Funcom's newest massively multiplayer online role-playing game makes quite a first impression. Even the avatar creation scene is dramatic, featuring your character standing below the deck of a slave ship as it gets rocked by violent waves. It's an appropriate introduction to this mature and bloody game, and it sets the stage for the initial questing, which starts on a lonely beach after the ship has wrecked, and gives your character a chance to break free of his or her prison shackles and start life anew.
Your first step is to choose a race. There are three races at your disposal culled from Conan lore: Cimmerian, Aquilonian, and Stygian. Each race is in turn associated with a particular set of classes, so not every class is available to all races. Classes are grouped into archetypes, like soldier and mage, which helps give an overall feel for your class type and then lets you further choose based on specific class characteristics. We chose the Stygian race, because it gave us access to a mage/soldier amalgam called a Herald of Xotli. Not only does this class offer access to two-handed swords, daggers, and some ranged weaponry, but it gives you access to a number of powerful-looking spells.
You won't even encounter other players for the first hour of the game. The initial levels function as a tutorial and introduce you to the basics of combat and questing. You'll note right off the bat that initiating a conversation with a non-player character pulls you into a cutscene, where you are presented with multiple dialogue choices. The initial quest introduced us to Casilda, a healthily proportioned vixen kept captive nearby. Your mission? Free her from her iron bonds and escort her to the nearby city of Tortage. During our travels, we encountered several enemies, such as members of the Pict tribe and chest-pounding gorillas, as well as some bosses, like a slave trader named Saddur, who had other ideas regarding Casilda's destiny.
The combat is interesting, real-time--and quite brutal. To swing your weapons, you press a number key that corresponds to one of three directions (apparently you earn two more later in the game). Conversely, your enemies can shield themselves, which is depicted on the screen by three arcs surrounding them. To do the most damage, you need to land your blow on the side that is least shielded, and because your foes can switch up the shielding, basic combat is more engaging than in a standard MMOG. You can also land combo blows, which involves first swinging your weapon using that combo ability and then swinging your weapon again to correspond with a contextual button press. To be effective in combat, you must pay attention to these contextual swings and to your adversary's shield. The most successful moves result in a cringe-worthy thud and a large gusher of blood. You can also dodge attacks by double tapping the movement keys, or block by holding X, though we didn't find much use for these abilities in the early hours.
Eventually, you will make your way to Tortage, where you will encounter other players and find more quests than you can shake a scimitar at. You'll also meet some of the seedier characters of the Hyborian underbelly. Several quests involve the local house of prostitution and its illustrious madam, and her tart dialogue leaves little to the imagination. Even the newly freed Casilda offers you her questionable services, so between that aspect and plenty of salty writing, it's obvious that Age of Conan earned its M rating. You aren't limited to assisting the local riffraff, however. Early missions involve collecting thread, offing pirates, exacting revenge, and poisoning guards. Some require you to roam through Tortage's violent corners, while others send you into the local ruins or other instanced areas. However, to get the most out of your initial questing, you'll want to finish the single-player mission assigned to you. This mission sends you to an instanced, nighttime version of Tortage, and once you're finished and reached level 20, you can leave the city and finally enter the game proper, where a ton of possibilities await.
Funcom's first massively multiplayer online role-playing game, Anarchy Online, suffered from an infamously buggy launch, so early Age of Conan adopters were appropriately concerned about the stability of the developer's newest entry into the genre. While there has been some server downtime, our experience has been smooth and lag-free. A few issues, such as one in which some players found themselves stuck in a particular area, have been fixed, while some others seem relatively minor, such as placeholder text still popping up in a few descriptions. There are also some slight visual glitches, like texture pop-in and some odd animations during the game's in-engine cutscenes.
Yet these small flaws are easy to overlook in light of Age of Conan's extreme beauty. From both a technical and an artistic level, Tortage and its environs look absolutely stunning, from the gleaming harbor to the lush jungle areas. There is a striking amount of detail no matter what your surroundings, and aspects like the animations of the aforementioned apes and the spectacle of the most powerful spells are well done. There's a lovely contrast between the goriness of the combat proper and the splendor of the world itself, so expect several "ooh, aah" moments. To get the greatest impact, you will need a pretty beefy system, but the game looks nice and runs decently even at lower settings. The soundtrack and sound effects also impart a lot of atmosphere, from the thumping beats of combat music to the grunts of your own character as he swings his heavy blade.
So far, we're impressed by what we've played of Age of Conan, but there's a lot more to see and do before we're ready to issue a final verdict. Until that time, we'll be updating Under Review, GameSpot's