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TVG wanders the lands ruled by the iconic barbarian to check out the MMO's combat system...
Based on the written works of Robert E. Howard, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures looks to be slicing away at the boundaries of what defines the cut and thrust world of MMORPGs. Over two years after its initial release, World of Warcraft continues to dominate the landscape of the genre, whilst others find themselves bereft of occupants, with little option but to switch the servers off. Regardless of Blizzard's continued dominance however, a small number of studios are attempting to evolve online RPGs, with FunCom/Eidos' Age of Conan in one corners, and Destination Games/NCsoft's Tabula Rasa in the other. Recent comments by Destination Games' wannabe space tourist Richard "Lord British" Garriott described a push into the second generation of MMOs, where a new design philosophy is being developed - but many of those ideas outlined by Garriott himself seem to be backed up by what's been going on in Oslo.
Based in the Norwegian capital, FunCom continues the business of developing Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, which will be published by UK-based Eidos at the end of October. As well as the autumnal launch on PC, the studio is also working on adapting the title for Xbox 360, though they're currently caught up in political wrangling over the possibility of PC/console cross-platform gaming. Whatever the end game for such integration, both developer and publisher are keen to push the MMO. TVG recently sat down with Eidos and FunCom to get a look at the title's extensive character customisation, and it's 'Real Combat System'...
Welcome to HyboriaSet in the aftermath of Howard's 1935 Conan adventure, The Hour of the Dragon, Hyborian Adventures sees the shadow of evil gathering around the realm ruled by the iconic 'barbarian', King Conan of Aquillonia...not that you'll actually get to be the man himself.
Instead, players will have to create their own character, customised aboard a slave ship in the minutes before it's wrecked on the pirate island of Tortage, the entry region into the world of Hyboria. Veteran adventurers through the likes of Cyrodiil in Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series will certainly feel at home here, as the massive breadth of buttons and sliders on offer in Age of Conan provides an almost infinite amount of possibilities from body size down to the width and height of cheekbones. Since elves, dwarves, and orcs aren't found in the 'low-fantasy' world of Conan, FunCom has had to construct more of a 'left-field' solution when it comes to culture selection in the game. In this first block of Hyborian Adventures, players will have a small selection of human cultures to chose from Aquilonian, Stygian, and Cimmorian; each based on classic ancient cultures (Roman, Egyptian, and Celtic respectively), and don't have green skin or pointy ears. Once the little details have been finalised, it's then time for the ship to sink, and for the adventure to begin...
Waking up in the surf on Tortage Island, every player's home for the first twenty levels, and a mere fleck of earth compared the enormity of Hyboria as a whole, the first hour of gameplay will be spent away from other 'real world' gamers. Essentially the tutorial for everything from dialogue, where players engage with branching conversations like offline RPGs, to combat (more on that later), these early missions follow the castaway through the jungle-strewn levels and Tortage City (the Pirate city), allowing players to decide what class of character they become along the way.
The class system in Age of Conan is set to be more dynamic than in usual MMOs, though not as forgiving as Destination Games' upcoming Tabula Rasa (there won't be any progressive save options in Hyboria). Initially class-less during the first few levels, the first big decision comes at Level 5 - which Archetype will be you be: Soldier, Mage, Rogue, Priest??? Each, as you'd expect, has its own advantages and disadvantages, but the choice of Archetype won't be the last decision you'll get to make - before heading out into the big, wide world, players will also have to finalise which class they'd like to be. Each of the five archetypes have a number of classes to choose between, from the Soldiers that can become Dark Templars, Guardians, or Conqueror, to the Mages that can specialise as a Necromancer, Lich, Herald of Xotli (!) or a Demonologist. Veterans of the game will also get to choose one of four Prestige Classes (Lord, Commander, Crafter, or Master), with significant benefits including the ability to build Guard Towers, increase the number of party members, or even form trade skill facilities like Blacksmiths...though these decisions are made after leaving Tortage.
Beyond the major features being implemented into Age of Conan, FunCom are also throwing in a number of interesting details and ideas, not least that during the drive towards Level 20, the game won't have a dynamic day/night cycle. Instead, players will have to go to a tavern and sleep, where they'll wake in the middle of the night, before returning to their slumber at a later time to the emergence of daylight. More than just a superficial dynamic that allows aimless wandering through the jungle during the witching hour; the nighttime focuses on single-player gameplay, whereas the daytime represents the MMO environment, paving the way for a slew of interesting 'time-of-day' specific missions. Once characters go beyond Level 20 though, the game begins the standard dynamic day/night cycle that has been seen in the likes of World of Warcraft, and the player can proceed into the mainland of Hyboria itself. For the initial launch of the game, FunCom will feature the three homelands of the playable races, Cimmeria, Aquilonia, and Stygia, though future expansions of the game will be pencilled in to include the likes of Koth and the wider realms of Hyboria.
The subject of death was also thrown up during the course of the demo; does Age of Conan follow the largely standardised model of 'passing away', where ghosts run back to their corpses to continue with their quests? Somewhat cryptically, the answer is yes...and no. For the most part, players will find themselves running back to a gravestone or body, ready to recuperate from their defeat, but there will be times when they'll make a trip straight down to hell too, especially when a character's soul becomes totally corrupted, the result of 'overdoing' the spell casting. When this occurs, the character collapses before dying and travelling to the underworld, where the only escape is to fight past demonic forces in a bid to cleanse the soul...
Age of Conan: Combat EvolvedOne of the key features integrated into Age of Conan is the so-called 'Real Combat System', a six-button selection of attacking techniques that FunCom hopes will introduce a more compelling combat experience. Represented onscreen as a "Combat Rose" that shows which attacks can be used as a battle progresses (depending on the position of the enemy relative to the player's avatar), the system also displays the timing of button presses to execute combos in a 'Simon Says' style, which so far seem to work quite well. Further refinement of the combat/control system will be needed however, not least because at the moment players have to manually switch off the combat stance. It doesn't sound particularly significant, but having to make sure that your Aquilonian isn't trying to attack the door you're trying to open, isn't particularly smooth. The fact the manual stances are controlled by the Tab button, right next to one of the combat buttons (Q), also doesn't help.
Once we'd got to grips with the Combat Rose and pieced together various combos, it was time to travel up into the mountains, where our character was levelled up to a more mature Level 60 in an instant. The Eiglophian mountain range certainly demonstrated the dramatic sense of scale being built into Age of Conan, where every mountaintop is climbable, and every peak set to induce vertigo to even hardened Sherpas. Winding up the mountain path away from a nearby village, it's only when an over-hang appears close to the top of a plateaux that the vertical distance becomes apparent...the village looks a long way down. It was here that the final few battles of the demo took place, against Pict warriors and towering Woolly Mammoths, though it was a long way from unveiling all of Age of Conan's features. Largely focusing on the early tutorial stages, and the new mechanics of combat, there remains a lot to be seen. Hands on experience of the game's Siege Combat, wide-scale PvP, and the construction of Guild cities, have all been held back until a future demo, pencilled in during August, and all are set to validate FunCom's ambitions to provide a truly next-generation MMO experience before the game finally arrives on PC at the end of October.
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