Conan the Barbarian to battle online in '06

Funcom's action RPG/MMORPG hybrid based on Robert E. Howard's classic fantasy stories will arrive early next year. First screens inside.

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Even though he killed himself in 1936, Robert E. Howard created one of the most enduring characters in fantasy fiction--Conan the Cimmerian, aka Conan the Barbarian. The gruff, rough, and virtually indestructible warrior slew and stole his way through a brutal ancient realm in 20 short stories, published from 1932 to 1936 in the sci-fi magazine Weird Tales.

Since then, Howard's complete works and unpublished Conan stories have been republished in numerous books and adapted into a popular comic series. They have also inspired two films--the classic Conan the Barbarian (1982) and the less-than-classic Conan the Destroyer (1984), both starring Arnold Schwarzenegger--and two much-less-than-classic syndicated television shows, both named Conan: The Adventurer (1992 and 1997-1998, respectively).

Because Conan is one of the most popular figures in fantasy fiction, the stories have also inspired several games. The first, called Conan, came out in 1984 for the Commodore 64. The most recent, also called Conan, was released for the PC, Xbox, GameCube, and PlayStation 2 in 2004--in Europe. However, the game's publisher, TDK Mediactive, could not find a US distributor.

Now, Conan fans yearning for adventure on their computers have something to look forward to. North Carolina-based publisher Funcom announced today that it is developing Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, a new role-playing game featuring the brawny barbarian. However, unlike the company's most famous game, Anarchy Online, the game will not be a traditional massively multiplayer role-playing game.

Instead, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures will be a PC "online action RPG" that will be a mix of "story-driven single-player experience and a massive and brutal multiplayer endgame." According to Funcom game director Gaute Godager, it will begin as a single-player RPG adventure, and when that portion's story is complete, it will let players bring their characters into an MMORPG universe. Said Godager, "Have you not felt the urge when a great single-player RPG ends to have your character live on and interact with other fellow travelers? To enter an even greater world? This is that opportunity, to have a detailed RPG all about you, your choices, and your character, and if you win, to share that victory at an even greater stage."

Age of Conan is set after the titular barbarian--following many years of bloody struggle and plunder--has become king of the city of Aquilonia. "But," according to Funcom, "Conan's rule is on the brink of chaos, spiraling towards the doom of ancient evils." The game will incorporate the various elements of Howard's "dark, lush, violent, and sinful universe," including "cruel gods, mythical creatures, lost civilizations, and a struggling human race."

Besides an apparently extensive story, Age of Conan will feature 7.1 surround audio and advanced graphics, as evidenced by the screenshots accompanying the release. The gameplay promises to go "against the formulaic nature of online RPG combat." Using a "Real Combat" engine and a "multipoint melee system," players will be able to target specific parts of their opponents' bodies.

The multiplayer part of the game will also feature real-time strategy elements, which will let players create formations of characters and non-player characters. The game will also feature large-scale battles, which will let players attack hostile strongholds, as well as more-standard MMORPG elements, like guilds.

Funcom also said the game's launch would accompany a whole new wave of Conan products, including a Dark Horse Comics series, an anime film, new novels, and a toy line from McFarlane Toys.

GameSpot will have more on Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures as additional information becomes available.

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