Whilst visually impressive, once outside of the 'training grounds', it lacks direction.
Actual score: 7.8
When one conjures images of Conan the Barbarian, there's little doubt in one's mind of lush forests, majestic mountains, freaked out natives, muscular men and scantily clad maidens. Written by Robert E. Howard back in the early 1930s in a magazine called Weird Tales, the iconic figure Conan then branched out into many medias like novels, comics, movies, table top pen and paper RPG and now of course, a computer game. Tagged as a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG), it certainly will be a daunting task to set apart this game to the ever so crowded MMO market.
True to its word, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (now called Age of Conan: Unchained) is a mature take on the game otherwise it will feel like Disneyland (and I'm sure Robert will be totally insulted if this was the case). So expect dark, gritty lands filled with all the good stuff like head lopping, prostitution, voodoo and the all important element, topless females (sorry gals, all men wear nappies though).
Like any good RPGs, character creation forms an important part and AoC:HA is no exception, as there are three races to choose from (Aquilonian / Cimmerian / Stygian – the forth one Khitan was added later in the expansion 'Rise of the Godslayer'). Also there are four archetypes being the soldier, rogue, priest and mage and each one has three classes to choose from. Each class also has an extensive skill tree that's highly recommend to plan ahead to maximise synergies. And lastly, detailed character customisation is also there so as you can imagine, there's lots to think about before launching into the world. Note though that certain races cannot be certain classes otherwise it does not fit into the AoC lore.
Once all that's done and dusted, a short cut scene reveals a shipwreck and voila, you wake up surrounded by a lush beach scene. This is a great demonstration of how beautiful this game is as, because Hyboria's landscape can range from great mountain ranges to the vast deserts to grand cities and jungles, it would be a shame otherwise to display anything less. This is certainly the strongest part of the game however to show off in all its glory, you need a pretty decent PC to run it. And I have to admit, if you don't have one, you will miss out on that immersion factor.
The trainee missions are actually well done and scripted. All the major characters are voice acted with a decent mix of group / solo quests. Set in the island of Tortage where there are pirates abound with a mix of jungle fever, it was a great introduction to the main plot. Yes, it's another amnesia story where you forgot everything (man I despise these copout stories) however moving forward, you get to practice the basics in fine fashion.
For instance: combat requires more than just click on the enemy and wait for a cool time to expire as it relies on combos. Fail to click on the displayed arrows, fails your combo thus the big bonus at the end. Naturally, the higher the skill level, the more combos (arrows) are required to click to unleash your power. Whilst good in theory, it's not really balanced out as mage characters don't have many combos (i.e. swinging a sword for instance). They are mainly skill spammers so it's a lot easier to 'control' a mage than a warrior (for example). In my experience (as I tried almost every character), I feel the Dark Templar is one of the hardest to maximise its potential with all the combos and skill swapping whilst the demonologist is the easiest.
Why I'm stating this fact is because of the PvP (player vs player). Because of the required combos to execute the massive bonus, naturally all players will be moving around, therefore warriors types will be dealing 'white' damage most of the time (i.e. a simple swing) whilst mages will king hit you. Rangers naturally have great immobilisation skills however also requires to combo it beforehand. Priests on the other hand, are a mixture of mage / warrior so the balance is not entirely there for all character types.
Speaking of PvP, a neat feature though is the concept of siege warfare – that is, you get to own your piece of land. Yet to create your town takes a lot of gold and effort as it requires mining for minerals, chopping tonnes of trees and so forth. Once done, you can claim it your own. But as the name suggests, prepare to defend it as raiding parties will look at your hard work and take it (or destroy it). Obviously you need a decent size clan to do this and of course team work. I have attended only two sieges and it's definitely fun when charging in with your woolly mammoth yet you need a decent internet connection as mine lagged considerably.
Coming back to the main storyline, once you leave the 'training grounds' (Tortage), it starts to go downhill from there. You get to select which land you want to explore (yet it's best to start where your character originally arrived from) and then 'whoosh' to the capital city for that provenance. Here you'll get shell shocked as for starters, you don't have a lead to go by (other than 'come back when you are more experienced') therefore literally left to your own devices. What makes matters worse, you are surrounded by characters and locales of all levels – that is level 80s (the maximum level in this game) mingle with level 20s (most likely you).
This is quite an intimating and confusing factor all rolled into one. It would be better if it's was separated into different levels / zones to 'ease' you in. Yet your only direction (and saving grace) is to view the map and see what zone your character can enter in without getting owned. This throws the main storyline progression out of the window and total randomness in. My suggestion here is treat each zone as a separate adventure and don't even think about the main plot until you are 'experienced' enough.
This also poses another weakness as the game doesn't explain the lore very well, as it seems that it makes an assumption that you have a reasonable knowledge of Hyboria. Well, if your knowledge is somewhat lacking, then prepare for that 'huh?' moments as you will be running around like a headless chicken completing aimless tasks. Speaking of which, at least there are literally tonnes of quests to complete and there's no way you will be able to complete all of them for each land in your first run. However and sadly enough, some quest lines are a mixture of group / solo therefore if you don't like group quests, you will be missing out completing the quest line. What I feel it should be done is have a quest line entirely solo or group – not a combination. Thankfully there is just a few that does this and naturally group quests have better loot / drops than solo.
To break away from adventuring, you can opt for crafting. There are five main categories being weaponsmith, armoursmith, gemcutter, alchemist and architect. However to become an expert requires recipes which can be located as loot or simply purchased at a trade post. Or you can do what I have done (as my luck when it comes to loot drops are poor) is simply gather materials. I cannot tell you how many times I've spent gathering (especially chopping down trees) to earn cash however I got my sweet Stoneheart armour set (arguably the best crafted plate set) by selling materials. It's a good diversion when you are not questing.
As because there are many quests to complete (and the lack of real direction), the game has a massive replay value. Currently though it's free-to-play (sort of) so you can experience all the wonders of this game. Comparing with other MMOs in the market, it's visually superior by a long shot however, and sadly though, it lacks direction, broken wiki (it hasn't been updated for quite a while), small population makes this game hard to recommend. I definitely like my 'run' though as it does extremely well for solo characters however grouping may cause an issue.