E3 06: Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures Updated Impressions

We take an updated look at this online fantasy role-playing game based on author Robert E. Howard's classic fantasy setting.

LOS ANGELES--The massively multiplayer game Age of Conan: Hyborian made an appearance at E3 2006, and we took the opportunity to get an updated look. We began our visit to the game with a brief look at character creation, which takes place in the galley of a slave ship. In this area, players can choose to create a character from one of the game's three "races" of humans: Stygians (the sorcerers of Hyboria), Cimmerians (the barbarians from which Conan himself has descended), and Aquilonians (the citizens of the nation Conan now rules). At this point in the game, players can also choose one of four character archetypes (soldier, priest, mage, and rogue), which they'll later develop into more-advanced characters once they reach level 20. Not coincidentally, level 20 will also be when players will complete the game's single-player campaign--that's right, this massively multiplayer game will have a single-player portion that should familiarize you with how the game is played before you jump into the massively multiplayer portion. (And after completing this single-player game for the first time, you'll be able to skip it with later characters.)

Players create new characters using the game's many customization options, such as choosing eye and hair color, as well as some of the game's more-unusual options, such as creating crooked noses (which presumably were caused by previous tavern brawls) and adjusting the size of their characters' chests, shoulders, and "arses"--the latter being a commonly used term in Howard's fiction. Apparently, all new characters begin the game as slave captives whose memories have been erased so that they can be used to depose Conan. Once they create their new characters, players run through a brief training area, meeting their first non-playing character who will grant their first quest in a close-in cinematic sequence reminiscent of something you might expect to see in a more-traditional single-player game.

We then watched demonstrations of the game's "action combat" system, which will let players fight manually by swinging their melee weapon in one of six directions. By swinging their swords in different directions in a certain order, players will be able to unleash devastating combination attacks, such as a multiple-hitting attack we watched that began with a sword thrust in the gut and ended with a sweeping arc that cleanly decapitated a thug. We then watched a few other vicious melee attacks (such as one that lets players impale their opponents with a sword, then kick the corpse off the blade), which game director Gaute Godager explained were influenced slightly by the PlayStation 2 game God of War, but primarily by the violent and brutal world of Robert E. Howard's Conan. Apparently, defending oneself in close combat is something that will be handled automatically, based on how skilled characters are in blocking, dodging, parrying, and the art of riposte (quickly reversing an oncoming attack into a counterattack). Godager explained that although the combat will be action-based, the game will still be online and may still have issues with network lag that could make active, manually controlled defense frustrating.

After watching hand-to-hand battles, we then watched mounted combat in action; players will apparently be able to purchase horses (or win them through special trials), which can be improved with various upgrades, including barding and other types of armor. Mounted combat is built around charging opponents with mounted weapons. Essentially, a longer distance between players' horses and their targets will let them build up more running speed, which translates into more damage from a charging attack. Players participate in mounted combat by pressing and holding their attack key, then releasing it just as they pass an opponent. Of course, players will also have the option of using ranged weapons, such as bows, which can be aimed and fired in real time from a first-person view. Also, they'll be able to use sorcery, which Godager suggests will use the game's six-directional action interface.

We concluded our tour of the world of Hyboria with an example of the game's large-scale "massive combat" system, which will include elements of real-time strategy. Apparently, one of the more-advanced character classes that players can aspire to will be the "commander" class, which can lead large-scale battles against enemy armies and even enemy towns. We watched a commander class prepare for an oncoming charge from an army of computer-controlled enemies by taking control of a trebuchet, one of the game's siege engines, and pummeling the faraway forces with a few volleys. The enemies had apparently erected an opposing town at an accelerated rate (apparently, enemy towns will take two to three weeks of real time to build to any appreciable size), then sent formations of footmen out to assault the nearby player-built town. Godager assured us that these massive battles will be challenging and rewarding for players, but that they can also be scheduled, similar to the alien attacks in Funcom's Anarchy Online expansion pack, Alien Invasion.

Though we have yet to see how the game's many and distinctive parts will all fit together, what we did see was very promising indeed. With Age of Conan, Funcom is clearly looking to create something very different in massively multiplayer games--something with fast-paced, brutal action, highly distinctive combat, and an element of strategy we haven't seen in these types of games before.

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