As imagined by developer Funcom, the land of Cimmeria's lush green landscapes are dotted with impaled corpses upon which crows roost and flap their wings, apparently pleased with both the height of their perch and the scent of death. Thus the stage is set for one of the finest online role-playing games in years, one in which fertile fields and arid deserts contrast with the blood spilled by hundreds of sharp-toothed warthogs and hulking mantises. Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is an explorer's paradise, offering rich, grisly surprises in the crevasses of its bustling cities and green meadows. Whether it's a looming pyramid hiding deadly secrets or a spider's lair nestled within the rocky hills, the sights are impressive and striking, and the vivid backstory that supports this sprawling paradise is mature and, appropriately enough, barbaric.
But this is a flawed paradise. Funcom has been quick to handle the most egregious blemishes since the launch of its massively multiplayer online game, but a number of frustrating bugs remain. The most minor ones have little to no impact on the game proper, like placeholder text and a minimap that occasionally goes blank (among other interface glitches). Others are more significant, such as broken quests and memory leaks that lead to the occasional crash. Launch imperfections are common enough in the genre, but while Age of Conan's release was hardly disastrous, it has been less stable than we should expect. Many bugs have already been fixed, but the game's edges are still somewhat jagged, and the software can buckle under the sheer weight of its own ambition.
You'd do well to look past these imperfections, though, because Age of Conan is the most brutal and immediately satisfying MMOG on the market, thanks to its unique slant on combat, resonant quest writing, and uncompromising maturity. It's also paced much differently than its competition, ushering you into Hyboria slowly by juxtaposing a story-driven, single-player quest against the more standard team-oriented exploration and traditional questing. During your time in Tortage, the initial lower-level city, missions are bestowed with in-engine scenes and full voice acting, which draw you into the world and weave narrative threads that continue even after you've left the pirate port for the wild beyond. It's unfortunate that most post-Tortage quests lack the voice-over, but the tasks themselves are superbly written. While it's true that the majority of them are genre standards--kill these enemies, collect these items, and so on--they're assigned by interesting characters with stories to tell. You'll meet a young woman hiding her pregnancy (and the unsavory circumstance behind it) from her overbearing father, rescue a princess that turns out to be a bit different than expected, and interrogate murder suspects. Don't skip past quest intros without reading them in Age of Conan; if you do, you'll be missing some of the game's finest moments.
Of course, before you begin your explorations, you must customize your avatar and choose a race and class. The cosmetic side of character creation is delightfully robust, letting you tweak nose length, pick tattoos, and play with a host of other options. Your new virtual self can hail from Stygia, Aquilonia, or Conan's own homeland, Cimmeria, and from there, you pick one of 12 varied classes--though not every class is available to every race. Each class falls into one of four different archetypes, so whether you prefer to keep to the shadows, melt your foes with the heat of supernatural flames, or (literally) rip a frost giant's heart from its chest and gobble it down, you will find a class that suits your play style. As of this writing, most classes and races are well represented, so you're bound to encounter demonologists and the dark servants that scurry along with them, or see a Tempest of Set's electrical spells streak across the horizon.
Battles are not the typical click-and-wait affairs you may be accustomed to in other MMOGs. Swinging a melee weapon or shooting a bow involves more than just clicking your mouse; rather, it requires you to press the number keys (and at upper levels, the Q and E keys as well) to swing or aim in the corresponding direction. Assuming you're fighting enemies around your own level, you can't just indiscriminately tap the keys and expect that growling yeti to fall. Monsters can actively shield themselves from your strikes, so you must focus your attack on the unprotected sides, where you'll do the most damage. You have your own shielding arcs, and you can adjust them during battle, though you'll probably ignore the option, simply because any potential defensive benefit is too small to make futzing with the control and numeric keys worth the trouble.
The higher your level, the more active you must remain within combat, especially when you wish to string combos together. Combo strikes and spells don't require a single key tap, but rather a succession of them--and the higher the level of the combo, the more button presses required. It's pretty simple to perform a two-step combo, but when you're tasked with four keystrokes in a row, you'll realize that you simply must pay attention to the onscreen prompts. Combos, when timed right, can also result in deadly killing blows that look and sound gruesome, and never lose their macabre and satisfying edge. Even when no fatality is involved, a combo may involve plunging your claymore directly into a soldier's chest or knocking a Vanir spellcaster a few feet backward with a stun spell.
The combat impressively remains gripping enough to push you forward, even when you're pursuing tasks that could qualify as grinding. Much of this has to do with the various roles a single class can play within an adventuring group--even classes that are seemingly dedicated to healing and support. A Herald of Xotli may be an offensive powerhouse, but the healing blood pit he occasionally drops can be a major boon to a party close to defeat. A Bear Shaman is handy to have around for his buffs and healing spells, but he's more effective using his melee combos in the midst of chaos than he is tiptoeing in the sidelines. These varied abilities mean that not only do group dynamics feel fresher than in most other online RPGs, but that the majority of classes offer highly successful solo play.
