inflicts instant cold damage to all enemies in the area of effect. Basically, I set myself up so that I could buff myself and allies, use my pets effectively, and use a few attacking spells that would help whittle down the hitpoints of an opponent.
As we made our way down to the first open area of the dungeon, we were immediately beset upon by some elite mobs (Drowned Ones), only there was no way of telling they were elite apart from them well and truly kicking our asses on the first go. Thankfully, our guide, Jørgen Djuve, was playing the healer, a Cimmerian Bear Shaman, and he did a very good job in keeping us all alive and resurrecting us quickly if, no, when, we were defeated. Everyone was coming from different games being played beforehand, so the fundamentals to group play were there at least: tanks in first, melee DPS in next, ranged DPS to hang back a bit, and healers and pet classes at the back. These were tactics that got us through, barely, but very soon we discovered these team roles were somewhat malleable. For example, the Bear Shaman has melee combos that increases the effectiveness of their buffs and heals, so the Priest archetype in 'Age of Conan' in general is not the Priest archetype you might be familiar with in other MMOs. I have to admit it was pretty cool to see a Priest class in there with the Guardian, Dark Templar, Conqueror, Assassin, and Barbarian. 'Age of Conan' will certainly encourage those preferred to playing Priest/healing classes to think outside the box and not pigeon-hole themselves simply as a "healer class". From what I saw, a Bear Shaman or Priest of Mitra could be as deadly as any melee or ranged class as long as the player knows what they are doing.
Eventually we got our collective groove on and we able to take down these elite mobs within about 30 seconds, but like any dungeon raid in any other game, we still had to be careful not to pull too much agro; the Guardian is able to tank only so much (and these are elite mobs we're talking about), and the healer classes could only do so much healing. Having said that, however, it was very cool to see the cone heals in-play. A Priest class will have to place themselves so that everyone is caught in the cone for efficient team healing, and this is going to require some solid communication and organization within the team, not so much with PvE in general, but certainly with dungeon raids. I believe the Priest classes will have one or two PBAoE heals and "insta-heals" for emergencies available to them in case the situation goes somewhat awry.
The Necromancer itself plays very well, and as someone that is not usually accustomed to playing caster/pet classes, I found this class especially fun to play especially within a team-based environment. I wish I could comment on how well the Necromancer does in a solo situation, but we weren't given that opportunity, unfortunately.
In the group situation, I felt quite comfortable sitting back and firing off my spells, although I did find myself eating the dirt (dying) quite a bit because I would fire off every single one of the attacking spells on my hotbar at an opponent as well as having my pets on assist attacking the same target. This would bump-up my DPS and as a result draw more agro; enough to make even the Guardian lose its hold on the opponent. Now, this could have been the complete fault of the person who was playing the Guardian, because one thing we do know about the Guardian is that they have an inherent ability in their combos that increases the hate towards them when they use their attacks on the opponent. Some classes, like the Assassin and Ranger, have combos that have the opposite effect, i.e. hate/aggro reduction. With all my spell-casting and my pets giving the opponent so much love, I quite often got the attention, hence the eating of dirt. So as I was resurrected (again) I limited myself to using three ranged spells (decent DPS and secondary effects), and saving my more powerful spells like my AoE for more dangerous situations.
As far as the layout of the Sanctum of Burning Souls is concerned, it's evident the designers have had a vast gaming experience themselves and taken the good of what they've seen in other games and put it into 'Age of Conan'. The dungeon is linear enough so you know exactly where you are going and where you are meant to be going, so it would be quite unusual for anyone to have to back-track and look for an area with a particular boss to kill or item to collect. The dungeon areas are also spaced out wide enough so that you can take the minimalist approach in dealing with as few mobs as possible in order to get to where you want to go quicker, or you can all-out and take on all the mobs around, I guess for better reward (experience, loot, etc.).
If the 'Age of Conan' dungeon designers were going for a dark, hellish, dank, and misty look for the Sanctum of Burning Souls, then they well and truly pulled it off (I guess that's their job after all)! The Sanctum (for short) pulls you in, even with each footstep as you hear the squelch of the moist and sticky soil beneath your own feat, and the occasional drip of water off in the distance to remind you that this once glorious Acheronian temple has now turned to ruin and been overruled by tree and undergrowth, and is now a breeding-ground for ominous life-forms and a place inhabited by malicious and opportunistic foes. So on the atmosphere scale, Funcom gets 10 out of 10 from me.
The first boss we faced was the "leader" (I guess you would call it) of the Drowned Ones that was accompanied by three or four spider queens, Acheronian Spider Demons. By the way it looked, if a team was careful enough, you could pull the boss over to you without aggravating the spider demons and ignore them completely. This wasn't the way it worked out for our team, but it was certainly possible to do so. Instead, we decided to pull the spider demons one by one and whittle them down before moving onto the boss.
Thankfully, we were working well together as a team now to take down the boss quite quickly, so for me it was merely a matter of allowing the Guardian, Dark Templar, and Conqueror hold aggro, the melee DPS classes do their thing, and hanging back with the other ranged classes. I set up an attack chain of Firebolt, Flesh to Worms, and Gelid Bones, saving my AoE attack, Glacial Storm, for when I felt a bit safer. Apart from that, my Blighters kept nipping away at the boss, slowly working down its hitpoints as everyone more or less flayed their weapons in a cacophonous orchestra of destruction, and we stood victorious, claimed our rewards and moved on to the next part.
