GDC 2007: Age of Conan Preview

| 12 Mar 2007 17:20

Age of Conan is the third game and second MMO on the way from Funcom. Published by Eidos, Age of Conan hopes to leverage the resurgent IP and publishing power of Eidos to take a swipe out of the MMO market later this year. We saw this dual-platform MMO (Xbox 360 version coming in '08) at GDC and file this preview.

GDC 2007 - Age of Conan Preview
Interview with Jørgen Tharaldsen (Product Director) and Thorbjørn Olsen (Ass. Game Director)
Article by Dana Massey

imageFuncom converted a skeptic at GDC. I went into the demo with some grave concerns about Age of Conan. Could such an old IP still draw crowds? Were the graphics really as good as the screenshots? Will this actually be fun? After their GDC presentation, I can honestly say, they've assuaged my fears.

"[We're] trying to revolutionize," Jørgen Tharaldsen proclaimed.

Set in Robert E. Howard's pre-historic fantasy world, Age of Conan aims for a grown up MMO experience. The three races are all human with their own twist, both internally and externally. Aquilonians are a noble, Roman-styled people, Cimmerians are the purest of barbarians and the Stygians provide a desert people's view on the world. For each, the play experience begins as a slave aboard a galley. There, the player customizes their character in ways beyond counting. If there is a body part, you can almost certainly morph it in Age of Conan. Once fully customized, the galley where the character is enslaved sinks and the player washes up on shore to begin their adventures in Hyboria.

Visually, Age of Conan has always been a two-faced game for me. Sometimes, I wonder how humans can create such beautifully detailed and consistent graphics, while other times, I wonder how what I see can possibly be the game I thought was so beautiful. The GDC demonstration areas certainly appear to have reined that problem in. Each area I saw was detailed, beautiful and representative of the screenshots. Sure, rocks were sometimes out of place and the paths had some distinct tiling, but in general, the game has visually tightened and for the first time in a few years of demos, it feels like it represents the screenshots.

imageFor the demo, the team cheated and made the character level 32. In a game where players progress from level one to 80, that represents a fairly early stage of the game. The armor that came with that upgrade makes me wonder what the heck they plan to outfit a level 80 in. For that stage, the level of beauty was impressive. The armor in Age of Conan glimmers, shines and moves unlike armor in most MMOs available. No pixel was out of place and I was only looking at the DX9 client. Honestly, it is tough to imagine more impressive gear for the next 48 levels.

A unique twist to Age of Conan is that the first twenty levels are intended as a single-play RPG experience that prepares the player before they launch into the MMO. This plan has undergone some revisions. Based on feedback, they've now introduced some limited cooperative gameplay experience as part of the single-player arc. At level six, players now have the chance to meet with friends and take the experience online. This owes more to cooperative play in traditional single-player RPGs than a true MMO experience, but it is nice to see that they provide options right off the bat.

That doesn't mean players need a group to get through the first 20 levels. In fact, Funcom believes they're making a game that players can solo all the way through, if they so choose. The game has elements for groups and solo, but they have gone a long way to make sure it is accessible to many opposing playstyles.

A prime example of this is the game's camp system. Most MMOs consider a camp a spawn point from which monsters pour out of. In Age of Conan, it is what it sounds like. Spread around the land of Hyboria are camps of bandits. These camps act like it. There bandits conduct a daily routine. They sleep, they eat, they warm themselves by the fire, they send out patrols and they respond to outside stimulus. They also scale themselves to the encounter.

imageFor players, there are a number of ways to tackle a camp and few of them involving pulling away lone mindless automatons with a bow to fight them out of agro range. For example, a player could choose to try and sneak into the camp and distract the bulk of the forces, while his friends pick off stragglers. Like a puzzle, there are built in distractions for players to find and activate. Yet, this is only one way to peel the potato. Players can also try and find, catch and quickly neutralize the patrol before it sees them and reports back to the main force. Each camp can also scale itself to the size of its attackers. If a player is solo, it's not very likely that a flood of extra bandits will come running out of the tents. If eight people are raiding, don't expect them not to. Funcom was clear though that the number is partly random, just to keep players on their toes. One day, a group might take a camp in a walk and the next find it much stiffer competition.

