First Impressions: Prepare to crush your enemies, see them driven... oh, you know the rest.
Know, o reader, that long ago, in an age undreamed of, before Sam and Frodo held hands at the gates of Mordor, before Harry Potter first touched his philosopher's stones, and even before the Beastmaster communed with a ferret and was subsequently forgotten, there lived Conan. Conan of the black mane, Conan of the brooding ways, Conan of the many ladyfriends. And if you haven't been drowsing under the effects of Stygian black lotus for the past year, you'll know that Funcom is working on an MMORPG based on the ancient world put on paper by tough guy dreamer Robert E. Howard. Plenty of fans are chomping at the bit for their opportunity to step into Howard's world: just a few months ago, over a hundred thousand would-be Cimmerians applied to for beta testing positions. What is it that sets Age of Conan apart from the sea of MMOs already on the market? I'm glad you asked.
First off is Conan and Hyboria itself. Conan's world was never about black and white, good vs. evil dichotomies. There's no save-the-world-from-ultimate-evil struggle in Conan's story, there's no grand villain that mirrors the Cimmerian's moves to harry his existence. Conan is equal parts thief, rogue, hero and king, and it seems like Funcom gets it. The game starts players off as a slave shipwrecked on an island called Tortage. The player's first mission is to find and kill the slaver in charge of the vessel?not because of the inherent evil of slavery, but to keep him from reporting the wreck and letting anyone know he has escaped. No, this isn't gamers' first chance to roam through Aquilonia and the Pictish wilderness, but earlier attempts didn't really do the Barbarian much justice. This time out, Funcom promises to stay faithful to the Conan image in all its brutish, blood-spattered glory. For instance, skilled players with higher-level characters will be treated to gruesome finishing moves featuring the occasional impaling and decapitation, not to mention the obligatory ?blood spatter on the screen? effect. Make no mistake about it, Age of Conan will earn its ?M? rating.
Hyboria also stands out from the MMO crowd because it isn't a world populated by elves and dwarves and so on. Instead, players have the choice of playing a character from one of three nations: Cimmeria, Aquilonia, or Stygia. They're all human, but their different cultural backgrounds give them different beliefs and skills, and, in game terms, different possible character classes. At level one, the player only chooses a nationality and customizes the character for height and look and so on. But on reaching level five, they player gets to choose a class, and nationality plays a part in what's available. All three countries can produce Rogues and Priests, but only Stygians have the option to become Mages. Cimmerians and Aquilonians have the Soldier option instead. Mages look like the traditional magic users of Hyboria?they cast spells, but have little in the way of armor or other weaponry. Priests, meanwhile, serve their deities with both weapons and spells. Soldiers are just that, with their heavy armor and weapons skills. Rogues are also fighters, but they seem to rely less on their armor than on their own skill and cunning.
The class system is particularly rich in that at level 20 players can choose further specialization based on nationality and class. For instance, a Rogue can choose to become a Ranger, an Assassin, or a Barbarian, though only the Aquilonian has access to all three possibilities. Each specialization has its own skills and combat moves. For instance, the Ranger has special ranged combat abilities. Priests, Soldiers, and Mages can likewise specialize and earn special abilities. Level 20 also gives the player the chance to choose a Prestige Class that will help round out the character with different skills. There are four prestige classes announced so far: Lord, Commander, Master, and Crafter. Crafters, to take one example, are not only able to construct weapons and armor, they can also build smithies and other crafting locations where other artisans can work. The Lord, on the other hand, is an efficient manager and can organize the building of cities and defensive keeps. It looks like some of the prestige classes can level up, too. For instance, as the Crafter becomes more skilled, he will be able to build better equipment and buildings.
Prestige classes are really aimed at giving characters the skills they'll need once they get involved in guilds. Players will always have the choice to play solo or as part of a group, but Funcom has done a lot to make sure the guild play in Age of Conan is top-notch. Of course there will be the usual PvP elements, but there will also be a fully-developed city vs. city combat system. Players and AI will be able to construct massive cities complete with walls, towers, guards, and defensive weaponry. They'll likewise be able to build siege armies with the requisite equipment to assault enemy cities.
Speaking of combat, Funcom is building a unique system into Age of Conan, and they're calling it ?Real Combat.? The usual MMO combat system is grounded in the old d20 system where you swing and hit or miss based only on a die roll, not on anything you do as a player. Funcom is promising a real-time combat system that will give sword-wielding characters the choice of six different strikes, including diagonal slashes, horizontal slashes, and forward thrusts that will allow the player to target opponents' weak spots. Characters will also learn combos as they level up, giving them the chance to do more damage and attack multiple foes at once. It looks like combos will be specific to the different classes. The Barbarian will progress through combos like ?Reckless Blows? to ?Flurry of Steel,? then ?Avalanche of Steel,? and finally ?Chaos Incarnate.? Fortunately the game will help walk a player through the correct keystrokes for combos via on-screen prompts.
The combat system will also include an innovative stamina system that will require players to think strategically about which attacks to use rather than just spamming an opponent with a random series of attacks. Each attack will use a bit of stamina which can only be recovered by a period of rest. Everything about the Age of Conan system seems designed to put as much control into the hands of the player as possible and turn it into a thinking experience rather than a simple click-fest.
The magic system is just as detailed and also allows for player customization. Magic will be based on the usual mana system, where mana serves as the ?currency? for spellcasting. Each spell has a price, and if you don't have enough mana left at a given moment, you can't cast the spell. Of course, what magic a character can use is related to class: Mages and Priests will have access to different spells. Even within classes, Priests with different specializations will have different spells. Where a Scion of Set can cast various poison-type spells, a Druid of the Storm has access to electrical magic. Whatever a given spellcaster's class, he or she will be able to use ?spellweaving? to combine spells in original ways to combat specific enemies. Players will be able to experiment to find the combinations that work for different situations or against particular types of enemies. The number of spells that can be combined are limited only by the character's level and ambition. Remember that magic in Conan's world is a dark art that carries with it plenty of danger. Experimenting with spells beyond your ken may result in dangerous side effects, like the release of an uncontrollable dark power, an ancient curse or the like. Spellweaving carries with it a ?magic burden? that builds with each weave. The burden makes each subsequent weave more dangerous, but it will diminish if enough time passes between weaves.
On the tech side of things, Age of Conan will be a ?Vista launch title,? meaning it will be built to use the new technologies that Vista will bring to gaming. It's not clear how these folks define ?launch,? considering that the game will release more than a year after Vista's debut, but there you go. It's built on Funcom's own Dream World engine, which they've been working on for more than ten years, since the initial release of Anarchy Online. It'll have support for DX10 with all its graphical bells and whistles?although it will include a DX9 rendering path, so owners of older video cards won't be left out in the cold. It'll use your multi-core CPU. And it will support 7.1 surround sound.