Games For 2008: Age Of Conan

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.

The wheel metaphor joke thing was actually Jim's joke, John

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.

conan2

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.

conan3

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!

conan4

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.

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59 Comments »

  1. Kieron Gillen says:

    The first movie was awesone. The second was shit.

    KG

  2. John Walker says:

    I tried watching the first movie again recently, and it’s intolerable.

  3. Kieron Gillen says:

    Yes, but you’re weak.

    KG

  4. Butler says:

    I say you guys sort this Conan style.

  5. John Walker says:

    Kieron needs to push that big wheel around for a bit.

    When interviewing the designers of this I said to them, “How many people have already made the joke that you should let people grind by pushing a big wheel around?” And it turns out none!

    Thus, I’m original and brilliant.

  6. Phil says:

    I find it hard to listen to the “all that mattered was that few stood against many, and if you do not listen, to hell with you!” speach/prayer from the end of the first film without
    A.) getting goose bumps
    B.) Feeling personal contempt at being so easily manipulated by shlocky writing.

    If game offers a similar mixture of unironic machismo and cheese it should be brill.

  7. espy says:

    Ass lonk ass vee get to heea ze lamenteishns off ze wimmen, vee vill be fain.

    I hope there’s an NPC in there somewhere wo talks like that.

  8. DigitalSignalX says:

    350 hours of content play and 900 hours of [repetative I guess?] play… Curious where/how that second number is calculated. Also curious why no single player PC title has not even scratched those sort of numbers, with the exception of perhaps The Witcher if you included level loading time.

  9. Torn says:

    @DigitalSignalX: Presumably because AoC is an MMO? You’ll easily find players on WoW whose playtime amounts to over 37 days.

  10. John Walker says:

    No – 350 at launch. 900 total.

  11. Dr.Gash says:

    900 hours? Cock Piss Conan.

  12. Tek says:

    I recently came across a rather extensive post from one of the players of the current beta who decided to break the NDA. I’m not sure if it was a fake, but it was totally devastating. He was talking about missing key features (PvP, crafting, female players, player cities among others) and a combat system which was all about combo-spamming (i.e. pushing two buttons). I really hope they don’t mess this one up.

  13. Obosi says:

    112 days played in WoW. I’d say half of that roleplaying :)

    1st Conan film was (and still is) superb. 2nd is completely crap as it was toned down for the kiddies. And don’t get me started on Red Sonja!!!

    I hope the game lives up to its boasts; I really do. Time will, most certainly tell. I just hope people give it a chance to shine (and I don’t just mean at release day).

  14. Nny says:

    You mean the Fox guy? I don’t believe a word of what he says, it just looks too trollish to be true ;)

    I’d rather find out at the release and when the initial reviews come out than this way.

  15. DigitalSignalX says:

    Understood it’s a MMO, and I (from first hand experience) understand completely the thousands of hours people commit to repetitive play online. Clearly the developers made 800 or so quests and estimated 350 hours to complete them. What I’m curious about though is where or how the 900 number comes from. Then they just what, sat a bunch of play testers in a Skinner box and got a number? How does one calculate addictive repetition?

    In terms of single player PC titles coming near those numbers, is it just a matter of juggling all the terms of a complete development cycle vs. media space vs. ROI or has it evolved into the old “must be able to port to console” dumbing down debate.

    “AOC looks very cool, can’t wait!” Just curious, not meaning to derail comments with what might be obvious questions.

  16. terry says:

    So does this have sabre-toothes witches that turn into fireballs or what?

  17. sx says:

    tek: it most probably is not fake but if you have more insight of the game you will know the leaked beta news are rather streched and the beta player who leaked it was only level 30

  18. Zell says:

    Conan the Barbarian is one of my favourite movies of all time!

  19. John Walker says:

    Zell: You should watch one other movie.

  20. Arma says:

    One presume that they mean 350hrs of quests, i.e. story driven content and that the average player will play for 900 hours, repeating instances, PvPing etc.

  21. Nny says:

    @John Walker

    Can you recommend any other dark fantasy film that has as much violence and blood in it as Conan the Barbarian?

