While many modern fantasy tales draw inspiration from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novel, those hallowed tales weren't the only classic works of fiction to emerge from the early 20th century. In the early 1930s, author and poet Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian, a mighty warrior and cunning scoundrel who was later immortalized on the big screen by a certain California state governor, and whose likeness will grace the upcoming massively multiplayer game Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. This game from developer Funcom and publisher Eidos will draw upon the dark and violent world of Hyborea that Howard created, and will feature highly distinctive battles that more closely resemble an action game than that of the usual automatic combat you tend to see in games like this. Age of Conan will also offer a lengthy single-player component, three playable races from three different fantasy nations, and the ability to adventure with other like-minded players (or even clash with them in mounted or siege combat). Our recent time with the game was focused on diving into combat as both a melee character and a magic-using character.
We began our tour of the game by quickly creating a new character from the game's character creation screen, which is actually the belly of a slave galley from which your character escapes with a case of amnesia. We quickly created a new Cimmerian character (Cimmeria is the homeland of Conan and one of the nations of origin you can choose for your character, along with Aquilonia and Stygia) and jumped into action. At the beginning of your adventure, your character washes up naked on a beach bordering a jungle, armed only with a fragment of an oar as a weapon.
Your first quest is given to you by a fellow refugee, who speaks to you in an interactive cinematic sequence complete with camera close-up and branching dialogue options, reminiscent of single-player games like Knights of the Old Republic and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. As we soon learned from this conversation, another survivor from the slave galley has washed ashore--the head slaver, who has fled to the nearby town and must be slain before he can alert the authorities to your presence. Along our path, we also found a half-naked Stygian woman bound to opposing trees by her wrists--we spoke with the woman in another cinematic dialogue to find that in order to free her, we'd have to forcibly convince a scavenger to part with the key. We readied our splintered oar and went hunting.
The early version of the game we played already has a working interface that nests most major menus (such as your character's inventory and skills) along the top of the screen, while including a mini-map in the bottom-right corner of the screen and your combat menu at the bottom center of the screen. In the PC version of the game, by default, you use your W, A, S, and D keys to move as you would in a first-person shooter, and you also use your Q, E, and your number keys 1 to 3 to perform melee weapon attacks, which include a forward thrust (the 2 key), overhand diagonal slashes (1 and 3 keys), and horizontal slashes (Q and E); all five buttons are also represented onscreen as labeled icons. When you begin your career, you'll have no real skill in combat, though your enemies will also be weaklings.
Over time, you'll learn different combat "stance" skills that let you perform various flashy combination attacks that can deal great damage to groups of enemies. You can equip to your active combat bar at the bottom of the screen. Once you have a stance ready, certain icons (such as either the Q icon or the E icon) will light up, automatically prompting you to press that key to start one of your equipped attack combinations. Once you initiate one of these attack strings, the next key in sequence will light up and guide you through. You'll have a limited (but generous) amount of time to input the correct next attack in sequence, and more sophisticated strings may branch out and let you perform different follow-ups. All attacks will consume a certain amount of stamina (which is measured by a meter onscreen) and will require you to briefly wait for them to "cool down" before you can use them again. While you can't actively parry or block incoming attacks, you can double-tap any of your direction keys to quickly leap into a certain direction, a la Unreal Tournament.
Once we got comfortable with the combat controls, we defeated the scavenger and freed the maiden, who followed us through the lush, densely forested jungle on our way to town, fighting a few mangy bandits along the way. Since these enemies didn't pose much of a challenge, we skipped ahead to an autumnal mountain valley where Pict savages, who in this case vaguely resembled Aztec warriors, occupied numerous camps, waylaying a woebegone merchant who tasked us with clearing them out. Our character was bumped up to level 13 (the game will let you advance to an experience level of 80 at launch) and joined with a few other characters in a party to hack away at our enemies. We followed a winding path down into the valley, fighting not only warriors, but Pict wizards (tough adversaries who summoned electricity-based shields around their bodies, then leapt forward into the fray to pummel us in hand-to-hand combat), massive demon warriors who attacked us with tree-trunk clubs, and giant bats, whom the Picts presumably kept as pets. We were actually hard-pressed to keep track of all the action in the toughest fights, especially against multiple groups of enemies.
While you can manually click on enemies to target them, the game also has an auto-targeting system that locks onto the nearest enemy you're facing and attacking. However, if you're using a string of attacks that sweeps around wildly, you can damage multiple enemies at once--just make sure your attack animations don't carry you too far away from your foes, or that you aren't blinded by all the blood flying around. Funcom stated at the outset that the game would be designed around an ESRB rating of "M" for mature content, and there's no question the game will live up to the rating, especially since it also has dramatic killing blows that occur randomly based on your character's skill in combat. Dramatic killing blows include goring enemies on your sword or decapitating them, and result in a temporary blood-splatter effect on your screen.
Finally, we skipped ahead to an even more challenging area, a huge, snowy mountain pass that looked extremely picturesque when viewed from its peak--but this wasn't just a backdrop. It was actually a fully built environment we could walk completely across and through. This area was inhabited by Pict tribes in the valley, but also by Nordic Vanir bands in the foothills. For this area, we were able to take a level-55 character for a spin, this time as a magic-wielding demonologist who wielded various elemental powers, such as fiery and lighting-based spells, as well as "debuff" spells that weakened our foes. Demonologists will also apparently be able to summon ally creatures as "pets," though we weren't able to see them in our time with the game. Our character was able to obliterate our enemies from afar by using a lightning-based stun spell to root them in place, then blast them to smithereens using a long-distance lightning bolt spell and an "area effect" heat spell that rained down fire within a radius we picked before casting it.
Age of Conan seems to be coming along quite well. The combat system is very different than anything you've seen in a massively multiplayer game, and it's definitely brutal and bloody, for those who are looking for that sort of thing. We're looking forward to getting our hands on more of the game, including more of the single-player portion and the higher-level siege battles. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more updates on the game as we approach its launch later this year.