Our eventual goal was the Acheronian Warlord (the very end boss), and there were lots of things to do in between the Drowned One boss and the Warlord, but that's something I'll save to speak about for another time; it's time to speak a bit about Capture the Flag PvP.
Capture the Flag in 'Age of Conan' works the same as Capture the Flag in any other game, but to find it in an MMO I find quite refreshing. PvP enthusiasts will have their own opinion on whether they regard CTF as real PvP or not, and they may even have an opinion as to whether it belongs in 'Age of Conan' or not, but I can honestly say that at least providing the option for it for players that are interested by it is a smart move on Funcom's behalf. No one's forcing you to play CTF, so if you think CTF is the devil you can very easily block it out from your mind and carry on about your business like no one cares. I've always found CTF to be a lot of fun in the games I've played (Quake III Arena, Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast), and if you're at least open to it in 'Age of Conan' I can assure you you're also going to have fun with it in this game.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph of this report, I played a level 39 Assassin for two CTF matches, and I must admit I was particularly eager to play this class for at least this play-test as I understand very well that caster classes tend to be a bit squishy when it comes to PvP. I did notice, however, that the Necromancer played fairly well in our CTF matches so it might have very well been my own inexperience with caster/pet classes in general that lead me to think that the Necromancer was not going to do so well.
I spent a bit of time before the first CTF match looking at my feat trees and assigning a few points to combos and abilities that were already slotted in my hotbar by the person that had used the class prior to me. Feat trees, I'll add now, and adding points to certain feats are going to be essential as you progress through the levels as they provide the necessary upgrade to already existing combos and abilities to ensure you are able to go toe-to-toe with even-leveled opponents, regardless of what they are or what class they are if it's another player you're facing.
The Assassin has a nice combination of poison-based attacks and defense debuffs, so the Assassin in 'Age of Conan' is not entirely a far-cry from Rogue or other Assassin classes that you may have played in other MMOs, but what sets apart the Assassin in 'Age of Conan' from Assassins on other MMOs, and this pertains to all classes in 'Age of Conan', are those combos. I quite often found myself going "mano a mano" with a Barbarian or Conqueror, and doing very well as far as dishing out damage is concerned. If you play it right, an Assassin can beat any other armour-wearing class, but this is a matter of choosing the right combos and using them at the right times, but because of the high damage output of the Conqueror and the Barbarian compared to my amount of hitpoints and lack of damage resistance, I could not go "mano a mano" for too long, so after a couple of deaths I had to think things over as I was waiting to respawn.
After re-thinking my strategy somewhat, I had decided to think like an Assassin and do what Assassins do best: stealth! So after investing a few more skill points in my Hiding skill, I would run to where the action was taking place an enter hide-mode before I perceived anyone could get the chance to see me. Because the Rogue archetype's hiding abilities are inherently higher than that of any other class, it was difficult for other players to see me even if their Perception skill was relatively high.
Assassins are able to "sneak attack", and that's simply a matter of hitting one of the directional keys when close enough to a target to trigger the sneak attack. I wasn't able to use combos while hidden and in attack-mode, but I do believe there will be some special sneak attack combos Assassins will be able to use later on in the game, but don't quote me on that just yet. Anyway, I felt a bit like Altair from 'Assassin's Creed' doing those sneak attacks, and that made the little geek inside of me squeal a bit, I have to admit, as a sneak attack has a very cool-looking animation that comes along with it, and when triggered on a character class with relatively very little damage resistance, you're able to wipe off up to 30 to 40 per cent of their hitpoints. So the trick is with the Assassin: kill quick, kill fast. I was able to kill a few opponents this way using a couple of follow-up combos to finish them off, but of course executing a sneak attack will take you out of hide and leave you very vulnerable especially if members of the other team are baiting you to attack the weakest link in their team (bastards!).
The attack and combo animations are fluid and give you that sense that you are this "dancing machine of death" that our friend, Gaute Godager, keeps on talking about. Wielding a dagger in each hand is very cool as well, so dual-wielding is functional and works superbly. Daggers are fast yet do lower overall damage, but the Assassin's quicker attacks and faster attack animations ensure that their DPS is up there even with the two-handed edged weapon-wielding Barbarian or Conqueror. So if you're a player keen on playing the Assassin as your preferred PvP class, I can promise you that you will not be disappointed.
The CTF map itself and certainly has a Hyborian flavour to it, and the map we played on has enough terrain features on it to use to your full advantage depending on the class that you are playing: high places for ranged attackers and casters, bottle-necks for melee attackers to corner hapless squishies, and wide-open areas for casters to unleash their pets and slow down a fleeing opponent for pet demons or undead to wail on.
I look forward to seeing the more open-ended forms of PvP that Funcom will be featuring in 'Age of Conan', because while I still like CTF, open PvP is more my own style. Having said that, however, if you like CTF, then CTF in 'Age of Conan' will not leave you disappointed or wishing for more.
In closing, while the game still needs a bit of polishing, things at this stage are looking great and running very smoothly, but the game's recent delay announcement will certainly guarantee that we'll be getting a game that kicks ass no matter what you're into.
You'll be hearing from me again tomorrow, but this time it won't be words you'll be seeing on a screen, but video! Yep, if the in-house video hosting is working for me here at WarCry tomorrow, you'll be seeing all that I recorded on my digital camera whilst over there in the Funcom offices on Friday last week; approximately 45 minutes' worth of footage. Stay tuned!
Until tomorrow (again), this is Stephen "weezer" Spiteri,
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© Stephen Spiteri, January 2008