Massively multiplayer games usually start you out as a wimpy adventurer in a high-fantasy world, beating up rats with a rusty dagger in the hopes of one day being able to afford a shiny new leather cap to wear. Funcom's Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures will take a different tack by offering brutal real-time combat that will let you hack and slash your enemies into mincemeat. That's not an exaggeration--the game's extremely violent combat, which includes skewering enemies and lopping off limbs and heads, is in keeping with the source material from author Robert E. Howard, and will soon be available to try out in the GameSpot player-versus-player beta weekend. We sat down with game director Gaute Godager for more details.
GameSpot: Give us an overview of the beta. What can players expect to experience?
Gaute Godager: The beta is in its final stages in terms of content and code right now. Classes are getting more and more balanced. The quests, items, and spells are getting their final touches. We still have issues, sure. Plenty of bugs and optimizations to finish off, but we are en route to a fantastic, involving game! What you will experience in the upcoming beta session is hardcore, hands-on, action PVP combat.
You select one of 12 classes. You may choose to play through the [levels] one-through-five story introduction to the game. (I urge you to do this, as you will get a glimpse of the final game in terms of soloing and player-versus-environment, or PVE, gameplay.) After this session, which takes about an hour, you will be automatically leveled up to 20, and will be participating in minigame PVP action. Using the automatic search option, you will be playing either "capture the skull" or "team annihilation."
GS: How much of the game will players get to see in the beta weekend?
GG: In terms of class variety, core control, and PVP fun, I think almost everything! You will be able to sample all 12 classes and their strengths and weaknesses. You will see tons of different, sexy outfits. You will fight in various groups for PVP glory. You will gain PVP levels and track your progress in the kill/death ratio.
GS: Can you give us a general update on the game's progress? What is being worked on at this time?
GG: The game is on schedule for launch the 20th of May as we speak. We polish, remove annoyances, and optimize. Finally the client is approaching the target rendering performance, and it certainly is looking smooth. We are working hard on the features we haven't shown off in beta, features we have held back on purpose to have some new revelations at launch. Among these are spellweaving, massive PVP, and DirectX 10 [graphics]. In addition to this, the classes are getting their final overhauls before launch. We are doing some balance focused only on PVP now, something I prefer doing after the PVE aspects have been more or less stabilized.
I played with spellweaving the other day, and I must say: It is a very scary experience. My necromancer character had dark matter and skulls growing out of the ground everywhere around her, and gradually my powers changed. Spells that normally were applied to only a single target started spreading out and damaging huge belts of opponents in a cascading madness. It's a truly unique feature I am very excited about.
GS: How have players received the game's real-time combat system? How is the combo-based combat working out in practice?
GG: The real-time combat system has been received fantastically once we had given it the right amount of polish. Innovation is dangerous. Innovation is very, very dangerous, and very tempting when making games. Innovation is like a drug--to which you can easily become addicted. Imbuing just the right amount is the hardest thing. When we first made the hands-on combat system, we had a much more complex and hard-to-learn system than what we have today, and the reception was much more mixed than what it is today.
We had basically gone too far with this system; it was too much like a simulation [rather] than a game. We now have scaled it back and spread the subfeatures out throughout the levels and the classes, and it plays much better. I honestly have to dig to find negative feedback about the melee and combo combat. It might be the sheer freshness of the feature that makes people love it as much as they do. I think the world, in all honesty, has been waiting for a new control system for massively multiplayer games for a long time, and we might all be a bit in love with the fact that it is different because the feedback is so great.
Having been in the industry for 15 years and failing in achieving the result I craved for so long, I am naturally paranoid when people are really ecstatic about something...I get skeptical and hunt for deeper problems when people love something. "It can't be true, unless it is something bad," basically. This time. This one time, it might simply be that it is brilliant.
GS: Otherwise, how well has the game been received so far in the closed beta? What do testers seem to be really enjoying and gravitating toward?
GG: So far the beta testers have loved the world. They have loved the core gameplay, the hands-on action, and the feedback level of the combat. They have loved the innovation and the freshness. They have loved the maturity of the setting, they love our nipples and our fatalities. They have felt our patches are massive and take forever to download (we have patched six gigabytes' worth of data, three times now! Funcom makes deployment of Vista SP1 seem small). I can promise our testers that this will not happen once the product goes live. The product is on two double-layer DVDs and the install [is] roughly 15GB--which is most likely among the biggest games in history.
I've seen players gravitate more towards group play towards the end of the beta than what we saw in the beginning. It is fun to see players finally managing to take down their first high-end raid target. Basically, it is fun seeing the change, the ebb and tide of what the players enjoy.
Which class has been the most popular has changed several times, and it is a very good indication of an exploit. Wink, wink.
GS: Considering that online games like these can have thousands of people playing at once, doing unexpected things, what's been the most memorable moment in the game's testing so far?
GG: I think I will end with a personal story here. I play undercover on the beta, naturally, and the Funcom employees had made an in-game guild called "Incognito" (we figured that being in-your-face was the best way to hide things). I was playing a level 23 conqueror on the PVP beta server, and was loitering around outside Conarch Village in Conalls Valley when I was approached by this level 35 assassin, I think.
He said, "Would you like to leave your guild and join ours? We are a tough, no-nonsense PVP guild. What do you think?"
I replied, "Sounds interesting, but I am sorry--my friends and I just formed this other guild, as you see. Maybe with another character?"
"Too bad for you," he said, and then went on and beheaded me.
Some of you might be a bit puzzled over what is really funny about this story, but to me it is just such a cool, hardcore PVP act...it is like the [epitome] of PVP in Age of Conan. Tough, deadly, and definitely not for kids!
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about the Age of Conan beta, or about the game in general?
GG: I think the only thing to mention is that it is so close now, dear friends. So very close, the launch of this game! You may actually start hearing the sound of voices from the party reaching you as you stroll up the walkway. Sounds of laughter and drunken brawling mixed with the smell of great food, mead, and blood. Feel the excitement rising. I peek out the door even as you raise your hand to knock, and show it open--hopefully not having a too tired and strained smile, saying: Welcome! Welcome to Hyboria!
GS: Thanks, Gaute.