SAN FRANCISCO--It wouldn't be the 2008 Game Developers Conference without games to show, and we took the opportunity to take an updated look at Funcom's Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. The upcoming online game takes place in the savage, brutal fantasy world created by author Robert E. Howard, and it's continued to show progress along the course of its development over the past four-and-a-half years. We had a chance to revisit the character creation process, which leads to your first adventure on the island of Tortage and will put you on a path to, as game director Gaute Godager put it, "peeling back the layers of an evil onion," since, over the course of the game, you'll encounter evil factions and monsters who seem threatening enough, but when defeated or escaped, may prove even graver threats.
We had a chance to watch a high-level dungeon crawl in motion, which included a party of characters at the maximum level of 80. The party made its way through a dank series of caverns inhabited by angry giant lizardmen that leapt to attack, but also revealed the game's tactical "armor" feature. The game uses a real-time combat system that lets you attack in as many as five directions (using a different keystroke for each), and you'll have various combination attacks that use different directional attacks in sequence. But you won't always be able to use the same attacks with success, since, depending on your enemies' facing and equipment, your foes may have extra protection on, for instance, their left or right flank. Age of Conan's combat replicates actual collision with player models--this is a fancy way of saying that your characters actually take up real space in the world and will bump into one another unless you can find your way around. So, should your enemies shift position to expose their armored side to the very end of your most devastating combination attack, you won't be able to deal the kind of damage you seek, unless you also reposition yourself. These positional concerns will come into play in both melee and ranged combat; one of the characters in the party we watched wielded a long-handled lance that was able to poke at enemies from behind the backs of frontline allies, and these same concerns will come into play once archers and spell-flinging wizards take the field.
Even though the possibility of smart tactical strategy in an online game's combat system seems intriguing, perhaps the most exciting form of combat in Age of Conan will be on the backs of beasts. We saw several examples of mounted combat in action as characters took up one of three different animals: a charger horse, a war mammoth, and a war rhino reminiscent of the motion picture 300. Interestingly, though you won't be able to access all your on-foot combination attacks while riding, you will have access to other different attacks suited specifically for mounted combat. Your attacks will also be more deadly the faster you're riding--this seems like it will mostly come into play while on horseback, since horses can gallop furiously, rear back and attack with their front legs, or lean forward and send enemies flying with a powerful kick from their rear legs. Mammoths and rhinos won't allow for weapon combat (they're just too big) and will handle much more poorly than swift steeds, but they'll still be extremely powerful in battle, and can even be used to deal siege damage to enemy walls.
We also had a chance to get another look at player keeps, which can be purchased at exorbitant prices by ambitious guilds willing to gather thousands of units of various resources, such as metal, stone, and wood. Guilds can be created as in many other online games, by recruiting other players, and once a guild is established, players can choose a location for a stronghold. In our demonstration, the frozen plains of Cimmeria, Conan's homeland, was chosen. Once construction on a keep has begun, the buildings rise out of the earth, similar to the animations in popular real-time strategy games such as the Age of Empires series, though the most strongly fortified keeps will have both outer and inner walls surrounding the precious citadel, as well as automated defenses on the walls. However, the best defense for a coveted stronghold will be a determined guild of players--interestingly, the game will not model the distance for height when players attack from above, so defending archers can effectively extend their range against attackers below, while besiegers on the ground will have their ranges effectively cut shorter as their arrows must fly not only toward the walls, but also over them. The most coveted citadels will offer powerful bonuses to their controlling guilds and to each member, but there will apparently be only eight or nine such citadel locations--and these can be contested in lengthy, real-time campaigns in which the winners will be able to sack the city and claim the territory for their own. Age of Conan remains a graphically lush and ambitious-seeming game that continues to get closer to realizing its promise of brutal and competitive online gameplay on a massive scale. The game is scheduled for launch on May 20th.