The single-player questing offered within the first 20 levels isn't the only pacing adjustment Age of Conan introduces, though not every adjustment is as successful as others. For example, you can only learn crafting skills once you hit level 40. While the focus on combat is deliberate, crafting activities would have been a welcome way to mix up the early levels, especially given that you can gather resources before you can craft. The prospect of new loot, often a major reason to push forward, isn't as exciting as you'd hope, either. As you level, you'll find that few looted items are helpful, and the limited inventory space (even after buying an extra bag) can make dropped items more of a nuisance than a pleasure. The flow of new abilities is also inconsistent, since rather than bringing brand-new spells, new levels more often reward you with more powerful versions of existing spells and combos. Fortunately, the feat points you begin to earn at level 10 can be spent on new abilities and upgrades from one of three specialization trees.
Nevertheless, it really is about the combat, whether you prefer to beat up tarantulas or other players. Should you choose to play on a free-for-all player-versus-player server, be prepared for frustration. On those servers, you will be killed--often--by archers camping spawn points and "griefers" who get their jollies from punishing new players. But if you'd rather avoid the unfriendliness of such realms, you still have options. Instanced PVP battles are the most immediate outlet for your spellcasting prowess, and you can play a team deathmatch or capture-the-flag variant against others simply by adding yourself to the match queue. Once enough interested players have joined up, you're whisked away to the map for a vicious and enjoyable clash that can result in the best kind of controlled chaos. It's a shame that there aren't more maps available for these games, but the flexibility of Age of Conan's classes and the sheer bloody violence of the matches mean that every visit is a unique, and occasionally breathless, experience.
At this point, it's unclear how well the game's most touted PVP component, guild siege battles, will function. They certainly have potential, though the largest battles will be the private realm of the biggest guilds, and we've yet to experience one of these events. It is clear, however, that to build a keep and maintain it, a guild has to have a large amount of manpower and wealth. At any given time, you'll have plenty of cash for your standard needs: weapons, armor, potions, and so on. Building up a keep is incredibly expensive, though--which is a great way of ensuring that big siege battles remain the domain of the elite, but if you're hoping to start a fledgling guild, be warned that the prospect of building and defending an expansive battlekeep is a daunting one. If you'd rather continue your travels at later levels than invest in siege battle, you'll unfortunately find that the flow of new content gets noticeably slower as you progress toward the maximum level of 80.
But even in light of the noted flaws, Age of Conan is a gratifying and entertaining game that, more than any other online RPG in recent memory, possesses a strong sense of place. There is certainly plenty of variety to the scenery and the dungeons, but even in the brightest areas, you can't escape the sense of oppression. You'll see it as you approach Thoth-Amon's tower and hear it in the buzz of mosquitoes, and you can practically feel the humidity in Purple Lotus Swamp. Battles are a natural presence in these places, as if the heavy dread hanging in the air needs to be released through the ripping of daggers through flesh. The combat is mechanically sound and great fun, but within the rich context of Hyboria, it's even more inspiring.
The art design is the keystone for this success. Tortage, your first haunt, makes a solid first impression, but it can't compete with the dense Tarantia skyline or the sight of rushing waterfalls in the Cimmerian knolls. The game engine renders these areas with incredible detail, using ornate textures and luxuriant lighting to great effect. Age of Conan is the most attractive and technically impressive MMOG now on the market, though it requires a rather beefy system to see Hyboria at its most splendid, and even then it is prone to weirdness. There are pixel shader glitches, various clipping issues, and other noticeable blights. The frame rate also takes a major hit in populated areas, so a visit to the port city of Khemi may be a little more frustrating than your trek through the less busy Khopshef Province. Additonally, as of this writing, DirectX 10 support has yet to be implemented. Assuming you have a rig that is up to the task, however, you will be constantly admiring the view.
The sound design is essentially flawless. The soundtrack isn't as omnipresent as with Funcom's previous MMOG, Anarchy Online, but it is just as marvelous, featuring pounding bass drums when combat gets dramatic and the atmospheric calls of flutes as you explore the idyllic Conall's Valley. Of particular note is the beautiful, serene vocal composition you hear in the border kingdoms. The grunts, clangs, and thuds of combat perfectly match the bloodiness of the accompanying blood splatter, and even small touches, such as the authentic sound of your footsteps as you march through snow, are spot-on. The voice acting, though limited mostly to the first 20 levels, is equally excellent.
Age of Conan has plenty of room to grow and a number of issues that need fixing, but even now, it offers a rewarding adventure abundant with character and fascinating backstory. The combat system perfectly suits the adult nature of the quests, and is the finest one yet seen in an online RPG. In spite of its current bugs and glitches, Age of Conan is a remarkably entertaining journey through a dark and mature world of beasts and brutality.