Combat is where the revolution is in full swing for Age of Conan. This is not the click and eat combat of yesteryear. Traditional targeting is gone. Instead, it's all about who gets in the way of the weapon's arc. Players can swing their weapon in six different directions. If someone is in the way, they get hit, if they're not, they don't. It's as simple as that. Players control their swing through the mouse, keyboard or gamepad, depending on their preference. On the keyboard, each direction has a corresponding button. With the mouse, there is a UI element to control each one. For Xbox 360 controller fans, it is likely that the right analogue stick does the work. If so, that should be the most intuitive way to play.

They built combat to pit the player against multiple enemies at once. This builds into their swing arc combat. If a bandit gets between the player and the person they're chasing, they're likely to get hit when the sword flashes by. The next step of combat is combinations. Unlike most games, where you get generically named feats ("Odin's Backslash VI" for the win!), in Age of Conan your feats are actually deployed as swing combinations. Each feat can be earned and equipped. They can be up to four swings long and must be pulled off by the player in the correct order to get the full bonus. The direction the player must swing to continue to feet is highlighted as it goes to make things a little more manageable.

Taking a page from Mortal Kombat, there is also a chance for fatality moves. In an entertaining, if morbid way, the team set their fatality chance up to 100% for the purposes of our demo. Heads flew everywhere as their character gleefully decapitated the bandits who came his way.

imageA big advantage for the Funcom team is that they've done this before with Anarchy Online (MMO) and Dreamfall (adventure). They showed the kind of lesson this kind of experience gives them when they noted the sheer volume of content they're shooting for. In the typical MMO, they note that the average gamer plays for 800 hours and that they need to account for that when they make this game. Each of the mid-level adventure zones they're planning has roughly 200 hours of gameplay. It is a noble start that should keep things fresh for everyone.

Their experience with Dreamfall has had a significant impact on the game too. Their quests look more like content out of their adventure game or a single player RPG. They're cinematic, tree-branching dialogue quests. In the traditional scrolls and chat boxes of MMOs, it's all too easy to skip through mountains of text. In Age of Conan, the letterboxed screen and zoom on the face as they speak draws the eye and gets the player interested. It will be interesting to see if this gets frustrating once the novelty wears off, but it definitely seemed more manageable and interactive than anything else I saw at GDC. Above all else, the key thing is that the character had to respond and choose what to say back several times. Quest dialogue in most MMOs is a paragraph followed by "accept or reject?" In Age of Conan, it is actually two sided dialogue.

As they entered one of their epic mid-level adventuring areas, the team displayed a core design philosophy of their game.

"Every action has a reaction," they told me ominously as the character lumbered down a path towards a farm.

imageNot unlike every farm on Earth, there were chickens everywhere, but in a display of their understanding of the MMO player's brain, these chickens were in fact attackable. They more or less explode in one hit, which at first I assimilated and dismissed as a neat touch. Then, a farmer comes running out of the farmhouse and up to the player.

"Every action has a reaction," they repeated.

The farmer just isn't any farmer, he's a badass and likely well above any player who first entered that zone. The fight should be short and the player dies. It's the start of the zone, so the setback is virtually nil, but it sets the tone.

I asked Funcom how many of the players kill the chickens and what their reaction is. The answer? Every last one of them and they usually love it. The penalty is insignificant and it leads into a quest that eventually pits the player against that very farmer when they're of a high enough level to get their revenge. It's a wonderful example of both a reactive world and a touch that breeds enmity between players and the NPCs they're supposed to hate. It's hard to get worked up when a scripted quest sends you after the evil lich, but when some jerk farmer knocks you on your ass for blowing up a few of his chickens, that guy deserves payback.

imageTouches like this have turned me around on this game. Age of Conan is a deep experience, much deeper than most give it credit for. There is a combination of recognizing what works, innovating where necessary and not being afraid to think outside of the MMO box that give this game an appeal that is hard to match. It's easily the most revolutionary AAA MMO in development and should do great things for Funcom and publisher Eidos.

Funcom hopes to bridge the gap between consoles and MMOs with this product. The PC version is headed to stores this year, with their Xbox 360 product following in 2008. Tharaldsen emphasized that they have no interest in just doing a straight port and already have a team hard at work making the 360 version specifically for the 360.

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categories: fantasy