We had the opportunity to take an up-close look at Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, the online role-playing game from Funcom. Unlike other massively multiplayer games, Age of Conan will start out with a 20-hour single-player role-playing game that will actually let you create a specialized character after changing professions twice (once at a character level of five and again at the end of the adventure, when your character level advances to 20). Funcom is designing this part of the game to be self-contained, and it suggests that some role-playing fans may be satisfied in simply playing through the single-player game and leaving it at that.
For the rest of us, Age of Conan will let players take their level 20 characters into an online version of the savage world of Hyboria, made famous in Weird Tales contributor Robert E. Howard's classic Conan fantasy novels. The game actually takes place just after Howard's Hour of the Dragon novel, in which the mighty barbarian has ascended to the throne of the kingdom of Cimmeria and his neighbors of the rival nations of Aquilonia and Stygia have begun to consider an uneasy truce in the face of an all-new threat. This online portion of the game will let players advance all the way to an experience level of 80, which will involve at least one additional specialization into an elite character class.
We began our demonstration in the freebooter town of Tortage, which will act as a hub area for the single-player portion of the game. The town was built right out of the earth, consisting of buildings hammered into soil and bedrock and flanked with the curling fronds of wild grasses and ferns. We watched as a Cimmerian character (decked out in high-level armor) wandered through the tiny berg, past townsfolk who approached him in various ways. While Age of Conan won't have a hard-coded "faction" system that will let you become friendlier with certain groups by repeatedly killing certain monsters or finishing certain quests, you will be able to get better reactions from characters of your own race or from characters that belong to whatever sect wears the same clothing your character currently has equipped (for instance, our Cimmerian character, dressed in leather armor and a horsehair helmet, elicited a favorable reaction from the similarly dressed guards of Tortage). Unlike in other role-playing games (massively multiplayer and otherwise), the characters you meet in the game won't simply stand in one place and wait for you to click on them; if they have business with you, they'll actually approach you and begin speaking to you.
We passed a blacksmith who had just finished creating an iron broadsword, after which the man approached us and began making an aggressive sales pitch. Game director Gaute Godager explained that characters will be powered by a "needs-based AI." That is, all characters you meet in the game will have specific needs for food and sleep, and in the case of the village's children, socialization (which explained why they quit their idle play and chased after us throughout the town for some minutes before becoming bored again). We also passed a female merchant hawking what appeared to be various types of pottery, but after Godager accelerated time to show off the game's impressive real-time lighting and shadow system, we saw the same female merchant as she emerged from the top window of her house. Silhouetted by yellow light, the merchant began peddling a very different sort of ware. Godager hastily explained that Age of Conan won't have any kind of explicit sexual content, but this sort of thing was common in Howard's Hyboria, and Funcom aims to do justice to that legacy.
We then skipped ahead to an indoor area within a temple devoted to the ancient goddess of pleasure and pain. This dimly lit temple was adorned with complex stonework that cast eerie shadows in the flickering torchlight. We walked past a pair of half-naked, fat-bellied thugs who were armed with bladed staves. By drawing our sword in their vicinity, we roused the ire of these seemingly insecure fellows, who attacked us immediately. Although the combat engine wasn't anywhere close to being complete (the game as we saw it was in a pre-alpha state), we were able to get a sense of the real-time sword combat, which will let you combine six basic directional sword strokes into a wide variety of combination attacks (depending on how good your timing is).
Finally, we adjourned to a mountain range in the Cimmerian wilderness, which Godager explained was created with a combination of the game's powerful terrain engine and lots of tender loving care from Funcom's art team. The result was a scenic and highly detailed series of peaks and valleys that were composed of actual geometry. We climbed to the top of one and surveyed the ground below to see a pitched battle occurring between a tribe of savage hunchbacked Picts and Cimmerian soldiers. A small squadron of Picts stood guard on the perimeter, mounted on the high backs of hairy mastodons with huge tusks that nearly reached the ground. Godager pointed out that these creatures had plenty of room on their backs for additional Pict passengers and that the pygmy savages could even take seats on each of the beasts' prodigious tusks. As we neared the battle, we summoned a group of Cimmerians to fall into formation behind us, thus becoming a squad leader with about a dozen stout men in tow.
Formation combat will be just one aspect of Age of Conan's combat system, which Godager suggests will reflect the savage and brutal nature of the Hyborian world. The game will also feature large-scale siege combat in which players will be able to construct keeps and towers that may be assaulted by massive armies armed with catapults and other siege engines. It will even feature a third all-new type of combat: brawling. We can't help but find this most intriguing. While combat in the field will take into account your character's level, skills, abilities, and inventory, brawling will ignore all these things. Characters at level one will stand a chance of brawling just as well as war veterans of level 80...because brawling will take place only in the taverns of Hyboria, where local drunks and troublemakers will engage you in special combat that will let you use only your bare fists or whatever you can find in the tavern (such as tables and bar stools). Brawling won't be about how many hours you've put into the game, it'll be about how drunk your character has become (downing more booze may actually help your strength in combat) and how well you can use your keyboard and mouse to swing a table leg.
Age of Conan looks and sounds extremely promising, and although it may sound like yet another fantasy online game, its impressive next-generation graphics, substantial single-player game, dark fantasy undertones, and innovative combat features should help it easily stand out from the pack. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more updates on this very promising game as we approach its release next year.