Its 2008 launch was plagued with various fits and starts, but the grimly gorgeous Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures was a brutal and atmospheric dark pearl among fantasy online role-playing games. In the years since, developer Funcom has plugged in most of its gaps, giving the game's first expansion, Rise of the Godslayer, room to shine in its own right. Players between levels 40 and 80 may feel left out in the Frost Swamp, but newer players--and veterans looking to reroll a new character--will enjoy the scenic new lands in the Gateway to Khitai. And if you've reached Age of Conan's level cap and don't mind some tedious grinding, there are plenty of violent pleasures waiting in the new high-level areas. If you've strayed from Age of Conan's blood-smeared trail, Rise of the Godslayer is the reason to return to the service of the Aquilonian king.
Expansions of online RPGs typically add a couple of new classes and, perhaps, an increase to the level cap. Age of Conan: Rise of the Godslayer adds neither, though it does feature a new race: the Khitan. Playing the new race doesn't significantly change how the initial 20 levels in Tortage play out, but it does mean once your initial travails on the volcanic isle are over, you start questing in your homeland: Khitai. If you'd rather visit this level 20 to 40 zone--the Gateway to Khitai--with an existing character, you can pay a caravan master to transport you there unharmed. However, unless you're in a hurry, you should offer your services to this needy chap, as you will then perform one of multiple quests as way of payment. Some of these are conventional scenarios, but others tap into the savage beauty that make Conan an explorer's paradise. In one enjoyable scenario, you fend off a besieging kraken from aboard a rocking ship. In a dreamy underwater sequence, undulating visuals give a simple fetch quest a surreal aura. These quests also serve as great introductions to the Gateway's wilds.
The Far East is Khitai's visual and temperamental inspiration. Provided your system is beefy enough to render these lands in their full glory (and, indeed, the game requires a beefy PC), you'll be awed by the scenery. Red poppylike flowers dot the grasslands, and the autumnal hues of certain trees provide a lovely contrast to the craggy mountains in the distance. Once you reach level 80 and can further explore Rise of the Godslayer's new zones, your appreciation will only grow. Somber ambient music (all of it uniformly superb) and deep lighting make Chosain Province's charred villages seem so grim you can practically smell the blood. Sparkling creeks ripple through the northern grasslands, where creatures battle each other when you haven't engaged them in combat yourself. The vistas are vastly different from those you see in Cimmeria and Stygia, but they still capture that special Age of Conan vibe, where pastoral grace competes with the ghastly sight of murdered corpses hanging from gnarled branches.
The combat hasn't strayed from the combo-focused swordplay and sorcery that delight Age of Conan fans, but the expansion offers quality reasons to put your battle skills to good use. Quests are of the usual kind: Kill this many number of things, collect these objects and bring them back, free these prisoners by clicking on them, and so on. Good quest writing gives these quests context and keeps you pushing forward. When a distraught local pleads with you to put the spirits haunting him and his fellow villagers to rest, you sense his desperation. You may feel as evil as the traitorous soldier that asks you to carry out a malevolent task on his behalf. Foes that you and your teammates take on within the Gateway include Hykranian archers, wild yaks, and demonic creatures called the kang zai. There are also fun boss fights in store for you, such as the apelike king lurking high in the cliffs near the great wall.
Players who have reached level 80 also get new lands to explore and dungeons to conquer. These areas look as fertile as those in the Gateway and are populated by numerous factions that make up a web of adversarial philosophies. The death-worshipping Brittle Blade is a band of rogues that value chaos and a clean kill; the opposing Shadows of Jade want order restored so they can carry out their thievery in relative peace. To access faction-specific rewards, you perform duties for their leaders to enhance your standing with the group--but you also draw the ire of the opposing faction by doing so. These rewards might be as simple as great-looking armor, but two of these factions feature quest lines in which you can earn a wolf or tiger mount. The faction system is solid, and in some cases, eloquent character dialogue may get you caught up in the doctrines and faiths that drive these sects. But there's a notable downside to this new content: tedium. You grind repeatable quests ad nauseam until you've risen in stature enough to move to the next set of quests or earn the reward you crave. Chasing down a bunch of escaping prisoners or slicing your way through enemies so you can blow up a bridge is fun the first time. After you've done these missions 10 times, you'll long for more variety and wonder how the populace manages to rebuild that bridge so quickly, over and over again.
Luckily, a lot of these high-level quests are excellent, and many are highly challenging, even when you group with experienced players. Chopping up wolves and taming a motherless cub is simple enough; taking on a giant golem by stabbing at his feet requires a bit more manpower. The best experiences come by way of Rise of the Godslayer's mostly excellent dungeons. The six-man Kang Pagoda dungeon serves as a great introduction to the expansion's challenging delights. The disgusting boss within spews vomit and emits gas, and it's not a simple encounter by any stretch. There are still large-scale encounters, but there's a clear focus on the smaller ones, which means it might take you a lot of time repeating dungeons so you can afford the fancy faction armor you've been eyeing. Fortunately, grouping up and questing in the open world is still fun, thanks to Age of Conan's still-excellent combat, which requires you to stay focused on the proper key presses, lest you waste a good combo. Nothing beats whaling on a crowd of Craterspawn with a friend or two. It's just a pity that the slow pace at which you gain tangible rewards may dampen the spirits of even the most bloodthirsty adventurers.
Unusually, Funcom did not increase the level cap in Rise of the Godslayer but rather instituted a clever alternate advancement system. This is a supplementary tree in which you spend points earned in player-versus-environment and player-versus-player combat on both passive and active enhancements. And if you aren't playing as often as your guildmates, you can choose instead to unlock these feats and perks in real time, a la EVE Online. The trick is that you can only have so many of these enhancements active at once. The limited slots may remind you of the similar setup in Guild Wars, though Age of Conan's system, while flexible, doesn't feature Guild Wars' extreme adaptability. Nevertheless, it's an intriguing way of letting players adapt their characters as they further flesh out their roles in the world (and in their guilds). Just be prepared: It takes a lot of time to earn just one feat. You may initially lament the kind of investment the system requires for you to get the most out of it, but if you're in for the long haul, the perks are a fair reward for your time.
Age of Conan seems to have left behind the majority of its technical woes, though we did encounter various glitches, most of them relatively minor. Getting caught in an inescapable crevasse is an annoyance but is normally an easy fix with the /stuck command. On two occasions, however, we had our mount remain underneath our avatar even after dismissing it, which resulted in a hysterical sequence in which the character ran not along the ground but along the horse's back. (Logging out and logging back in was the only cure for this particular bug.) Fortunately, Rise of the Godslayer is a stable expansion, which means you can enjoy its solid quests and idyllic environs without many technical struggles. And these new areas are well worth investigating, whether you've traversed Kylikki's Crypt a few dozen times or have never so much as heard of the Fields of the Dead. And if stability issues and early content gaps caused you to turn away from the original Age of Conan, Rise of the Godslayer is a great reason to revisit this blood-soaked world.