  22. Phil says:

    JohnWalker: I’m curious as to your dislike for the first film, given you like the books – Stirring sound track, bombastic Oliver Stone sharpened dialogue, James Earl Jones’ snake charmer, Arnie at his acting zenith (in that he’s not really called to do any), the lack of ‘cute’ character that tend to doom this type of film, the general epic-cality – all must push it above average while staying true to the source material, no?

  23. Alec Meer says:

    John also believes dogs can’t look up.

  24. Mark says:

    Everybody talks about the movies, but what about the original stories, which are now either in the public domain or close enough that nobody cares? Get familiar with what they have to work with, here, if you’re interested.

  25. John Walker says:

    My house of collected brilliant people got together to watch it recently, and while immediately enjoying the awfulness, it then became astonishingly boring. At one point, when the three of us were completely at a loss for a reason to carry on we noticed there was still nearly 50 minutes to go, and all left the room.

    Give me Red Sonja any day. That’s non-stop bad, without vast stretches of nothing.

    Nny – I’m not sure how another dark fantasy film existing makes Conan any worse or better. It manages to be awful without peer.

    However, if you’re looking for bad fantasy that’s fun, there’s Red Sonja, Beastmaster, Hawk The Slayer, and of course, Willow.

  26. nickski says:

    didn’t Oliver Stone write the screen play for the original film? and didn’t it have Darth Vader as a bad guy? or is that the result of a ‘cheese dream’, If you get to punch out a Camel count me in!

  27. Kieron Gillen says:

    Dogs can’t look up!?!!

    KG

  28. Dan says:

    So, out of curiousity, what fantasy fiction movie would u consider a good one?

  29. nickski says:

    couldn’t we go straight to books, be keen on the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, PLENTY of source, and 3 distinct times within The Land = expansion packtastic

  30. Marcos Castrillon says:

    “Abysmal Arnie movie”

    You, sir, are dead to me.

  31. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    Surely it’s better than Willow! *shudders* ;)

  32. Zell says:

    To be briefly serious: I very much enjoy the original stories and I’m glad that’s a body of work the MMO has to draw from. My love for the movie, which began on opening night when I was 11, has nothing to do with its qualities as an illustration of Howard’s world.

    The film works for me for several reasons. To begin with, the story is simple and ageless — and not cutesy. It’s full-on heroic saga. Also, vitally, the myth is told with a straight face. It may verge on melodramatic, but it never indulges in tongue-in-cheek self-mockery. Tolkien wrote entire essays on the vital importance of this particular trait in fantasy.

    Also helping to set the mood (because it is a very moody movie if you let it carry you away), the cast is brilliantly bizarro-ethic. Between Arnold, Mako, James Earle Jones, Max von Sydow, and whoever plays Subotai, there’s such a thorough variety of quirky accents and mannerisms that you can’t help but feel you’re in a different time and place entire.

    The film score, finally, clinches it; while I’m sure it could be dismissed as yet another Carmina Burana derivative by people who like to be snarky about such things, it knits scene after scene together with a visceral inevitability that I’m not sure I’ve seen the like of since.

  33. Nny says:

    I did say, with violence in blood in it ;) Hardly any bloody in Willow…

    I remember how disappointed I was after seing The Scorpion King (yes, this awful film with The Rock) as Conan the Barbarian was way more violent and gory even though it was made 20 years earlier. It still is more violent than all those crappy 12+ rated fantasy films.

  34. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    John also believes dogs can’t look up.

    I never got what the hell this meme was all about. It’s patently obvious to anyone who has ever owned a dog, or even been around one for longer than 5 seconds, that they can indeed look up. Or was that the whole point of it?

    Still I can’t begrudge a man such silly opinions when he has only just made me guffaw through the medium of his PCG interview of Ragnar Tørnquist.

