GC 2008: Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures Updates Impressions

We pay a visit to Funcom's lively Games Convention booth and head behind closed doors for a look at some upcoming content and DirectX 10 features for Age of Conan.

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Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures has been live for just more than four months right now, and though it's undoubtedly a great game, its players have been very vocal as far as complaints and suggestions are concerned. Funcom has always thought of itself as a company driven by its community, and if you're a fan, it'll probably come as no surprise to you that the Age of Conan team is currently working on implementing a number of fixes and new gameplay features. There's also an expansion pack in the works, by the way, but all we know about it is that it's scheduled for release sometime in 2009. Judging by a piece of teaser art that we were shown today, the expansion pack will feature masked Asian warriors who look a lot like the immortals that the Spartans go up against in the movie 300.

One of the more damning criticisms being leveled at Age of Conan since its release is the fact that, at certain character levels, there's simply a dearth of content to play through. There are a number of new content areas in development that will be appearing in the live game soon, and today we had an opportunity to check out a few of them.

First up was Tarantia Commons, a slum district that's part of the existing Tarantia City but which players are currently kept out of by a locked gate. Given that it's home to two warring gangs, Tarantia Commons is a dangerous area to frequent at night. As a hero in the Age of Conan world, you'll be able to undertake missions for either or both of the gangs in question, and though there will undoubtedly be plenty of violence involved, we're told that Funcom is aiming to incorporate more puzzle elements in the game via future updates. Tarantia Commons is a locale designed for players of level 40 and above, which, if you've ever played a character at that level, you'll know is definitely an area in need of new content.

Another all-new area that we had an opportunity to take a look at was a mountainous zone known as The Dolmen that's designed for level 50 to 55 characters. Bandit forces are a constant threat in the area, and one of the sample quests that we were shown will task you with lighting signal fires dotted around the region in an attempt to call reinforcements to the aid of a settlement under attack. We were told that this zone will add "dozens of hours of content" on its own, and it also appears to be a great example of how Funcom is starting to incorporate Conan influences from a variety of different sources. For example, we saw the "wheel of pain" structure that appeared in the 1982 Conan movie, and later we encountered a beautiful frost giant's daughter lifted from a story by Robert E Howard. The beautiful, scantily clad girl was clearly beckoning the player to follow her up into to the mountains, and we're told that, sometimes, she'll reward those who oblige her with some kind of reward. It was a trap on this occasion, though, and within moments of reaching a spot where we could be alone with her, two angry giants (her brothers) showed up.

Still exploring the same mountains, we were surprised when the entire zone started to shake as if there was an earthquake. As it turned out, there was, but it wasn't being caused by shifting tectonic plates or anything like that. Rather, a giant named Frost Father was to blame. Currently bound in chains deep inside an evil-looking, amphitheater-themed prison, this giant is the son of a god and, as we later discovered, he's much larger than the giants that we encountered earlier.

In addition to new quest zones, Funcom is working on the construction of new dungeons as well as the revamping of existing ones. One of the new dungeons that we were afforded a brief look at is the aforementioned Frost Father's place of imprisonment, a gigantic structure populated by all manner of demons and the like that will be suitable for characters at level 65 and above. Your goal in this dungeon, other than killing bosses to collect new-and-improved loot, will be to free the Frost Father, though we should warn you that it's not yet clear if he'll be appreciative or resentful of your efforts on his behalf.

One of the dungeons benefiting from a significant makeover right now is the Black Castle, which has been in Age of Conan since the game launched. After receiving negative feedback from players who thought that the dungeon needed to be made "more interesting and entertaining" Funcom has set about attempting to do just that. The new Black Castle, which we had an opportunity to see a great deal of during our meeting, is filled with traps, puzzles, and boss encounters that promise to be far more interesting than anything that has appeared in Age of Conan to date. Traps that we saw on this occasion included a huge Raiders of the Lost Ark-style boulder rolling down a staircase, and a series of flamethrowers that could be deactivated only by a team of players working together to stand on pressure pads. Another trap involved a searchlight being pointed at the floor by a huge stone eye on the wall of a room. Stepping into the light summoned a large snake that, we're told, is impossible to kill using conventional means. Of course, there is a way to beat it, and we saw the method, but we'll let you figure it out for yourself rather than spoil it.

The boss that we saw toward the end of our Black Castle demo looked like a regular guy initially, but it soon became apparent that beating him was going to require a lot of teamwork from the raid group. The room that you fight this guy in has a huge, bottomless well in the middle of it and, as the fight ensues, the boss's followers come into the room from a number of different entrances and attempt to throw themselves into it. Every time a follower sacrifices himself successfully, the boss's health is replenished, so you're definitely going to need some guys on follower detail during the fight.

A third dungeon, titled House of Crom, is also in development, and was described to us as a "gigantic, social group dungeon" designed for players who have already reached the level 80 cap. Multiple groups will be able to explore the dungeon simultaneously, and we suspect that they will when some of the best loot in the game inevitably starts dropping there.

New epic armor sets for every class in the game will be finding their way into Age of Conan at some point, and we had an opportunity to see several of them today. As a response to feedback from players, the new armor sets are much more distinctive-looking than anything that the game shipped with, but they don't look nearly as over the top as the gear in World of Warcraft. For example, the necromancer's headpiece was a huge, tusked mask that suggested Asian and tribal influences, and the assassin's set was in all black and ninja-like, except that it was intricately adorned with silver patterns.

Armor-set rewards for player-versus-player achievements are also coming to Age of Conan at some point, along with a new "consequences" system that aims to prevent high-level players from picking on relative newcomers. The idea is that if you kill a significantly lower-level player or two, then you'll be labeled a criminal and, if you continue to act that way, you'll be branded a murderer. At this point, town guards will attack you on sight, non-player characters may refuse to talk to you, and other players will have an opportunity to earn rewards by hunting you down.

That about does it for the upcoming content that we were shown today, but before our meeting finished, we were afforded a quick look at some of the visual improvements that Age of Conan will benefit from when DirectX 10 features are patched in later this year. In short, the game is going to look a lot better. More specifically, it'll take advantage of techniques that allow for even more realistic water, lighting effects that accurately re-create sun bleed, volumetric fog and lights, trees and foliage that move in the wind, more detailed textures, and even a cool radial-blur effect when you perform a fatality move. The thing that impressed us most was definitely the physics being used to let trees blow in the wind and tall grasses be brushed aside as a character walked through a field. Those same grasses rippled as if there was a helicopter preparing to take off when the character in question charged up a magic spell, which looked great and made the subsequent spell feel somehow more powerful.

Look for all of these changes and more in future Age of Conan updates coming soon. We'll bring you more information on the currently unnamed expansion pack as soon as it becomes available.

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