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Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures

Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures

Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Cimmerian… whichever name you know him by Conan is without doubt one of the most famous fictional characters of all time. Starting life in the American pulp fiction magazine in the 1930’s Conan has appeared in seventeen stories published back then and more than a couple since, as well as the movies that made “Arnie” famous and more recently various TV series. Like many other reimagining’s of well known material much of the real Conan lore, written by Robert E. Howard has been lost along the way which to a great extent is quite disappointing as some considerable effort was involved in creating the “Conan Universe”.

Back in April 2005 Funcom announced their intention to launch an Online Action RPG in the first half of 2006 in the process promising a deep, story-driven single player experience and a massive, brutal multiplayer game. In the same release they promised a true vision of Robert E. Howard’s dark universe, something that no doubt whet the appetite of the Conan purists around the world.

Since that original announcement the game has clearly had its fair share of delays however there has always been a steady trickle of screenshots and other PR as both Funcom and Eidos attempted to keep people interested. One of the more interesting announcements was the support of DirectX10, something which is worthy of a little more discussion later in this article. So finally, after a two year “delay”, Funcom unleashed Age of Conan upon us a couple of weeks ago and since then the Gaming Heaven staff have been levelling like crazed maniacs. Was Age of Conan worth the wait?
Setting and Character Creation
The name alone, Hyborian Adventures, gives a real clue about the setting for Age of Conan. Upon entering the game we find ourselves in the Hyborian age, approximately one year after the events described in the novel The Hour of the Dragon. For those unaware of the overall back-story, the Hyborian Age is a fictional period of time between the destruction of Atlantis and the forming of known ancient civilisations. This is a period in time where Conan is the King of Aquilonia. By choosing this time period Funcom have the benefit of the original Conan stories as well as an 8000 word “historical” essay by the creator of Conan to draw content for the game from.

Our story actually begins on a slave ship where we are given the opportunity to configure our character. As with most RPG’s we have a selection of races (Aquilonian, Cimmerian and Stygian) and within these there are four archetypes (Rogue, Priest, Soldier and Mage). Finally there are three class selections for each type these range from Assassins to Necromancers and each will vary the way the game is played.

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Within the same screens we can also tailor the look of our in game character in pretty much any way we wish. Cheek depth, jaw width, nose angle and so on are all available and really there should be plenty of scope to create the character of our dreams or peoples nightmares within this section.

Shortly after the creation of our in game “hero” a shipwreck takes place and we wake on a beach with no memory of who we are or where we have come from. Events progress quickly from there and it is only a matter of minutes before we have completed our first quest and are thrown into a world of gods, magic mythical creatures and more than a little Romanesque culture and Babylonian mysticism.

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There are really two games contained within Age of Conan. We experience the first right at the beginning and that is the single player side to the game. The first section of the story, which can take up to two hours to complete, walks us through some mini quests with the aim being a good understanding of the various game aspects. We learn here how to loot, fight, converse and all of the other basics which will come in handy throughout the game. During this section we are also slowly beginning to gain skills, experience and move up through the character levels.

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This initial single player segment is a fine way to acclimatise ourselves within AoC and serves its purpose well. Once we reach the City Of Tortage the main storyline within the game begins to unfold and we are sent on various short quests by our tutor. This continues until character level ten where we are presented with the opportunity to experience the second gameplay aspect, multiplayer. Between levels ten and twenty the two types of gameplay are easily defined, multiplayer takes place during game daylight hours and the single player quests at night. We change between the two by sleeping at the Inn just inside Tortage city walls and the choice on which to play is left completely up to the player. Finally, when we reach level twenty a further section of game is opened where the emphasis is more on multiplayer and the world basically runs as it should with passing of day and night as gameplay progresses. Clearly Funcom are doing all they can to ease those who are scared of online titles into the Conan universe.

