There's something about high-fantasy settings that just seems to work well for massively multiplayer games. We're not sure if it's the pointy ears on the elves, but for some reason, the addictive gameplay of online role-playing games--the fighting, the questing, the looting, and the adventuring with other like-minded players--seems to go hand in hand with the colorful fantasy worlds that authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien helped inspire. However, not all fantasy stories are suitable for all audiences. For instance, the works of Robert E. Howard, creator of the antihero Conan the Barbarian, tell bawdy tales of violence and debauchery. These tales will come to life in Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, an online game in which you'll actually play a character in Conan's savage world and use real-time action commands to attack your foes and dispose of them in all kinds of brutal ways.
Our session began with a fleshed-out version of the game's early hours, in which you create a new character from scratch as a prisoner on a slave ship with a severe case of amnesia. Despite your character's mental state, you can still use the game's many, many, many customization options to create a character from one of three points of origin: Aquilonia (the kingdom of Conan), Cimmeria (the barbaric lands of Conan's origin), or Stygia, a land of dusky-skinned sorcerers. Not all characters of all races can play as every different character profession, and different flavors of the game's four archetypes (soldier, priest, rogue, and mage) are available to different races. We chose to play a hardy, pale-skinned Cimmerian male character with scruffy blond hair, a braided beard, and various scars and tattoos across his body. The game features simple options to tweak basic face types and hairstyles, as well as tattoos, scars, and other details, but if you care to, you can go extremely in-depth and spend a great deal of time tweaking facial features and proportions. Given that we knew our time with the game was limited at our play session, and because we'd had experience playing a soldier class before, we decided to try the bear shaman, the basic Cimmerian priest class whose abilities include group-based healing, strengthening spells, and some minor damage incantations.
Once we created our character, we again found ourselves washed up on the jungle shore just outside of Tortage, the game's starting city, after our slave ship was attacked by a mysterious warship. As a new character, we awakened on the beach and were greeted by a mysterious old man who, like many of the characters you'll encounter in the game, addressed us with full audio speech. He recognized our character's amnesia problem, and chose to advise us in a brief cinematic cutscene with a close-up camera angle reminiscent of the conversations in BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic, complete with different dialogue options to choose. The old man informed us that the slaver captain of our ship had also survived, and that we could not let him reach Tortage alive. We then set out after him into the jungle, but came upon a comely (and scantily clad) lass in chains, strung up across the jungle path and blocking our progress. The wretched young woman recounted a sad tale of kidnapping and rough treatment by lascivious bandits, and explained that her chains were locked by a key that had been picked up by a scavenger. We hunted down the man along the beach and used our trusty chunk of oar (a large slab of wood we wielded like a club) to pummel him into submission. At our service was the game's real-time combat system, which lets you press different keys on your keyboard while moving your character around to deliver different strokes and combinations. The scavenger was no match for us, and with key and maiden both liberated, we made our way into the lush, densely forested jungle in search of the slaver.
From what we've seen, Age of Conan's environments will be densely packed to give the game a lush, lived-in feeling. The jungles are thick with vines, shrubs, and tilted trees, as well as the ambient noises of cawing birds, but we didn't have much time to contemplate the scenery. We were constantly attacked by small packs of bandits, aggressive jungle apes, and finally our target the slaver, who was lying in wait for us. After trading a few insults with the potbellied, oily-looking scoundrel, we attacked him, slew him, and finally made our way to the city with our rescued companion in tow. Once we reached the city gates, we started to get some idea of the game's lore and its most powerful figures. For instance, our first quest at the city gates was to aid a nearby blacksmith, and in exchange, the surly tradesman shattered the slave's chains on our character's wrists, which gave us clearance with the gate captain to enter the city. The gate captain himself mentioned that he belonged to a faction of influential buccaneers who were making inroads into the coastal area, but refused to elaborate. He instead sent us on another quest to deliver a letter to a tavern maid in the town.
Conan's Barbaric Age
We entered and found ourselves in a high-fantasy frontier town made of rough buildings and inhabited by rougher people, including extremely unfriendly guards who had little other than veiled threats for us until we reached the tavern and met the maid. The young lass guardedly explained that although she'd allow our character the use of her bed, she would never warm it herself; instead, she was referring to the game's time-switching mechanic, which lets your character go to sleep and awaken many hours later, essentially switching day into night, or vice versa. At night, even more unsavory characters walk the streets, though key informants may also make their way out under the cover of darkness.
After experimenting with the early game, our characters were given a boost to a higher level by way of the game's "apprentice" system, which, like with City of Heroes "sidekick" system, temporarily evens out different characters' levels so that players who have characters at very different levels can still adventure together. We were given some decent war gear and bumped up to about level 20, which for the bear shaman unlocks various group-oriented strengthening spells that enhance a group's damage output, protection, and even helps them regenerate lost health over time. The higher-level bear shaman also seems to have a positional healing spell that must be aimed in a cone-shaped range at its targets, as well as a minor attack spell to zap enemies, although the class seems best suited for strengthening a group before battle, then wading into the frontlines with warhammer in hand. We went with a group to hunt in a swamp inhabited by giant spiders, which hatched from glistening egg sacs hidden among the rocks, and "swamp demons," bulbous humanoids with sharp claws and nasty dispositions.
To be fair, the swamp area was designed for characters slightly below our level, so we were able to tear through our enemies quickly enough. Even so, the game's group combat seems very fast-paced, and small skirmishes can become larger ones very quickly. Age of Conan seems to be less about the old convention of cautiously luring one enemy away from the pack to fight alone or with your group, and more about large battles, where you and your allies are swinging away at small armies of enemies, leaving a pile of corpses on the ground when you're finished.
After our swamp hunting session, we then jumped into a few sessions of competitive player-versus-player matches, which can be searched for from an in-game interface your character can use anywhere, not just at a predetermined dueling spot. (This means you can actually queue up for battle and still take care of other things while you're waiting, such as hunting down some more monsters, or doing some quests.) We jumped into a few team-based capture-the-flag matches, which took place in a lush valley bordered on either side by a high hill where each team's flag was located. As you might expect, the team with the strongest group coordination did best, and our role as the bear shaman seemed to primarily be making sure all of our protection spells were currently cast and affecting our group members, as well as doing some light healing, but also wading into battle and caving in skulls. The game's action-based fighting system seems to add a subtle but satisfying element to fighting enemy teams and chasing down runners. You can hammer on your action keys to actively deliver blows, as opposed to the way things work in other games, which have an "auto-attack" feature that cycles randomly.
All things considered, Age of Conan seems to be coming along quite well as a story-driven, quest-driven experience, as well as a monster-hunting hack-and-slash game, and even a fast-paced competitive affair. It remains a game that is absolutely not for children; if the thinly dressed, sultry-voiced female characters don't make that clear, the over-the-top death animations in the game's random critical deaths should (given that they usually end in several limbs and heads briefly painting your computer screen along with a giant splotch of blood). Nevertheless, it also holds a lot of promise as a deep, dark, and decidedly mature role-playing experience. The game is scheduled for launch in March for the PC, and the Xbox 360 version game will be released afterward.