  35. Zeno, Internetographer says:

    Majorly looking forward to this, even though my pathetic laptop won’t be able to run it :(

  36. xeno says:

    You had me until “PvP”. I am primarily a pve-type player. The way I see it, if I want to “pvp” i can go play TF2 or something. If you want a pvp game, make a pvp game. These attempts to mix raid and pvp type content do nothing but engender buffs or nerfs for one reason or another down the line that ticks off the opposite playerbase.

  37. Dexton says:

    The first Arnie Conan movie was, and still is, awesome. The second not so much.

    The game does not interest me though, the directional combat looks terrible and would only be made worse by the lag devil that so often visits me during online gaming sessions.

  38. Dexton says:

    Wait, hang on is John bashing Conan The Barbarian AND Willow!

  39. malkav11 says:

    Interesting ideas, but the more they talk about the game the less I feel like it’s a game for me. Scaling back that initial singleplayer portion, highlighting the PvP (which I want nothing to do with)…

  40. anon. says:

    Each of the four classes (mage, rogue, priest and soldier)

    OUTSIDE THE FUCKING BOX

  41. Faust says:

    @xeno

    The pvp skills are seperate from pve, at least from what I’ve heard, in that you have a separate pvp level that runs off pvp xp. That way they should avoid the usual balancing problems. However, I’m losing confidence through whisperings from the beta front.

  42. Faust says:

    @anon.

    Those are the archetypes, and they each have three classes within them that are all very different, for example rogue has assassin, ranger and barbarian, all of whom vary a good deal in what armour types, weapons and skills they have, so I wouldn’t dismiss it on that front.

  43. Matt Dovey says:

    Psshaw. The first Conan was brilliant. Stick that opening track on an MP3 player and do anything to it. Suddenly changing your toner cartridge becomes a battle against the Gods themselves.
    The second, though… the second was an overlong episode of Fantasy Dr. Who with Arnie in it. Terrible costumes, but it’s still no Hawk the Slayer as far as awful effects go, with the Silly String of Doom and the Bouncing Powerballs of Doom, let alone the Forest of Doom populated by small furry hand puppets.

    The game, well… I love the Howard stories. They’re so simple and archetypal that they carry a great deal of power and punch, but it’s another bloody fantasy MMO. There are literally so many potential settings that I just can’t bring myself to play more sodding fantasy. I’m unofficially boycotting them until they give me a Steampunk Lovecraftian MMO, fleeing from the horrors of the eternal Universe in my iron airship.

    @Main Raised By Puffins: watch Shaun of the Dead and all will become clear.

  44. dhex says:

    the first conan is among the best movies ever made.

    the whispy moustachio brigade should stop dreaming about the citizen kane of games or some such wank and start asking “what is best in life?”

  45. Garth says:

    “You had me until “PvP”. I am primarily a pve-type player. The way I see it, if I want to “pvp” i can go play TF2 or something. If you want a pvp game, make a pvp game. These attempts to mix raid and pvp type content do nothing but engender buffs or nerfs for one reason or another down the line that ticks off the opposite playerbase.”

    Weird, they had me until they mentioned raiding.

  46. Homunculus says:

    My mate used to go to school with Ragnar Tørnquist.

    True story.

  47. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    @Matt Dovey: Oh, I know where it comes from. I just find its persistence baffling.

  48. Matt says:

    The thing I like about the first Conan film was that it knew how ridiculous it was and played up to that, ridiculing itself and the whole Conan thing. I don’t know what this game will be like but it looks like it takes itself a bit too seriously.

    From what I have read and been told Conan is a very silly series of books one that the film was right to mock. And the comics (admittedly I have only seen extracts from them so might have the wrong impression) are even worse, the main selling point appearing to be chainmail bikinis, naked virgin women, violence and rape.

    Aside from all that… I don’t like PvP in mmos, so given the way it promotes PvP as a major feature I think that will be the final thing that prevents me from trying it. Some of the graphics look quite good though.

  49. Nuyan says:

    Waay too much instanced for my taste. Stories I’ve heard of latest beta testers aren’t too good. Don’t think it’ll be my game, but I do hope it’ll be succesfull.

  50. Zell says:

    Matt: I think we can safely conclude you are not in this game’s target audience.