The universe of Robert E. Howard's popular Conan the Barbarian (played most memorably by Arnold Schwarzenegger) promises to come to life next year when Funcom and Eidos launch Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, an impressive and action-packed massively multiplayer role-playing game. In Age of Conan, you won't be able to play as Conan himself, but you will be able to create your own unique character and adventure as a soldier, priest, mage, or rogue. We had a chance to catch up with game director Gaute Godager, who showed us some of the latest progress on the game.
Age of Conan is currently undergoing a closed beta test, so a limited number of outside testers have been playing the game and offering feedback. Based on that input, a notable change has been made to how soon you'll be able to start playing with other players. Age of Conan is different from a lot of massively multiplayer online role-playing games in that you can play it as a single-player game, and then once your character hits level 20 experience, you can start playing it as an online game with others. This lets you create a powerful character on your own terms before you venture into the online fray. However, if you're starting the game over again with a new character, you might want to get into the multiplayer action faster so you won't be restricted to level 20 if you want to jump into the online play sooner.
Godager gave us a quick tour of various aspects of the game, from the early stage when you create a character to some of the later stages. You'll start the game as a galley slave on a sailing vessel. If you create a male character, you'll be one of the poor saps who has to row all day long, while female characters are consigned to some of the quarters. But don't worry; you won't be a slave for long. After you finish creating your character, you'll escape and find yourself washed ashore with nothing but a broken oar as your weapon; from there, you'll be able to determine your own destiny.
Fast-forwarding a bit, Godager showed us the beautiful port city of Tortage, which serves as the main hub of your adventures for the first 20 levels. Tortage really shows off Age of Conan's impressive visuals; it is a city of towering buildings, built on a cliff that overlooks a harbor below. If you have the appropriate climbing skills, you'll be able to climb the many various buildings, which opens up all sorts of storytelling possibilities. For instance, thieves will be able to sneak into various dwellings to do their thing.
Tortage is also a city filled with taverns, which will be perfect for the new drunken brawling player-versus-player combat system. Drunken brawling is one of the three types of PVP that will be in the game, and it's designed to be the most fun and social. This isn't about killing the other player but rather getting into a raucous bar fight. Basically, your character can get drunk on various beverages, and each one might confer a different fighting ability. Mead will transform you into a bruiser in battle, while wine might be good if you want to be more of a swashbuckler. Instead of weapons, you'll use everyday objects, such as bar stools. And thanks to a ladder ranking system, you can build up a reputation as a good drunken brawler. The two other PVP modes will be minigames, such as capture the flag, and the massive PVP mode, which lets you engage in siege combat to defend or attack a city.
Next up was combat. Godager transported his character (now dressed in fancy armor and armed with a gleaming sword) to a distant valley to battle a bunch of barbarians. The combat system in Age of Conan is more like one found in an action game than a typical massively multiplayer role-playing game. There is no autocombat, where you simply click on a target and watch as your character attacks until the target is dead. Instead, like in an action game, you have to control your character's strikes. You can execute combination moves, so instead of a simple jab, you can try a mighty swing to behead your opponent.
To get around the valley faster, Godager summoned a horse mount. Horses are one of the three mounts in the game, along with camels and woolly mammoths. Godager then showed us the spell-weaving magic system in the game. The idea behind spell weaving is that you can take two different spells and combine them, which will enhance their effect so that the result is more than the sum of its parts. However, if you cast evil spells, you'll accrue spell corruption points. This means that if you're killed, you might get pulled down into hell where you have to fight a demon.
According to Godager, Funcom has spent about three years in development on the game, and the good news is that all the pieces are finally falling into place. Because Age of Conan is a showcase game for Windows Vista, Microsoft's new operating system, it will also ship with support for DirectX 10. We're told that the DirectX 10 version will offer enhanced graphics in the form of longer view distances, more particle effects, more polygons, and more-detailed shadows. An Xbox 360 version of the game was also announced this week and details on that are still mostly to come, but it sounds like the game can be played entirely using the Xbox 360 controller. And you won't need a keyboard in order to communicate with others because you can rely on the voice support that's built into Xbox Live. And while the date for the Xbox 360 version is still to be determined, we can expect the PC version to launch sometime in the spring of 2007.