First of all, let's start with the disappointment: No DX10 at launch. Age of Conan, from January 2007, was tagged to be one of the flagship games for Windows Vista's DirectX 10; a game that, for users with DX10-capable GPUs and systems, was going to be completely run on the DX10 engine and not just "feature" a small portion of DX10's capabilities. I'm not a DX10 user myself, but I do know several people that bought/upgraded to new systems specifically for Age of Conan in order to play the game on using DX10, and to wait a bit longer for the DX10 Age of Conan experience, as you can imagine, would be rather frustrating. We're told that Age of Conan in DX10 will go live some time in fall (northern hemisphere).
Despite this blunder, Funcom, with their patented DreamWorld Engine, have managed to create a world as if it were meticulously painted, stroke by stroke, with Robert E. Howard there giving the artist direction in the creation of the masterpiece. The environments are breath-taking and every zone in the game comes complete with a "Oh wow!" moment. For example, as you leave Conarch Village (Cimmeria) to head in to Conall's Valley to begin making your descent towards the Cimmerian outpost, there's a sense of grandeur that you feel as you traverse on the path or walk through the knee-high grass. In front of you, stretching for miles, is the valley, and you can see it all or a good margin of it depending on your GPU and system's capacity. My machine is relatively old (AGP motherboard), but even on my graphics card (xfx 7950GT 512MB), I can set the view distance to a comfortable 1000 metres (and push it further if I really wanted to) to get a good scope of any zone in the game.
The character models in Age of Conan, for me anyway, make me feel like I've just come out of a DarkHorse Conan comic book. There is grit and beauty in every character, but at the same time reminding you there is still some fantasy element in this game. The character creation tool gives players the option to make their character(s) as rugged or pristine as they feel, and yes, when up close and personal, even two characters with the same facial model can be distinguished from each other depending on how each player has manipulated them with the tools provided. The only other character creator that I can think of that matches Age of Conan's in terms of creating a truly unique-looking avatar, is City of Heroes'. If you want a Barbara Streisand "schnozz", you can give yourself one; if you want Arnold Schwarzenegger "pecs", you can give yourself a set; and if you want Angelina Jolie lips, then yes, they can be yours as well!
As far as performance is concerned, I can run the game on high settings with a few tweaks in the options here and there (namely turning "Bloom" off, and lowering the view distance to 1000 metres) even on my dinosaur of a computer, but if you want the best visual and most pleasing-to-the-eye experience from Age of Conan, then you're going to want to meet those "Recommended" system requirements Funcom have slapped on the retail boxes. While lower-end machines will still be able to run the game quite well and enjoy Funcom's scenic Hyboria, well, let me put it this way: Would you prefer to experience the best, or have someone else describe it to you?
On the whole, even as a DX9 game Age of Conan is visually appealing and utterly impressive graphically. The only question that is yet to be answered is how the game will look when Age of Conan DX10 goes live. If the DX9 client is anything to go by, then I can only imagine that eyes will refuse to leave the screen come this later summer or fall. The only negative I can see in Age of Conan's graphics is its demand on computer system resources and the need for a newish/high-end machine in order to run the game smoothly and be pleasing-to-the-eye.
The score: 17 out of 20.