Age of Conan’s early access weekend has come and gone, so it’s time to talk about it. This should not be construed as a review, but as a summary of my experiences and where I think the strengths and weaknesses of the game are. Bear in mind that if you get into the game on Tuesday some of the reported issues may have been patched out; I suspect that we will see another patch before full live loads get into the servers. Be warned – this is a long one. And since this post cries out for screenshots, I’ve added some!
As most everyone probably knows right now; the start time for early access was a problem; it was nowhere to be found on Funcom’s Age of Conan site; you had to find a forum post with that information, and search has been disabled on their forums (and still is.) This is a bad habit on Funcom’s part that they need to break themselves of. By the semi-announced start time of 5PM GMT, however, the servers were still not up, the forums and AoC site were both down, and the patcher gave us a message that it’d take about three more hours to get the game online. That too came and went, and just as I was finishing up a blog post to talk (and bitch) about the delay, everything turned on. It was about 8:40 PM GMT.
The Technical Side
Playing the game for approximately 11 hours on Saturday and another 7 or so on Sunday, I had no serious technical issues, which is not to say that there are no issues. The biggest one, and it’s apparently something many people are experiencing, is a black screen when getting into the game. You can still see the menus and sidebars, and the workaround is to reset the graphics setting, then reset them again to where you want them to be; the game should appear and everything should be okay.
There’s also probably a memory leak; the game crashes about half the time upon exit, although I have yet to experience a crash while actually playing. And there are some clipping issues and flickering texture problems, which are generally not intrusive, except when the clipping issue is affecting some female NPCs top, and her boobies are sticking out. This happens only with one particular female NPC as far as I’ve noticed. I have not seen the missing textures that were reported from the beta. And when you zone into a new area, it can take 5-10 seconds for the NPCs to appear. This I find kind of annoying.
Performance seems reasonably solid; on High settings, I’m getting a very consistent 35-40 FPS with the occasional framerate dip or minor lag spike, but neither of those has impacted gameplay for me at all. My server, Cimmeria, has been totally stable, although I understand that one of the other servers did crash at some point on Sunday. Lag has been minimal as far as I’ve seen. Load times are longish (sometimes as long as 10-15 seconds for me) but not totally out of line. It should be noted that my rig is pretty high-end; I expect that users with more modest systems are simply not going to run the game at High. I will say that at low settings the game still mostly looks okay; some textures do not endure well when you’re running on Low. Medium is a nice balance where the game still looks pretty decent, and I think that if you need the recommended system specs on the box, you’ll probably be okay running at medium.
I’m also having an issue with the voiceover audio; it doesn’t seem to like my 5.1 speakers. I tried a number of different audio settings to try to get it to work, to no avail, so it may be an audio driver issue. I tried it on my USB headset and everything comes in just fine. All the cutscenes are subtitled, but this is a real shame in my opinion, as the voice work is uniformly excellent and the dialogue is well-written, suitably atmospheric and in keeping with the tone of the source material.
An issue with the /claim command is being widely reported; I haven’t tried to claim anything yet, but I suspect that a large majority of the problems are coming from people who don’t yet realize that you have to activate your full retail code from the purchased box to /claim, or from people who don’t understand how the command line interface works; I admit to come confusion on this latter point myself, since just hitting / followed by a known command does not seem to do anything.
Graphically, the game is very appealing, I think; prettier than Vanguard due to much better-looking character models and considerably better art design. And it runs better. That is, it runs better today, one day before AoC’s official release and 16 months after Vanguard’s. Animations are good-looking, and the jumping not only looks realistic but does not allow you to jump over obstacles that would be obviously impassable to a real person. The graphics won’t be to all tastes, of course, and I’m not sure they will necessarily age well, But today the thing looks good to me.
Anyway, even if additional fixes do not get put in before Tuesday, the game should be reasonably solid as long as the servers can handle the load. It’s not as clean as LotRO was during its open beta (which was the ten days or so before launch,) but it’s not all that far behind as far as I can tell, and for what it’s worth I’m finding Age of Conan much more engaging so far for reason’s I’ll discuss below.
