Despite the fact that its launch was just pushed back two months, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is in the final stages of development. That much was made clear as we recently visited developer Funcom's offices in Oslo, Norway, where more than 200 employees are busy putting the final touches on this intriguing massively multiplayer online role-playing game based on the famous universe created by author Robert E. Howard more than 75 years ago. The visit gave us an opportunity to see many aspects of the gameplay that have been kept secret until now, from city building, crafting, siege battles, and high-level content.
Age of Conan is a game that's almost five years in the making, and it's a massive endeavor that promises to deliver an interesting new approach to MMO-style gameplay. That's because the early part of the game can be played almost entirely in single-player. This will give you a chance to build your character and get used to the nuances and intricacies of your character class. When you reach level 20, you can move on and join the online realm, adventuring with or against thousands of other players online. The game's content can be divided into stages. There's the initial 1-20 stage, which you can play mostly by yourself, though there are opportunities to play with others. The next stages are defined as 21-40, 31-60, and, finally, 61-80, and things get progressively more challenging the higher you go. At this point, we'll just mention that Funcom has separate teams dedicated to making content for each stage of the game.
One of the first things the designers showed us is the game's crafting system, which will play a pivotal role in the economy. Players can make many of the goods and weapons in the game, and the crafting system will also be tied into city building. Each of the three main regions in the game contains a dedicated resource-and gathering-playfield, which is basically a large area full of potential resources to harvest and use in crafting. While you can find resource nodes in other areas of the game, the majority of them can be found in the resource-and-gathering fields. Gaute Godager, the game's director, said that there are five primary trade-skill professions: armor smith, weapon smith, alchemist, architect, and gem cutter. There are also secondary professions that help supply the materials needed for the primary professions. "So if you want to make armor," he explained, "you have to go out and get the metal, get the leather, [and] combine it."
The crafting system is quite complex and rich, with dozens of different resources. For instance, there are about 16 different rock types alone. Once you have the resources you need--and one nice aspect of the game is that it keeps a separate inventory for your resources, so it doesn't clutter up your backpack--you can make an item using a recipe. Another interesting tidbit about the crafting system is that you can craft items anywhere you are, so long as you have the necessary ingredients. This is to alleviate one of the issues found in other games, where you're forced to constantly visit a forge or smithy to craft items. Player-made items in Age of Conan will come with at least one gem slot, which you can use to permanently embed a gem. These gems can be harvested or recovered from slain monsters and can imbue a bonus to the finished product, thereby customizing it and making it special and more powerful. Rare items will have two gem slots.
Eventually, you'll probably want to form or join a guild of other players. There are various reasons to join a guild, but a key one is the ability to build cities. There are two forms of cities in the game: crafting villages and battle keeps. Each guild can build and own a single crafting village, which is basically a center for commerce and social interaction. To create one, simply build a central keep on the designated node, and this will open up additional build nodes that radiate out from it, where you can build different types of structures. Each building requires a different amount and type of resource, which is derived from crafting. You'll need at least 30 members in your guild to create a city; you can basically have an unlimited number of people in a guild.
Though guilds can have only one crafting village, they can also build a battle keep. The difference is mainly thus: Crafting villages cannot be attacked, but battle keeps can. That's because battle keeps are finite in number; there are only nine locations in the game where they can be built. If you want to build a battle keep, you'll need to seize one of those locations. This ushers in the siege warfare aspect of Age of Conan. If you hold a battle keep, your guild will be tasked with having to defend it at least once every two or three days. Siege battles can involve hundreds of players on offense and defense. The attackers can build siege engines, which can be used to knock down walls. The defenders must try to hold out for a certain amount of time. The goal is to either attack or defend the central keep; if it's destroyed, the defenders lose and the attackers seize the location. So why even bother trying to hold a battle keep? Well, every building that you own, in both the crafting village and the battle keep, will grant you bonuses. So the more buildings your guild controls, the better.
The designers also gave us a glimpse at mounted combat, which is something that we hadn't seen yet. One of the key differences in Age of Conan compared to other games, they said, was the ability to fight while atop your mount. For example, if you're on a horse, you can still swing your sword and attack enemies. Your mount can also participate in a fight by perhaps kicking. The horse is a pretty good mount, but it pales in comparison to the rhinoceros or the woolly mammoth. The latter handles combat a bit differently; since you're basically sitting 15 feet in the air, it's impossible to swing your sword and hit someone on the ground. Still, when atop a mammoth you can use ranged weapons such as a bow, or magic. Whenever you're on a mount, you and your mount share health, so if you die, it dies, and vice versa.
We also had a chance to glean a bit more about the quest variety in the game. The first major quest that you encounter is the destiny quest, where you learn about your character. The majority of these quest missions take place during the early part of the game, through the level 1-20 portion, but it will also follow you throughout the rest of the game. When you get out into the larger world, you'll have an opportunity to take part in a lot of battle and fighting missions, which will be tied into larger wars and conflicts. The designers didn't just want you to go out and kill X number of opponents for little reason; instead, they tried to tie it into the larger context of the game. Depending on your character class, you'll get specialized quests. Rogues, for example, will have the chance to sneak around towns, eavesdrop on conversations, and even try to murder someone asleep in bed. Another interesting quest is the chance to play the role of a judge in a criminal matter, where it's possible to wrongly sentence an innocent man to death.
Finally, the designers explained the raid system to us. The high-level raid content will be tied closely to the game's story. You'll play as an ally of Conan as he battles two enemies, one of them being the Black Ring Citadel. There will be more than 20 raid encounters at launch, designed for 24-player groups, and they're going to last between two and three hours on average. It's also foreseen that you'll probably make several attempts before you manage to defeat a raid mission the first time. There are essentially eight dungeons in the game, divided into three tiers. At the first tier there are three dungeons, and you must defeat any one of these to advance to the three second-tier dungeons. You must defeat all three of these in order to advance to the third and final tier. While it's possible to advance after playing just one first-tier dungeon, the designers warn that it's probably best if you play through all three, as doing so will help bulk you up in terms of high-level equipment that you'll need later on.
We saw many aspects of the game under development. The sound designers showed off just one of the 20,000 sound effects, along with a sample of the more than three hours of music in the game. The motion-capture team demonstrated how they record the hundreds of different types of fight animations you'll see. Meanwhile, the programmers showed off some of the lavish graphics and other neat features, such as the dynamic weather system and the dynamic day-night cycle. This all adds up to Age of Conan shaping up to be an impressive game. The fact that it's getting an M rating helps reinforce the idea that this is an MMO for grown-ups. The world of Conan is a brutal place, and Funcom says that it's not holding back. We'll all find out when the game launches on May 20 for the PC. The Xbox 360 version will arrive at a later date.