The levelling and gameplay mechanics within AoC are basically as we would expect. Those with experience of playing any recent RPG such as Oblivion or Dark Messiah should feel right at home. Our character travels through the world with an inventory containing the items we find, win or buy. As well as buying items we can also sell anything in the inventory to merchants around the game world and as a result increase the available money. Alongside the Inventory screen is a skills and attributes screen where we can increase various aspects of our character by assigning experience points. If we want to be able to run faster or recover quicker, this is the place to sort that out.

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 A map in the top right of the screen lets us see where we are and where we are going and down the right hand side are the chat menus and friend lists. When in conversation with a NPC the GUI disappears and we listen to the voice actors tell us what has happened or what they want us to do. Our responses are determined by a set of onscreen options with various ways to complete the conversation.

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Finally at the bottom of the screen is a selection of skills which are assigned to the number keys on our keyboard. These skills are primarily attack based which brings us on to combat.

There are various ways an RPG can go with combat, some choose turn based and others more real time. Funcom have opted for the latter and as a result the combat sections of the game draw the player in and make them feel much more involved. At the start of the game pressing one to three on the keyboard initiates a basic attack, as our character matures the other number keys are filled with skills we learn and by level 12 or so we have a pretty formidable fighting machine. It is also worth mentioning that combat makes up a large portion of the gameplay, from the initial scenes of the game right through the first twenty or so levels it can feel a bit like conversations are only there to give us a breather between killing sprees. Even when travelling from location to location we are constantly attacked by NPCs whether they are animal, human or creature. Of course these can assist in some early level grinding fodder.

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Funcom have certainly succeeded in making the combat more engaging than other RPGs but unfortunately there are some downsides. Firstly, there is little finesse involved in battles, especially in the earlier levels for the more soldier based characters. Essentially we can button mash to our hearts content and in a one on one battle against similarly skilled NPC’s we will normally win with ease. The problems increase further during some single player quests where our character is expected to fight their way through hordes of similarly levelled NPC’s. These sections can become incredibly frustrating as generally two opponents are easy to handle but on occasion a third or fourth becoming embroiled in the battle is unavoidable, at times like these expect to see a lot of resurrection points. There are also occasionally mismatches where an end of quest boss will be nearly impossible to beat first time, this becomes all the more irritating if you have just fought through a small army with a friendly higher level NPC only to have them stand idly by as our ass is handed to us on a plate by the boss. The result is that the completion of some tasks leaves us relieved rather than giving us a feeling of achievement.

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Combat is also one area of AoC where we are very aware that this title is aimed at a more mature audience. Throughout the game we have instances of swearing/cussing and sexual content but the majority of the mature rating is saved for fight scenes. With each hack and slash blood spurts from our character and the enemy we are fighting. Deal them a particularly lethal blow and the screen is splattered with blood, get our timing spot on and some gruesome deaths occur ranging from pulling out the heart of an opponent to removing their head. Overall the mature content certainly gives the game a completely different feel to something like World of Warcraft and fits in well with the Conan theme but it could be argued that it does not really add much to the gameplay itself.

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So that brings us to the end of the gameplay summary… plenty of fighting, some conversing and a game which has a decent mix of single and multiplayer content.

Age of Conan uses Funcom’s DreamWorld engine, the same engine used in Anarchy Online but this version has been significantly upgraded. At launch the game supports DirectX 9 and shader model 3.0 although it is possible to switch down to shader model 2.x if required. As well as all of the nice effects which can be implemented as standard with this directX version Funcom have also added a few technologies such as a Perlin noise based cloud system, trapezoidal shadow system and SpeedTree. The first two give us realistic dynamic clouds and shadows on all objects with the latter handling the rendering of foliage in real time.

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All of the above technologies combine to create a rather attractive game world where there are regularly some impressive vistas. Despite all of the hard work the engine is let down by a few aspects the majority of these being wood and foliage textures. From a distance they are generally ok but the closer we get to items the more it is apparent that they are not as detailed as the various types of stone in the game which is quite disappointing.