The Gameplay Side
Character creation is a neat, semi-cinematic progress; you start as a galley slave, and the opening quest chain will deal with your escape. As you make your selections of gender and race, the screen zooms in to individual slaves from a shot of the whole ship, and you can customize from there. Customization options are excellent even without delving into the advanced settings that let you fiddle with head size, brow height and the like. The number of sliders available is about on par with that of EQ2; probably a bit more. Not as many as Vanguard, but then, despite that, these character models look far better.
From character creation you’re taken to a private instance for levels 1-5(ish.) This took me about an hour the first time through, what with reading the hint bars and trying to figure out the minimap and combat system. Later, I took two more characters through it, and the third time around the whole thing took maybe 15 minutes without my actively trying to rush. I expect speed-levelers will be able to do it in mere minutes.
At level five you get to the pirate haven of Tortage, the name of which predates Pirates of the Caribbean’s Tortuga by quite a bit, where you’ll spend the next 15(ish) levels. There’s a neat device in which during the day you’re in standard MMO multiplayer mode doing generally standard MMO quests (with some notable exceptions – there are some really neat quests even in the daytime,) while at night you’re in another private instance doing a chain of quests called the destiny line. These continue the story of the shipwreck that stranded you on Tortage, and are really well-done, although I did get stuck once by being unable to find a climbing spot (you have to climb to the rooftops of Tortage to eavesdrop on an enemy conversation,) and once by not reading the quest text and missing the cue to follow an NPC, so I had to log out and log in again.
Quests are delivered and turned in via a pseudo-cutscene system which includes voiceovers which are very well done and with dialogue that is generally well-written and sometimes hilarious. The city itself is probably the best and most immersive fantasy MMO city I have seen; it feels like a living, breathing place even without players around, with colorful NPCs, narrow, winding streets, footpads waiting in alleys for soft passersby with fat purses, ladies of questionable virtue waving from the upper balconies and hanged men dangling here and there from crossbeams.
The issue with the way questing works in the first 20 levels is that you have to be a certain level to do each destiny quest, so you must adventure in the daytime as well, where the quests are generally more standard fare (again, with some exceptions – you’ll know the good ones when you find them.) Most of these quests take you outside the city to a few different nearby zones. These zones are PvP-enabled, so if you’re on a PvP server, be wary. I’m not sure how this works on a PvE server, but I imagine these areas will not flag you.
The PvP in these areas is not quite free-for-all; you can’t target members of your group and you can’t target anyone five levels or more below you, although there are no other limits on it as far as I can tell. It is possible to spawn camp, although I did not experience this myself, and GMs seem to be taking an active hand in slapping down players who do it at least on the official RP server (Cimmeria, although it’s not flagged as such in the server list you see in-game.) There are gankers about, though – I got jumped by a level 24 in the tunnels beneath Tortage (gee, I wonder what he’s there for?) but managed to elude him with my l33t ski11z (meaning that I ran away like a sissy.)
Combat is pretty easy to grasp on a rudimentary level, highly dynamic, and much faster-paced than in any other MMO. Essentially, you hit a key each time you swing – this happens about once a second or so – and aim the blows at upper left, center, or upper right (two additional directions become available later in the game.) Combatants can shift their defense to those areas, so you want to strike where your opponent is giving you an opening, although for my own defense I just spread these ‘shields’ around evenly. Combat is pretty twitchy (not as twitchy as an FPS, but pretty twitchy,) but I wouldn’t call it pure button-mashing; there’s a definite strategy in setting up your combos and in what to use against a given foe, and in reacting to changes in an enemy’s defenses. Even so, I would not even try switching my shields around in the middle of a fight.
There is auto targeting which automatically targets the foe in front of you, and auto-facing, so the game will set you toward the nearest foe. Guild Wars does this, but there the targeting system will sometimes have you chasing an enemy dozens of yards away instead of the enemy your group is fighting right in front of your face; I am not having this problem with Age of Conan. As everyone has heard, there are fancy finishing moves tied to the combos; you can decapitate a foe, run him through and then shove his still-twitching body off your blade, and several other fun combinations.
