By John Walker on January 17th, 2008 at 11:42 am.
An MMO in development is like a soufflé made to an improvised recipe. People know which ingredients to include, but what quantity of each, what temperature to cook it at, and how long for? So many come out heavy and inedible, or completely sunk in the middle. Others, well they’re delicious and we can’t stop going back for another bowl. The difficulty is, spotting which will be which before they’re out of the gaming… oh this metaphor has made me want to die.
Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures has so much potential. So much. Source material is key, and Robert Howard’s novels could almost have been written with a computer game in mind. Hardcore, stubby, violent. I’m going to write that Howard invented fantasy fiction, just so people get cross in the comments. Howard invented fantasy fiction. The madman mother’s boy demonstrated a vast amount of historical knowledge, working it into his intense novels, before offing himself in his 30s. So ignoring the utterly abysmal Arnie movie, Funcom – developers of the Longest Journey games, and previous MMO success, Anarchy Online – have a lot of material with which to work.
Playing a Conan-style hero in the lands of Hyboria (where Conan is king), AoC immediately differs from most MMOs by throwing you headfirst into the story. Because you’re not going to be picking different races, etc, the focus is much more about your background. So, yes, this does mean a version of the tired old amnesia story, but thankfully presented in an original way. There are two threads of quests, daytime and nighttime. The latter are your Destiny Quests, performed solo, investigating the mystery of your past. It’s something unique to Conan, and intrigues.
Of course, you’ll know that it hasn’t gone completely smoothly. An aborted public beta revealed some big issues with the build, extending development an extra six months as they overhauled the combat system.
MMO combat has room for improvement. WoW’s (look at that, I got this far in before mentioning it) works, but it’s not the most elaborate or involved. Various MMO developers are trying new approaches, with varying success, and if anything Funcom’s was too ambitious. In its current form, enemies have attack zones, signified by white semi-circles around them. You can attack from three angles – left, right and above. So say you hit them on the head, they might double up on defending that area, leaving their right side vulnerable. So you should go for the weak spot. When I had a play of it in November they’d taken things too far the other way, over-simplifying it to the point of being mundane. But assurances were made that the closed beta had responded the same way, and additions like combos would be introduced from the very start. On top of the melee, there’s also first-person archery, and most exciting, mounted combat. Impressively, the game lets you attack more than one enemy at once from the start, with promises of being able to charge through crowds of bads on the back of your rhino, sword held out.
Funcom’s expertise has always been story. AoC has a team of ten working on nothing but the storyline and quest writing, with one of them focused only on ensuring the lore is correct throughout. That kind of dedication to detail should, even if the combat does end up generic, give an incentive to play.
Because they don’t have two opposing factions, PvP is given all sorts of boosts. Being in the Conan world, you’re happy to fight anyone who might come along, but for the more involved PvP games, like the capture the flag events, Conan won’t make you trudge and search for action. Instead you’ll be instantly teleported to wherever you need to be for the fight. Because it’s all about the fight!
A nice use of instancing will let guilds build their own private empires, based on wealth accrued by members. 800 quests will be in place for launch, which should offer a sizeable 350 hours of play. The team expects players to stick with the game for 900 hours, so that’s their target for content. Each of the four classes (mage, rogue, priest and soldier) will have unique dialogue, giving further incentive to roll another class and experience the world differently.
Should the combat be balanced correctly, I have hopes that Conan should be a distinct MMO, with a refreshing focus on narrative. But that’s a big “should”. If it’s not, it could be in trouble. We shall see.
By the way, for more details, pick up the latest PC Format where I’ve written a four-page preview of the thing.