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The engine is also scales well and is playable on a 9800GTX SLI system with maximum detail at 2560×1600 just as it is on a more average Radeon 3650 at more reasonable settings. Just about everything can be configured from the various view distances to the 3D ambient occlusion quality. Regardless of the specifications on the host PC the game will be easily configured to run well and for those who want to just let the engine handle most of the decisions we also have Low, Medium and High options. One further system aspect which is very worth thinking about for Age of Conan is memory. The game plays well on two gigabytes but load times are far improved with four gigabytes.

(Note:  The majority of screenshots used in this review were when using a GeForce 9800 GTX, Core2 X9650 and 4gb of DDR3. In game details were generally set to their maximum level)

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Funcom have incorporated full 7.1 sound within AoC and overall it works very well. Sounds come from all directions and the score is particularly nice. In terms of style we have various orchestral tracks which match the mood of the different game areas and an overall theme which is pleasant enough as background music during quieter gameplay. During the course of conversations we also get full voice acting from the various NPC’s along with subtitles but despite us being able to choose a basic sound scheme for our character during the initial game stages all of our in game chatter is text only.

Special note has to be given to the girls of Hyboria as it is clear Funcom know how to make reasonably attractive NPC’s. For female gamers there is no such luck though as they generally
have haggard and dismembered characters to look at.

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Lastly as far as the game engine is concerned there is the issue of DirectX 10. Right up to a few weeks ago gamers were told that this title would be DirectX10 enabled however at the last minute support has been removed from retail versions with Funcom releasing the following statement:

“While Funcom is thrilled with the early success of Age of Conan, and proud of the game launching this week, the company regrets to inform gamers that the DirectX 10 version of the game will not ship with the initial launch. As Microsoft’s DirectX 10 is undoubtedly the future of PC gaming, Funcom has decided to ship only the DirectX 9 version at launch, giving the team more time to focus on building a DirectX 10 version worthy of Microsoft’s great vision for the future of PC gaming. This postponement will let Funcom include even more features in the DirectX 10 version of Age of Conan than originally planned.”

So, time will tell how this pans out but we can imagine there are more than a few people who pre-ordered this game under the impression they were paying for DX10 and after taking their money Funcom have not delivered.

At the time of press we were unable to reach Funcom for further comment.

Bugs, bugs, bugs…
It is probably to be expected given the size of the AoC world and number of quests available that there are bugs within the game. Over the past few weeks many have been patched but a number still remain. These range from silly things like NPCs jumping from one location to another within a room and the ability to get stuck at the edge of the world to more serious bugs which result in the death of our character and failing of a quest. There are also numerous graphical glitches such as inventory icons becoming question marks and NPC’s becoming imbedded in walls which is never nice to see in a retail version.

NPC’s Stuck
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Game stuck in a cut scene whilst our character is killed off camera.
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In Age of Conan Funcom has created a thoroughly enjoyable online RPG. The game is a good balance of single player campaign and multiplayer gameplay meaning players are never short of quests to complete. The control method used is intuitive and combat entertaining though a little too random on earlier levels. The game will however benefit from the numerous patches and expansions it will receive over the coming months and years and hopefully these will balance out some of the more frustrating quests and banish the outstanding bugs. In the end, any game succeeds or fails on its ability to draw the consumer back for more and despite the minor flaws Age of Conan has so far left me consistently wanting to achieve the next level, or complete the next quest… speaking of which, time to fit in a little more game time…

Not too much time consuming running around from location to location, plenty to see and do and on the whole difficulty is well balanced. Can also be frustrating on occasion but becomes much more fun the higher the level achieved.
On the whole an impressive game, foliage and wood textures can be average but we are never far away from yet another impressive scene.
Decent voice acting, a fitting score and some meaty hacks, slashes and cries. Ideal.
Much depends on how frequently content is released but as a basic purchase the single player campaign alone is worth the RRP. Multiplayer quests added to this makes the initial couple of months play great value.
(Not an Average)
A very solid base from which to build, still in need of some tweaking but overall a great deal of fun.

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About Author

Stuart Davidson

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