As a side-effect of the combat system, what might at first appear to be simple melee attacks are actually melee-ranged AoE attacks, so it’s possible to affect multiple mobs with a swing, or be fighting a mob and clip an unsuspecting passerby. If he or she is feeling touchy, that might get you your behind handed to you. Do not get into large multi-foe brawls with people you aren’t grouped with; you’re likely to take some hits from the other player, and if both of you just keep hammering buttons until no one is left standing, one of you is going down. I’m following the practice of backing off when non-groupmates are fighting things, myself.
White Sands Island, one of the zones adjacent to Tortage, is getting called “Gank Sands Island,” in the in-game channels; watch out there, although as you venture into the interior of the island you find a lot fewer people around looking to whet their blades with the sweet blood of noobs. I myself got ganked probably ten times, although I did get my revenge on one occasion. On another, I misread a nearby PC as a hostile and had him dead by the time I realized that he was a player and not a mob. (Sorry to that dude I accidentally ganked!)
Movement works as you would expect. There’s a nice feature where you can sprint by holding down the Shift key as you move; this uses Stamina very quickly, but it’s a great escape hatch against either mobs or gankers. The world does not feel quite as explorable as those of WoW or Vanguard, but more than EQ2, even though it is structurally very similar to EQ2’s Norrath with its instanced copies of zones. Terrain is, as I’d been hearing, very naturalistic, and features seem like they are placed where they would appear rather than as deliberate addons to a blank heightmap. You can also climb various terrain features, although some of the climbable terrain is mission-based. EQ2 has this as well but it appears to be a much more common feature here.
My first character was a Cimmerian Barbarian, named Turlough; he’s still in Tortage at level 19, although he’s getting close to 20 and the final Destiny quest in Tortage. I also made a Tempest of Set and a Demonologist and got them both to level 5. The Tempest seems like the most powerful class I’ve seen so far, although I don’t know that this will hold up in the long term as his level rises. I enjoyed playing so much that not only did I miss the weekend mining op in EVE, but I forgot to log in to change a skill over.
I’m feeling very immersed in the world of Funcom’s Hyboria. This is not, of course, Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria, but Howard intended the setting to be a loose framework to tell stories in rather than a tight, unified, thematically consistent creation with an existence independent of the stories written there, like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. And there’s a long history of other people messing around in Hyboria, so for these reasons I’m finding the game’s treatment of its original material to be much less objectionable than in LotRO. Aside from that, the game is just doing (so far) a really nice job of giving me a sense of place.
Still, I have yet to get to the real meat of the game, which doesn’t happen until level 20 when you leave Tortage. There are large sections of the gameplay that do not come up until 20 or 40 or even later, including Spellweaving, harvesting, crafting, city-building and so on. We’ll see how well I like the game as I continue to move through it, but my first impression, always important, has been very positive.
Thoughts Moving Forward
All in all, while Age of Conan is not bug-free by any means, it seems like it is indeed ready to launch from a technical perspective. There’s only so much you can get done through beta testing, and there are problems that simply will not come up until the game has live players and full server loads. MMOs are incredibly complicated pieces of software that cannot be designed for and tested on every single possible system configuration; there are some problems that you simply will not see until a very large number of people (i. e. the launch population) start playing it. If this makes me too forgiving, so be it, but I was playing WoW a month ago and encountering broken quests and bugged mobs, and even game-breaking crashes. If Blizzard is going to be held up as the gold standard in quality control (and they should be,) we have to recognize that their game has issues even so, three years after release, much less days before launch. It’s not about putting up with bad software, it’s about realizing that every piece of software (not just game software) of a similar complexity level has bugs in it somewhere.
There is of course such a thing as bad software. If bugs prevent you from playing the game, then it really doesn’t matter how understandable their presence is. Also, I obviously recognize that some people are having more problems than me. Vanguard was both bad software and a bad game at launch, and Age of Conan is not anywhere close to that on either count. However, by buying and subscribing to an MMO you’re not just buying the retail box, you’re buying an ongoing commitment from the publisher to continue expanding and improving the game, and in that Funcom has yet to prove itself. Here’s to hoping that over the next couple of months they will.